Spring has sprung.
A bass' life revolves around getting to the bedroom during this time of year. Correspondingly, the mind of a bass angler is geared to figuring out when the baby-making will commence and gearing tactics and presentations accordingly.
Sight fishermen catch some of their biggest bass of the year during the spring fling, often hand-picking targets on the nests. That can be exciting fishing for some but disconcerting to others. Some are philosophically opposed to bed fishing; others are simply frustrated by the stealth and painstaking effort required to catch fish too lovesick to feed.
But a cry of "bass on the beds" is not necessarily a mandate for push poles, Polaroid glasses and confinement to knee-deep water. Despite the magnetic attraction of bass-shaped shadows over fanned out dishes, you have far more options than you may think.
"I don't have anything against sight fishing, but I prefer to look for groups of prespawn or postspawn fish," says two-time Bassmaster Classic winner Kevin VanDam. "I'd rather find groups of fish and catch a stringer in a half-dozen casts than look for solitary fish."
Not all bass spawn at the same time, KVD emphasizes. Anytime bass are on the beds, you can bet that other groups are in a prespawn and/or postspawn condition.
History validates his thinking. While some bass were bedding in creek arms at the Southern Challenge last April, VanDam was counting coup on active bass in Lake Guntersville grass on Strike King Pro Model spinnerbaits and Series 5 Tour Grade crankbaits.
Guntersville has a huge population of fish, he explains. In theory, 40 to 50 percent of its population may spawn at peak time, drawing the bulk of anglers to the beds. Yet 15 percent of the population could still be in a prespawn condition and 35 percent in postspawn.
"The smaller percentages of fish can be plenty — more than enough to do well in a tournament if you can find them," he says. "Even that 15 percent of prespawn fish can be worth going after because they will be hungry and active and concentrated."
He recalls, too, competing on Kentucky Lake after warm, heavy rains in May had elevated lake levels 10 feet and brought bass into flooded areas. "It was the peak of the spawn, but that event was won on offshore ledges rather than looking for spawning fish spread out in flooded shallows."
HOWLING AT THE MOON
No question. When water temperatures hit the mid-60s in spring and the moon is full, a major spawn is likely to occur. But rarely, if ever, does the entire bass population bed down simultaneously.
"The data shows that a fairly small percentage of bass are actually spawning at any given time," says Ken Cook, who brings a degree in biology to his pro bass fishing career. "In one smallmouth study, the research group found that only one-third of the smallmouth population spawned in a given year."
Serious bass anglers usually target big bass, too, Cook notes. "And most big fish spawn at night and pull back quickly to the edge of the spawning flat. To get big stringers off beds is a once-a-year opportunity, and everything must be just right. I think more big fish are available around the spawning beds rather than on them."
The spawn may spread out over five or six months in parts of the South, beginning in early winter and continuing through April or May. Northern bass have a smaller window of spawning opportunity, yet even in colder climates the spawn may spread from April through June and even early July.
"One of the biggest misunderstandings about the spawn is that water temperature is the trigger," says KVD. "I've found that moon phase has a much stronger impact."
He recalls fishing Sam Rayburn Reservoir when a severe cold front pushed through, dropping water temperatures to 52 degrees. Yet the bass remained in bedding areas.
"It had been warm, and the moon was full," says VanDam. "The bass were committed to being there."
In contrast, a sudden climb in water temperatures to 72 or 74 degrees during an unseasonably warm stretch in winter or spring will not bring about a sudden spawn.
"I've caught lots of postspawn bass in the mid-60s, too, because of those big swings in temperature," he says.
"It's critical to look at the time of year and the moon phase."
THE BREAKDOWN STRATEGY
One way to sidestep spawning bass is to select waters that are either ahead of or behind the general spawning curve of area waters. Shallower, off-colored ponds and lakes heat up earlier and likely will host the earliest spawn. Correspondingly, deep, clear waters usually find spawning fish far deeper into the season.
But even on individual bodies of water the bass spawn is spread out. Two reasons govern this fact:
1) Nature prefers not to put all her eggs in one basket, so to speak. Spawning spread over several months gives fish populations a better chance of year-class survival. So do bass with different spawning tendencies — deep vs. shallow water; early vs. late.
2) The waters themselves are rarely uniform. Different portions of a lake will function like separate waters altogether.
Analyze your favorite lakes and you'll find bass at different activity levels at any given time during the spawn.
