Just beyond casting range, the placid water exploded with activity as frantic 5- to 6-pound bass smashed into a school of terrified threadfin shad.
We kicked the trolling motor into high gear and began casting to where the waters churned only moments ago. However, fish began blowing up on the surface just beyond casting range in the spot we had just left!
“Chasing schooling fish can be frustrating,” said Tim Horton, a professional bass angler from Alabama. “We never know where they might pop up or when.”
Such commotions regularly tantalize anglers all across North America. When in a feeding frenzy, bass attack shad from multiple directions.
They herd the baitfish into balls and force them to the surface where the prey run out of escape room. Usually, some bass will run through the ball to bust up the shad, as their big-mouthed brethren move in to gorge themselves on any stragglers they can catch.
Schooling bass could appear anywhere on any lake any day of the year without warning and just as suddenly stop only to re-appear elsewhere a short time later. Such activity most commonly occurs in late summer or fall when bass feed heavily upon shad. An angler can sometimes spend all day chasing schooling fish without putting a single one into the livewell.
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But in the right spot at the right time, even novice anglers can quickly fill a limit if they react fast enough.
“Whenever I’m fishing a lake, I always look for schooling action, especially in the fall,” Horton said. “I always scan the water around me and look for breaking fish. In the fall, fish move to the backs of creeks. I like to look for schooling activity where a channel swings close to big flats. That’s where bass can really ambush baitfish. Bass will even ambush baitfish on bluff banks in the backs of creeks.”
In an area where schooling bass might appear, anglers need to stay prepared to react fast and make long casts. Use lures that mimic crippled shad with enough heft to sail long distances. Many anglers keep a rod loaded with 8- to 10-pound test monofilament handy in case they spot a surface disruption.
Tie on a lipless crankbait, topwater bait, spinnerbait or spoon. These bait types can sail long distances to reach fish. When bass erupt, quickness and accuracy count more than lure selection or color, but stick to hues that imitate baitfish, like chrome and blue, gray, white, silver and black or bleeding shad.
“I always like to keep a lure tied on that I can really launch,” Horton said. “Topwaters and lipless crankbaits are hard to beat for schooling bass, but any lure that looks like a shad and creates erratic action might work. Even in really deep water, anglers can still catch schooling bass on topwaters because the fish drive shad to the surface. In the winter when fish suspend deeper, an Alabama Rig is another good option for schooling bass.”
Toss these baits as far as possible toward schooling activity. Whenever possible, throw beyond where the fish appeared on the surface and work the lures through the commotion. When fishing a sinking bait like a lipless crankbait, let it drop a few feet before running it through the water where fish appeared. Bass attacking shad frequently wound fish. Seconds after making an attack, gluttonous largemouths return to slurp the struggling morsels.
“When schooling, bass are in a feeding mode so fish any lure aggressively,” Horton said. “When bass are after them, the shad will not be hanging around. They will be moving as fast as they can.”
Although schooling bass might suddenly materialize and disappear in seconds, they didn’t necessarily leave the area just because they stopped popping the surface. Surviving shad disperse and drop near the bottom to regroup. Beneath the water, bass also reorganize for another assault on the shad. Continue to fish the area where schoolies surfaced and disappeared.
“When fishing for schools, people need to be patient where they are because the fish might come back up,” Horton explained. “When bass stop blowing up in an area, they probably didn’t leave. Often, bass will be blowing up in an area, move and then come back to that same area. Something is usually there that holds the fish even when they go back down. It might be a ledge, a rock pile or something else. When bass disappear, I throw a shallow-running crankbait, one that dives about four or five feet deep, and run it through the zone.”
If schoolies don’t reappear after a while, find out why bass like that spot. Look for structure such as a creek channel, hump or other cover that might make a good place for bass to launch an attack on shad. Probe any structure with Carolina rigs, crankbaits, worms or jigs.
“Once I locate a school of bass on a structure element, I always visit this structure multiple times during the day,” said Mark Menendez, a professional bass angler from Kentucky. “If I am lucky enough to find additional schools, I will run to these locations throughout the day. Sooner or later, I will pull up on a school actively feeding.”
Beside water surface eruptions, also watch for bird activity. Diving birds could indicate schooling fish activity. When bass chase shad to the surface, fish-eating birds spot them and dive into the water to snatch morsels before the bass gulp them, or to grab cripples.
Finding schooling bass can’t guarantee fish in the boat, but anglers who pay attention and stay prepared might land several lunkers quickly in the right spot at the right time. Stay alert and watch for surface activity while keeping a long-range bait ready to throw at rising bass when they appear.