Article by Willie Luker
Understanding the Spawning Bass – the Key to Enticing More Bites
When the mosquitoes start flying and the cicadas rev up their nightly choir, it’s largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) spawning season in central Alabama once again. People across the world look forward to this all year long, craving the excitement that comes with the first crater you spot.
People tell stories of monsters, and debate for hours about the ethics involved with participating in the season. However, not too many people talk about how to catch them. Just as the bass lock on their beds, anglers become notoriously tight-lipped about techniques as droves of fishermen flock to the lake for a day of fishing.
Add in the hours of frustration that newbies and visitors experience as bass they can literally reach out and touch refuse to take their bait, it can a bit demoralizing. But deciphering these stalwart fish is a simple enough game, though. It mostly comes down to sizing up the fish, adjusting your technique accordingly, then swapping baits as necessary.
Three Spawning Bass Personality Types
The first step is to properly judge the “catchability” of the fish. As you approach the crater-shaped beds, whether by boat or foot, pay close mind to the bass that’s surely nearby.
A largemouth that dashes away at the first sight of you is going to be a hard sell for a lure.
Stick around for a minute, and you may notice some fish return. These are going to be more aggressive in general towards intrusions on the bed, resulting in a much higher chance of a successful day.
The real stars of the show, however, are those uncommon few that stick to the bed resolutely, as these are the dominant bass that will do their best to remove unwanted guests.
Unfortunately, not all bass will respond to your efforts. Rather, they become spectators. They’ll follow your every move by rotating in the water and won’t lose sight of you for extended lengths of time. Try as you might, they will stare at you endlessly while you tie on every lure you own to no avail. Try giving the location a rest and returning later on, hopefully when their guard is lower.
Presentation Is King When Targeting Spawning Largemouth
More important than even the best bait for bass is your technique. The three types of personalities listed above require drastically different methods of delivery and come with their own set of recommendations.
For the bass that flee immediately, you’ll want a long cast well past the area it swam to. Work your bait back with slow, even hops until you near the bed. Once alongside the bed, I like to wait it out until the fish returns, then use small, quick movements to inch the bait around. This motion is common to all of the techniques, as it looks similar to a baitfish nosing down to feast on bass eggs.
If it spooks again, the chances are slim that it will attack the lure any time soon. A good rule of thumb is that the longer the fish is out of sight after darting away, the less likely they are to play ball.
I find that bass that returns quickly tend to be hunters, more than defenders. They will go to great lengths to repel unwelcome attention, even to the point of abandoning their beds on a moment’s notice. They tend to approach well before the opponent enters the vicinity of the bed, and scare them off with a vicious burst of speed.
As such, these fish enjoy a quicker presentation to trigger a reaction strike. Cast past the bed and retrieve at a steady pace. As you near the bed, throw in a few twitches of the rod or halt your retrieve to impart a sudden movement to the lure. If you can, try to run it right through the center of the bass’s vision. If all else fails, stop retrieving the lure and return to the hopping motion while on the bed.
Bass that are locked to the disk they call home are my favorite ones to target. Most of the time, I find these fish in extremely shallow water, even when compared to their brethren. Because of their steadfastness, you can often get your cast horribly wrong and still salvage the attempt.
I like to cast slightly behind the bed, reel my lure quickly on top of the water, and drop it directly beside the bass I’m targeting. Often times, these fish take a multitude of recasts but tend to give in when shown a wide enough variety. Speaking of which…
Adaptability, the Bass Angler’s Best Friend
The number one most common mistake I observe during the spawn is stubbornness. At the height of the bass spawning season, most public waterways are loaded to the gills with fishermen determined that they can catch every bass there with (insert method here). The sheer number of lures these fish endure year after year is staggering, to the point that your secret weapon from last week might cause lockjaw today.
The simple way around this is to experiment. Any lure when presented properly can draw a strike, and this is especially true at this magical time of year. With their children at risk, these fish are constantly on alert and have been known to hit almost anything. If you can’t seem to get any attention from your lure, CHANGE IT! No one will tell on you if your best catch of the day comes from an ugly lure you only bought because it was on sale.
Body styles, size, color, weight, and even smell are all things to be tinkered with. The only limit to the possibilities is your imagination and willingness to try new things.
