There comes a time during late spring when all anglers face a dilemma:
Do they stalk the shallows in search of late spawning bass, or move to offshore structure and target fish settling into early summer patterns?
Indeed, poking around the banks for bedding fish will usually produce a few tardy spawners, and catching those settling onto summer hangouts might be easier than fooling with finicky postspawners.
But as Kelly Jordon and Tim Horton demonstrated in the 2002 CITGO Bassmaster Tour event on Lake Guntersville, a potentially better option exists.
Find the 'tweeners and fill the livewell.
That's what the two cagey pros did during last year's April event in Alabama, providing textbook examples of how anglers can overcome overlapping seasons. Jordon won and Horton finished fifth on patterns that principally focused on spawned-out females in transition between shallows and summer haunts.
"The absolute best late spring offshore fishing can occur a few days after the bass first come off the beds," says Horton. "It can be a challenge to find the key areas, but when you do, the bass holding there can be caught. They don't stay on those places for a long period of time, but they are there in big numbers."
The prime spots will replenish themselves daily. Fish are moving a lot, adds Horton, and they're bunching up. He believes bass want to school immediately after the spawn, and the groups of fish on transitional areas can become quite large.
"The first movement to the transition areas is a big one," he notes. "That's when the big females have dumped their eggs and leave the area."
Not all the fish spawn at once, of course, so the process is ongoing.
Transition spots may produce sporadically, so they're always worth checking.
"I know to look for 'in-between' areas when I can't catch fish on spawning flats or the summer structure," Horton explains. "This pattern may only last for two or three weeks, but it's one that goes unnoticed by a lot of anglers."
An equally important consideration, he adds, is that not all bass in a reservoir spawn in the backs of creeks. In fact, he believes a lot of fish spawn on the small pockets of the main lake.
Postspawn bass vacate spawning grounds in search of some subtle, secondary structure between bedding areas and primary summer spots. The sweet spots are generally deeper than spawning flats, but not as deep as the main lake structure they soon will call home. Cover certainly makes a difference, but the change in bottom characteristics gives the fish something to relate to. When they move off to chase baitfish, says Horton, they want a sanctuary nearby.
"For example, the sweet spot may be in 5- to 6-foot water that tapers to 10 or 11 feet, rather than the sharp ledge that drops into a major creek or river channel," explains Horton. "Sometimes you can see the bass on your electronics, but in most cases, you simply have to put down the trolling motor and go fishing along those ridges until you find them."
The distance that bass travel to staging areas varies from lake to lake and depends largely upon water clarity. The clearer the water, the farther they move, Horton explains.
"On stained or dirty water systems, like a river, they may not move far," he offers. "But on northern lakes or the Tennessee River lakes bass are going to move a lot faster. They seem to be in a bigger hurry to get off those flats."
Finding fish in 'tweener spots becomes a matter of knowing where they're spawning, how they got there and where they're going when they're done, says Jordon. That's the strategy he used to find his hot spot on Guntersville, and one that would be applicable to other waters as well.
"I had never been there before, but when I saw this area on the map, I said to myself, 'That's where they ought to be,' " he explains. "It took me awhile to figure out how to catch them and precisely where they were holding. But when I did, I knew I had something special."
His topo map revealed a pocket on the backside of a big flat that had ditches and creeks winding toward the main channel. Those "lanes" all led into a section of the lake best known for producing good summertime fishing.
"Basically, you want to know where most of the fish are caught in the summer, find an area where they spawn and look at everything in between," he describes. "Once you know how bass get from A to B, you've narrowed the search."
At Guntersville, Jordon ran to the back of a pocket adjacent to the flat and saw both bedding and cruising bass. He began fishing his way out of the pocket, following a creek that showed only a slight drop in depth from the rest of the area. Many other competitors in the area overlooked it.
"Again, that's why you have to really pay attention to your electronics and notice the subtle changes," he insists. "The water dropped from 4 to 6 feet and 5 to 7 feet farther out. That was their trail between the main lake structure and the pocket."
In addition to catching spawned-out females, he caught a few prespawners that still contained eggs.
"These kinds of places also will serve as prespawn staging areas," he notes. "If you remember the places you caught them earlier in the spring, they're worth checking once the spawn has peaked."
