Pro Bass Tips: Fishing Unfamiliar Lakes
January 26, 2017
The spawn and post-spawn periods of largemouth bass roughly coincide with spring across the United States.
That's a pretty wide window because water temperatures dictate the months these periods occur. They may vary from mid April to early June (and even later at some regions).
The timing of the spawn and postspawn also determines what kind of tactics and tackle anglers use to catch bass from shallow, mid-range or deep water, plus their rods, reels, lines and lures.
For anglers who occasionally fish lakes that they've never tried before, figuring out the pattern the bass are on in unfamiliar waters is the first step in having a good day. But some anglers never get past that first step.
What better way to learn strategies for spring fishing than to pick the brains of three successful professional anglers who chase bass year around across the country and have solutions to attack unknown lakes?
Consider the approaches of Kevin VanDam, Casey Ashley and Ish Monroe. All three of these professional anglers are involved in the Major League Fishing tournament series. In Major League Fishing tournaments, the venues are a surprise to the anglers and there are no pre-fishing days allowed. Pro anglers in these tournaments are in the same situation any angler who is fishing a new lake is in — except these guys are among the best in the world at zeroing in on fish in unfamiliar waters.
Considered the best bass angler in the world, during the last 29 years, Kevin VanDam has earned more than $6 million in prize money. He regularly is in the top rank of Major League Fishing anglers.
As a Michigan youth, he learned to bass fish at lakes and rivers near Kalamazoo.
"The spawn depends a lot on diversity, especially at 'natural' (not man-made) lakes," he said. "Some years bass spawn at the end of April, but usually it's April through May, although at far-north (lakes) the whole spawn phase may occur during June.
"But we also have a lot of weedy, shallow lakes that warm faster, and bass spawn earlier."
For a new lake, VanDam said his first step is to study a bottom-contour map.
"I try to find the biggest flats, bays, banks and protected pockets, anything with a north bank that warms up first. The spawn usually starts first at those places." — Kevin VanDam
If he's fishing a "natural" reservoir, VanDam said the spawn typically begins at its upper end.
"Near the dam usually has the deepest, coldest water, so the spawn normally happens there last," he said. "But it might be reversed. Water coming into a lake's upper end might be released from the bottom of another lake's dam and be colder.
"But I also look at water clarity, depth and habitat," he said. If a lake has stained water, he eliminates sight fishing.
"But if the water's clear, (sight fishing) is something I'd consider," VanDam said.
Clear water means better visibility for bass and lighter line, so he likes lures "that draw bass from a distance and you can keep in the strike zone, such as wacky worms, little creature baits, drop-shot plastics or jerkbaits."
VanDam's Strike King Ocho lure is a 5-inch-long soft-plastic stickbait that resembles an earthworm.
"I like to use it in all three phases — prespawn, bedding or postspawn," he said. "It has a subtle action, but fish seem to respond to it."
For spawning fish at lakes with shallow edges and shoreline structure, VanDam prefers stronger rods, reels, line and bigger lures.
"I look for boat docks, bushes or (submerged aquatic) grass," he said. "I might flip or pitch weightless or a lightly weighted Ocho."
In heavy cover, he may pitch creature baits, worms, lizards or jig-and-pigs with 25-pound-test mono or even braid.
"If a lake's got holes in big grass beds, I might use 50-pound braid," he said.
Figuring out a lake's forage base takes top priority during the postspawn.
"Bluegills go to bass beds to eat fry, and the shad spawn often occurs during the postspawn," VanDam said. "Mayflies hatch at the same time, attract bream and they attract bass."
He likes to throw lures that imitate bream or sunfish, early, late and all day if it's cloudy.
"They create a lot of commotion, and you can keep them in the target area in the immediate postspawn," VanDam said. "The popper's really good when the bluegills spawn or Mayflies hatch."
Ish Monroe, the 42-year-old, who was also among the top anglers in the Major League Fishing Point Rankings last season, had a quick answer when asked how he decides where to fish and what tackle and lures to use at a new lake. And it had nothing to do with lure types, colors or other tackle.
"I go straight to my electronic maps," said the Hughson, Calif., resident.
"I learned to fish in California," he said, meaning a mixture of clear, deep-water lakes and shallow river deltas.
Monroe has tested cross-country waters from Michigan to New York to Florida to Nevada to Texas (with a few side trips to the heartland).
