April 04, 2021
When bass flood the banks in the spring to spawn, it can be easy pickings for any reasonably skilled, technically competent angler. The fish move to predictable areas, often the same ones year after year, and while they may not be actively feeding, their territoriality leads them to bite. By the time we reach the heart of summer, fish are similarly locked into likely areas and, as the song goes, “livin’ is easy.” On southern impoundments, they’ll move to current breaks on the river channel, while on rivers they may bury up in the thickest grass mats. Find the sweet spots and you can load the boat without moving it.
All of that predictability is welcomed, but it only represents transient snapshots in time. Between those two magic moments, there’s a time period when the fish are neither spawning, nor summering. Some anglers refer to it as the “postspawn funk.”
If you look at the ecosystem more comprehensively, however, largemouths can be every bit as predictable during this supposed tough time. Just focus on fish other than the bass you are chasing – whether they are the recently hatched fry, or other species that interact with your prey. As Rick Clunn reputedly said, sometimes “if you want to understand the owl, study the mouse.”
While the sequence of the movements may be predictable, their timing might not be. “I truly believe that it’s controlled by water temperature,” said seven-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier Chad Morgenthaler. “It’s something that most people just don’t consider. It’s not the same exact movement every year.”
Louisiana pro Clark Reehm agreed that the fish can be sequenced, but that a variety of factors play a role in how it shakes out.
“There’s often no reason for the fish to leave the shallow cover until the water is out of it,” he said. “There’s a smorgasbord of bait in there. On Sam Rayburn, for example, the fish won’t get out deep until the water leaves what we call the hay grass. They’ll spawn around the bushes or the trees, then move to the hay grass, and then finally out to the hydrilla after that. In some cases, they never have to go deep.”
If you’re despairing over tough fishing during this “in between” time, here are three key patterns that will help you to jump start your search for a big limit.
1. Fry Guarders
The big girls don’t spend much time on the beds, but they remain nearby even after the fry hatches. Thus, rather than looking for them in traditional summertime areas, Morgenthaler will look first to the nearby drops and flats. “They won’t be far from where they spawned,” he said. “Maybe 200 or 300 yards. By mid-summer they could be a mile or two away.”
“Every system is a little bit different,” he added. “But I typically focus in the 6- to 10-foot range. Non-current systems will warm a bit quicker, but it’s all relative. The basic rule is that you just want to reverse the spawning process and focus on anything that looks good within a half mile.”
On an impoundment like Kentucky Lake, any of the major creeks have shell beds, docks and drops that can keep them happy for up to a month and a half. “They don’t leave until they’re uncomfortable.”
While the larger females may be skittish, the longer-working males may be at their most vulnerable. They’ll hang around to guard the young fry, and that’s when Morgenthaler goes to work on them.
“They may be a ways away from where they spawned, but they’ll go wherever they can to get away from open water and they will always be real shallow,” he said. “They want to keep out of the wind and with their backs against the wall in the top 3 to 4 inches of the water column.”
He’ll cover water with a buzzbait and advised to “pay attention to each and every cast.” When he sees the fry – which often looks like specks of ground pepper in the water – break the surface, that’s when he knows he’s in the zone.
“When you see them scatter, that’s when you put the brakes on and drop the Power-Poles. Your eyes are your No. 1 friend. That fish may be as much as 10 to 15 feet away, but he will react if you can make the right cast. They’ll be easiest to catch on a topwater, but you can catch them on something slow-sinking like a Senko, too. They’re difficult to catch on the bottom.”
While the buzzbait and the toad are his locator tools, once he has a fish in his sights, that’s when he picks up a Pop-R, a Senko or a small soft swimbait, with a special emphasis on bluegill colors. “Those are the natural predators of the fry,” he explained. “I lean toward anything with green and orange.”
2. Panfish Beds
When he’s not traveling to fish the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit or guiding, Reehm’s greatest passion is trying to fill a cooler with monstrous redear sunfish. He sees nearly as many big bass in that pursuit as he does when he’s specifically targeting bass, and that has led him to understand that “bream beds are a major deal throughout the south.”
