BASS FISHING’S VERSION of March Madness may not be in full swing just yet, but it won’t be long.
It’s a bewitching phase of the game that beckons armies of bass toward the shallows where they’ll choose partners, build spawning beds and ultimately create another generation of lunkers for us anglers to catch.
I don’t know what your game plan might be to cope with all the madness. However, it’s a safe bet that most anglers will be running a full court press in skinny water. They have high hopes of tempting a bug-eyed bass with a serious weight problem into playing some defense.
It’s never a bad strategy to probe around in water shallow enough to wade in during spring. However, next time you’re up there knocking around in thigh deep water, keep in mind these words from the wise offered up years ago by the late Ken Cook.
“For every bass you catch along the bank during springtime, there are probably 12 to 15 in a little deeper water behind you,” he said. “Often times, that’s where the big ones will be.”
Cook passed away in January 2016. He was a former Oklahoma fisheries biologist turned bass pro who won the sport’s biggest show—the Bassmaster Classic—in 1991.
Cook believed that a high percentage of bigger bass spawn at mid-range depths that are often neglected by springtime fishing crowds. This belief is shared by scores of other savvy anglers.
“I think it goes on way more than a lot fishermen realize,” said Tommy Martin, a veteran Toledo Bend guide and 1974 Classic champ. “A big bass might spawn shallow if there is plenty of cover around to make it feel secure
“Other than that, I think a lot of the really big fish in a lake such as Toledo Bend or Sam Rayburn will spawn out in there in four to eight feet of water where they are less pressured—possibly even deeper. I know they spawn deeper in really clear water such as Lake Amistad, because I’ve seen them.”
Bassmaster Elite Series pro and fishing guide Ray Hanselman of Del Rio says it is not uncommon to see largemouths locked on beds at Amistad in 22 to 24 feet of water during calm, sunny conditions. He’s found them as deep as 30 feet with the aid of a “Flogger,” an underwater viewing device that looks similar to one of plastic orange cones used by road and traffic crews.
“Available cover and water clarity are always important, but I think a lot of it depends on where the fish live, too,” Hanselman said. “At Amistad, there are a lot of fish on the main lake that will bed out there on top of those big flats and ledges. They were born out there. It’s where they live. They aren’t going to pack up and head up a creek to spawn.”
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist Todd Driscoll of Brookeland says it is impossible know how deep largemouths might spawn in the more off-colored waters of Sam Rayburn to Toledo Bend. However, he feels certain some activity goes on at depths where the fish can’t be seen with a good pair of Costas.
“Are they spawning 8 to 10 feet deep on Rayburn?” Driscoll said. “Its strictly educated speculation, but I’d bet the farm on it. You hear it a lot that big fish tend to spawn deeper because they’re just smarter, but I’m not aware of any scientific studies that speak to that. However, I definitely think they’ll use deeper water as a sanctuary, especially during a low water year that takes willows, buck brush and other woody shore cover out of the picture.”
Another factor that might make deeper water more attractive to a big bass is boat or fishing pressure, the biologist said.
“Big bass are a lot like big bucks—pressure definitely affects them,” Driscoll said. “If you have bunch of boats zipping down the banks sight fishing, it could definitely force the fish out to deeper water. I expect they would behave differently on a completely unpressured lake. I think far more bigger fish would be up there in one to two feet of water.”
Driscoll has reeled in his share of big bass over the years. One of the largest confirms the notion some of the biggest fish in the lake will spawn in water that’s way over your head.
His bass was caught off a deep spawning bed the biologist found on Lake Pinkston in February 2015. Driscoll said the bed was in about 10 feet of water. He could barely see it with the aid of high quality polarized sunglasses.
“It had been one of those rare springs when we were in a drought and the water was really gin clear,” he recalled. “The surface was slick as glass that day with blue bird sun.
“All I could see was a light spot about three feet in diameter. Every once in a while I’d see a shadow pass across it. I never would have been able to see that bed if the conditions hadn’t been just right.”
Driscoll said he fished the bed four different times over the course of the day before he finally made the pitch that got the fish to fire. It was just shy of 12 pounds.
Martin will turn 79 next November. Admittedly, the Nitro pro can’t see bedding fish near as well as he used to, but he can recall days when it wasn’t uncommon to spot active spawning nests in water a deep as eight to nine feet on Toledo Bend.
“That was back when we had a lot of grass in the lake, and the water was really clear,” he said. “You can’t see spawning fish that deep on Toledo Bend now, but they are still out there. You just have to get the right mind set and fish for them differently to catch them.”
One of the most important pieces of advice Martin offered for targeting spawning bass in deep or shallow water involves bait choice. Fast-moving baits are out. Lures that can be crawled at a turtle’s pace are in.
“Spawning bass aren’t very likely to chase, so you’ll need to lay down the spinnerbaits, Chatterbaits and Rat-L-Traps and pick up the Carolina rig, Texas rig or jig. A soft jerkbait such as a Zoom Fluke or Senko works pretty good too.”
When targeting spawning bass away from the bank, Martin likes to probe long, sloping points and expansive flats that run way out into the lake with lots of four to eight foot water on top.
Shorelines also will hold spawning fish, but you’ll need to position the boat in about 12 feet of water and cast toward the bank. The idea is to cast to water about three feet deep and work the bait through 4-10 feet of water.
“It’s hard to beat a Carolina rig in that situation,” Martin said. “You’ll basically just be blind casting and working areas that aren’t getting a lot of pressure when most guys are up there beating the banks. That’s how a lot of big fish are caught this time of year. Anglers may not realize it when they catch one, but a bunch of those fish are probably on or around spawning beds too deep to see.”
The Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center is a hatchery and aquaria in Athens, Texas, 75 miles southeast of Dallas.
—story by MATT WILLIAMS