"For lakes I haven't fished, I use a Lowrance HDS-12 Gen3 (fish-finder and chart-plotter)," he said. "I want to know exactly what type of bottom features a lake has and where.
"But the concept is old," he said. "You just need to know locations of bottom structure and water depths so you'll know where baitfish and bass are gonna be."
The difference is underwater resolution.
In California, Monroe said, the spawn to postspawn may begin in February and extend into June.
"It depends on what part of the state you're in," he said. "Both are relative to weather and depth. The water's so clear (and deep) in most lakes, bass can spawn 20 feet deep."
For spawners, Monroe uses "a lot of soft plastics," mainly Missile Bait crawfish imitators.
"I like 3 1/2-inch Missile Bait D-Bombs and 6- to 7-inch Missile Bait Destroyers for the spawn," Monroe said. "You can throw 'em on a Carolina rig (and fish deep), but mostly I use a Texas rig. Spawning bass usually aren't gearing toward lures; it's more of an attitude. If you can irritate a fish, it helps."
During the postspawn, bass transition to deep areas with cover or thick grass, Monroe said. And they'll be hungry.
Small males remain near a nest in order to guard the bass fry, while larger females go to underwater grass beds to feed or go deep.
"If it's a lake that has a lot of grass, I throw under docks or beneath the heaviest cover I can find. Weedless frogs work well. If it's a structure lake, bass move toward the deepest parts." — Ish Monroe
His favorite lure color is "anything that resembles a bluegill," Monroe said.
During the postspawn, Monroe also tries frogs and buzzbaits tied to braid.
"Braid provides a lot of lure action and is strong so I don't worry about getting broke off," he said. "I also can throw lures farther with braid."
Major League Fishing Select Angler Casey Ashley has earned $1,246,012 over a 10-year career.
He knows most about Southern lakes but is expanding his repertoire.
"If I'm fishing the spawn, the first thing I look at is a lake map that shows creeks protected from the north wind, set up to get the most sunlight," he said.
He also wants to know whether the water temperature is 68 degrees, which may occur from early April to May.
"Most of the time the spawn at the upper end of a lake ends before the lower end starts, so you might have spawning and postspawn fish at the same time," said Ashley.
"If that doesn't happen, I look for water color. If the water's dirty, they'll definitely spawn first at the lower (deeper) end (because dingy water retains sunlight heat better than clear water).
"No matter how clear or dirty the water, if it's less than 4 feet deep, they're gonna spawn (at 68 degrees). Bass need so much light penetration to hatch their eggs."
Best places will be near cover, isolated grass, blowdowns, dock posts or corners of docks around 4 feet deep, Ashley says.
If conditions are right, all he needs is a good set of trolling motor batteries.
Water color also dictates his lure choices.
"If I only can see a foot or less, I can pitch jigs and such and not spook fish," he said. "I like a Zoom Z-Craw and a Z-Craw Junior. I'll flip them, a jig or a tube bait."
He likes to cast a spinnerbait past isolated wood and crank the blade past stick-ups.
In clear water he dials back his tackle (to a 7-foot spinning rod with 8-pound line).
"When it gets close to the spawn, they don't take moving baits in clear water," Ashley said. "They want real subtle finesse-style lures, such as wacky worms in green pumpkin or watermelon candy colors. If I see fish cruising, that's what I'll use for big bass."
During the postspawn period, Ashley prefers two main lures — a buzzbait or Zara Spook, early and late.
"I also love an old-style floating worm. A lot of guys won't throw it, but it seems like when shad spawn, bass like something on the surface. I look for blue herons; they give away shad in a hurry. You've got about 1 1/2 hours to catch 'em on topwater until the sun gets up." — Casey Ashley
He often skips floating worms under docks or shady limbs.
"When that bite ends, I go to Pattern 2 — bream beds," Ashley said. "You can catch bass using lures with bream patterns."
His topwater tackle includes 6 1/2-foot Quantum Smoke medium-action rods with a medium tip and Quantum spinning reels with a 7:3:1 gear ratio and a 7-foot Quantum Heavy Tour PT rod and Quantum reel (same 7:3:1 gear setting) for floating worms. Ashley prefers 20-pound-test monofilament line for buzzbaits and 15-pound-test for Pop-Rs, but uses 50-pound braid for walking baits (Zara Spooks).
For skipping floating worms beneath docks, he favors 10-pound braid tied to 12- to 15-feet of fluorocarbon leader "so I can cut it off and re-tie if it gets nicked," Ashley said.