Understanding the Connection Between Bass and Threadfin Shad Baitfish

The old saying — find the baitfish, find the bass — has merit no matter where or when you fish, but it takes on special significance in waters inhabited by threadfin shad

The largemouths had found a perfect ambush site—a bottleneckbetween a large, shallow cove and deeper, more-open water in the main lake. Whenthreadfin shad moved from the bay into the lake near dawn each day, thousandsof them crowded into one enormous, compact school. The bass followed. And whenthe shad hit the bottleneck, the feeding frenzy began.

Sitting in a boat nearby, I watched the drama unfold. Itstarted slowly—a ripple here, a ripple there, on the lake’s mirror-likesurface. Shad broke the surface, exploding like silvery shrapnel in everydirection. There was a swirl beneath the school, then another swirl a bitfarther off. More shad erupted to our left, and another school behind us. Moreswirls, more shad, and more and more and more.

My fishing companion launched a shad-imitation topwaterplug. When it landed, he twitched it with his rod tip, and blam! A bass was on.

I launched my own attack, casting a shallow-diving,shad-colored crankbait toward the frothy water. It, too, was quickly attacked.

My friend landed his fish first, a 5-pound largemouth. Hereleased it, then cast again. Once more, there was a powerful, almostinstantaneous strike, and he was battling another bruiser.

My fish was a twin to my friend’s. I released it, then castagain to a burst of shad. When the next bass smashed my lure, it almost yankedthe rod from my hand. It was smaller than the first but provided plenty ofexcitement as it tailwalked to the boat. When I swung it over the transom, itburped shad all over my shoes. Its belly was stuffed to capacity with 2-inchthreadfins.

During the next quarter hour, we caught and released fourbass apiece between 3 and 5 pounds. The following morning, at the same time,the scene was reenacted.

“Find the baitfish and you’ll findthe bass.” That old saying has merit no matter where or when you fish, but it takeson special significance in waters inhabited by threadfin shad. These smallbaitfish dramatically influence largemouth bass location, behavior and overallhealth. Where threadfins go, bass follow.

Threadfin Shad Facts

Fisheries biologists have described the threadfin shad (Dorosoma petenense) as the “perfectforage fish,” and, indeed, it comes close. It favors calm, relatively shallowwater. It is prolific but doesn’t outgrow its place in the food chain. Itrarely exceeds 4 inches long. The threadfin’s larger cousin, the gizzard shad,is prone to cause problems in fertile bodies of water because it quickly growsso large (8 inches or more) that most predators cannot eat it.

The threadfin’s biggest limitation is its intolerance ofcold water. Large die-offs occur if the water temperature falls below 45 degrees.Nevertheless, many state fisheries departments deem threadfins so important toa lake’s food chain, they stock them despite winterkill problems.

Tracking Schools

Threadfin schools sometimes move several miles daily, usuallynear the water’s surface where their primary food source, plankton, isabundant. To catch the bass that follow them, you must know when and where shadwill turn up.

During cold weather, threadfins may be hard to find becausethey stay in deep water offshore. From late spring through early fall, however,shad typically hold near shoreline cover each night to avoid predators. Neardawn and dusk, you can find them around green weedbeds, brushpiles, standingtimber and other cover before they move to offshore reaches to feed.

As a general rule, warm-weather threadfins abandon shallowcover near dawn and move offshore to feed on floating blooms of plankton. The shaddisperse then, feeding mostly in open water from dawn till dusk. The threadfinsthen regroup and return to shoreline cover near dusk, often following the sametravel route they used in the morning. This is why, in some bodies of water,bass fishing is good in shallow water early and late each day, but the actionends when the sun is up. The bass are following the shad during their dailyinshore-offshore migration.

Knowing these things should help you zero in on the shadschools using sonar or visual clues. You may be able to see shad spurting fromthe water as the bass chase them, or see swirls as predators and prey interact.On a fish-finder, a school of threadfins usually appears as a compact band ofpixels one to several feet thick. Bass appear as scattered individuals aroundor beneath the shad, seldom more than half a dozen or so together. Unlike othershad predators such as white bass and hybrid stripers, black bass rarely formcompact schools with large numbers of individuals. They are driven more by acompetitive nature than herding instinct, targeting individual shad or smallgroups that venture away from the main school.

Lures and Techniques

With experience, you can learn to follow the shad schoolsand catch bass around them throughout the day. The best lures, as you mightexpect, are those resembling shad in size, shape, color and action. But thisencompasses a wide variety of bass-catchers, everything from spoons andtailspinners to jigs and crankbaits.

Trolling a deep-running, shad-imitation plug works great forcatching bass when no surface activity is visible. Many spoons also resembleshad, and on hot days in particular, you can swim one through an offshoreschool and work it with stops and starts sure to entice bass. A white grubimpaled on a leadhead jig often produces a surprising number of strikes, aswill a short, soft-plastic jerkbait in a shad color.

During peak feeding periods, bass often injure the baitfishin their rush to get to the head of the cafeteria line, then return to pick offwounded fish on or near the surface. Fishing with topwater lures is a sure wayto get a hit under these circumstances, with “walk-the-dog” stickbaits and chuggersbeing top producers. When the surface-feeding bass sound again, try temptingthem with a bucktail jig, a tailspinner or even a small spinnerbait.

Ambush Points andCurrent

Bass attack compressed shad schools swimming throughbottlenecks or moving over obstacles such as humps. If you can find such spots,you’ll enjoy excellent fishing opportunities both morning and evening asthreadfins migrate between shallows and open-water haunts.

One way to pinpoint ambush sites is using sonar to checkareas where you see surface activity. You’ll often find bottom features such assubmerged points and islands that concentrate passing shad. Or you may findthat shad are following a creek channel, ditch or other feature where they canbe found during a particular time of day. Either way, you’ve narrowed the widerange of bassing sites to a few choice spots.

Threadfin shad have another habit that may help observantanglers catch bass. They often concentrate where there’s an increase in currentflow. They’re particularly fond of creek mouths where smaller streams emptyinto rivers or reservoirs. But don’t overlook smaller features such as drainageditches and storm-drain pipes. The best sites have a good flow ofwell-oxygenated water pouring into the main body of water.

Bass at these sites hold around adjacent cover features andpick off straggling shad. By working the cover thoroughly with the appropriateshad-imitation lures, you’re almost sure to catch some nice largemouths.

Every bass angler should learn more about threadfin shad andtheir attraction for bass. “Find the baitfish and you’ll find the bass” iscertainly true in waters where threadfins and largemouths live together.

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