May 05, 2021
By David A. Brown
Spring presents a tapestry of changes in the natural world, but few rival the increased opportunity to connect with a legitimate trophy bass during the annual spawning migration. Big fish can be found most anytime of the year—even under a frozen surface—but during the spawn it’s all about access.
Fact is, more large fish will be temporarily inhabiting shallow water, so the odds of an angler intercepting his or her personal best runs significantly higher. Add to this the intense feeding aggression bass display during the pre- and post-spawn, along with the territorial fervor associated with bed guarding, and it’s easy to see why a lot of those bragging rights photos have springtime date stamps.
Now, if that sounds like a slam-dunk guarantee, you might want to tap the brakes and consider that these fish enter the shallow spawning zone well aware of their vulnerability. Largemouth bass, which spawn through May in northern locales, are wily creatures any day of the year, but they’re particularly nervous in the shallow maternity ward.
Nevertheless, spring fireworks are never more than a cast away—you just gotta play the game their way.
Not all bed fish will be visible, so don’t blow off an area with the right water temperature, sun exposure, wind protection and favorable bottom makeup just because you can’t see fish. In many cases, various shoreline cover may obscure or completely hide bedding bass, while some fish just prefer to spawn deeper.
"The biggest mistake I see anglers of all levels make is they try to sight-fish for bass on beds when there are many other productive ways," says Bassmaster Elite angler John Crews. "Most anglers know the areas where those fish will be spawning—the backs of pockets, the back sides of docks. But depending on the water's color, there's often better ways to catch those fish."
Crews suggests staying far away from likely cover, such as flooded trees, isolated grass, laydowns or small patches of pads, and making long casts with a light Texas rig. Dead-sticking often works well and feathering your casts will help you avoid the fish-spooking plop.
If you can't see beds, but you suspect an area holds spawners, fan cast the shallows with a soft-body swimbait or a swim worm rigged weedless on a wide-gap hook. Pre-spawners still looking for meals will smoke this moving bait, while those committed to beds are more likely to briefly charge the bait and boil on it to scare away the intruder. Spotting such territorial movement means you’ve found a bedding area. Note where the boils occur and follow up with targeted presentations in the same depth range.
MIX IT UP
Major League Fishing pro Mike Iaconelli says anglers often fail to maximize sight-fishing opportunities by continually casting to one spot from the same angle. The New Jersey angler’s advice: Hit them from different angles and with different presentations.
"I want to make sure that with every fifth cast I change something in my presentation," Iaconelli says. "Sight fishing is all about reaction. You see how the fish turns on a bait, how it reacts, and then you vary the presentation until you find what makes them bite."
Instead of going straight through the middle of the bed, Iaconelli might shade right or left. A bait’s arrival on the bed also matters, so try casting beyond a bed and sneaking into the private property—maybe pausing right at the edge like a cautious intruder. Once in the bed, vary the bait action from aggressive hops to subtle shivers to dead sticking.
Iaconelli notes that adjacent bed fish may react differently, so don’t get locked into a particular presentation. Note what works in a particular set of circumstances—depth, habitat, sun, wind, etc.—but keep an open mind.
Back in the day, bed fishing was all about white baits. Easy for fish and angler alike to see, the vivid display looked completely alien to a bed fish and typically was met with harsh response. Today, fishing pressure has so greatly educated bass that sticking with one color—as productive as it may be—will often be your downfall. Iaconelli says to approach a bed with baits of multiple colors and sizes at the ready.
"It's amazing how one color will trigger one fish and then another one 5 feet away might trigger on a totally different color," he says.
Iaconelli breaks it down into three options: Neutral (watermelon red flake), mid-tone (black-blue flake) and “shock” colors (white, pink, chartreuse). Specific colors may vary by habitat, but the principle remains.
Pennsylvania pro Dave Lefebre's so adamant about this principle that he keeps a "bed box" at his feet with multiple colors of every bed bait he may need. Noting that this is the only box that never leaves his boat, Lefebre stresses the value of immediacy during the chess match of bed fishing, which often hinges on moment-to-moment reactions and calculating moves based on your opponent's actions and reactions. Keeping everything at arm's reach ensures continuity; finding just the right bait in just the right color leads to checkmate.
Spooking a fish off a bed doesn't necessarily mean the game is over, but interpreting particular responses helps you avoid wasting time or missing opportunities. As Iaconelli notes, a fish that leaves and takes its time returning or just lingers around the bed's general area probably isn't worth your time. Conversely, a fish that bolts but spins around and runs right back to the bed is a catchable fish.
To this point, Lefebre's not discouraged if he spots a bunch of fresh beds with no visible fish. Sometimes, the big females have not yet committed, but opportunities may come and go—on the beds and in the periphery. If you leave the little males alone, you’re more likely to find a big female on the bed in the near future. It takes two to tango, and the big gals know that parking on an unattended bed is counterproductive.
Bryan Schmitt is a renowned expert on tidal waters like the Potomac River, Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River. He says the transition from pre-spawn to spawn—from feeding mode to guarding mode—profoundly changes a fish’s disposition and response to baits.
"The common mistake is fishing too fast; you have to take the signs and adjust," Schmitt says. "You may have been crushing them on a Rat-L-Trap, but then they stop eating it. Well, they’ve tucked down into the nest and you have to adjust with slower presentations."
ENTER STEALTH MODE
Noise control always matters, but careless shallow-water operation can render your cast pointless before you even make it. Early arrivals to a bed often dash at the slightest disruption, while “locked-on,” committed fish may simply hold their ground and snub your offerings.
Consider that bass can be remarkably tolerant of low, steady trolling motor noise, but it’s those sudden pulses that put them on edge. Elite pro Jamie Hartman will wind drift whenever possible and spend more time sitting and looking than moving.
Push poling helps, but be careful not to bump hard bottom, scrape the gunnel or rattle the pole against the deck when raising or stowing it. As with trolling motors, pole with slow, steady advances, as nervous fish definitely feel pronounced hull wakes.
Hartman keeps the sun quartering behind him so he can see more fish without them spotting his outline. Also, when a spring breeze chops the water, Hartman turns his boat parallel to the bank to create a windbreak. A smoother surface makes it easier to spot those beds. Keep your distance, avoid dropping a shadow over the bed, and you’re good to go.