February 22, 2017
Weather during the bass prespawn time is unstable. Warm, bluebird-sky days are sporadic and brief. Cold fronts are apt to pass through any time, driving bass deep and giving them lockjaw. The wind is blustery, and the water temperature is rising as the hours of sunlight increase. These rapid weather changes throw bass, and anglers, off balance.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, this is one of the best seasons for catching lots of bass, including some trophies, if you can find them. The fish are shaking off a period of dormancy and reduced feeding, and must condition themselves for the rigors of the spawn. They migrate in schools from deep winter haunts to shallower holding areas, and begin feeding heavily on baitfish, crawfish and other forage. A properly presented lure is almost sure to garner a strike.
One key to success, of course, is knowing where bass are most likely to be during this time. And that’s my cue for telling you about headwaters.
Why headwaters, you might ask?
The headwaters area of a lake is the upper end where the major stream or streams that feed the lake flow into it. This is usually that part of the lake opposite the dam.
In early spring, many bass gather in the headwaters reaches because this is where the water first warms. Small streams above the lake warm first because they are shallow and fed by the first warming rains. These in turn feed larger streams flowing into the lake, and they, too, warm up before the deeper main lake.
As winter’s cold ebbs, bass begin roaming and feeding, and eventually they encounter warmer water flowing in from headwaters tributaries. Moving against the current, looking for its source of warmth, they move shallower and shallower. Initially, they’ll be positioned near primary creek and river mouths, but as the water temperature reaches the upper 50s, bass move onto flats and into secondary channels. The migration of prespawn fish begins in 20 to 30 feet of water in the main body of the lake. At the end of this period, fish will be in 8- to 15-foot depths, at the mouth of or within headwaters tributaries. Later, when water temperature nears 64 degrees, they’ll move into 3 to 5 feet of water, and the actual spawn will begin.
Current is another guiding force in the headwaters. Bass react positively to moving water, even if it’s just a runoff of water after a shower or the slight current produced as the result of power generation. But during the winter-to-spring transition period, current takes on added significance. Bass are lethargic after a season on reduced rations, and when possible, they prefer to sit in cover where food is delivered to them by the current. Headwaters again provide the ideal situation.
Bass concentrate in a lake’s headwaters region for other reasons, too. As water warms and the spawning urge begins to take hold, the basses’ instincts drive them to the shallow areas where spawning will eventually take place. The headwaters portion of a lake is usually shallower than the lower dam-site end, so it’s logical many bass will migrate toward the headwaters.
Water clarity is another important consideration. Lakes are usually at their clearest in early spring, and moving from clear water into a slightly turbid creek or stream can produce more fish. Largemouths are less spooky and more likely to hit a variety of lures in dingy water. After a shower, headwaters streams are also full of food that has washed in. Bass actually pile up at the mouths of headwaters tributaries and gorge themselves on forage animals.
One key to successful early-spring fishing, then, is to locate headwater areas that offer current, slight turbidity and food near shallow spawning areas, and fish those areas with the lures that produce best. The headwater area you want to fish usually is around the lake’s main source of water, the largest arm or arms of the river that feeds the lake. But major creeks also can be factors in headwaters fishing. An early-spring rain can change a non-moving creek into a moving environment, thus creating exactly what you’re looking for—a moving, food-rich environment where bass are concentrated.
There are many types of bass-holding structure in the headwaters reaches of most lakes. Some of the best are points and flats lying adjacent headwaters tributaries.
Points and Crankbaits
During the earliest part of prespawn, headwaters bass often hold on points that slope toward the main river channel. These points may be conspicuous as they jut into the main current areas, or they may be inconspicuous, barely showing on the bank but gradually sloping toward the channel drop. The best lure for fishing these areas is a crankbait.
Fish crankbaits around the available cover on each point, retrieving the lure from shallow water to deep, or working across the point toward the deepest side. Bass move up and down points as weather and water conditions change. Consequently, they may be difficult to pinpoint. But when the first fish is found, you may be able to take a limit on consecutive casts.
Fishing Headwater Flats
Flats are a prominent type of structure in headwaters areas. Every time an incoming stream channel swings from one side to another, a flat is created. Flats are among the first areas visited by bass leaving deep-water winter sanctuaries.
As the prespawn period begins, bass migrate into timber and other cover on the deep (channel) side of these flats. Then later, if suitable spawning sites are available, they’ll move to shallower reaches near shore. Throughout this period, the fish will be actively feeding.
Bass also will move between different areas on a flat in response to changes in weather and water quality. For instance, the passage of a cold front may drive them from mid-depth shelters back to the deep edge of the adjacent stream channel. They may respond to warm, overcast days by moving to shallow wind-swept quarters where baitfish are concentrated. If current is carrying a heavy silt load, fish may be suspended right at the mudline in whatever cover is available. To catch bass, you may have to fish several different areas using different techniques and lures until you determine a pattern.
Dingy Water and Spinnerbaits
If you’re fishing a headwaters creek or stream that is dingy from spring runoff, consider using a spinnerbait. Bass often move shallow to feed when the water is heavily colored, and a spinnerbait is hard to beat for catching them. Work the lure around stump fields, log jams and buckbrush on shallow flats adjacent river arms. Fishing around the mouths of small creeks may also be productive. Work these areas slowly and thoroughly, and you’ve got the perfect ingredients for some spectacular headwaters bass fishing.
There are literally dozens of other places and tactics you can try. And you may have to try them all before you start hooking fish. There are no guaranteed catches this time of year, even in the headwaters. A fisherman might spend the entire day slowly and methodically working a few areas of headwaters cover, and if he’s lucky he’ll locate one school of bass. But, oh, what a school!