July 16, 2012
The saying, "Timing is everything," never was more valid than when plotting the capture of huge largemouth bass. The effects of season, time of day, and physical (but barely tangible) factors like moon phase and barometer seem to make a big difference in the catchability of these rare giants.
Such trophy-size bass typically turn up in Master Angler contests, electrofishing surveys by fish and game departments, and the occasional photo in weekly fishing periodicals -- proof that such fish reside among us. Only rarely, though, do we tangle with such creatures. Then, likely as not, chancy malfunctions lead to premature release some distance from the boat. Insights into particularly good times to catch outsize bass can help in planning trips to trophy lakes in Florida or Mexico, or help to decide when to trot down to a local farm pond.
The moon is a source of unceasing fascination among anglers. Many plan trips around the monthly lunar cycle, and thousands of top anglers consult solunar tables regularly to check for the daily major and minor periods of fish and game activity. Veteran In-Fisherman readers will recall the extensive study of solunar periodicity done by In-Fisherman researcher Ralph Manns and published in a two-part series more than a decade ago. No room to cover Ralph's extensive findings here, but we present the thoughts and findings of other noted big bass anglers.
Reading moon phases is far from a proven science. Big bass experts across North America have differing views of the extent of lunar effect on bass behavior and the timing of the most positive effects.
Brett Richardson, Bergenfield, New Jersey, has contributed many features to In-Fisherman on a variety of topics. No fishing, however, gets him going like chasing outsize largemouths. To identify trends in his catches over the years, Richardson analyzed the dates of catches of bass from 6 to 8 1/2 pounds from northeastern lakes and reservoirs and sorted them by moon phase.
"Most lunar calendars suggest that the three days before and after full and new moons present the best fishing opportunities," Richardson notes, "but analysis of my catches of big bass indicate that the four days prior to full and new moons were most productive. In fact, 85 percent of the biggest bass were caught within those two four-day periods.
"Particularly from early spring through the Prespawn Period, the full moon is far more powerful and all lunar effects are most pronounced during this part of the bass' annual calendar. And I found that the season with the least lunar effect stretched from the Postspawn Period through early summer. But for me that has not been particularly productive for big bass anyway."
Though he hasn't kept records as meticulous as Richardson's, top-ranked bass pro Alton Jones sees entirely another angle to moon phase. "I have tracked moon phase and catches since my guiding days at Richland-Chambers Reservoir in Texas," Jones begins, "and find that for most of the year, a full moon is not an omen for good fishing during the day. Catches are notably lower, particularly for large bass. In fact, when I'm looking at my tournament schedule, I often do research to determine how much weight it will likely take to win a particular event. When I see that the dates fall around a full moon, I scale the projected weight downward.
"I believe that the reason daytime fishing can be slower during a full moon is that bass tend to feed more at night if conditions are well lit by a bright moon. In murky lakes, you often have little or no night feeding by bass, but the best action will come during a bright full moon.
"Light conditions during a well-lit night resemble the last light of dusk, when bass often forage heavily as they have a sight advantage over many preyfish at that time. After feeding heavily at night during the full moon, they simply are not as eager to pursue prey, though of course they still will bite. But large bass are more discerning and more accustomed than smaller fish to feeding at peak times."
Mitch Looper, a renowned big-bass angler from Barling, Arkansas, sees yet another effect of the moon that nearly all anglers overlook. "I do like the three days before a full or new moon," he notes, "but few anglers recognize that the best time for giant bass coincides with the rising and setting of the moon. The moon's rising and setting times are critical at all moon phases.
"Around the full moon phase, the moon is setting as the sun is rising and vice versa. And around the new moon, the moon rises and sets with the sun. This is an especially strong time, particularly in spring, but also during other seasons. On the quarter (half) moon, the moon rises and sets in the middle of the day and night. This is the time when big bass are most aggressive. I plan to be on my best spots during the two-hour period around the setting or rising of the half moon. The day or night of the actual half moon is a prime day for big bass, all other factors being equal."
Prespawn Period: Every seasoned bass angler knows that the Prespawn Period can produce some of the year's biggest bass. But the timing of this period varies among regions. It's possible, though, to fine-tune your approach to catch giant bass before the spawn.
