2015 Bassin' The Baitfish Spawn
May 07, 2015
Compared to its cousin the smallmouth, some anglers regard largemouth bass as slothful by nature, disdainful of unnecessary exertion. But in truth, this species excels at filling their bellies without a lot of effort.
Adult largemouths spend most of their lives looking to maximize a moment, rather than investing in long periods of stalking and pursuit. That's why they often focus on baitfish spawns — windows of opportunity when prey is abundant and vulnerable. Bass need only locate the breeding grounds, stake out their quarry, and strike when opportunities arise. Important spawns include bluegill (bream) and yellow perch, along with schooling species like threadfin and gizzard shad, blueback herring, alewives, and shiners. Regional variations exist, but a handful of principles provide a foundation from which to craft a bassin' strategy.
Concentrated Bait: Spawning implies aggregation, so as prey numbers rise, so does feeding efficiency. And unlike the fall baitfish migrations, bass don't have to chase moving schools. They simply target active breeding areas.
Distraction: Forage species focused on procreation are easy pickings. Moreover, bass are more apt to drop their guard and pay less attention to approaching boats and bite more aggressively in those flurries.
Shallow Pattern: As spawning for most species takes place near the shoreline or along shallow cover, it's easier for bass to corral their prey and easier for anglers to locate fish and quickly catch them. Bassmaster Elite pro Kevin Hawk notes that the blueback herring spawn in southeastern reservoirs stalls these high-strung baitfish whose fleet-finned ways make them hard to follow in summer and fall. Feeding bluebacks almost always have bass under them, but anglers lament the frustration of casting to them — by the time your lure lands, the bluebacks are long gone. During the spring spawning season, however, Hawk says they gather in tighter areas that bass find.
Spawning fish generally need hard or at least solid surfaces for eggs to adhere. For shad and alewives, the common sites include docks (fixed or floaters), sea walls, riprap, natural rock, and dense grasslines. FLW pro J.T. Kenney says he looks for shad by pulling into a flat pocket at first light, shutting down his outboard, and listening. Sounds of bait flipping and bass busting guide him from there.
Hawk finds that spawning bluebacks often remain offshore, but gather in shallow spots like the saddle between an island and an adjacent bar. With these schooling species, spawning generally occurs early in the morning. Sunrise plus an hour or two is your window, so don't tarry.
Bluegills, in contrast, aren't tied to early mornings. "Bluegills may spawn from dawn 'til dusk and they tend to go hard on a full moon," Kenney says. "The earliest spring spawners tend to be bigger, but in southern waters, you can find breeding colonies all summer." Moreover, male sunfish clear disc-shaped depressions in sandy bottoms. Often clustered in honeycomb fashion, these spawning colonies stand out to bass and bass anglers.
"Look for transitions from one spawning season to another," he says. "When you stop seeing shad flipping in the mornings, it's time for bluegills to start bedding." Wes Porak, biologist at Florida's Conservation Center, adds, "Bluegills and other sunfish, along with tilapia, spawn spring into fall, so their young are available for small bass the following spring."
Largemouths also focus on sunfish spawning in northern waters, but Connecticut guide and tournament pro Paul Mueller points out that the bedding season is far shorter there, due to a late spring and onset of cold weather in September. In all latitudes, though, bream beds showcase a different side of largemouth bass personality. Bassmaster Elite pro Gerald Swindle of Alabama says largemouths behave differently when targeting schooling baitfish like shad, versus bed-sitters like bluegill. Duration of availability seems to be the determinant here. "When you watch a bass's mood when he's on a bream bed, he reminds me of a shark — always circling," Swindle says. "He's not always in a feeding mood, but he's constantly casing the joint like he's going to rob it."
"Bream are not going anywhere," Kenney notes, "so bass are more cautious and less likely to make a mistake. Bass may not feed all day, but they hang around the edges of bream beds and when they opportunity arises, they can dart up and grab one. Bass bide their time and target weak or injured fish that look vulnerable."
Since largemouths spawn shortly before bluegills begin bedding, this food source satisfies their need for replenishment. As an aside, Porak says that golden shiners, a common bass prey, frequently spawn in bass and sunfish nests. "Male bass sometimes even provide parental care for shiner fry and eggs along with their own young and bass guard them as well," he says. "Bass protect their nests from predators, and shiners sometimes sneak onto the nest."