Jordon tracked the trail with lipless crankbaits and spinnerbaits, sweeping the area with hopes of finding fish or a bottom change the fish were using.
"The thing about this system is that the spot doesn't become obvious until you find it," he explains. "That's why you have to cover a lot of water with confidence, knowing that the fish are going to be somewhere between A and B."
The grass was key at Guntersville. He found a thick bed of milfoil that proved to be a resting or staging area between the river and the pocket. It was the last deep spot with abundant cover, and close to the ditch.
"It was about 20 yards by 20 yards, but the concentration of fish were on the points of the grass in the deepest water," he describes. "Again, I had to fish the area and study it to learn that, and then it became obvious."
He also located smaller clumps of grass farther into the lake, but along the ditch. Those, he explains, serve as additional holding areas for fish that moved farther out.
"It was like a place they jumped to after leaving the larger grassbed," he offers.
The absolute key to finding transition areas is to remember that bass follow contours when on the move. If the lake doesn't have ditches or channels leading from the spawning coves, then a stumprow, weedline or breakline will suffice.
Points provide another viable option.
"Channels are my favorite, but they also are more difficult to fish," says Jordon. "Everybody fishes points, but if you can find the ones coming out of a great spawning area, fish are going to use them when they're on the move."
On nonreservoir lakes, Horton says he's found transitional bass using changes in the bottom.
"I've seen this at Thousand Islands, Lake St. Clair and Champlain," he recalls. "A large sand flat may extend far offshore and then suddenly change to gravel or be covered with shells. That's going to hold more crawfish or baitfish, and bass will use it to feed and rest before moving into deeper water."
On lakes without ditches or channels, both largemouth and smallmouth bass will use depth changes and points leading from spawning coves as migration routes to summer areas. They will hold temporarily on bottom changes, such as gravel or shell beds, weedbeds or rockpiles located between bedding areas and the main lake. Those located on points are even better, as the bass use those points as highway routes to and from the seasonal areas. The clearer the water, the deeper the fish will be.
There are periods when postspawn bass aren't overly aggressive, so you will need to experiment with presentations that keep the bait in the fish's face longer. At Guntersville, Jordon had his best success by winding a spinnerbait slowly through the milfoil and snapping it free when he hit the grass.
Horton used a similar presentation with a Cordell Spot lipless crankbait, but switched to a spinnerbait when the fish seemed a little edgy.
Carolina rigs are effective on all bass and provide another slow, tantalizing approach to coaxing strikes from bass that ignore fast moving lures. Although lizards tend to be the preferred lure for dragging, French fry or fluke-style baits can be deadly options.
"If you're confident you're fishing an area where these transitional fish should be, keep experimenting with lures until you find the one they want that day," says Jordon. "Keep fine-tuning the presentation until you're dialed into the program. Once you figure out where the fish are holding, catching them can be easy."
Smallmouth living in deep, clear lakes such as those in the Northeast require a slightly different approach, says Pete Gluszek of New Jersey.
Like largemouth, they will spawn in protected areas but prefer offshore main lake haunts in deeper water.
"They still use the coves and bays, but may spawn in 10 to 20 feet of water, depending upon the clarity and amount of cover there," he explains. "They're looking for places out of the main current, and where the weather and wind least affect them."
Without ditches and channels to use as highways for moving to and from spawning areas, bass may rely upon subtle depth changes or a weed/rock edge.
"Ideally, you want to find the spawning areas with weedbeds that drop into deeper water or provide a connecting lane to a summer haunt," he explains. "I've caught summer smallmouth 100 feet deep on some lakes, so depth is relative to the lake."
Also, he adds, smallmouth are more edge-oriented creatures, rarely opting to pull into the grassbeds the way largemouth do. For that reason, he looks for transitional bass using the outer edges and the points of submerged vegetation.
"The beauty of smallmouth is they never lose their aggressiveness," he explains. "A largemouth can be tough to catch off a bed and may go through a few days of not eating after the spawn. That's not the case with smallies."
For smallmouth, Gluszek says topwaters and jerkbaits can be deadly when the muscular brown fish are on the move.
"The fish are beginning to look for baitfish, and they will come a long way off bottom to hit surface baits," he explains. "A real telling sign is any kind of surface activity. If you see that, you better tie one on."
His favorite is a Tiny Torpedo, noting that it best mimics the sound of baitfish scattering on the surface.