May 06, 2011
In May, bass are leaving the bedding areas that bluegills are moving to. Here's how to use topwater lures to catch those bass!
By Tony Clifton
Regardless of where you live in the South, this is a key transitional month. The bass are finishing up the most important task they have each year -- the annual spawn -- and moving towards their summer patterns. Just what stage of this transition they are in depends largely upon the type of water you're on.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
On deep, clear, highland reservoirs, the bass may be just coming off the beds, and some may still be on them. Move to lower elevations, and the largemouths likely finished the majority of their spawn a month ago. Move farther south, to heavily vegetated natural lakes and the spawn may have finished two months ago.
The timing may be different, but regardless of the locale, the bass are not in any hurry to leave the areas they just spawned in. And, there's a logical reason for that.
The spawn is a rigorous time for bass. A lot of energy is expended and not a lot of feeding takes place. Spawning bass exist largely on the energy reserves they have built up during the winter and pre-spawn, and for some mature bass, that's not enough to sustain them. It is not uncommon to find some large bass floating dead after the spawn. Others may be extremely thin and malnourished. It's a tough time, and not all bass survive it. Those that do need to replenish their energy quickly, so they are going to feed.
Fortunately, Mother Nature provides them with a readily available food source that the bass don't have to move very far to find.
Once the bass finish their spawn, the various species of panfish move into the same areas to conduct their spawn. That includes the ubiquitous bluegill, which is common on most waters. But you can also add crappie, pumpkinseed, redear sunfish and redbreasts, Spotted Sunfish. Along with those come the various species of predatory minnows that raid the panfish nests for eggs. The area the bass already inhabit becomes a veritable buffet.
RELATED READ: Trick Out Your Bass Tackle
One of the quickest ways for anglers to find those key areas that are holding bass this month is by prospecting with topwater plugs. There is also a logical reason for that.
The annual spawn is no less stressful for panfish than it is for bass. Some of those panfish don't survive it. Many that don't will rise to the surface, flutter around, and gasp their last. For a hungry, aggressive, bass that surface commotion is a neon sign that says "Eat Here!"
It's an ingrained response, and it makes topwater lures a great choice during this transition period.
While surface baits can be effective under the right conditions almost any month of the year, they become an excellent choice as a primary lure this month. Bass may not strike every topwater bait tossed their way, but they show some level of response to most. If a bass blasts the lure, fine. If they just boil, roll, or flash at it, that's not so bad either. That tells you that you've found some bass, and they can be worked with other lures. The key is to find them first, and a topwater plug is a great way to do that while covering a lot of water quickly.
Veteran anglers take that one step further and incorporate a "comeback rod" into their topwater approach.
A comeback rod is a rod, rigged and ready to go, lying at the anglers' feet while they work their topwater plug. The comeback rod has a sub-surface lure that can be accurately cast, and once in the water stay in one rather small area for an extended period of time.
For catching or just locating largemouths a topwater lure is very productive this month. Photo by Tony Clifton.
The theory behind it is simple: when a bass just boils on a topwater lure but doesn't take it, the fish is still in that spot. It was drawn to the surface bait, but for some reason it choose not to take the lure at the last minute. Maybe it didn't like the color, or didn't want to break the surface film, or was just sending a territorial message to the "intruder."
Regardless of the reason the bass rejected the topwater plug, but the fish is still there. Experienced anglers have learned that if they can immediately get a sub-surface lure into the boil made by the bass, they have a good chance of catching that fish.
Just because the bass missed your topwater plug doesn't mean you have missed that bass. But you must b e quick. You can reel in the other rig after you land the fish.
The most effective lures for a comeback set up are sub-surface baits that sink slowly and can be danced in one spot long enough for the bass to come back to it. That varies with the type of water you're fishing. For that matter, so does the primary topwater plug. The topography often dictates what baits are most effective. Here's a look at how to pick the best lures for your waters.
Dotting the uplands are large man-made bodies of water. But, they all share similar characteristics. Aquatic vegetation is scare to nonexistent, depth changes are abrupt, rock and some wood form the primary bass holding cover, and
the water is normally clear to only slightly stained at this time of year. The key spawning areas for both bass and panfish are pea gravel banks. Those could be on the main lake, but the preferred areas are in sheltered creek arms and coves.
Even there, the depth in productive waters may be 10 feet or more. It may seem counter-intuitive to be tossing a topwater plug in open water with 10-foot-plus depths, but on these lakes it works. The water clarity gives bass a clear view, and they may move a long way to bust a surface bait. Savvy anglers further encourage strikes by using aggressive walking baits.
RELATED READ: Why You Should Consider Wooden Topwater Bass Lures
A Spook-type walking bait covers water quickly, while creating the type of surface commotion a bass responds to. At this time of year, the top colors are the darker panfish patterns, but some anglers experience success with chrome or gold finishes.
