TEXAS BASS PRO Tommy Martin of Hemphill likes to remember that spring-like morning back in the winter of 2013.
It was February 7 and the weather had been unseasonably pleasant across eastern Texas for nearly a month. Water temperatures on Toledo Bend were on a gradual upswing after several 70-degree days.
Martin had a hunch the bass might be nudging toward sunbaked shallows, so he headed to the back of Clear Creek near Patroon to do some exploring. He and two guide clients didn’t look for long before they discovered pay dirt.
“Bass were everywhere, and they were shallow,” he recalled. “Some were on beds and some were just cruising.”
Martin put the Power Poles down and didn’t raise them again for nearly three hours. The anglers caught and released close to 80 bass — several in the four-pound range — without ever moving the boat. All were caught on a Texas rigged Zoom Baby Brush Hog matched with a light slip sinker.
Martin says it’s not uncommon to find spawning bass in Clear Creek during February, but stumbling across such a large congregation so early in the month was somewhat of an anomaly.
“Clear Creek is always one of the first areas to warm up on this lake, but it happened way early that year,” he said. “The water temperature was 60 degrees in there that day. It was probably five degrees warmer than it normally is. That’s why those fish were there.”
Like most bass fishermen and many fisheries scientists, Martin is adamant that nothing plays a bigger role to trigger spawning activity than water temperature. Rising water temperatures are a byproduct of the increasingly longer days and shorter nights that accompany the seasonal shift from winter to spring.
“There is no doubt about it,” he said. “If the water temperature isn’t right, it’s not happening.”
As a rule, bass will begin gravitating towards the shallows when water temperatures climb into the upper 50s. Males are always the first to arrive. The guys build the spawning beds while the girls hang tight to nearby “staging areas” in deeper water until the water temperature warms sufficiently to take the courtship to the next level.
Sometimes, it takes a few days for all this to occur.
Other times, a vacant spawning flat might become crowded with big bass overnight. That’s what happened on the eve of the Bassmaster Top 150 event held on Florida’s Kissimmee Chain of Lakes in January 2001.
Many competitors spent the entire the tournament practice searching for spawning bass to no avail. On the final afternoon after a multi-day warming trend, Arizona pro Dean Rojas stumbled across a gold mine in Shingle Creek on Lake Tohopekaliga.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” Rojas told Bassmaster.com. “I saw 10 pounders, 9 pounders, 8 pounders everywhere I looked.”
Rojas returned to the spot during the opening round, January 17. Casting to spawning beds he could actually see, he caught a five-bass limit weighing 45 pounds, 2 ounces. The record still stands as the BASS single day weight total on five fish. He went on to win the event with 20 bass weighing 108-12. Most were caught from spawning beds using Texas-rigged lizards and creature baits.
“That just goes to show you what can happen when things get right,” Martin said. “When the water temperature reaches 60 degrees it’s a good idea to be shallow, and you had better be looking.”
Martin says Rojas’s catch lends some credence to the belief that some of the biggest bass in a lake are prone to spawn earlier than smaller ones.
“I definitely think a lot of the big fish eight pounds and up are done quicker than we realize,” he said. “I don’t know why that is, but I think they spawn in colder water than smaller bass will. They’ll spawn deeper, too, five to eight feet or sometimes deeper in really clear water.”
As important as water temperature is to trigger spawning activity, there are some secondary factors that can impact on how quickly the warm up will occur. More important is which areas within an impoundment might heat up quicker than others.
Certain areas within a reservoir system will warm quicker and attract spawning fish earlier in the year than others. To wit:
On a man-made reservoir that lies north to south, the warmest water early in the year will almost always be found at the northern reaches of the impoundment. Reservoirs are generally flatter, shallower and faster to warm at the upper end compared to deeper quadrants closer to the dam. Martin says it is not uncommon to see an eight- to ten-degree swing in surface temperatures on opposite ends of large lakes such as Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn.
Martin says you can refine the search for the warmest water by keying on pockets, coves and creeks located along the lake’s northwest shoreline. These areas are usually protected from chilly north winds 100 percent of the time by the surrounding landscape. They also receive abundant sunlight over the course of the day.
“A creek or cove protected from north winds may be four to five degrees warmer than one that isn’t,” Martin said.
The geographic location of a reservoir can have a huge impact on how quickly the water warms.
The farther south a lake is, the quicker that water temperature will warm sufficiently to attract spawning bass into the shallows. The farther north a reservoir is, the longer it takes for the crucial warm-up to occur.
Lakes Falcon and Ray Roberts pose a good comparison. The winters are much less severe in Zapata than in Denton. It’s not uncommon for bass to be on beds on Lake Falcon in mid-January while Ray Roberts fishermen are still thawing ice off their windshields, so they can see to drive to the lake.
Martin thinks a timely rise in water level can spur an early move toward the shallows, especially if the rise comes after an extended period of low water.
“It seems like the fish are reluctant to come to the bank in low water because of the lack of cover, even if the water is warm,” Martin said. “Rising water floods new cover, so the fish are naturally more comfortable. Plus, rising water usually means murky water, and murky water warms faster than clear.”
Spring is just around corner, and big bass are on the prowl. Anglers can do themselves a favor by making sure all of their gear is in good working order before heading to the lake.
A temperature gauge that is functioning properly should be at the top of the list. Without it, seeking out the warmest water in an otherwise chilly lake will be nothing more than a guessing game.
—story by MATT WILLIAMS
The Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center is a hatchery and aquaria in Athens, Texas, 75 miles southeast of Dallas.