What's not to love about spring? After all, the fish are shallow, vulnerable and sometimes easy to catch. It's a time when the odds clearly shift in favor of fishermen — or at least it seems that way.
Sometimes left out of the equation, however, are the countless weather, water and timing factors crucial to spring success — not to mention the simple fact that most anglers can't pick and choose their days on the water.
While spring fishing can produce days that are as remarkable as they are effortless, it can also deliver hours filled with frustration. When it's supposed to be good and it's not, even the best-laid plans can go for naught.
This reality is not lost on those in the professional ranks, anglers who know all too well that heroes can quickly become zeroes in the fickle months of spring. For guys like Curt Lytle, Pete Gluszek and Ron Shuffield, dependability and consistency in spring fishing comes not in patterns or lures, but the areas they choose to fish.
It should be noted that a "dependable" spring area is not necessarily a "tournament-winning" one. As Shuffield remarked about the now-famous 2001 Florida Lake Toho event where Dean Rojas decimated the all-time BASS catch records, "it had never happened before, and may never happen again."
Clearly, the prime spawning zones in any impoundment seasonally produce impressive catches, but they frequently lack that all-important X-factor of dependability. The bass move up, the bass move out — and anyone who can't be on the water all the time may forever be playing a game of catch-up.
With springtime windows of opportunities opening and closing faster than a used car salesman's mouth, any strategy that depends solely on bed fish is a bad bet. To have any hope for dependable spring action, there has to be a Plan B.
A fisherman doesn't qualify for 12 CITGO Bassmaster Classics without understanding the concept of consistency. For Arkansas' Ron Shuffield, dependability in the spring season doesn't hinge on any one pattern, because the fish are moving too much to make anything consistent for very long.
Instead, his focus is always on finding a tributary that offers a formidable amount of flat water. In particular, he looks for points created by the flats that are closest to deeper water.
Although Shuffield will quickly check shoreline areas to see if bass have moved shallow, he is most concerned about locating areas in that transitional zone somewhere between the creek channel and the bank.
"Most people will go to the shoreline, because as fishermen, we like to see what we're throwing at. You can catch them one day when they're active and aggressive, and then the next day catch fewer or smaller fish and wonder what happened to all the big ones," notes Shuffield, who generally concentrates his efforts on the back one-third of the tributary.
"From what I've heard, the spawning ritual is a 24- to 48-hour thing. Then they're right back out and recovering. If you can go up and actually see those bass and sight fish for them, that can be dependable," he says. But very often, it's not. Instead, he recommends locating the very first breakline away from the shoreline with any kind of structure on it."
Shuffield's reasoning is quite basic: These transition zones will hold fish moving up to spawn far longer than will the shallows. Moreover, these zones keep replenishing themselves, and they often hold a better quality of fish.
The very best of these is the spot where the point of the flat drops off into slightly deeper water. Ideally, the top of the flat would be in 5 to 10 feet of water, with the breakline falling off no more than 5 feet. Add some drains or depressions leading into the flat, and you're almost there. The crowning touch would be some sort of grass, brush or rock structure.
Where fishermen can be led astray, cautions Shuffield, is expecting to find much action between these isolated patches of cover or structure and the shoreline. Quite often, the flat may be featureless between the outside zone and the bank — a situation that often deters shallow fishermen from venturing out.
For Shuffield, this outside approach is made for crankbaiting. He likes a medium running Fat Free Shad (citrus or red crawfish pattern) that will hit bottom in 8 to 12 feet of water (the deepest he'll look for these fish). His backup to the hard baits is a Carolina rigged lizard with a short, 18-inch leader, a tactic that works especially well for bass that are relating to the bottom in lakes without grass.
"When they quit biting in these outside zones, you have to go inside," he explains. "This is what makes it such a dependable pattern. It's not a matter of the fish moving out. Those fish only go one direction — to the shoreline." Shuffield depends on these transition zones when the spawn begins, giving them progressively less emphasis as the spawning activity subsides.
"This is why I like to first determine whether they're biting on the breakline. If I catch them outside and they quit, then I will go to the shoreline. There's nowhere else for them to go."
At the core of Curt Lytle's springtime dependability is this simple logic: It's easier to catch fish if you put a lure in front of them. This straightforward approach revolves around the fact that if you have less area to cover, the odds of placing a bait in the strike zone are greatly improved.