Anticipate where the active fish are likely to be and you can let bedding bass lie. In his home state of Michigan, VanDam finds bass spawning in man-made channels and shallow protected bays on natural lakes in April and witnesses spawning on the main lake a month or two later. The ongoing waves of spawners give him a choice of either prespawn or postspawn for virtually the entire spring.
A reservoir in the South is similarly composed of shallower and murkier water on the upper end and a deeper, cooler and possibly clearer lower portion.
"If spawning activity is going on in the lower reservoir, I'll look at the upper end, closer to the dirtier water where the bass have spawned already," says VanDam. "I'll look particularly to the areas the bass love to hang out on their way to their summer areas."
KVD tries to track the movement into and retreat from the spawning flat. "On a reservoir, it's often easy because the fish primarily use the creek channels," he says.
Early prespawn will find fish moving far up the creek arm following ditches and draws. To trace the postspawn retreat, he carefully follows the creek channel, starting at the back and looking for turns where bass may hold.
Later, they will be back on deeper turns and points.
"The biggest thing you are dealing with at this time of year is that the fish are moving a lot day to day," says KVD. "This frustrates the weekend angler. It's not that the fish move far. The beginning only lasts a little while before the transition to the next phase. The spawn is probably when the fish change the fastest and move the quickest."
PLAYING THE OPTIONS
Like VanDam, Tim Horton always hunts for the "mother lode." Even when bass are bedding, he prefers to target prespawn or postspawn fish.
Staging on secondary points. "I like to look for staging areas, secondary points midway or far back in a cove," says Horton, winner of the 2007 Champions Choice Elite Series event on New York's Lake Champlain. "I'm often looking for that 8- to 10-foot depth range where females group up. If grass is present, I'll look for the edge. Any form of cover is a bonus."
His bait choices are simple: a No. 6 Fat Free Shad or a Carolina rigged Yum Lizard.
"I want to cover a lot of water, so I will make four or five long casts on each point until I find fish," he says.
Rollin' on the river. Bass on big river systems like the Mississippi, Tennessee and Coosa rivers conduct much of their spawning in backwaters and creeks as well as man-made harbors. When the night is over, their instinct is to head back to the cafeteria lines on moving waters.
"The bass will look for the first current break they can find and likely will station on a secondary point," says VanDam.
On smaller rivers, the smallmouth population may spawn on the main river. "They may end up spawning in a little eddy," he says. "They may have to move only 20 feet from the spawning area to a current edge."
Tweeners. A mix of prespawn and spawning bass on a clear lake flat may mean it's time to do the swim — as in swimbait. Elite Series pro Ish Monroe found just such a situation last March at the Battle on the Border at Lake Amistad, Del Rio, Texas. He tied on a prototype Tilapia swimbait he helped develop for the Tru-Tungsten Tru-Life Swimbait series.
"Tilapia are notorious for eating bass eggs, so when bass see that bait — the action is awesome, so realistic — they just want to murder it," he says. Not only was he catching active prespawn fish, but some females were swimming up off the beds to eat it.
The options game. Lakes with multiple black bass species expand an angler's options considerably in spring.
Spotted and smallmouth bass generally spawn in cooler water temperatures than largemouth will. But that doesn't mean they will necessarily spawn earlier. Largemouth may spawn in protected areas that warm well before main lake areas, particularly on deep, clear impoundments.
"On Table Rock Lake (on the Missouri/Arkansas border), the largemouth often are done spawning when the spots and smallies are starting to go strong," says VanDam.
"And you may be better off working prespawn smallies and spotted bass while the largemouth are on the beds."
Trash talk. Ponds and small natural lakes may show less spawning diversity than larger waters. Still, not all the bass will spawn in sync, and active bass can be there for the taking even during bed time.
Tournament angler and on-the-water bass instructor Ron Urick often seeks heavy cover near a spawning area on such waters in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
"We have found active bass hiding under slop near areas where other bass are bedding," says Urick. "I like to work the frog bite first. Sometimes you catch them blowing up through the mat on the frogs. You also can make a hole in the weeds with your rod tip and vertically jig. But it's best to get the fish excited with the frog first."
Return from the nursery. Long, shallow natural lakes with expansive fertile "nursery" areas provide very predictable locations for late prespawn and early postspawn largemouth.
"Find the first docks in the first stretch of deeper water coming out of the nursery area," says northern Illinois jig specialist John Hynds. "The bass will stage on those docks, and they can be eager to hit while the bass in the nursery are still bedding down."