Spring Fling: Secrets, Tricks and Tactics for Largemouth Bass – Jake McKittrick
Let’s get excited spring is here! Many die hard trout guys get all poopy during run-off season but the truth is this is the time to hammer the warm and cool water fisheries. One of my personal favorite game fish and the topic of this article is the largemouth bass. Largemouth bass are Americas number one freshwater game fish species and is responsible for the all-star status that conventional fisherman enjoy. With all the money that can be made from largemouth bass it is no wonder why fly fisherman know very little about catching these amazing fish and conventional guys know everything about them. Pure Fishing (Berkley Conglomerate) annually spends more money studying largemouth bass than our industry spends studying every game fish known to man. I have paid close attention to all the information and tactics coming out of the conventional industry as part of my research for a comprehensive fly fishing book about largemouth bass and wanted to share some tactics to help the Willy j fans catch more giant largemouth bass this spring.
The most important needs of largemouth bass are temperature, food, cover, oxygen and spawning. The spring officially starts for me in the Rocky Mountains when the water temperatures start to hit 50 degrees in the shallow lakes (Mid April in the Rockies but may be as early as February in the South). This is known as the pre-spawn period. Largemouth cannot digest food efficiently below 50 degrees but once the temp starts to hit 50 the bass will come out of the deeper water and first appear in shallow areas on the sunniest side of the lake with the best cover. This is were the Willy J infrared thermometer is indispensable but take care as it is not water proof and should be treated with care. I usually start scouting the smaller, shallower lakes first or the areas were the weather has been the most stable. On the front range of Colorado, for example, many of the lakes along the mountains have completely different weather patterns than lakes on the plains and it changes every year. I keep a diary of lake temps throughout the eastern Slope of Colorado to help develop my tactics and to see variances annually. Also keep an eye on prevailing winds as they will cause lake temps to differ on different sides of the lake. As the temperatures climb up into the upper 50s bass will become more veracious and their metabolism climbs sharply. There are still only a few bait fish around in the shallows this time of year so look for bass cruising the shallows. When the temperature reaches 61-63 degrees, the bass will start spawning so always be mindful of temperature throughout the lake.
Largemouth bass are known as generalist because they will pretty much eat anything that moves that can fit in there mouth. The most important forage for largemouth in the Rocky Mountains are crawdads, shad, other bass, sunfish, and various minnows. Out of the black bass family, largemouth’s have the highest concentration of fish diets. It should be especially noted from my experience that largemouth love to eat other smaller largemouth. Always keep an eye out for baitfish and crawdads to give you an idea of what to entice them with taking special attention to forage size and color. I always carry markers with me so I can color my flies to match the baitfish as precisely as possible. Another great tip is rub your fly and your hands in the mud as soon as you arrive at the lake to neutralize any unnatural odors (like gas, deet and nicotine) as bass have great sense of smell but contrary to popular belief they cannot taste oil soluble matter (only water soluble). For example it is not the gas on your hands that is making the bass run away from your fly it is the detergent additives in the gas mix. Also, the retrieve is directly correlated to the water temps. So the colder the water the slower the retrieve.
Cover and structure are paramount to a largemouth’s happiness but there is a difference. Structure is any change in elevation and cover is anything that offers shade. In one study from Berkley/Pure Fishing a single bass was put in a tank and was super nervous and would not eat. The scientist put a penny in the tank and the bass immediately settled down and started to eat. The lesson here is to target the biggest bass in the lake find an area in the shallows that has great cover (like a tree) that has close access to deeper water (structure). Last week, for example, I was fishing a small pond and there are about 8 largemouth that are over 4 pounds and one in the seven pound class (Note: if you talk in inches bass fisherman will look at you funny so memorize this formula: length x length x girth/1200 = weight). All these bass were hiding under one submerged tree and would not move more that 6 feet away from the cover because it was the best cover in the shallows. If you remember that bass are only living in 5 percent of the lake than it is pretty easy to find them if you know what they need.
The oxygen level in lakes is more important in the summer and fall because a lake is well oxygenated when temperatures are cool in spring. In summer look for wind blown beaches and froth as well as vegetation because these areas will have higher oxygen concentrations but you can leave this “need” out of the equation when fishing in the spring in most areas.
