When is the best time of the year to catch several large bass? Generally, it is during the four weeks prior to spawning when both sexes are in their best physical shape of the year and the slightly warmer weather also initiates some forage activity. The aggressive competition for food as big bass “migrate” shallower to spawn presents a great opportunity to trophy bass anglers. The timing of the bass’ reproductive biological instincts is further influenced by their aquatic environment, the water’s geography and local weather conditions.
Bass spawning activities are not initiated at the same time in different parts of the South. For example, the pre-spawn phase will take place in the deep South (the Florida peninsula) first due to the warmer climate. At more northerly latitudes in the mid-South (Tennessee and North Carolina), the spawning cycle and movement will occur later. On different waters, even those at the same latitude, the spawn may take place at different times. Shallow, natural bodies of water will normally have an earlier spawn than super-deep, man-made impoundments. Even within individual reservoirs, the spawning process may occur at different speeds in different parts of it. Obviously, shallow areas are just going to warm up quicker than deeper waters.
The spawning process also involves various physiological stages of both the male and female bass: pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn. Briefly, the biological factors initiating the so-called “pre-spawn period” actually occur in the late fall months, when mature female bass initiates egg development. Four months or so later, the roe mass has fully developed and are simply in the gestation period. Larger bass are usually motivated by environmental factors to move shallow first and spawn ahead of smaller females, which means anglers should have a shot at trophy bass early in the pre-spawn phase.
According to fisheries biologists, bass pre-spawn behavior is greatly influenced by length of day and amount of sunlight, called “photoperiod,” and to a slightly lesser extent by water temperatures, typically between February and mid-April in the South, when water temperatures reach somewhere between 58 and 62 degrees. When temperatures reach the mid-60’s and days lengthen, the majority of females will be hovering over a bed. Locating prime areas in a lake that have warm pockets of water that vary 4 or 5 degrees over 300 yards is one way to find pre-spawners. The majority of bass do seem to spawn around a full moon but some actually spawn on the dark moon, and in moving waters or tidal waters, lunar effects are not significant.
LOCATE STAGING PRE-SPAWNERS
As the pre-spawners get ready to move shallow, they know it’s time to “bulk up” for the rigors of the spawn. Bass in a feeding mood then may briefly move in and out of shallower water. They’ll generally hold on the edge of deep water, at first, and then move into a shallow area near the spawning grounds a few weeks before going on the beds. Understand, though, that unexpected cold fronts and natural water level fluctuations from rains and drought can make finding bass difficult.
In reasonably good early spring weather, up to half of a lake’s population of big bass may be in a pre-spawn pattern that could last for up to a couple of months. Areas that warm up the quickest are usually the prime spawning places. When pre-spawners are ready to migrate to the flats, a good area to search for them is along submerged river beds in impoundments and similar types of paths such as ditches and depressions in natural lakes. Pre-spawn bass also typically move from deep water into spawning areas in a couple of phases. The “holding” areas, or better termed “staging” areas, are usually deeper than the final bedding spots bass will ultimately choose.
Bass are usually still concentrated and actively feeding while in the staging areas, and they are very susceptible to angler’s offerings. Depths of the staging areas, however, do vary in different types of waters. In Southern reservoirs, for example, staging areas usually take the form of points adjacent to a spawning flat. Prime waters can be up to 8- or 10-feet deep, depending on water clarity. The different staging areas may have occupants over a two- or three-week period, because the timing of the movements also vary. Different females will probably be moving from Staging Area 1 to Staging Area 2 at different times.
In a highly-vegetated, natural lake, Staging Area 1, for example, might be in 6 feet of water and Staging Area 2 may be only 3 or 4 feet in depth. Look for pre-spawning largemouth to move into the first area for a week or two and then on into Area 2 for a similar period, just prior to moving onto the beds in the spawning area.
