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Sightfishing for bass chance for trophy

4/25/2005

If you asked largemouth-bass anglers across the United States to pick their favorite season for fishing, I would bet the No. 1 choice is spring.

The change to warmer temperatures brings a lot of anglers back out on the water. Spring is characterized by rebirth in nature. Leaves pop forth on the trees; blossoms open up on flowering plants.

Bass also like the warming temperatures as they look for places to produce baby bass. Spring presents the greatest chance for most bass anglers to catch that trophy wall mount he or she dreams about.

One of the best methods of catching trophy fish in the spring is sightfishing for bass on spawning beds. This fishing method is so potent that in some states, primarily Northern states, the bass fishing season is closed during the spawning time.

The key ingredients to sightfishing are knowing at what water temperature the bass begin their spawning ritual, what a spawning bed looks like and where to search for them, and what baits and fishing techniques are most productive.

Three bass fishing guides from Texas, Florida and South Carolina share their knowledge on the subject:

Study the seasonal differences

Rising water temperature, somewhere between the high 50s and mid-60s, dictates the spawning urge in bass.

"The first bed fish I saw this year was on Valentine's Day," said Butch Terpe, whose home waters are found at Lake Conroe in Texas.

"It was a real nice warm day. I had one client with me and we caught 21 bass. We had a 7-pound fish in the morning that he caught, and that evening I had a 7.42- and an 8.75-pound fish."

"The fish were in the shallows, getting ready to spawn," Terpe said. "They may not have been dropping their eggs right then, but they were going to start coming in and build nests."

Jerry Neeley, a guide on Lake Wylie that straddles North and South Carolina, looks for water temperatures between 60 and 65 degrees and a full-moon cycle.

"Usually by that first full moon in April, they are their beds," Neeley said.

On Lake Okeechobee in Florida, the spawning urge may begin as early as November. The compulsion here is not brought on by rising water temps, but more likely falling water temps as the shallow waters of Okeechobee cool from the previous hot summer months.

"November is more of a prespawn month," said Todd Kersey, who calls Lake Okeechobee home. "December is our first real strong month for spawning.

"I have seen the water temps in the high 40s in the winter and 90s in the summer. As the water temps drop, fish move in from the open lake into the grassy shallows. A hard cold snap followed by a new moon or full moon and a hard warming trend after that immediately draws them in."

Kersey's largest bass caught fishing the spawning beds is 12.5 pounds.

What does a spawning bed look like?

In Florida, lakes are characterized as having sandy bottoms and lots of aquatic grass — mostly eel and joint grass, which is sometimes referred to as Kissimmee grass. Joint grass can best be described as a bladed or straw type, and that's what spawning bass love.

"When you see that type of grass, you know that area could hold spawning beds," Kersey said. "What you will find is that the stuff (grass) will start floating at that time of year. It almost looks like somebody ran through it with an outboard engine."

But grass cut by the prop of an outboard engine looks like it is has been cleanly cut in different sizes. Floating grass created by a male bass fanning an area with its tail is in one piece.

"When a fish releases the grass because of the fanning, he actually washes the dirt away from the roots," Kersey said. "When it floats up, it floats up in a full piece and you will see small little roots on the end.

"Then you will know you are in a spawning area, or the spawning is starting."

Spawning beds in Texas waters are usually found in 1 to 2 feet of water; but if the water is exceptionally clear, the beds may be as deep as 6 or 7 feet.

"You need a good pair of polarized sunglasses to cut the water glare so that you can see the beds and the fish," Terpe said. "I look for beds that have brighter-colored sand around them; it looks like the fish have just finished digging it out.

"Sometimes the holes they are sitting in are so deep you can't see them, but they will be there, especially if they are in over a foot of water."

On Lake Wylie, bedding activity starts on the northern end of the lake first and then works its way down the lake.

"We have a lot of creeks that feed into the river itself, wide creeks with little pockets that go off in them. You might see a little cove that is no bigger than a house. You can get your boat up in the pocket and that's just about it," Neeley said.

"There will be at least one fish, maybe two buck bass, on beds in that little place. Pea gravel or sand works real good for beds."

How to catch 'em

Often anglers will know bass are spawning but haven't yet seen them. In that case, Neeley suggests using a fluke or a floating worm early in the morning or late in the afternoon, especially before the sun get up high on the water. He then will switch to a Zoom 6-inch lizard in a watermelon seed or similar color pattern that is rigged Texas style or employed for split-shotting.

"Just drop the bait right along the edge of the bed and they will usually pick it up," he said. "Sometimes I will dip the tail in chartreuse dye."

In muddy-water conditions, Neeley will cast a willow leaf, four-blade spinnerbait or a two-blade Colorado spinnerbait because of the vibration factor.

"I fan cast across the area, first using the two blade, 3/8-ounce Colorado spinnerbait, one large blade and one smaller on a long arm" he said. Then Neeley might change out to the four-bladed bait; his favorite color is green and white.

Terpe explains that one needs get very close to the bedding fish for success and an extremely quiet approach is required.

"Too much noise and commotion and you can forget catching the fish," he said.

Terpe pitches or flips a craw worm about 3 feet past the nest and works it in toward the spawning bed very slowly.

If Terpe were to pick one lure that he likes best for sightfishing, it would be a black/blue craw worm.

"I like the small, compact bait for sightfishing," he said. "Some people use tubes; others use lizards. They all work … just regular worms will work. A white tube works pretty well because you can see the fish suck the bait in."

"Sometimes you can see the fish real good, see them suck it in. When they are real shallow you can see everything. That's really fun," he added. Sometimes they spit it out as fast as they suck it in.

"One day I saw a big fish on a bed and I could not get her to hit. I wasn't trying to get the buck bass to hit but he hit it three times, and I caught him three times."

Even though black/blue is his favorite color, he changes bait colors frequently if the fish are being spooked by the color.

"Sometimes certain colors spook the fish, so I will change to maybe a watermelon, pumpkin seed, tequila … try to figure out what was spooking them."

Todd Kersey doesn't have a favorite bait for spawning bass, but believes his fishing success can be attributed to his ability to be open to change.

"I was out in the Everglades and hit the spawn just perfect. We had one day I probably caught 100 fish, with 10 fish over 7 pounds, that we picked off of beds," Kersey said.

"Probably eight different lures caught those 10 different fish utilizing the same presentation and basic colors. I think bass are just like we are: Some days you want pizza; other days you want Mexican."

He is constantly changing up in hopes of getting a reaction from the fish.

Neeley on occasion tries to get the fish to react to a modified Rapalla.

"Sometimes I will take a Rapalla, or something like that, and bend the lip on it kind of straight down. It makes it stay on top of the water," he said.

"I usually go with the small black one. I always use bigger hooks on the back to make it sink down. Pop it a little bit as it is retrieved."


Getting close but not too close to the beds, knowing where to look for bedding activity and using the best baits is all part of the mystique of sightfishing for bass.

One last comment on the ethics of fishing for bass on spawning beds:

If anglers kept the fish they caught off the spawning beds, it would present an ethical problem. But catch and release is not generally thought to have an adverse affect the ability of the fish to complete the spawning cycle.

If you do catch that once-in-a-lifetime behemoth, take only pictures of the fish and record its measurements; most taxidermists can produce a likeness of the fish in a plastic mount using those vitals.