As the shallow water temperatures reach about 60 degrees the males will start to build their spawning beds (nest) by fanning their tale in a circular motion. The beds are usually 1-3 feet deep but in clearer water they can be deeper. The circular beds stick out like a soar thumb once you know what to look for (do NOT walk on the beds). Most males will build their beds in cattails and on sunny sides of cover in areas where they cannot see any other male beds (usually about 30 feet apart unless obstruction blocks their vision then they can be closer). When the males are ready they will go into the deeper water to find a large female and then they herd them toward their bed with extremely aggressive behavior. If the female is unreceptive the male will attack her and can cause death in rare occasions. If she is receptive the male will head butt her in the stomach to break open the egg sack and the spawning ritual will commence. This is the only time that the female is off limits so leave them alone while they are doing their thing. Once the ritual is done he will aggressively run her out of the area and from then until the fry are about 2 weeks old he will fiercely defend them. A large female will mate with many males during the spawn
The spawning period is one of the best times to catch giant female largemouth if you know what you are doing so I will let you in on a little secret; if you catch the male guarding the nest you will NEVER catch the female. Instead, the secret is to use the male to find and bring the female in. As the mating ritual concludes and the bass are guarding the nest, the females will move into deeper water, usually in pairs, to recover from the spawn. Because the females spawned with many males, they will check on each male throughout the day to make sure they are doing their job. If she notices a male not guarding the bed she will come in to investigate but she knows (possibly stress pheromones) if the male bass is being molested by anglers and will not bite. The males will act like a compass when the female comes into his area to check on him and the secrete is to use this behavior to target the female. I wear complete camouflage and find a bass with great color (to be discussed momentarily) and just sit there and watch him. He will just be sitting there agitated and all the sudden he will turn around towards open water and start tracking the female. When I see this I will throw my fly out 20 feet off his nose with some lead and start a slow retrieve back toward the bed. I keep my eyes focused on where I think my fly is for any flash. You usually cannot see the female in the deeper water but when she inhales the fly you can see the white in her mouth and sometimes a golden yellow flash if she turns on it. Another deadly tactic involves using two anglers. One with a white fly with the hook snapped off (the teaser) and another with a crawdad or baitfish pattern. Once the male turns into a compass the angler with the teaser can try and work the fly over the bed causing the male to turn and start chasing the teaser. The female will notice the male is not on the bed and will come in to investigate. In that split instant her motherly instinct will tell her to guard the bed and you can catch her. It will take some practice to really get good at this game but it is deadly. JUST DO NOT HOOK THE MALE OR GAME OVER!
As mentioned earlier, a male bass’s coloration will let you know what type of mood the fish is in. I noticed this in nature first but I have to give credit to Kirk Deeter (“Bass are like Mood Rigs.”) for writing an article on the subject. It is totally true and here is how it goes:
A. Watermelon green with checkered sides means the actively spawning fish is defensive yet preoccupied.
B. Grayish with a “haze” is a good guard-mode color.
C. Blackish, with a pronounced white belly, indicates anger and the fish is a biter.
D. Pale Green is a sign of a docile, spent fish.
E. Brown fish are cruisers and eaters, though tougher to catch because they’re no longer glued to the bed.
So look for the fish that are the most aggressive and use them to bring in the female. I try to stay out of the water as much as possible because it spooks the females but sometimes you have to get into the water and walk along the thick Cattails or other vegetation to access the bass. There are several important things to mention if you are in the water. Bass have lateral lines along the length of their bodies as well as throughout their face so walk extremely slowly. They also have amazing sight so no bright colors. Another important behavioral trait to consider is never block the escape rout (to deeper water) of the male bass or he will freak out and abandon the bed for a short period. I also strongly recommend using a casting basket to minimize snags. Finally, NEVER walk on the beds. There are eggs that can be easily destroyed and many spawning beds are on the trails through the cattails leading to the water so pay attention.
This short article makes many generalizations but I hope the Willy J fans have learned a little from this quick article on spring bass. Keep an eye out for my book which I should have done this year but keep in mind it is a 500 page reference guide for everything about serious largemouth bass fishing so this article is just a short generalization to help the reader catch more BIG female bass. Thanks,