June 16, 2020
By Mike Pehanich
It's summertime, and the food chain throughout the Upper Midwest is in glorious bloom. Nature hosts her own version of a fireworks display when white bass, stripers, largemouths and smallmouths round up baitfish and force them to the surface. The whitewater celebration that follows topside can leave lasting memories.
My favorite such moment, by far, occurred on Illinois' Lake Shelbyville decades ago when a mixed gathering of predators, led by a population of zealous white bass, began herding shad across the lower portion of the reservoir. On consecutive mornings, white bass, along with opportunistic largemouths, kept the lake's surface frothy as they repeatedly forced thick schools of small shad to the surface for a mad feast.
Mesmerized by the scene, I turned my trolling motor on high and aimed my bow toward the action in desperate hope of cashing in on the frenzy with one of my topwater lures. I caught impressive white bass—up to a hefty two pounds—on the white Heddon Tiny Torpedo I heaved toward the mayhem, plus several good largemouths on curlytail jigs worked below the commotion.
Finding fish is never a problem when bass and other hungry predators churn a lake's surface.
"Baitfish can't keep a secret," says Bill Dance, legendary bass angler and host of Bill Dance Outdoors. "To catch bass consistently, you must figure out those secrets. Bass spend much of their lives looking for food, and shad and other minnows of this type spend most of their time away from the shoreline. But the lion's share of the schooling and feeding activity takes place beneath the surface. The action we see at the surface is just a small percentage of that summer feeding activity."
Dance looks for thick balls of baitfish on his sonar screen as he simultaneously scans the surface for schooling action.
"Shad and other baitfish bunch into schools as a means of survival," he says. "By joining tightly together, they create what looks like a very big fish."
Still, surface feeding invariably provides the most exhilarating action. Large schools of oily baitfish, like shad, frequently leave an oily trail, or "shad slick" as some anglers refer to it, in their wake. Often bass position themselves downwind from the baitfish to track these slicks and more easily follow the schools.
“It's better to cast into the wind when you've found fish schooling," Dance says."“You don't want to pull through the school of baitfish."
When he is within casting distance of a feeding school, Dance aims his casts to the outside edges of the baitfish mass.
“Bass will attack individual prey rather than crash through a school of baitfish," he says."“They choose to attack isolated or disabled or different looking baitfish. An isolated baitfish that is injured stands out even more."
Schooling activity is no time to anguish over which lure in the tackle box best mimics the forage.
“I've never been a big believer in ‘matching the hatch' with a perfect 2 ½-inch shad-color lure," Dance says."“I want a lure that's bigger or smaller or a different color. Or I'll throw the lure away from the school or work it in a way that makes it stand out."
In the upper Midwest, lakes with a healthy forage base of shad provide the most dramatic schooling action. In these northern climes, prolific gizzard shad generally set the table, though threadfin occupy some power plant lakes and reservoirs seeded seasonally with this smaller shad species.
Although balls of shad seem to send bass and other predators into the wildest frenzy, perch, bluegill and other sunfish, as well as other minnow species, also draw schooling action. Often, extended schooling activity indicates a strong hatch of the target forage that season.
CATCH ‘EM TOP TO BOTTOM
Schooling activity can occur throughout the summer, and the wise angler does well to have multiple rods ready for such action—especially on waters with a reputation for heated surface activity.
I've scored with surface lures ranging from Heddon Tiny Torpedos and Rebel Pop-Rs to buzzbaits and a wide array of walking baits. While topwater lures seem the obvious and most exciting option for frantic schooling action, they aren't always the most effective choice. Often, the biggest white bass, stripers, largemouths and smallmouths keep low during the surface frenzy to feast on the wounded prey of the attacking schools above them.
Fluke-style baits on weighted and unweighted hooks mimic the slow descent of a stunned or crippled baitfish. Swimbaits like the Strike King Rage Shad or Berkley Power Swimmer serve similarly. If state laws permit, try running swimbaits in aggregate on an umbrella rig.
A lipless crankbait is always a sound choice, too. Jigging spoons like the C.C. Spoon from Cotton Cordell, or blade baits like the SteelShad play a similar role. Their weight provides the advantage of added casting distance and quick descent.
Put summer schooling on the to-do list for increasing your angling education this summer, and be ready for some of the season's hottest action.