Matching The Hatch For Spring Bass

Now's the time when big bass begin to prowl the shallows of your favorite lake or reservoir. These tips will help you to catch (and release) some trophy fish right now. (May 2008)

It won't be long now before the early morning and evening topwater action will be sizzling on a bass water near you. Don't miss out!
Photo by J.B. Kasper.

If you want a trophy bass, right now's the time to catch it. The bigger largemouths are feeding heavily and getting ready for the spawn. At times, these big females will add 50 percent to their late fall or winter weights. A 5-pound fall bass can weigh over 7 pounds just before she drops her eggs.

However, these bass didn't become big by accident and they won't just jump in the boat. You still have to trick them into biting your lure. Some days, that's easy and it seems as if you are destined for the professional ranks. At other times, however, you can't buy a bite.

One of the ways to avoid being hitless is to learn about forage and how it affects the bite. Flyfishermen have known this for a long time. They call it "matching the hatch." That's really nothing other than a fancy term for showing the fish something similar to what they're eating.

Professional bass angler Mark Menendez has known this for a long time. His nearly two decades of professional, competitive bass angling have taught him the importance of presenting a bait that looks and acts like the real thing, something the bass are actually eating.

"I think a lot of anglers make the mistake of not taking time to see what's available to the local bass. They get in a hurry to fish and forget the importance of this. That's too bad because it probably costs them a lot of fish in the long run," he said. "If you're going to catch big bass, you've got to do it right."

Doing it right begins by understanding local forage. Most lakes and reservoirs across our country have some form of shad in them. Each species is a little different, but they all have one thing in common -- they don't tolerate cold water very well.

That's why Menendez starts fishing -- anytime the water is in the 40- to 50-degree range and the local forage is shad based -- with a suspending, hard jerkbait. This lure choice matches the hatch perfectly. Different models and sizes can be fished at different depths. And at the same time, these types of lures are easy to work in a slow, helter-skelter manner through the bass' strike zone.

"A good jerkbait is indispensable in the early spring on a shad forage-based body of water. They imitate a dying shad perfectly."

Note, however, that he says a "good" jerkbait. Not all of them meet that criterion. To be good the jerkbait must be strong. Big bass pull hard. And it must run at the correct depth. That's largely a matter of size, weight and bill length, but it's also affected by line diameter. Remember, no matter what the manufacturer says, any bait will run shallower on heavy line and deeper on light line.

Your jerkbait must also suspend perfectly. Perfectly means the bait remains horizontal in the water and doesn't move up or down, not even a little bit. A slow rise or fall will kill the bite on most days. Real baitfish won't do that and neither should your lure.

Menendez's personal choice is a Strike King Wild Suspending Shiner. (Yes, it's named shiner, but it does a heck of a job imitating dying shad.) This bait will often work best in relatively shallow water around main-lake points, primary bay points and bluff ends. That's where the shad will move as the water starts to warm a bit, so that's where you should be fishing. But don't confuse movement with survival. Many shad will still die. Therefore, your baits should be imitating dying shad.

Other great baits with which to imitate dying shad are metal blade baits. The best ones fall and drop with a flutter that's so realistic it'll fool you. Most anglers cast them out toward shore and let them freefall to the bottom. Then they pull them up with a hard snap of the rod and allow the bait to flutter down on a moderately tight line. The only reason you lift this bait is so that it'll fall back down.

Most of your strikes will come as the bait falls. Therefore, it's critical that you become a line watcher. If your line twitches, set the hook. If it stops too soon, set the hook. If it does anything else unusual, set the hook. Never forget -- it doesn't cost anything to set the hook. It's the only thing you can do on the water for free.

The best blade bait ever made, bar none, was the legendary Silver Buddy. They're out of business now, because of the death of Kendall Banks, and are almost impossible to find. If you do get lucky and find some, buy them all. If you can't find the real deal, there are a number of other blade baits around that'll catch bass. Buy the one you like best and have the most confidence in.

In waters where the forage is more shiner based, a slightly different approach may be necessary. Of course, long-bodied plugs, such as hard jerkbaits, will do the same thing here that they do on shad-based waters. But other lures will sometimes work just as well.

Try soft jerkbaits worked in a slow, stop-and-go manner, but allow them to drop slowly during the retrieve. There are many soft jerkbaits on the market. Choose one that fits your style of fishing.

Regardless of whether you're trying to match shad or shiners, remember Menendez's advice: Spend some time looking around to analyze the forage before you choose your lure. Just because the lure looks good to you doesn't mean it looks good to a bass.

Also, don't get caught in the trap of throwing small baits just because the water is cold or you think that's what you should be doing to finesse the fish. Early in the spring, most of the forage will have some size to it. After all, they were hatched last spring and have had a full year to grow. It's only after the water warms and the baitfish have spawned that there's a bunch of tiny critters in the water. That's the time to downsize to match the size of the prevailing forage.

Slow is usually better when the water's cold, early in the year. There's nothing in the water that moves fast when it's cold. Why should your lure move fast when nothing else is? That doesn't make sense and most definitely doesn't contribute to matching the hatch. Reaction bites are for warm water, not cold water.

Later in the spring, as the waters warm and rise up along the shoreline, it's time to consider a jig or may

be a small plastic of some sort. In most waters, the bluegills will move into the shallows before the bass. When the bass arrive, bluegills are the natural food source for them. They're also the primary predators of bass eggs. So, bass have two good reasons to eat them.

At this time, Menendez recommends pitching or flipping a jig into cover to catch bass that are hiding there. Color matters here. He recommends taking a close look at the bluegills that you see before reaching into your tackle box.