Experienced anglers pull their boats parallel with a potentially productive bank and start their first casts tight to the shoreline, while working subsequent casts farther from the bank to cover a larger water column area.
An aggressive walking bait is a good option to start, but not necessarily where you finish. Noise levels, lure speed, and the commotion created by a surface bait are key elements in getting a strike. But just what level of noise the bass responds to best can change; maybe even several times during the course of a day.
If the bass aren't responding to a walking bait, or suddenly stop responding to it, experienced anglers make a quick shift to a surface popper like the Pop-R or a double propeller plug like the Devil's Horse. If the walking baits reveal bass (and they normally will at this time) but aren't producing hookups, it may take nothing more than a different lure speed and sound signature to turn boilers into biters.
Regardless of the topwater plug chosen, the comeback rod is handy to have. On this type of water there are several effective lure options for this rod. A slow sinking plug like the Countdown Rapala is often one of the best bets. Get it into the boil area, let it sink, and twitch gently. It can be held in one small area long enough to tempt a bass.
A more aggressive option is a floater/diver jerkbait, such as the Bomber Long A. Get it slightly beyond the strike, jerk it down a couple of feet quickly, and then have it do a sub-surface topwater dance.
An option favored by many expert anglers is a soft-plastic jerkbait like a fluke. When rigged weedless with a wide gap hook, subtle amounts of weight can be added to the hook to make the fluke sink slowly with a horizontal posture. This lure type can be kept in one small spot longer than the others, while presenting a tempting morsel for the bass.
Adding weight to the hook can be accomplished by clamping on a small split shot, or adding a wrap of soldier to the bend of the hook. The Sebile Soft Weight System is, however, the most effective. This consists of a wide gap hook and a dozen or so soft tungsten weights that slip onto the hook and can be placed at various points to achieve the proper fall angle. They slip on and off so you can instantly adjust and control the fall rate and angle.
This two-rod approach catches bass, but more importantly it can find concentrations of fish. Once found, the bass can then be worked with whatever crankbaits, jigs, or soft plastics are appropriate to the depth and cover.
In sharp contrast to highland reservoirs, reservoirs or natural lakes at lower elevations have most bass in and around some form of vegetation at depths of less than 7 feet. If you know an area with this type of cover where panfish traditionally spawn, it should be your first stop in the morning!
Topwaters are still deadly baits, but the lure selection changes. Just which baits are best depends upon whether you are prospecting hard stemmed emergent plants like bulrush, cattail, arrowhead and elephant ear pads, or dealing with soft, submerged plants like hydrilla, coontail, eelgrass, peppergrass and dollar bonnets.
With emergent vegetation, the key topwater targets are hard edges, points, cuts, and open pockets. Aggressive walking baits can work, but the double-propeller baits are favored better. The Devil's Horse, Boy Howdy, and similar stickbaits can be held tight to cover, walked easily through scattered plants, and call bass out of the cover. They can stay in a small target zone long enough for the bass to be drawn to them, and a steady "sput-sput" retrieve can attract bass from quite a distance.
A hard plastic jerkbait can be an effective comeback lure when working edges, but it's hard to argue with a lightly weighted fluke anytime you are dealing with vegetation. At shallower depths of 3 to 4 feet a light curly-tailed plastic worm is also effective and one of the best choices if fishing lily pads or other heavy surface cover. When a bass misses a topwater plug they blast a temporary hole in the cover and a worm dropped quickly into that gap often earns a strike!
Lily pads are another common bass holding cover this time of year because panfish love to spawn in them. A careful angler can work a double-prop bait through most such cover and the bass will eat it. The drawback is that you then have a bass hooked on relatively small treble hooks in heavy cover. Fish pulling free from the hooks are common. A better bet for pads is any of the rat or frog lures. They slip through the thickest vegetation with ease, and provide a solid, big hook to battle the bass out of it.
If you want to cover thicker vegetation more quickly, the best option is one of the newer "Toad" baits, like the Zoom Horny Toad or Berkley Chigger Toad. When rigged weightless on a 4/0 or 5/0 wide-gap hook they are heavy enough to cast on stout baitcasting gear, and zip smoothly across even surface matted vegetation. They have been some of the hottest topwater lures in the South in recent years.
Lowland reservoirs often also offer types of cover found in highland lakes. In those spots the appropriate upland tactics work well. But, there is one condition that is unique to the lowlands.
Shallow standing timber or buck brush is a common feature on some lowland reservoirs. Topwater plugs can work around those, but a faster searching method is any of the new "wake baits." These shallow running crankbaits stay within a few inches of the surface, bounce off wood with alacrity, and cover water quickly. They're a worthy addition to the tackle box of any angler confronted by shallow standing timber.
Topwater plugs are an exciting way to catch bass. And, this month, when it comes to finding bass, they're a top choice for prospecting.