Kelly Jordon of Mineola, Texas, guided on Lake Fork for 13 years, focusing on lunker peaks, both day and night, to get his clients on Fork's highly sought lunkers. Now Jordon is a successful pro on the major league trail. "Each year, there are only about two to five days where everything is perfectly aligned to catch a giant prespawn female," Jordon notes. "In fact, when conditions are right, you can catch multiple 10-pounders. A day when all the stars lined up occurred at Lake Fork last March, and three Share Lunker bass were brought in, ranging from 13 pounds 9 ounces to 16 1/4 pounds. Dozens of 10s were caught that day, too, but unfortunately I was far away at a tournament.
"These ideal conditions occur in spring at the end of the first sustained warming trend that follows a spell of cold weather. This window starts to open with a cold front, but if clear skies continue for several days, air and water temperatures gradually warm, winds decrease, and the barometer levels off. The longer this stable warming trend lasts, the better.
"Then, when the next front approaches, don't be deterred from spending the day at the lake. I've noticed that these windows seem to invariably occur during the week, so have some vacation time ready. On the last day before the front passes through, you're guaranteed a big fish, 10-plus-pounders on Lake Fork, or maximum size wherever you live."
In northern states, spring warming occurs much faster than in the Southeast, driving legions of bass into the shallows to warm up, begin feeding, and eventually to spawn. Biologists and anglers have recognized this opportunity to catch more bass than at any other time of year, along with the biggest fish in the system. For that reason, closed seasons exist in several northern states and Canadian provinces.
In the opinion of many biologists and anglers, big bass are simply too vulnerable at that time to allow anglers to pursue them. Where bass fishing is open, far more giants are caught than at any other time. The key is targeting thick shallow cover where warm water temperatures prevail, and presenting slow moving and slow falling lures.
In northern states, the actual spawn is brief, so the window to catch a giant female around a spawning bed is typically elusive. But where water clarity allows sight fishing, some giant fish are taken, particularly by those experienced in nest fishing.
Alton Jones concedes that the movement of big bass into shallow water puts them within reach of more anglers than at any other time of year. "Sure, they're shallower and easier to get at or even spot, but I think another factor enhances their catchability at that time of year. Like a big buck during the rut, a big female bass is preoccupied with reproduction. She is less cautious and can be approached. She's also more aggressive during daytime than during any other season. As a result, she'll more likely bite a lure. That factor, combined with the shallow position of giant fish, makes it the best time to catch a lunker."
Postspawn Period: The period following the spawn is much maligned, according to Kelly Jordan. "I typically catch more big fish during that time," Jordon says, "than during the Prespawn Period, except for the can't-miss conditions I mentioned earlier. The biggest females spawn first, and those fish are the first to move onto offshore structure.
"Most anglers continue to pursue the abundant bass in shoreline cover, but the big females are already out deep, and they are hungry. During May on Lake Fork, I can catch at least one 10-pounder a day. Before the spawn, these fish would have been 11-pounders or more. Everything you catch will be big, over six pounds. The fish have moved onto prime structure, so they're easy to locate, holding just off the bottom on points, deep stump rows, and offshore humps. Carolina rigs and big crankbaits are the ticket."
Mitch Looper notes another shallow pattern that develops at this time of year. "In lakes with abundant vegetation, actual packs of big bass move through the cover, flushing out prey, particularly big spawning bluegills. The lunkers move through in unison, and big bass can be caught back to back by swimming a jig or weedless spoon, or working big tube baits through the water willows, alligator weed, or maidencane. This pattern works best on windy, cloudy days, or when it's raining."
Summer Peak: Thirty years ago, In-Fisherman founders Ron and Al Lindner identified the Summer Peak as the short (less than two-week) period that follows the season's first hot spell that lasts through several days and nights, creating a super feeding atmosphere for many fish species. It also tends to coincide with the a quick blooming of underwater vegetation, an abundance of young fish in the shallows, and emerging insects, creating an extremely lively ecosystem.
Across the continent, this peak occurs within a month or so, from Texas to Ontario, due to the accelerated seasonal progression in the North. At the southern end of bassdom, early May often signals the onset of the Summer Peak, and in the northern extremes of bass country, mid-June is typical.
At this time, a variety of deep and shallow patterns can account for large numbers of bass, and some big fish. Average size is not so large as during the Prespawn, Spawn, or Postspawn periods, but lunkers are more prevalent than later in summer. Deep weedlines, shallow docks, and any substantial cover in between can hold fish, so precise location patterns are critical, with lure choice often secondary or even unimportant.
Note that in southern waters, where the spawning season can span more than a month, Kelly Jordon's offshore pattern could even be termed a Summer Peak event for those fish that have completed the actual spawn and recuperation period and have begun feeding in earnest. In the same lake, smaller bass might still be on their beds.
