Wisps of white trailed across the sky. In the crescent between the bends of the river, the tall grass was still, save for turkeys and a blacktail deer.
The river had dropped, but it was four feet higher than it would have been in a normal spring. We slid into a shallow bay, green with algae tresses. Todd Harrington hoped the smallmouth bass would look toward the sky.
He handed me a seven-foot rod rigged with a secret Japanese topwater bait that could have been a stunt double for Casper the Friendly Ghost. He passed a similar rig to Kelly Pyke and to Brad Hester, a setup rigged with a five-inch white plastic.
In the gunnels, we had options: Kelly's fly rod, with an orange Clouser and another rig with a Gary Yexley jig.
Bass spawn in the spring, but spring was late. There were a few fish left on the beds. On the braided Power Pro, the friendly ghost with red hooks sailed 60 yards and splashed down in 2 feet of water. I cranked it and saw the lure kick at the surface. I paused it and a bass climbed on. Moments later, Kelly danced her first smallie.
Across the river, the eastern shore was in shadow. We threw our baits as close as we dared to the bank.
Bass often hug the banks to ambush their prey: crayfish, leeches and smaller fish. All morning, Harrington preached the six-inch rule. "If you can cast your lure six inches from the water's edge, you're going to catch way more fish."
We cast into the trees, then cast too short, but we did it right often enough to have a dozen fish each by lunch. But this trip wasn't about numbers of 8- to 10-inch shakers; it was about big fish.
The Clouser produced bass for Kelly and the white topwaters were consistent. Brad's weightless plastic produced larger fish, but I guessed the Yexley jig would tempt up a bass that could be measured in pounds, not inches.
As temperatures warm, smallmouth bass transition through the stages of pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn. Wherever you prospect for smallmouth bass, you can anticipate their moods based on the run-off, the cycle of the moon and the temperature of the water.
Big K Ranch guide Todd Harrington spends a lot of time on the water. In the 2011 season, he spent 117 days targeting bass. April is one of his favorite months because it gives his clients a shot at big fish. "They're heavy with eggs, they're feeding and they haven't spawned yet. That's why I get so excited about fishing in April. We had a day where every fish we got was in the 4 1/2- to 6-pound range. You can get a couple days a season like that and it's going to happen in April," Harrington said.
The moon plays a big part in the plan. "There are two factors I really notice. It seems that the bass will move up to spawn on the full moon in mid-April to mid-May. I can almost guarantee they will be up on the spawning beds. It doesn't mean they have spawned, but they are in the transition. When you have that full moon in late-April, you can go back day after day and find fish up and around the spawning areas. The other thing is the bass don't bite as good on the full moon. Especially in the mornings, after feeding all night, they're just lethargic and not that interested. It will pick up in the afternoons."
Harrington carries a thermometer. "Water temperature is always the key. I like to start fishing when it is 45 degrees and on the rise. I know I will only get a certain amount of fish, maybe 10 or 12, but they will be really quality, trophy fish. When the water is 45 to 50, it is ideal for pre-spawn. If it gets warmer, the small fish come into play. The interesting thing: You can go to a spot and it might be clear enough to see or not see fish. You can go there in the morning and not see a fish and go in the afternoon and catch 20 in one spot. You can go there the next day and catch 20, 30 or 40 fish and they are different fish. There are a lot of bass moving in and out and new bass, which makes it good for us when we go back day after day."
Crayfish start getting more active when the water warms. Harrington's favorite lure is a crawdad-colored square-billed crankbait. "The tight wiggle is what the big females prefer. My personal favorite is the Luhr Jensen Speed Trap, but it seems like every company makes a good shallow- or medium-diving crankbait. If the water is dirty, I use brighter colors."
ON THE SPAWNING BEDS
The game changes when the big females start sweeping out their beds "Last year, the spawning lasted for a month and a half. We had rain and high water that washed them out and they came back. The big fish came first and then the medium fish came next. This year, we may see sporadic spawning through June. And it could go from the end of April through June, but the bulk will spawn in May."
"Most people want to go into the spawning area and throw a tube or a Senko or a bright-colored plastic on the nest and shake it. I have been having a lot of fun and success using a topwater or a swimbait. You have to start casting before you get over them and surprise them with something different. You'll get some amazing blowups. They're going to see it, because they're only 3- to 5-feet deep."
Another bait that can pay off is a rubber-legged jig. "Big jigs are often forgotten in the smallmouth world. Throw a big old jig in there and you can feel the bottom and know what's going on. Sometimes with plastics you don't get as good a feel."
There comes a day when the spawn is effectively over. "You know it if you can see the beds and the fish aren't there. For whatever reason, I have a hard time finding the big females after they spawn for about two weeks," Harrington said. "When I stop getting big females and start getting all males, I know it's over."
For Harrington, post-spawn is topwater time. Now, the water temperature is in the high-50s to mid-60s. "I like to start with soft jerkbaits. The fish are up against the edges and you want to cast right up to the bank. The fish are starting to feed pretty hard. This is the time of the year when you're going to catch much higher numbers than you have been catching. You can catch them on top and right off the bank," Harrington said.
It is the time of year when you can get a lot of fish, but you have to make longer drifts and cover more water. "The longer drifts you make now, the more fish you catch."
Our day on the river in early June marked the last of the spawn and a switch to summer tactics.
Where the river turned left at a rocky outcropping, we stopped for sandwiches. Harrington and Quintin Magee set up chairs. Brad Hester and Eli Pyke opened the coolers. Here the water was deep before it made its turn. Smallmouth were stacked along the ledge. I grabbed the jig rod and headed for a shallow bay out of the main current.
At the water's edge, I spooked two 12-inchers. On the second cast, I cranked hard, rather than let it settle into the ledges where I'd lose it for sure. A fish ticked the bait. I knew the jig would get hammered on my next cast or I'd spook every fish in the hole. I threw to the far side of the channel and ripped it back. Tentacles and claws in motion suggested a protein payoff.
As the skirted bait passed over a dark channel, a dozen fish streaked out of the way and a big dark shape pounded the jig. When she felt the steel, she burned 20 yards of line off the reel. Two more times, she ripped away. Close to hand, she thrashed and coughed up a 5-inch squawfish.
Harrington measured the fish -- a quarter of an inch over 21 -- and weighed it. Five pounds even; by more than half a pound, my biggest smallmouth ever. We watched her shoot back to green water.
Clouds drifted across the sun and the fish looked to the sky. In a narrow back channel, I tossed the jig again. A bass saw the bait in the air. When it was still 3 feet above the water, the fish streaked to the splash and inhaled the jig on the drop.
At the end of the afternoon, Eli hopped out of the boat and walked down the bank to look for fish on the spawning beds. The spawners were all but gone. Instead, he saw minnows in the dark ovals washed out of the gravel. It was a sign. Our day was done, but the post-spawn was on.
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