By Randall Bonner
As the weather warms up and rains subside, water levels drop, the currents in the back of river sloughs slow to a crawl, and giant lakes start to shrivel up into small, individual ponds. There are several stages to the spring spawn of bass that provide good fishing conditions for this time of year. Early in the season, muddy or murky water can still produce bass on very slow presentations of dark colors that provide a contrasting profile. The toughest part of fishing in these conditions is visibility. The bass, however, are in pre-spawn mode, seeking warmer water near the edges and foraging for food after remaining dormant for the winter. As the water temperature rises, especially on sunny days, their metabolism will begin to increase to the delight of local fishermen.
Three types of bass are typically present in the valley: largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass. The largemouth and spotted bass are striking in similarity, but the largemouth gets its name from a gigantic bucket of a gullet. They typically feed on other fish, frogs, snakes, mice, baby ducks—quite literally anything they can fit in their mouth. The spotted bass has a slightly smaller mouth and different pattern of color, but the difference is hardly noticeable. One defining characteristic is that they have a patch of teeth on their tongue that helps them hold onto prey. The smallmouth, however, is visually distinctive from its two closest relative species. They are typically bronze or brown in color, have red eyes, and of course a significantly smaller set of jaws.
Once the water clears up, bass will begin to gorge themselves on anything and everything to fatten up for spawning. While largemouth and spotted bass move into the shallows near overhanging trees, smallmouth tend to hold near rock piles or points in the shoreline. Bass will start to school up; once you have found one there are probably more in the same area.
After the water level has been clear enough for vegetation to take hold and the water levels begin to drop, bass will begin to pair off and make “beds” where eggs will be laid and fertilized. The pre-spawn will overlap during this time and some fish will hold to particular areas of cover and others will cruise individually or in schools. All of them will be feeding, but as spawning fish begin to lay eggs they will bite, more as instinctive aggression in response to threats to their nests than to actually feed themselves. As the eggs mature and develop inside the females, they increase tremendously in girth and become the hefty “lunker” fish that most bass anglers desire.
Eventually, bass will pair up, build their nests, and spawn. By the time these bass are “on the bed” they have seen many presentations from anglers and many have already been caught and released. Water levels are low, visibility is crystal clear, and most fish will scoff at presentations with skepticism. This is when you will be able to visually see the most fish and catch the least. Younger or stray fish, however, that have not paired up will be actively feeding and cruising structures along the edges, so it’s still possible to hook up during the spawn and post spawn. At some point the fish that have spawned will leave their beds and feed to regain energy spent defending their territory.
Although most bass species can potentially be delicious, catch and release ethics vary in each fishery. Smaller lakes that hold good populations of larger fish exist because the fish are allowed to grow and mature into dominant specimens that inhabit the area for a long time. There are also rivers where bass species inhabit the same waters as young steelhead and salmon smolts, which they often feed on. Anglers are encouraged to remove these bass from the fishery, resulting in smaller individual catches.
The most appealing factor for anglers is the simplicity of fishing for these species. Minimal gear and tackle are all that’s necessary for a productive outing. Additional tags aren’t necessary, and if you can put a worm on a hook you can catch pretty much all warm water species. Once you’ve taken the time to develop your techniques and learn different patterns on your local body of water, you’ll understand what those anglers are missing out on. Go out and get your line wet!