An old man once told me the best time to go fishing is whenever you can. I didn’t argue the point then, and I am reluctant to argue it now, but I have to. When it comes to catching big bass–lunker-size females weighing upward of 8 pounds–there is no better time to settle the score than in spring.
The reason? Actually, there is a couple.
Female bass are at peak weight during spring because their bellies are plump with eggs. An adult female might stack on as much as 10 percent extra in body weight during spring as opposed to summer, which could equal a pound or more on a double-digit bass.
Spring is also when most bass spawn. Initial spawning “waves” might occur as early as January on a handful of Texas lakes, but the meat of the spawn statewide takes place between February and April with a series of peaks and valleys spaced throughout.
Though some fish will spawn deeper, most bass dump their eggs in water shallower than eight feet. In most cases, this means the fish will be positioned close to the shoreline. Since most anglers are more comfortable fishing close to the bank than in open water, the fish are naturally more vulnerable to getting caught.
I do not expect we will see a new state record caught this month (you never know, though), but I am predicting a boom in big bass activity that should keep the folks at ShareLunker headquarters in Athens on their toes. If this proves correct, the drums should start beating the loudest about the time March gives way to April.
Spring officially begins March 20. Three days later, the full moon will shine bright across the Texas landscape. That probably does not mean squat to a non-fishing desk jockey with mousse-caked hair, but to a bass angler who is savvy to the largemouth way, the March full moon is a promising signpost of good things to come.
Mark Stevenson is one of the sharpest bass fishermen I know. He has been guiding on Lake Fork for more than 30 years and has a ton of big fish to his credit, including a former state record largemouth caught in November 1986. That fish, which he fittingly named “Ethel,” weighed a whopping 17.67 pounds and was the first ShareLunker.
Stevenson has garnered a wealth of knowledge about bass during thousands of man-hours logged at Lake Fork, one of the best big bass lakes in America. Among other things, he has learned that a host of factors dictates how largemouths behave when it comes time to perpetuate the species.
In his opinion, moon phase is one of the most potent elements involved in the timing of the spawn. The bass’ biological tickers tell them to head toward the shallows during spring, and he believes the full moon triggers a mass movement: “There is no way to time the spawn to the exact day, but a full moon in late March and early April is a pretty reliable indicator to go by when you are planning a trip. The full moon always plays a major role in triggering a big wave of spawning activity on Lake Fork and other lakes, so long as there isn’t something out of the ordinary going on with the weather. Even then, I think the biological clock in 50 percent of the fish will override changes in the weather conditions. When it’s time, it’s time.”
Year in and year out, Stevenson has witnessed a tremendous surge in bass movement at Lake Fork that coincides with the first full moon following the spring equinox. Some years the big push occurred a few days before the full moon, and in others within hours. Interestingly, Stevenson has noticed that these movements occur under the cover of darkness rather than during the daylight hours: “One day you can go through an area actively looking for fish and see very few. Then, the next morning, you can go through the same area and beds may be everywhere. That tells me that bass do most of their bed making at night. I also believe that most of the actual spawning activity takes place at night.”
Stevenson’s observations also have taught him that unstable weather conditions such as rain, lightning, and wind associated with late season cold fronts may deter spawning activity to a degree: “There will always be a few fish trickling into the shallows during the spring, possibly as early as February, but the bigger waves always seem show up during a calm, two or three days after unsettled weather.”
As mentioned, a number of other variables can influence the timing of the bass spawn. I consulted with several more expert anglers; here is a summary of what they had to say:
If Tommy Martin were forced to choose between giving up his Rat-L-Trap or temperature gauge during the spring of the year, he would dump the lipless crankbait. He said keeping tabs on water temperature is more important during spring than at any other time of the year: “Just a few degrees difference can mean a lot, especially early in the spring when the fish are just beginning to move toward the shallows. When I’m looking for pre-spawn bass, I always look for the warmest water I can find.”
It is tough to pinpoint an exact temperature that triggers bass to move shallow, mainly because there isn’t one. Stevenson has seen bass on beds in water as chilly as 58 degrees. However, most anglers will agree that surface temperature should be relatively stable in the low-to-mid-60s before major waves of bass begin to move shallow.
Certain areas on a reservoir attract spawning fish sooner than other spots. Water temperature in wind-protected pockets is likely to be a few degrees warmer than in unprotected coves hammered by chilly north winds all winter.