SUCCESSFUL TIMING AND PRIME SPOTS TO CHECK
To find hefty pre-spawn bass, anglers should head for known spawning areas and then move to slightly deeper structures (shelves, ledges, rock points) lying adjacent to those bedding spots. Those temporary gathering points where pre-spawners congregate prior to moving to the spawning flats are often more productive in the early afternoon when waters warm. Unusually warm weather may cause bass to go shallow on “false” spawning runs. They may move up on flats and aggressively feed, though, and that’s what anglers seek. When another front hits, they move back out to the staging area, so the fish are constantly adjusting to the conditions. The smart angler must also.
Bass that are heading to spawn in the back of coves will normally be at a staging location on the adjacent points, so fish the points and ridges; the bigger spawning fish won’t be in the backs of coves for four to six weeks. The bass holding at a staging location will usually be in small groups. When they move to spawn, they will spread out along banks or in the backs of coves but usually not before. They may even be staged on a deeper, secondary ledge, if the first point off the flat is in very shallow water. Check out each.
The back areas of marinas, especially those protected by a jetty and narrow entrances, are prime areas to catch pre-spawn bass. The marina basin may have boat ramps, but the shallows are protected from outside waves. Trees in the area have usually been cleared, and shallows there normally heat up quicker than most places on the lake. Don’t overlook such spots.
Other great spots to search for pre-spawners can be found on a good topo map. Protected points and coves on the North and West banks warm up quicker than other areas due to the position of the sun in the southern hemisphere. Rivers at the headwaters of lakes can provide excellent fishing for pre-spawn bass, but high and flooded tributaries that remain so over several months can be extremely unproductive. The availability of pre-spawners early may be limited due to the river being so unstable.
Finally, forget fishing the mid-section of most lakes, with their underwater islands and long main lake points leading to deep open water areas. That’s generally the coldest part of the lake. The massive waters there warm up last, so fish them last. You’ll find the pre-spawn period to be hot or cold in terms of activity. Bass are changing. The weather is also changing, so the angler has to understand this volatile time of year, so that the action never stops ... that day.
Best Lure Choices for Pre-Spawners
Pre-spawn bass will strike a variety of baits, but choosing wisely may beef up the catch. Most successful anglers will consider the current weather conditions, including water temperature and wind variations, to help them determine lure selection for pre-spawning bass.
At this time of year, the most effective way to work most lures in general is deliberate and slow. Larger baits may increase strikes from the fat pre-spawners.
A big-bladed, flashy spinnerbait to cover maximum water is ideal for a mid-depth staging area buffeted by a surface chop. Add a split-tail eel trailer and slowly pump it along the bottom across small ridges or depressions in sparse timber or vegetation to entice the pre-spawn largemouth. Use the rod tip and slow crank to pull the spinnerbait forward and then allow it to flutter back down after the pump. Another productive method is to slow roll it just below the maximum visibility in the water column. In other words, bring it along deep enough to where you can’t see the blades turning.
On blue-bird days check out the edges of wood or vegetation with a soft plastic bait such as a worm, jerkbait or large grub-and-jig. If you are throwing a swimming lure and get a bump, be ready to flip the slower-moving jig or worm to that fish. It should be easier for the bass to catch a bait like A Band of Anglers’ new Bouncing Bucktail Jig or the 1/2-ounce Booyah Melee bladed jig, which is particularly good around bass holding tight to cover. A very effective worm is a watermelon/pearl (or green pumpkin) Yum 6-inch Dinger when rigged on a split-shot or Wacky rig.
If it is windy and overcast, pre-spawn bass may pull up on the sparse cover and hit a lipless crankbait, mid-depth jerkbait or swimbait. It’s hard to top the productivity of a 1/2-ounce, shad-colored Rat-L-Trap and it’s my “go-to” bait for “staged” bass in the early spring. Another great choice to throw is Egret Baits’ 4.5-inch, pre-rigged swimbait called the “Vudu Mullet.” The new Fatty 6-inch SpoolTek Paddle Tail Swim Bait from A Band of Anglers also should be deadly on the pre-spawners. Don’t be afraid to toss any of these baits into stickups and brush and use a stop-and-go retrieve back to the boat. Bass will often hit baits sporting prey-fish colors instinctively at this time of year because perch and other small, egg-hungry fish are skirting any beds they come across.