During a shad spawn, in contrast, bass are easier to catch because they know they have to feed quickly. They're more apt to strike a lure as they feed hurriedly.
Northern fisheries also see a dose of nutrition delivered before their own spawn, courtesy of yellow perch. Minnesota Guide Brian "Bro" Brohsdal looks for the perch spawn around vegetation soon after ice-out, when water temperatures hang in the 40°F range. And he looks for hungry largemouths plotting an attack.
"For big-fish opportunity, the perch spawn is important," Mueller says. "It's the perfect storm in the Northeast. You have the biggest bass moving shallow for ice-out feeding. They're after a big meal as they get into condition for the spawn. The females are bulking up so there's potential to catch a giant."
On the West Coast, we find a large forage species that schools tightly like shad. Commonly found in northern California's Clear Lake, hitch, a large minnow, pile into pockets and residential coves in huge numbers. When bass get wind of this spawning migration, Western pro Matt Newman expects home-run fishing.
"In early spring, hitch move up the creeks and coves to spawn and bass follow," he says. "Typically, they move up overnight or early in the morning. Big prespawn bass set up in front of the creeks and ambush them as they come in and out."
During the hitch spawn, Newman mimics these large forage fish with slow-moving swimbaits like a Huddleston, Osprey, or River2Sea S-Waver. Glidebaits also work, particularly when the hitch are high in the water column.
Around bream beds, Swindle favors the sputtering attraction of a Smithwick Devil's Horse. He likes the floating prop bait's ability to churn up the surface and then hold its position. "Size up the situation," he says, "and get the lure in the strike zone on your first cast. Take time to observe and Power-Pole down and make a good presentation."
Poppers like the Rebel Pop-R or XCalibur Zell Pop work, too. Lively surface action usually is best, but if bass are spooky due to clear water or fishing pressure, the more subtle look of a small walking bait like a Heddon Super Spook Jr., a wakebait, or a wacky-rigged floating worm can coax a bite.
During the perch spawn, Mueller favors jerkbaits and these lures perform well in the cold water temperatures at that time. When bluebacks spawn, Hawk rotates through a quartet of options: He starts on top with a Duo Realis Pencil 110 and then works subsurface with a Yamamoto Heart Tail swimbait on a weightless 6/0 Owner Beast hook, a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce double underspin with a Heart Tail trailer, and a Duo Realis 100 SP jerkbait.
On a shad spawn, Swindle says, "Don't be afraid to keep it old school with a white spinnerbait with double silver willowleaf blades. Add a trailer hook and cover water."
Kenney also favors a spinnerbait for shad spawns, but also fares well with small Alabama rigs. He sizes his swimbaits to match prey size and presents the package along docks and sea walls.
Veteran pro Mark Davis of Arkansas often swims a Strike King Caffeine Shad, but only if he can't get the bass going on a shad-color Strike King KVD 1.5 square bill. He traces the edges of floating docks and sea walls, bumping the structure as much as possible. A thorough attack, he says, requires various casting angles to dial in the concentration of baitfish and bass.
Keep It Real
Whatever baitfish spawn you target, you stand a good chance of a banner day, but it's important to have realistic expectations. With clustering schoolers like threadfin shad, bluebacks, and alewives, look for brief, but intense flurries of feeding activity. When bluegills, perch, and other panfish are the prey, bass are more intent on picking off one here and there.
"You can expect to catch a couple at a time around bluegill beds, but if you pull up to a good shad spawn, you can catch 25 pounds in five casts," Kenney says. "I've done it." Newman notes that hitch form big schools and bass crave them. "If you locate hitch around spawn time, you can catch a huge bag in no time," he says.
Put yourself in position for the baitfish spawn and you put yourself in position for a great day on the water, whether it be shad, bluebacks, and alewives; or bluegills, hitch, or perch. But don't try to force feed the fish — when bass set their sights on a spawning scene, they can be incredibly narrow-minded.
"It's important to note the size and appearance of the baitfish they're after," Hawk says. "Make your bait mimic the forage as much as possible." â–
*David A. Brown, Tampa, Florida, is a freelance photographer and writer and president of Tight Line Communications. He often contributes to Bass Guide.