That realization has been borne out in major mid-summer tournaments like Forrest Wood Cups on Lake Ouachita, where anglers using panfish-imitating topwater prop baits have banked on this bite over the deep stuff. It doesn’t always occur in the same types of locations, though.
“On the lakes I fish around home, you want to look more toward the main lake,” he said. “Those fish want to move to the main lake, even if it’s not deep. In the Carolinas, I tend to find them more in pockets. On lakes with vegetation, they’ll usually spawn on the inside grass line. You’ll rarely ever catch them over the middle of a big grass bed.”
From his panfishing exploits, Reehm learned that making your lure look helpless is the key to triggering strikes.
“A lot of times as soon as I snatch that Redear, that’s when the bass that has been sitting on the edge or swimming through the beds will strike. They’ll sit there and hover, but then as soon as you pull the fish to the surface, that’s when he’ll eat. It makes sense. In deeper water they can move 360 degrees, but when they pin that bait to the surface the bream can only move 180 degrees.”
For that reason, he’ll use a topwater as his primary tool. Like Morgenthaler, he might employ a Pop-R, or perhaps a frog. Anglers in the Carolinas and the Ozarks have made deep-bellied double-prop baits from companies like Brian’s Bees and PH Custom Lures must-haves because not only do they closely replicate the forage, but also because they kick up a substantial fuss while remaining in place.
Reehm said that these bass usually won’t be turned off by big baits, as he’s seen them snatch hooked one-pound redears in a single gulp, but that doesn’t mean they’ll bite all the time. Stealth is critical, especially if the bass aren’t charging the beds regularly. “If they’re aware that your there, a lot of times they’re not going to bite.”
3. Shad Spawn
Whether he’s fishing the deep, clear lakes near his east Tennessee home or the TVA impoundments a few hours away, Elite Series pro Brandon Card knows that a few weeks after the bass spawn the shad that they feed on will do the same. At that point they become an easy protein-packed meal for the worn-down large and smallmouths.
During that period Card will spend at least a few hours at the beginning of every day looking for them on hard cover like riprap, marinas and personal docks.
“It’ll happen in random places, too,” he said. “On Wheeler I found them on main lake bluff banks that were getting. You’d think it would only be in protected bays.” It’s not just rock, either. He’s done well by keying in on spawning at the base of cypress trees, too.
He’ll try to cover as much water in practice looking for them, and “nine times out of ten if you see a few of them bust you don’t even have to cast. If you don’t see that, they’re probably not around.” On occasion, an active shad spawn does not trigger bass activity. For example, during the 2016 BASSfest event on Lake Texoma, Card saw spawning shad all over the lake “but the bass were not dialed in on them. The water was so high that the fish went to the green bushes instead. I wasted too much of practice chasing it.” That experience may have been the exception rather than the rule, though. Usually bass cannot turn down easy access to one of their favorite foods.
Card said that he’ll start most days in the areas where he’s seen the most pronounced and prolonged shad activity, since it often stops after the sun gets high. Just because the obvious activity ceases doesn’t mean that you should abandon them, though.
“I tend to stick around those areas for a couple more hours,” he said. “They still looking for shad and looking to ambush. Even though there may not be as much food there, there will also be less competition for them.”
With so many shad for bass to chase, Card said that he walks a fine line on bait selection. Often the fish will be surprisingly finicky, forcing him to match the hatch, but it’s also imperative to make his bait stand out.
“I’ll try to go a little bit bigger or a slightly different color early,” he explained. “They when the activity stops, I try to match the hatch a little more.”
In calm conditions, whether it’s cloudy or sunny, he likes a swimbait like a Yamamoto Heart Tail, which stays high in the water column. If there’s heavier wind, he’ll turn to a spinnerbait or a Chatterbait with a Yamamoto Zako swimbait on the back. Two other lures that produce lots of strikes when it’s critical to match the hatch include the Yo-Zuri 3DB Squarebill as well as a Yo-Zuri topwater popper. “You can pop it slow but it will also walk, which is important because sometimes they want something real erratic when the shad are spawning,” he said.