February 24, 2021
As lakes shake off the chill of winter, green ghosts invade the shallows, drawn to the warming effects of the spring sun. They arrive to start the process of preparing to spawn, which may take place in a few short weeks in northern climes, or months later in milder regions where prespawn activities are protracted.
Here in Minnesota, we have a lot of time to ponder spring bass fishing. In the central part of the state, ice-up dates range from mid-November to early December. With ice-out occurring in early April, that's about 120 days of waiting to catch the first prespawn bass or else planning to venture south to jump-start the season; actually more in this state, as catch-and-release bass fishing isn't legal until mid-May. Standard regulations go into effect on Memorial Day weekend.
This hiatus gives lots of opportunities for buying new tackle in preparation for the season and organizing older stuff. And as I mentioned, the Coldwater Period is far shorter at lower latitudes, so I never pass a winter without a couple of excursions south.
Below the surface, largemouth bass give no thought to planning. Creatures of instinct, they're slaves to water temperature and related meteorological conditions they're blissfully ignorant of. Let's start with a simple definition of the Prespawn Period: the annual phase when bass move from deep wintering sites to shallow areas where they resume feeding and will eventually spawn. The concept of Calendar Periods was defined by In-Fisherman founders Ron and Al Lindner who described these time-frames as guides for fish location, activity level, and presentation preferences.
The Prespawn Period can be further divided into four phases—ice-out, early, mid-, and late-prespawn. Where it's possible to define these phases in terms of water temperature, cover options, and bass activity level, they can be helpful in defining presentation patterns and selecting lures. In other situations, they can blend together and be difficult to define.
Attitude by Latitude
As you read this, some prespawn bass patterns already have expired in the most southerly part of the largemouth's range. Biologists and guides in Florida assure me that bass may begin spawning there in December. Yet, curiously, some fish there continue to bed into May. In Minnesota, by contrast, once largemouths begin bedding in a lake, the last ones to spawn, usually young small adults, may be guarding fry just a couple weeks later.
Florida bass are in no rush, as mild conditions prevail for months. But in a climate considered far harsher for a warmwater fish, northern bass must push the process of producing young that can grow large enough by onset of the next winter to survive its rigors. And adults must rush to resume feeding as their time for growth is short. In waters between those geographic extremes, local conditions contribute to the commencement and duration of the Prespawn Period.
The Role of Temperature, North to South
Over the course of a year, south Florida bass inhabit temperatures from about 58°F to 90°F, a range of some 32 degrees. Far northern fish, in contrast, endure long stretches in the 30°F range, and sometimes up to 83°F or so, nearly twice as broad a spectrum. This tends to make them far more environmentally resilient, timing their behavior more closely to day length than water temperature. Southern bass are more temperature-dependent, but also have extended phases of activity. Their Coldwater Period is non-existent, so spawn-related periods are greatly extended, along with the Summer Period.
Within days of ice-out, and occasionally before it, northern river bass and some lake-dwelling fish evacuate wintering sites and move to shallow prespawn feeding areas, which may also serve as spawning bays a month or so later. They're willing to bite, though often spooky and picky in their lure preferences. Panfish anglers plying shallow backwaters and bays tangle with more then their share of big bass that can't resist a tiny hair jig or softbait presented on a float. And there's no telling how many big bass I've caught that still carry the little jig in their jaw, occasionally with a small float trailing behind.
The upper-40°F range (early prespawn) is prime time for smaller swimbaits as well as swim jigs that perform magic with a slow, crawling retrieve. In open areas, jerkbaits are deadly, fished at a slow cadence with long pauses. As waters warm, slow-falling lures also come into play: soft stickworms either Texas- or wacky rigged, and the classic Slug-Go, still hard to beat for mid-prespawn bass, as well as postspawn fish. Light jigs with large trailers that slow the fall also work, especially when shallow wood is present or new growth of submergent vegetation.