Mimic Natural Enemies for Hard-Hitting Strikes
Aquatic predators abound at spawn time, but none so much as the lowly bluegill. Given the opportunity, a squad of bluegill can decimate entire populations of bass by feeding on their eggs. Bass tend to aggressively pursue these panfish on sight, and imitations are no different.
It’s always an option to choose a hard bait, but it is worth noting that bass enjoy bedding near snags when possible. It provides shelter, and an ambush point they can watch their bed from. This causes a lot of frustration when that $30 jointed hard bait you just bought becomes the fish’s new wall hanger.
A good bait for bass will have a sleeker, baitfish profile that will draw a strike in more lakes than a Jackall lure anyways.
Another enemy bass loathe during the spawn are reptiles. Lizards and salamanders are known for diving right into the bed and pecking the eggs out sooner than a bass will notice. Therefore, it makes sense that fish will often inhale them on sight.
When Texas rigged and paired with a 1/8th oz slip sinker, a soft plastic lizard will nose down but remain light enough that you can gently shake the rod tip to impart a nuzzling action. I’ve gotten many stubborn fish to shore with such a simple tactic.
Crawfish represent a problem for the spawning largemouth as well. Though slower than other predators, crawfish present a challenge with their claws and thick carapace. Bass tend to allow them to pass but will attempt a removal if they linger. You can use this behavior to your advantage by working a jig-n-pig slowly towards the targeted largemouth, making sure to pause intermittently.
A Texas rigged plastic crawfish also proves useful for targeting the bass locked on their beds, as they can be retrieved like a topwater bait and dropped accurately with ease. I often find I get hit while zooming them on top because bass have predators from above as well!
On top of perpetually submerged predators, bass eggs find a unique conflict from the surface. Anglers have known for years that a soft plastic frog is one of the best baits for spawning bass will produce giant catches under the right conditions.
That’s why I find it weird that so many hang their frogging rods up during the spawning season.
Not only are frogs still around, they develop a strong craving for caviar! Typically found among vegetation and weedlines, frogs tend to get bold when confronted with a spawning bass. Due to this, bass can sometimes pounce with reckless abandon when they spot one.
A hollow frog provides less noise, but you are granted the ability to suspend the frog at the location of your choosing. Traditional soft plastic frogs are worked rapidly across the water, similar to a buzzbait.
Now, you can even get hard-bodied frogs with propellers and flashy blades! You really can’t go wrong with any topwater lure, to be honest. If you haven’t experienced one yet, it’s important for me to note how absolutely addictive a topwater bite can be.
Watching a largemouth break the surface never gets old, especially when it churns up a wake behind your bait before the strike. It can be one of the most frustrating – and rewarding – styles of fishing available.
Be Kind to Spawning Bass
However, you chose to do it, fishing in the spawn can be one of the most exciting times to be an angler. But, it’s also a time of tremendous responsibility. I advocate that anyone that chooses to fish during the spawning process familiarizes themselves with the proper safe handling procedures of a live bass.
These fish are doing their best to multiply, and it’s our job to ensure we give them every chance to complete that duty. When you’ve successfully caught a bass, the first thing most people want to do is hold it up. Whether for the obligatory photo to show your buddies, or just to get a better look, most fish wind up at arm’s length. When you do this, be SURE that you hold the fish entirely vertical, or entirely horizontal.
I’ve seen a disturbing amount of people angle the fish somewhere in between while holding the bass by its jaw. This causes an unnecessary amount of stress to the muscles that control the jaw and can cause eating issues that lead to an untimely demise. It’s a behavior many of us learned mistakenly as a youth, but it’s simple enough to remedy.
By taking the extra effort to watch yourself, you can help these animals return safely. Speaking of return, you should ALWAYS return a spawning female to the water. I’m all for locally caught fish on the dinner table, but a spawning female is responsible for laying up to 7,000 eggs per pound she weighs! Most of these bass will die quickly, but that’s for the food chain to instruct.
Finally, don’t play spawning bass – or any other fish, spawning or otherwise – too much. I’m all for a good fight on lower drag settings, but it’s imperative to avoid the urge during the spawn. These fish will have spent weeks clearing beds, mating, and guarding their offspring, often times only eating when necessary. The amount of strain this puts on them will cause them to perish more easily than you may expect.
When you’ve got the hook set, do your best to winch the fish in relatively quickly to minimize undue stress to the fish.
As always, stay fishing, and stay learning.