"At this time of year, color can't be overemphasized," he said. "Match your skirt and trailer colors to the prevailing colors of the bluegills. Greens, browns and oranges are especially important. I carry several hues of each."

Creature baits come into play at this time, too. Anything that looks big, ugly and mean will do the trick, so long as it matches the prevailing bluegill colors. Most anglers Texas rig these baits and then walk or drag them along the bottom near likely nesting sites. Slow and careful are the watchwords for this technique. Make a big female bass think your bait is after her eggs and see what she does!

Once the bass have, or are, spawning, this is when soft-plastic, minnow-imitating baits come into their own. There are hundreds of them on the market. Menendez's choice is the Z Too fished on a Donkey Rig. It's a double bait setup that is renowned for attracting feeding post-spawn bass and frequently catches doubles. (If you think catching one bass is fun, try catching two at the same time, each fighting to free itself without regard for what the other one is doing.)

There are a number of ways to make a double rig. The easiest is to tie your main line to the center ring of a three-way swivel. Then tie taglines to each of the other two rigs. Make them different lengths. After attaching hooks to the taglines, thread a minnow-imitating bait onto each hook. On a good day, the action can be beyond belief.

This is also the time that lipless, flat-sided crankbaits make a good choice. Most anglers toss them in shallow water near inflows, such as creeks and ditches that have warmed from the spring rains. If there's a little emerging grass in the area, so much the better.

There really isn't a bad way to fish these lures. They'll catch fish if you simply throw them out and wind them back in. They'll also catch fish when they're hopped along the bottom, in a jig-like manner. Try everything until you know how they like it. Top selections include Rat-L-Traps and Wild Eye Shiners.

And never, not for any reason whatsoever, overlook spinnerbaits when the water temperature is 55 degrees or warmer. There isn't a lure in history that has withstood the test of time any better than a simple safety pin-style spinnerbait in white, chartreuse or other shad/shiner color combination.

At some point as the water warms, the crayfish will start moving. Crayfish are found in nearly every body of water. Don't overlook crawdads as a forage base. In some waters, they're the most important one to the fish. Therefore, they should be the most important one to you, too.

The obvious choice for baits when crawfish are active is a jig. Several designs are available. Recently, the football head styles have become popular, and for good reason. They walk along the bottom in a realistic manner and are about as snag resistant as a jig can be.

Like bluegill-imitating baits, color matters with jigs in the spring. Crayfish come in every conceivable shade of brown, black, red, orange and blue. Some of them even turn white when they shed their shells. Make sure you have a couple of the correct colors in your tackle box.

The best technique to fish jigs is usually to drag them along the bottom. Far too many anglers hop them during the retrieve. That'll catch a few bass, but not as many as with a slow and methodical drag. Ask yourself when was the last time you saw a crayfish hop up and down on the bottom? If they don't do it, why should you?

Now no springtime bass fishing article would be complete without a discussion of topwater baits. Exactly how, or why, they match the hatch is somewhat of a mystery. Nevertheless, they catch bass, big bass.

Let's begin with poppers. Poppers catch a ton of bass each year. Maybe it's because they look like distressed baitfish, or maybe it's because they look like something good to eat. Regardless, if you want to become an effective angler, you'll learn to use one.

Popping plugs also come in every conceivable shape, size and color. The easiest -- but not the only -- way to sort them is by sound and action. Some make a loud bloop sound when they hit the water, while others simply pop a little. A few popping plug designs are made for "walking the dog" like a walking stick, but others just plow along. Some poppers will sit high on the water, some ride nose up and tail down, and others darn near sink. And some have props, others don't. They'll all catch bass on one day or another. It's best to have a complete selection on hand.

Buzzbaits are in a class all their own. The easiest way to categorize them is by sound and splash. There are clackers and squeakers. Clackers bang and clang as they cross the water. Squeakers make a squealing sound as they are retrieved.

You can make a clacker by punching a nail point through the hole in the blade. A nail point is square, so the hole will be square. The blade will bang around on the wire shaft and make a strong clacking sound as you wind it in.

The best way to make a squeaker is to wet the shaft and blade and pour salt on it. Allow the mess to sit overnight inside a plastic bag. The salt will pit and corrode the metal causing a loud screech as the parts rub together. It'll drive you, and the bass, crazy.

Bending the buzzbait's blades can easily control splash and noise. Bend them in to quiet the bait; bend them out to generate more splash and commotion.

Once you've modified your buzzbait, don't be afraid to throw it over and over to the same spot. For reasons known only to bass, they will often hit a buzzbait only after repeated casts to the same spot. This may sound crazy, but it works. Give it a try this spring. You'll be glad you did.

No matter which topwater bait you choose, don't be snared by conventional thinking. Topwater lures aren't just for early mornings, late evenings or cloudy, overcast days. They're for anytime the fish will bite them. Throw one when the bite gets slow. You might be surprised at the results.

Buzzbaits aren't just for shallow-water applications either. Oftentimes bass will rise 20 feet or more to take a topwater plug, especially when the water is clear and the sun is shining down from a bright, clear blue sky.

Any and all of the baits and methods discussed in this article will work at one time or another. The important thing is to think about the tim

e of year and what the bass are eating.

Spring isn't spring everywhere at the same time. It may be early, middle or late spring in your neighborhood. It's one thing in the North. It's another in the South. And a minnow isn't a minnow. It's a shad, a shiner, a fathead or something else.

Look before you throw your first bait. Learn to match the hatch. It'll make a world of difference in your bass fishing this spring -- and right through the entire season.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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