On a lake that lies north to south, bass pro Zell Rowland said anglers can refine the search the warmest water by concentrating on pockets that stem off the northwest shoreline: “These types of places will have been protected from cold winds throughout winter. Plus, they will be subject to warming the quickest because they will be getting hit with warm sunlight all day long.”
Aquatic vegetation and wood cover such as buck brush, stumps, willows, boat houses, and rock piles add to the attraction; weeds and wood absorb and re-radiate heat.
“It’s sort of an incubator effect,” said Stevenson.
The geographic location of a reservoir has a major impact on when the meat of the spawn occurs. Winters are generally much less severe in Zapata than in Denton. That’s why it is entirely possible for a bass angler at Lake Falcon to catch bass off of beds in the middle of January, while a Ray Roberts regular might have to thaw the ice off his windshield just so he can see to drive to the lake.
The farther south a lake is situated, the quicker its water temperatures will warm sufficiently to attract spawning bass into the shallows. The farther north a reservoir is located, the longer it takes the crucial warm-up to occur.
“Thermal enrichment” can have a major impact on when the spawn begins and ends.
Thermal enrichment is a term associated with impoundments that provide water for cooling power plant turbines. These include Monticello, Fayette County, Bastrop, Gibbons Creek, and Welsh.
Cooling water circulates back into the lake at a much warmer temperature than when it went in. The warm water overrides the chilling effects of Jack Frost, thus fooling bass into thinking it is spring when it is still winter outside.
The spawn on many power plant lakes will wind down at about the same time it gets started on neighboring cold-water reservoirs.
A three-ton Ruud heat pump will warm a one-room shanty much quicker than it can heat a 2000-square-foot house. A similar relationship exists between the sun and bass lakes.
The bigger the lake, the longer it takes the spawn to run its course. In fact, on extremely large reservoirs such as Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn, the spawn may extend over several months.
“A lot of people are under the impression that all of the bass in a lake run up into the shallows and spawn at the same time,” said Martin. “But there couldn’t be anything farther from the truth. On a lake the size of Toledo Bend, the spawn may begin as early as February, but it won’t end until sometime in May or even early June.”
On big lakes, the spawn always begins in the upper reaches first, where the water is shallowest and quickest to warm. As days become progressively longer and ambient temperatures grow warmer, the mid-lake and southern segments warm sufficiently to lure spawning fish into shallow pockets and coves.
On big lakes with abundant bass populations, subsequent waves of fish will eventually take up housekeeping on main lake points, humps, and ridges nearest the dam. These stragglers typically represent the final act in yet another passing of one of nature’s greatest shows.
Like other wild creatures, bass are somewhat ritualistic when it comes time to perpetuate the species. When a fat female goes looking for a place to spawn, she usually goes wherever her male suitor decides to take her. The smaller male bass, also known as “bucks,” initiate the dating game.
It begins with the construction of a “nest” or “bed.” The male uses its tail to “fan” or clean off a spot on bottom where the female can deposit its eggs. Bass usually prefer to spawn on a sand or gravel bottom in water ranging from 1 to 4 feet deep, but they sometimes build nests on top of logs, stumps, and tree limbs.
Once the house is built, the male selects its mate and courts her to the nest. That is where the romance starts to heat up, if you want to call it that. There is usually some nudging and butting involved as the aggressive male rides herd over the female in an effort to get her to displace her eggs on top of the tidy bed. When she is ready, the female will turn on her side and shudder as she spews eggs through her vent. The male reacts by secreting semen that fertilizes the cloud of eggs before they settle on bottom.
This sequence might occur multiple times in a short period. Once the female leaves the nest, she might pair with several other males before her roe is depleted. Fisheries scientists theorize that multiple partnerships are nature’s way of ensuring a good genetic mix to keep a fishery healthy.
Bass are object nuts by nature and prefer lots of clutter around their houses. Active nests are occasionally found on bald flats and shorelines, but as a rule, most spawning activity takes place in relation to bushes, boat docks, stumps, standing trees, laydown logs, and scattered clumps of vegetation such as hydrilla, pond weed, eel grass, and reeds. Find this type of stuff situated in the back of a cove, cut, canal, or on top of a secondary point or roadbed, odds are spawning beds will be nearby.
—story by Matt Williams