by Jim Porter
Spring is the time of great fishing expectations, as anglers dust of their gear, service the boat and prepare to venture away from the side of the fireplace. And, Spring fishing is great, IF one manages to get everything just right on a given day. It is a time of BIG fish.
The problem is that Spring is a time of change and those changes do not always occur in a predictable manner nor on a predictable schedule. A good warm spell may move the fish up towards the shallows and provide great angling success. But, a fast-moving cold front puts a quick end to it. Most anglers assume that the cold front put the bass off feed, when, in actuality, all it did was cause them to move back out towards the deeper water a bit. Understanding the effects of the weather changes, the on-going reinstitution of life in the warming shallows, and the sporadic activity of the bass are the keys to being able to compensate for the rapidly fluctuating conditions of this time of year.
In order to knowledgeably expect and recognize the progressive transition of Winter into Spring and responses of the bass, we must start with the late Winter period.
Regardless of any notions the angler may hold, the fact is that the majority of the bass population, on a given body of water, will be found deeper during the cold months than any other season. Western anglers know this well. On their deep reservoirs (Lakes San Antonio and Nacimiento, in central California, are good examples), the months of January and February often find them fishing as much as 70 feet deep for their largemouths.
Winter bass school well and are found tightly grouped on small, deep, isolated structures out of the effects of current flow. Often, they may be found suspended in small, submerged creek channels (the relative structure), if there are no sustained water movements to contend with. Because their metabolic rate is greatly reduced, they will be very sluggish and not prone to feed often.
During this period of reduced activity, the body of the bass is preparing for the spawning rites to come. Egg sacs are starting to develop in the female, while the male's milt glands are beginning to enlarge. The senses of the bass begin to anticipate and wait for signs of warmer water.
The effects of the beginning transition first become apparent in the shallow zones. The surrounding banks start to warm and some of that heat is transferred to the water. The shallow, sub-surface materials, particularly rock and dark soils, also absorb the sunlight and cause the surrounding waters to warm rapidly.
Vegetation, insects and other small life forms begin to emerge and the shallow-zone food chain starts to evolve. Protective cover also begins to show up. Soon, those shallows will again be 'fertile' and the smaller fish, followed by the larger ones, will be able to return. The Swimming Worm will again be the top lure for some of us.
The early rains gradually become warmer and, running off the warming earth, enter feeder creeks and other natural drainage features. These warmer tributary discharges have major effects on the main body of water and act like 'homing beacons' to the bass. As the fish sense a rise in the surrounding temperature, they become increasingly more active and their movement patterns become aimed at locating the source of that influx of warmth. The movements gradually lead them to the channel or drainage carrying that warmer flow and they tend to work their way upstream in search of feeding and spawning conditions. (This is the very reason that shallow cover flats near the tributary channels eventually become the MOST productive spawning and fishing locations of Spring.)
It is important to understand that the series of events, bringing the bass from their Winter depths to the shallow zones, normally occurs over a period of about 60-70 days. And, during the process, the progression towards the shallows is continually being interrupted. The actual time required is totally dependent upon water temperature and, therefore, the weather.
Bass, being a structure-oriented fish, makes his way towards the shallows in what we might term a 'leap-frog' manner. That is to say, he moves from structure feature to structure feature. Experience has shown that those intermittent structures are nearly always associated with major drop-offs. Whether it be related to the tributary channel edge, itself, or secondary ledges, this theory appears to be solid. It is essential that the angler either recognize this point or, at least, accept it, for it forms the basis for tracking bass movements during the transition.
An angler, who confines the majority of his late Winter/early Spring bassin' to a single body of water and who fishes regularly, will find that he will be able to closely predict the probable location of the bass. Once he has found groups of bass on a given outing and recognizes that they should be in the transitional state, his next trip should be guided by an evaluation of the recent weather fluctuations. That will tell him whether to expect the bass to be shallower or deeper than the time before.
The passage of a cold front always has some degree of effect on bass. During the Summer and mid-Winter, it is minor and may not even be noticeable. In the Fall, frontal passage become progressively more influential as the water cools. The Spring transition period, however, is when a cold front has the major impact. While it may not necessarily stop the fish from feeding, the front will definitely have an impact on his movements and holding location.
There are numerous theories as to why bass react negatively to cold fronts. One is that the barometric fluctuations require the fish to adjust his internal air bladder for neutral buoyancy. Another implies it has to do with the change in water temperature. And, there are others. We really don't know for sure why, but it is a fact that the front does cause them to move deeper and assume periods of relative dormancy.
If I had to venture an opinion on the subject, I would contend that it is an instinctive reaction to avoid two conditions. The first is the turbulence created in the shallows by the strong winds associated with a cold front passage. These winds are always at their strongest in the late Fall and during the Spring transition, so that theory coincides nicely with the observed periods of major effect. The second is related to those same winds, in that the rapidly cooling surface waters will be quickly mixed with the slightly deeper zones, resulting in a temperature drop. Both of these conditions can only be avoided by the bass moving deeper.
