Like most bass fishing junkies, I enjoy chasing America’s fish during all seasons of the year. But if I had to choose a time period when my radar really lights up, it would have be late winter through early spring.
In eastern Texas, where I am from, January through February is the magical window when the first wave of big females begin nudging towards the shallows, where they will eventually pair with a male suitor and spawn yet another generation of bass for us to catch.
Widely known as the “pre-spawn” phase, the slice of time leading up to the meat of the spawn has produced big numbers of heavyweight bass over the years. Not quite as many as March, when armies of fish crowd the shallows, but more than enough to earn it top billing among many anglers as one of the premier times of the year to connect with a whopper.
A quick glance at Toyota ShareLunker records adds some solid evidence to that claim. ShareLunker is a spawning research/public relations program run by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department since November 1986. The program solicits anglers who catch bass weighing 13 pounds or more to loan the fish to the state for spawning and genetics research.
To date, 564 fish have been entered. March has produced more ShareLunkers (239) than any other month. February is second with 130, followed by April with 87 and January with 58.
Interestingly, the percentages change significantly when you look at Texas’s biggest bass of all time. Both February and March have 14 entries on the Top 50 list. January has the next highest total, 7.
Narrow the list to the Top 10 and February is king with four entries, all weighing between 16.89 and 17.29 pounds. In fact, it is the only month with more than one Top 10 entry.
The current state record of 18.18 pounds from Lake Fork was a January 1992 fish and the No. 2 fish, Mark Stevenson’s famous 17.67 pounder from Lake Fork, was caught in November. The remaining Top 10 fish are divided between April, August, May and March, all with one apiece.
So, what does all this say for the historic belief that the biggest bass are the first to push toward the shallows and the first ones to spawn from one year to the next?
Anecdotally, it certainly hints that there may be some truth it. But it is not a theory that veteran TPWD fisheries biologist Todd Driscoll is willing to hang his hat on.
Driscoll, who oversees lakes Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend and host of other heavy hitting East Texas bass lakes, is also a hardcore bass fisherman with a number tournament wins under his belt. He can talk sight fishing and flutter spoons with the best in the business, but when asked a question about bass behavior the scientist in him comes out and he goes looking for data to support his answers. This biologist says he is not aware of any scientific research that has been performed to support the claim that the bigger bass in a lake are always the first dump their eggs.
“I certainly don’t discredit it all, but I don’t have any real strong convictions that it is true, either,” Driscoll said. “I’ve seen big fish on beds in February, but I’ve also seen big ones on beds in March, April and May. The biggest fish I’ve ever sight fished (an 11 1/2 pounder from Lake Pinkston) was caught well into the spawn. I remember telling myself on the way to the lake that day that I’d probably already missed out on most of the spawn, but it didn’t work out that way.”
Research or no research, the fact remains that February has a rich history of kicking out some of the biggest bass of the year. Although it is entirely possible some of these fish are caught off spawning beds, my guess is the highest percentage of the giants are pre-spawners that are caught in relation to “staging areas.”
Staging areas are places bass where choose to position themselves as they wait for Mother Nature’s call to spawn. The sweet spots can vary in composition depending on the geographic location of the reservoir and what it has to offer in terms of cover.
Pre-spawn bass will stage around trees, stumps, bushes, ledges, rock piles, brush, along inside grasslines, etc., usually at mid-range depths. Stumble across one of these sweet spots and you can run up the score really quick. That’s because pre-spawners are prone to run in groups, often according to size. Plus, they tend to be pretty aggressive when you push the right buttons.
One of the main keys involved in pinpointing productive staging areas is covering plenty of water. The search can be fine-tuned by using a GPS/chartplotter to locate creeks, channel swings, ditches and road beds that connect deep water to shallow. Bass often use them as highways when making the transition from deeper water to shallower spawning flats, coves and pockets.
As a rule, these early moves don’t occur overnight. Instead, pre-spawn bass will usually stop short of the shallows and suspend around a staging area as they wait for the adjacent shallows to warm to a suitable degree.
The first waves of bass usually begin gravitating toward the shallows and setting up around staging areas when water temperatures are in the low- to mid-50s. While some bass may spawn once surface temps reach the upper 50s, the majority won’t do their thing until water temperatures stabilize at 60 degrees or more.
Not surprisingly, the timing of the deal will vary from one geographic region to the next. Waters located in southern climates tend to warm up quicker than northern impoundments. This explains why bass may be locked on beds as early as January on a south Texas lake such as Falcon and as late as May on a north Texas lake such as Texoma or Ray Roberts.
Something else to remember is that not all of the fish in the lake move shallow to do their thing at the same time. As a rule, the first bass to spawn are those that live at the lake’s upper reaches. Most lakes are shallower on the upper end than at the deeper lower end, where the dam is located. Shallower water naturally warms quicker than deep water, especially in areas situated so they catch plenty of warm sunshine, but are protected from chilly north winds.
Finding success with pre-spawn bass isn’t rocket science. It’s more about bundling up and investing some time on the water just ahead of one of nature’s greatest shows. Time it right and that sneak peek could produce the biggest bass of your life.
—story by Matt Williams