One phenomenon not typically found for northern prespawn bass is the concept of "staging areas." Reservoir bass often gather at spots of intermediate depth that offer a range of depths to hold at. One of the finest holes I've ever fished fits this definition. Years ago on February 1 in South Georgia, a companion named Les and I were exploring Lake Seminole, still one of my favorite bass waters. Water temperature was nudging into the low-50°F range. About mid-morning, we pulled into a small pocket along a creek channel bend with a deep wall of hydrilla on one side with standing timber as well. Les positioned the boat for us to cast parallel to the channel.
He immediately stuck a 4-pounder on a Manns 20+ crankbait and the fish thrashed lethargically toward the boat. After a cast with a jig went untouched, I picked up my crankbait rod as was soon fast to anther big prespawn female.
"Here's a bigger one," Les boasted, lipping a fish over 7 pounds. Our action was almost non-stop for 10 minutes, with every fish from 4 to 7 pounds.
Suddenly, Les dropped his rod and walked back to the console of his Norris Craft. "We're outta here," he stated in no uncertain terms. "My buddy Van Kennedy has a tournament here next week and I gotta give him this spot." With that we left the most amazing staging area I've ever found. And today we know Kennedy as the father of top-level Bassmaster Elite pro Steve Kennedy. Ol' Les will never know how close he came to drowning that day!
Bass in mid-south latitudes stage in key areas where they can feed and hold, awaiting warming conditions that will pull them toward the bank. Staging areas often have several forms of cover and are located at key structural locations that allow bass a range of depths to hold at. Fish tend to hold deeper in the morning, moving closer to the surface on warm, sunny days to feed on shad and warm themselves. After staging on a spot for a time sometimes just a couple days, sometimes a week—the group may disperse across nearby flats, moving toward spawning areas. In other cases, the group may move along the creek channel ledges, upstream toward shallow spawning areas in warm shallow bays well off the main lake.
In many reservoirs, staging areas are easy to spot: Marinas and riprap points, found where bridges cross feeder creeks, are bass magnets during the Prespawn Period. These steep banks offer vertical structure and cover. Bluff banks offer a similar situation and are always work checking, especially were the bluff transitions to more gradual sloping gravel or sand. Such spots serve as current checks, slowing the downstream flow, and attracting baitfish and bass.
Dialing in the Bite
Water temperature can be key this time of year, so keep your temp gauge front and center as you explore. Generally look for the warmest available water. The old adage to fish the northwest corner of a lake or creek arm is typically valid. Prevailing winds from that direction, common in spring in the northern hemisphere, are blocked by high banks, allowing the sun's rays to warm the shallows. In reservoirs, I've found canals in the northwest corner that warmed to almost 50°F while ice shards floated in the main body, where the water was a frigid 39°F. Guess where bass want to go.
Wind direction also can be important. When strong winds push cold, main-lake water into bays and canals, the bite drops. Can't say if the fish turn off or depart, but I tend to believe the latter. Conversely, in an enclosed embayment, the windward side can be best. That's because the warmest water is in the upper couple inches of the surface. It floats on cooler layers so wind can pile warmer water on the windward side and bass respond. Again, it's always hard to say if fish move in search of optimum conditions or those conditions boost their activity level.
Cold fronts in early spring push bass out to the deeper edges of a bay or off shallow flats, often to the 8- to 15-foot depths on inside turns near points that lead into bays. Changing conditions should determine the tackle and lures you choose.
The Prespawn Period is the most exciting time of year for anglers, as action can be outstanding, but we must be resourceful to read weather and water conditions, and make educated guesses on bass location and presentation. When you get the answer right, the bite can be lights-out.
Bass tend to group either in shallow bays, canals, or creeks, or in staging areas. Females are in the process of bulking up to their maximum weight just prior to the spawn so they feed heartily. In my former career as a fishery biologist, I always marveled that a good percentage of lunkers we caught by electrofishing in early spring had the tails of big gizzard shad (10 to 12 inches) sticking out of their gullets.
At times though, it's a finesse bite, with either slow-moving softbaits or light jigs. If the bite is slow on spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, jigs, and cranks, downsize and slow your retrieve drastically. First dial in location, then work on finding the best baits. And don't be afraid to fish memories. Bass often follow the same travel routes from year to year and find the same spawning locations, sometimes right down to one particular stump.