To facilitate his strategy, the Virginia pro focuses his springtime attentions on shorter cuts, coves and pockets near the main lake that branch off larger creeks. If he had his druthers, Lytle would choose a pocket (or a series of them) in the first mile of the creek (closest to the main lake), ones with adequate shallow cover and a depth of 5 feet or so.
"In a reservoir, you have long coves and shorter coves. The longer coves are where the fish will do the majority of their spawning. However, the shorter coves near the main lake are far more dependable. These are the places where the bass show up first in the spring," counsels Lytle.
"The short pockets are where the fish spawn first and last. They don't spawn in the big numbers, as they do in the long creeks, but they spawn earlier and later. Actually, I look for them to show up in what I call the 'pre-prespawn,' when the water is 45 to 50 degrees."
Although these short pockets and coves may not hold the huge concentrations of bass found in the backs of major spawning zones, the ones that do frequent these areas are more compressed, and therefore easier targets.
Perhaps even more crucial to spring dependability is the stability of these short zones under adverse weather conditions.
"If the fish pull out or suspend in short pockets, they don't go nearly as far. If they do suspend, they go out to the edge of the point. If you're in the back of a long cove and a cold front hits, those fish are either going to hunker down or move out a long way, making it much more difficult to locate them.
"Fishing in the backs of the creeks will get wiped out by muddy water. The water clarity in main lake areas is generally more stable."
The lure progression Lytle uses in targeting these short pockets is dominated in the early going (his "pre-prespawn") by suspending jerkbaits, backed by lipless or flat-sided, tight, wiggling crankbaits under cloudy conditions or tough bites. As water temperatures push past 60 degrees, the shift is to spinnerbaits, with jigs serving as the outpitch for cold front disruptions. In the heat of the spawn, Lytle switches to soft plastics, such as the Berkley Power Hog, which eventually give way to floating worms and topwaters in the postspawn period.
"Remember, if the weather is really ideal and the fish are feeding hot and heavy, the short coves will probably not be as productive as the big, long ones. We're not talking dependability here; we're talking tournament finishes. But as a great starting point or as a backup area, these short coves are the best places to get a limit."
Dependability is where you find it, and sometimes it may be opposite of where you're looking. In spring, fishermen often fall into the habit of keying on high spots in the bottom contour, rather than seeking out the ruts and depressions.
Whether it's a trough, drain, ditch or depression — no matter how subtle — New Jersey's Pete Gluszek seeks them out. In spring, these hollowed-out zones leading up to or on top of the flat itself serve not only as bass highways, but also as holding areas for big females that are moving up.
"The first thing to identify is a good spawning area. If it doesn't have adequate bottom consistency to support a spawn, it won't hold any fish. Then, it's basic sonar detection. I've caught fish stacked up in drains or ditches that have a 10-foot break from the flat to the bottom of the ditch. I've also caught them in depressions with a 6-inch break; really nothing more than a subtle, slightly deeper area," remarks Gluszek.
"Once you find the right spawning area, you work backward. Do you have an old creek channel running into the flat? Or a drain that leads up to this thing? Is one section a little deeper than another? I just back out from the shoreline and look for bottom contour changes."
Of course, not all depressions are created equal, and even if several lead into a flat, says Gluszek, the majority of the fish will use only one. In water that is generally 10 feet deep or shallower, a sonar search usually only turns up the contour change — not the presence of fish. The finding comes in the fishing.
In most cases, Gluszek relies heavily on the coverage and triggering ability of lipless crankbaits, often switching between three or four different colors and sizes ranging from ¼ to ¾ ounce. Although a ½-ounce model is standard fare, the importance of alternating lures becomes critical when a concentration of fish is located. This is particularly true in lakes with solid bass populations — a situation that congregates bass in these depressions as they vie for the limited spawning zones of the shallows.
However, Gluszek warns that these "depression" bass are highly transient in nature and hold in these areas only briefly, when spawning conditions are right. The same is true when spawners retreat to the depressions in response to a cold front. They'll pause for a while, but only until improving conditions force them back up, or worsening weather moves them farther out.
"Since these depressions attract staging fish, they're going to move when the water temperature gets right. You have to recognize when it's happening and be prepared to go up on those flats after them.