Ross Barnett Reservoir is Mississippi's favorite bass-fishing hole -- and May's a great month to be on the water. Here's what the spring action is like. (May 2008)
For bass pro Pete Pond, the word "transition" sums up what Barnett bassin' is all about this month.
Photo by Robert H. Cleveland Jr.
For John Alford, it was a deep-diving crankbait fished along the edge of the river channel drop.
The late Dwight Cranford found his answer in brute strength, ripping a lipless crankbait through the roots and stems of lily pads.
Alfred Williams used a plastic frog skipped across the top of the lily pads.
What these anglers and their varied tactics have in common was winning charity bass tournaments on Ross Barnett Reservoir on the first weekend of May -- in the case of Williams, five Have-A-Heart Classic titles.
This story wouldn't be long enough to tell all the ways in which the Have-A-Heart and, later, the Fallen Firefighter tournaments have been won in the past 25 years on Barnett, but those three examples are proof positive that you can catch big fish on the 33,000-area lake in many different ways this month.
"I can't remember all of the different ways that people won those tournaments, but I do recall a bunch of them, and all of them involve one key ingredient -- fishing for the big sow bass post-spawn," said bass pro Pete Ponds. "That's the key to fishing Barnett anytime in May: knowing what the bass are doing in each part of the lake after finishing up the spawn.
"You can divide the lake into four or five distinct areas, and the patterns for catching May bass could be different when it comes to the lures, but the post-spawn pattern will factor into it."
The first weekend of May is still reserved for the lake's biggest bass tournament of the year. It used to be the Have-A-Heart, which benefited the American Heart Association; now it's the Fallen Firefighter team event, which has built a monument in Jackson commemorating firemen lost in the line of duty, as well as now helping other charities.
Those events have also served as providing fishermen with a glimpse of what post-spawn bass are doing.
These are typically the most difficult tournaments to prepare for, because fish are in a state of transition in the weeks prior to the events. Former Have-A-Heart tournament director Larry Lowery won the 1998 edition when he stumbled across a pattern the morning of the event.
Rising water conditions following heavy rains had pushed the post-spawn bass back into one of the upper river region's best spawning areas, Clear Water Woods. "But the lake had started falling again and there's a point there leading back to the channel that leads to the river," he recalled. "I went right to that point, and sure enough, the current was pulling hard over that point. I threw a spinnerbait all day -- and they wore the paint off it they hit it so hard!"
In Pete Ponds' view, that example backs up his post-spawn argument. "Even though he might not have fished it on a true post-spawn pattern, the fact that the fish he caught were bass in transition from spawning area to summer homes, put those fish in an area that led them to that point with current," he said. "Give Larry credit for figuring that out."
It was the same kind of thinking that led to Alford's lunker a year or two earlier.
The fish that he'd located a week prior to the tournament had moved -- which is what transition's all about. During that particularly warm May, the fish had moved out farther than normal.
"They weren't shallow anymore, including this one line of pads and stumps on a stretch of the river shelf where I had found them that week," Alford recalled. "I knew the fish hadn't moved too far, because the shad were still pretty thick in that area. I had hit the stumps, and the pads, and had nothing. I moved to a few similar areas and couldn't find fish.
"So I went back to my No. 1 spot and changed: I pulled out on the river, tied on a deep-diving Bandit crankbait and worked it along the deep side of that shelf. We were running out of time and didn't have but a few minutes. I made a couple of casts, and -- bang! -- I caught this 7 1/2-pounder. I made a couple of more casts and had another one on that was bigger, but it threw the hooks."Had Alford caught that second fish, and had it been as big or bigger, it would've won the event. Still, the fish did catch won the lunker pot for the event.
"I had caught similar fish shallow that week, and they moved that quick," Alford said. "That's typical for Barnett in May."
The upper river area of Barnett is popular during the post-spawn period for several reasons -- one of which has nothing whatsoever to do with the fish. Wind is a problem in May, often leaving fishermen with that choice. The lake is no place to be when bass are shallow and on stumps and the wind is blowing.
"The river is a great post-spawn area also because of the various patterns it offers," Ponds offered. "Depending on how fast the lily pads have developed, they offer post-spawn fish a great hiding place for ambushing shad.
"Pad points, both on the river and secondary in the backwater areas, are one of the first places that fish go. If the pads are thick, you can run a frog over them and target monster bass; if they are still thin, or they've sprayed them, then a lizard or a spinnerbait is good.
"That year that Dwight Cranford won the Heart tournament with that lipless crankbait was amazing," Ponds continued. "Everyone knew the fish were in the pads, but for some reason they weren't hitting frogs or worms or buzzbaits. He didn't give up, used really strong line and threw a Rat-L-Trap right into the thick of the vegetation, and then pumped it up and down off the bottom, often having to snatch it out stems and all. I can't imagine the strength and perseverance it took to do that."
Weather permitting, the upper half of the main lake is the bass angler's area of choice in May. It outproduces the rest of the reservoir combined when wind allows access to the open water.
"I think the No. 1 pattern on Barnett in May is finding the big fish in the first stage of transition out of spawning areas on the big lake," Ponds said. "The sows move out first and they gather on secondary ledges, like the first drops out from the spawnin
g area. From their scattered bedding areas, they seem to home in on those first ledges and form schools.
"If you can find one of those ledges, and especially one near a stump field or a ditch that is lined with stumps, you can really hit the mother lode. A shallow crankbait is good when the big fish get over that first period of inactivity after the spawn. Once they settle on a ledge, they start to feed heavy again, and a crankbait is good.
"But in the past couple of years, I've added a swimbait to my post-spawn arsenal," he added. "It is a big-fish bait. If you are into numbers, then you want to use a lure like a Bandit Flat Maxx crankbait or a spinnerbait and cover a lot of water."
Shannon Denson, one of the hottest tournament anglers on Barnett, loves late spring on the upper main lake. "When they move out on the ledges after the spawn, you can hammer them in big numbers and in quality, too," agreed the third-generation fisherman on the lake. "You can pull up to a ledge and catch 40 to 50 in one spot without moving. And a lot of them will be the kind you have to have to win tournaments -- you know, the 4- and 5-pounders."