March 25, 2021
We've all seen the magazine photos, the chamber-of-commerce shots that show a bass fisherman casting from the front deck of a gleaming glitter-flaked boats sitting quietly in two feet of water.
The angler is usually pitching a bait towards a visible bed where a behemoth bucketmouth bass sits finning, the kind of springtime largemouth that anglers spend all winter dreaming about catching.
Such action is certainly a whole lot of fun—just ask Florida big bass guru and sight fishing expert Shaw Grigsby, the Major League Fishing and Bass Pro Tour veteran who gave up his trade secrets in a four-part series we ran here at GameandFishMag.com a couple of years ago.
But what happens when our current springtime fishing reality doesn't match up to the warm and sunny world that we often daydream about?
A real world where springtime cold fronts and variable weather conditions keep bass from rushing to the bank in a sizable wave? A world where spawning largemouths can't be readily seen due to water clarity issues? And a world where an angler is restricted to fishing from a small aluminum jon boat, canoe or even kayak that sits right at water level?
What's an angler to do in those situations? Simple - do what weekend warriors Andrew Means and his friend Jason Blankenship do: go out and catch them anyway.
Means, a parks and recreation manager for a community in North Texas, and Blankenship, a financial planner in the same area, have perfected a system of targeting springtime pre-spawn and spawn bass, managing to routinely catch solid numbers of good largemouths on several small lakes in the region.
Take a trip a few years ago as winter melted away into spring. On an early season outing, Blankenship caught a half-dozen or more bass that were sitting in pre-spawn staging positions with water temperatures in the 50s.
With several fish pushing 5 pounds, that's not a bad day out on the water no matter what size rig from which you're fishing.
Days later, Means had his own trip, this one an early-March adventure after a cold front had passed through the region, turned winds around to the north and backed the fish off the bank.
How did he do?
"Despite the cold front, we caught about 10 bass," said Means, who fishes from a trolling-motor-powered canoe most of the time. "(My wife) caught a 5-pounder and I caught a 6. They were still staging, though, and were not on the beds just yet, at least none that we caught. But they were still relatively shallow."
A day or two later, Blankenship—who usually fishes out of a 12-foot car-topper jon boat–was back out again, this time finding improving water temperatures that had begun pushing bass to the bank. After catching several bass in the 4-to-6-pound range—including a few with the first signs of a bloody tail, no less—he knew the spawn was turning on.
Right after that, it was Means' turn again. When he and his wife got off work that day, they spent an evening fishing together and caught some 15 largemouths. One of those fish was a 7-pounder, another was a 6-pounder, and still another was pushing 5.
"We just slayed them,” said Means, before adding with a smile that their best five bass would have pushed the scales to around 30 pounds.
Not bad, not bad at all for a trio of anglers fishing out of small crafts on off-color lakes where spawning fish can't readily be seen.
The 1-2 Punch
How do they do it, catching good sized largemouth bass despite variable weather, a good stain in the water and their small crafts? By relying on a one-two punch kind of system consisting of chatterbaits and Senko-style baits; that's how.
"I've found that this system really works on these lakes at this time of year," said Means. "When I throw the chatterbait (in the pre-spawn), I use a chartreuse and white 3/8-ounce bait with a white swim bait as my trailer.
"The trailer helps make it heavy and I fish it pretty slow, trying to keep it down towards the bottom of the lakes we fish," he added. "I'm throwing it towards the bank, trying to bring it through staging areas where the fish might be holding unseen in eight to 10 feet of water.
"I've found that it works better when it's windy since I don't think the fish can get a good look at it and figure out what it is thanks to the windy conditions and murky water we're fishing in."
As the fish begin to edge in closer to the bank for the spawning cycle, both Means and Blankenship will shift to Senko-style soft plastics.
"I throw an old 7-inch Gander Mountain version of the Senko," said Means, who bought every bag he could get his hands on a few years ago when the chain of outdoors stores closed up shop. "I usually throw the black with red flakes in it and I use it rigged weightless on a 4/0 or 5/0 hook. Green pumpkin with red flake is also a good color to use, too."
Blankenship is also keen on the bait during the breeding phase, fishing for bass that he can't always see despite being able to carefully stand in his small aluminum boat.
"During the spawn, I throw a Senko-style bait a lot and it has really paid off over the last few years on these smaller lakes that we fish," he said. "Like Andrew, I fish the old Gander Mountain brand because it's heavier than the actual Senko itself and I like that. I'll even use a weight inserted into the back of the bait, especially if it's windy."
Why the extra weight?
"The heavier Senko baits will have a faster rate of fall, which where I fish, seems to get more bites," said Blankenship. "It also allows me to make long casts and to stay farther off the bank, which helps not to spook the bass on the beds that I can't see."
Watch Your Line
Targeting these tough-to-see springtime fish, Blankenship notes that an angler has to really pay attention to what is happening with their bait and the line that it is tied to.
"If I have a bass pick up the Senko and just move it off from what I think is a bed—and if I can't catch that fish with multiple casts into that area—I’ll then move a little closer and pitch either a small jig or a Texas-rigged creature bait into the same area," he said.
"Generally, that will do the trick. But if I could only have one bait during the spawn for this style of fishing, it would be a Senko-style bait."
How do these two anglers retrieve the lure?
"The key is to get it tossed into my target area with very little in the way of splash and noise," said Means. "Then I let it free fall on slack line for five to 10 seconds.
"Once that happens, I will then take up a little slack and see if a fish has it," he added. "If not, I'll give it a slight twitch and let it fall again.
"It's painfully slow fishing sometimes, but Jason and I have found that it works when they are shallow and you can't see them. Plus, it's a really good bait to have tied on if you happen upon a bed that you can actually see."
When water conditions allow, Means and Blankenship both like to sight fish for big bass that they can actually see, just like anglers in the TV shows and magazine photos do.
"But usually, the water is just too off-colored for me to sight fish on the lakes we frequent," said Means. "So, we just fish really slow and make a lot of casts into likely spots."
"Sometimes, it's not very exciting fishing," he added with a wry smile.
But other times, it’s extremely exciting when a big bass decides to show up and play the springtime dance. And then it’s really exciting as the rod bends double and the fight is on from the front seat of a canoe or car-topper.
Such spots are where these 40-something-year-old anglers have made a habit of finding fishing success in recent years, as much big bass catching fun as their friends do in glittering bass rigs costing tens of thousands of dollars.
Who says you have to go big and expensive for springtime fishing fun? Certainly not these two Texas anglers, even when the targets are big springtime bass that you can’t readily see.