The issue of the bass becoming somewhat dormant may, in fact, be rooted in the air bladder adjustment theory. A major change in activity and feeding would tend to indicate that some bodily change is underway. It may be comparable to the discomfort a human experiences when ill, likewise resulting in listlessness and a lack of appetite.
The sudden passage of a Spring cold front immediately halts all progression towards the shallows and usually causes the bass to retreat to a deeper structure position. The length of that retreat is dependent upon two things- the severity of the front, and the depth to which the bass had progressed. A fish in the 18-20 foot range may simply stop and go into a holding pattern. Those, which are 10-15 feet, have been noted to either fall back to the next deeper breakline or, occasionally, remain in place. However, a bass which has progressed passed eight feet (which we deem the start of the shallow zone) will move back out to at least 10-15 feet. (These are factual observations and tend to reasonably support the theories regarding turbulence and water mixing, in that both effects are generally short term and confined to the shallows.)
If the angler knows the structure of his water and applies this knowledge, he should be able to locate the bass in a relatively short time.
As the transition nears completion, conditions begin to stabilize and weather fluctuations become less frequent and much less severe. Feeding cycles become more pronounced, as the bass continue the bodily build-up for spawning. The males will constantly be found in the shallows, possibly scouting for nesting sites. The females feed shallow and then retire to cover areas and breaks just out from the spawning flats, usually at depths of 10-12 feet. Water temperatures gradually reach that required for survival of the eggs and the mating ritual begins.
Spawning actually commences with the male's building of a nest. He will be very aggressive during this period and is easily caught. Once everything is ready, the male bass will go in search of a roe-laden female. He actually herds and pushes her to the nest. From this point, until the eggs are actually deposited and fertilized, the bass will ignore all food. Only by constant agitation of a nesting bass can we hope to invoke a strike.
Once spawning is complete, the females again retreat to deeper water and become dormant for a period of time. Biologists indicate that the spawn is a major strain on her body and she requires a period to recuperate. Some, it is indicated, actually do not survive.
The male, in the meanwhile, has been left to guard the nest. Contrary to some beliefs, he is not easy to catch during this initial brief period of fatherhood. Observations have shown that his primary actions are to keep the nest free of predators, a continually demanding function. It is obvious that if he were to try and eat all the predators, he would probably burst after the first few hours.
Once the eggs are hatched, the male remains with them for a period of time and, we are told, he often attempts to dine on them. Regardless of his actions, his duties a guardian of the flock are about over and he reverts to looking out after old Number One. This when he, again, become relatively easy to catch.
Hopefully, the above spawning scenario makes two important points. The first is that it allows the reader to recognize 'why' early Spring fishing peaks, drops off dramatically, and then peaks again. The second point is that spawning bass are difficult to catch and fishing during the spawning period has never been PROVEN to be a major factor regarding declining populations. However, common sense tells you and I that we should practice maximum 'catch and release' during this period, just in case.
Fishing techniques and lure choices change extensively from the start of the Spring transition, until its completion. As a general rule, the deeper the bass, the more 'vertical' and slow the lure presentation should be. Therein lies the reason for spoons and jigs being top choices during the colder months. Another good rule is that, during the transition, any bass below 12 feet is not readily prone to being caught on crank plugs. Above that depth, they are usually active and will respond to most lures.
When the bass are on the deep Winter structures, the absolute best way to catch them is through the vertical presentation of the spoon or jig. Keep in mind that they will be very tightly schooled and the productive zone of the lure will be small. Fishing vertically provides maximum lure control.
As they begin to move more shallow, a small jig and rind will be the more productive bait. If a frontal passage causes them to suspend over the open water adjacent to the breakline, return to the vertical spoon method.
Once bass are found in 12, or less, feet of water, most any lure has potential. If they are keying to breaklines at these depths, a diving crank plug will be the fastest way to locate and catch them. The plastic worm will also produce, and will be the better choice if there is cover on the breakline.
Just prior to, and immediately after, the spawn, the bass will be heavily distributed throughout the shallow cover flats. Their high degree of aggressiveness indicates that rapidly-fished 'impulse' lures will be productive. This, then, is a good indicator as to why the spinner bait performs so well during this period.
During the actually spawn, the most productive way to take the fish will be through the use of live bait. Wild shiners, waterdogs and crayfish are good, but they are expensive ways to fish this time of year. Keep in mind that the bass does not really want to eat the nest intruder; he simply wants to scare it away or kill it. Accordingly, the number of fish actually caught, compared to the mortality rate of the baits, will be low. As to artificials, the best will be the plastic worm. If the water is shallow and has lots of cover, the Swimming Worm may be the top choice. And, it may have to be presented numerous times in order to goad the bass into striking. Though we hear and read that nesting bass pick up a lure, carry it out of the nest area and drop it, our observations are that they usually attempt to knock it away with a powerful sweep of their tail. Only after repeated presentations will they finally use the mouth as a weapon.
Remember the number one rule of fishing-"Catching them is easy; finding them is the hard part." By understanding the seasonal aspects of bass locations and recognizing the impacts of the weather, we can make the 'finding' a lot simpler.
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