Fall Peak: The original In-Fisherman Calendar placed the fall period in three calendar periods, the Post-Summer, Turnover, and Coldwater periods. In the North Country, portions of the first and last of those periods are prime time for extra-large largemouths. The end of the Post-Summer Period sees thinning weedgrowth on large main-lake flats, but formation of dense beds of coontail and northern milfoil along breaklines, especially on inside corners more protected from the wind. This thick cover concentrates big bass that are seemingly more active and feeding more frequently than during the preceding three or four months.
Cranking the flats with shallow divers or big slow-moving spinnerbaits or buzzbaits is deadly when bass are scattered over large areas. When thick weed clumps can be identified by eye, sonar, or underwater cameras, casting or pitching jigs can produce some of the year's biggest bass. Though a pronounced fall turnover can slow fishing for a short while, the onset of the Cold Water Period sees a continuation of the big-fish window, though the bite slows as the water temperature drops into the low 40F range. Still, slowly fishing smaller jig-and-pig combos, hair jigs, and tube baits in key concentration areas can produce lethargic monsters until lakes freeze. Sunny, warmer days see increased bass activity.
In the central reservoirs Mitch Looper plies, he sees another sort of fall bite. "Late September typically experiences a movement of big bass onto channel breaks and offshore structure, particularly in flatland impoundments. Target these fish with big deep divers. The best action occurs during cloudy, windy days. Also, the fish turn on later in the day. I've learned that during that period, it's best to hit the lake about 11 a.m. and fish till about 6 p.m. The big fish typically turn off toward evening, though again a rising or setting moon can extend the bite and spur it further.
Coldwater Period: During the coldest winter days in the central United States, hardy anglers make some of the best big-fish catches. Mitch Looper waits until the water temperature in the Arkansas reservoirs he fishes drop into the low 40F range, usually in January. "Moon phase doesn't matter at this time," he says. "Big largemouths key on temperature-shocked shad, and great catches can be made with a little marabou crappie jig weighing 1/8 ounce. In the wake of a severe front, fish at dawn or dusk when it's coldest. The big fish don't feed as well during the warmer parts of the day for some reason."
Kelly Jordon notes another predictable big-bass peak. "When a severe front moves through and chills the surface water, that water sinks," he notes. "Big bass move shallow to avoid that slug of cold water, and we catch giants in two feet of water on 3/4-ounce red Rat-L-Traps. Target shallow spots close to deep water, and crank the Trap as fast as you can. It's purely a reaction strike.
"The big bass seem more sensitive to the cold water incursion, and they're the ones on the shallowest spots at this time of year. Once bass move up in late winter, they often remain shallow right into prespawn, since the shallows continue to offer the warmest water."
Our big-bass experts already have noted the importance of fronts in setting up a big bass chew and turning off the bite on the backside of the system. It pays to consult a barometer hourly when getting ready for a lunker hunt. A falling barometer usually indicates a storm or a front approaching, which typically turns on big bass.
Mitch Looper notes another front-related phenomena that's rarely discussed. "I discovered that the night after a major cold front has passed in spring is a bonanza time for giant bass," Looper says. "For some reason, the giants truly turn on then, particularly in the two-hour period surrounding the rising or setting of the moon. It's miserable on the lake, as night-time temperatures may dip close to freezing near dawn. Yet some of my biggest bass, including my 14 1â'„2-pounder and countless 9-plus-pounders have bit on such nights in March and April. This unexpected bite may explain why the big ones are so hard to catch during the day following cold fronts -- they've fed so heavily during the previous night.
"Another window of opportunity occurs, but I can't explain why," Looper continues. "It always seems to happen during a positive moon phase, within three days of the onset of a full or dark moon. As you're fishing, you notice that the terrestrial wildlife has been dormant. Then, suddenly, frogs start croaking, wading birds start hunting, rabbits, birds, deer, and beaver start moving.
"I've noticed this change in activity when no other factors are in play, such as solunar periods or advancing fronts. You can bet big bass are on the prowl, too. This happened on a new moon in March at Lake Fork. The lake was quiet and fishing was slow until about 4 p.m., when everything started moving and making noise. I immediately hooked and lost a monster of 12 or 13 pounds.
"I caught a 10-13, then in the next hour I lost three more huge bass that bit in a massive logjam. They were just too much to handle in that thick cover. Then, it was over.
"Animals stopped moving, and the fish stopped biting, though I fished until dark. Note that observing wildlife doesn't mean cows, as some anglers believe. Cows are not wild and not in tune with the natural environment."