Catching, Not Keeping the Spring Spawners
On sprawling smallmouth reservoirs throughout the state, skilled bass anglers can be seen racing crankbaits through rocky shoreline surf in late March. Two months later, Idahoís largemouth aficionados are still crawling worms around gravelly points, sun-warmed coves, and wooden "stickups." Both bassing groups are deliberately "fishing the spawn," but how do you account for their wide differences in times, places, and methods?
by Richard North
Bass anglers generally know that olí bucketmouth and his red-eyed cousin both spawn sometime in spring, though exactly when is a mystery to most. Stories also circulate that if you manage to toss a lure anywhere near a bass nest at that time, it will be furiously smashed. Others say no, non-feeding spawners will ignore or merely slap at lures. Well, yes and no to both the above.
Such confusion is common in bass-spawn fishing tactics, especially if Idahoís mysterious smallmouth spawners are to be a part of your spring efforts. For anglers who study and take advantage of bass spawning behavior, however, March to June can be a productive lure-flipping period indeed.
Many states close bass seasons during spawning months in the belief that fish are just too vulnerable at this time. Conservation-minded anglers also balk at the idea of removing fish just as theyíre trying to reproduce.
So should conscientious bassers be fishing the spawn in the first place?
For one thing, you donít have to keep the bass spawners you catch. Let them go unharmed and most will immediately return to procreative duties. Most bass anglers who are informed enough to fish the spawn effectively already practice catch-and-release philosophy.
Pick on the More Prolific and just as Tasty:
If you want to eat warmwater fish, pick on super-prolific crappie, perch, bluegills, and catfish, not our increasingly hard-hit bass stocks.
Secondly, even if a number of bass spawners are removed, a sizable lakeís bass population isnít affected that much. Only about 4 percent of a given spawn is thought to reach catchable maturity anyway, and whatís the difference between keeping a bedding bass versus a potential spawner taken at some other time of year? Still, catch-and-release angling for all bass throughout the year is probably the proper wave of the future.
Water Temperature Determines Spawn:
Water temperature, not a particular month, is what pulls bass up from winter depths and onto their shallow-water spawning beds. Youíre apt to hit bedding largemouths any time after spawning depths (3 to 5 feet, on the average) pass 60 degrees. The mid-60s are about perfect, but if persistent cold snaps chill the shallows, fish may leave and not return. Normally-protective males will abandon eggs to predators, while females simply reabsorb unlaid eggs into their bodies, producing a near-absence of that year-class of catchables in a couple years down the road. In nippy Idaho, "false spawns" like this can be a major problem in largemouth populations.
Assuming normal conditions, smaller male largemouths arrive in the shallows first, fan out a 2" to 6" deep depression in gravel or hard-packed sand, and then herd a much larger female toward the site for egg laying. During nest preparation, waiting females hang around slightly deeper water near some sort of bottom structure variously called "waiting stations" or "rubbing logs."
When the Male Has Had it With the Kids, They Scatter!:
Soon after eggs are laid and fertilized, the female permanently leaves the area, while the male fiercely guards the nest against egg-eating panfish, carp, and crawfish, while also fanning it clean of debris and wave-washed siltation. When eggs hatch two to five days after fertilization, the male protects the fry for a few more days, then suddenly goes on a rampage, eats as many of his own offspring as he can catch, and abandons family-rearing altogether until next spring.
How do largemouth anglers take advantage of all this? First, use a temperature gauge to identify lake areas with 60 degree-plus temperatures -- usually shallower coves and wind-leeward northernly banks facing the sun. Secondly, look for pea-gravel or hard sand bottoms in calm covers and bank pockets, at creek mouths, and along leeward sides of points where nesting sites are protected from wave-churned sediment and cold currents.
Fast-moving crankbaits, spoons, and spinnerbaits let you "prospect" more spawning water faster. If you think youíve located an actual bed, flipping a surface plug to it is one of the glories of spring fishing. An important tip: if you immediately get a strike from a bass weighing a pound or two, let it go and keep casting for 10 minutes or more to and around the same spot. You probably caught the small male, and a much bigger and less aggressive female may be nearby. Repeat casts with surface plugs, crankbaits, and spinnerbaits could eventually anger her into hitting, or at least "slapping" the nuisance.
Alternatively, bottom-crawl a pork eel or plastic worm through the nest. Both male and female tend to pick up (not really "hit") such lures and then drop them away from their nest, so set the hook at any line movement.
If all the largemouths youíre catching are on the small side, you may be seasonally a bit early when only runt males are on bedding areas. Back off a little deeper to rocky holding areas and heavier wooden stickups ("rubbing logs") to find waiting females. Unlike warm-weather fishing later on, chilled largemouth spawners are apt to be on the sunny side of this and other structures, not in the shade.
Finally, if you ever spot a tightly-schooled "ball" of tiny bass fry near shore, cast most any lure nearby and hang on! The nearby male with smash your offering for sure. You know heís there, or the fry would already be scattered by Daddy and other predators.
Things are a Little Different With the Smallmouth
All the foregoing applies to largemouths. To catch smallmouth spawners, somewhat different tactics are needed. Smallmouths spawn in cooler water temperatures (58 degrees to 63 degrees), which can arrive several weeks earlier than largemouth bedding temperatures. Smallmouths also bed at deeper levels, 4 to 8 feet on average, but sometimes as deep as 15 feet.
Surface plugs, therefore, are usually not advisable on smallies, though small shallow-running crankbaits seem to be deadly, and I have seen the day when smallmouth were smashing surface plugs consistently.
Pork eels and plastic worms appear less effective on smallmouth spawners than for largemouths, but more compact bottom-crawling jigs and pork frogs are great.
Finally, bronzebacks donít bed as deliberately as do their bucketmouth relatives, preferring to drop eggs casually in any convenient depression between rocks. Neither does the smallmouth male protect his nest and fry as largemouth males do.
The Smallmouth Spawn Advantages
Fishing the bronzeback spawn thus appears much more a hit-or-miss proposition. Still, it offers several advantages you wonít find at any other time. For one thing, hefty smallmouth spawners are briefly in relatively shallow water, say four or five feet, where they can be fast-worked with crankbaits and spoons. (The rest of the year, big bronzebacks in particular, lurk 15 to 50 feet down in their typically clear-water reservoirs which is why most bank-working fisherfolk complain that only peewee smallmouths are left.)
Another advantage is how remarkably early smallmouth spawners sometimes start hitting. I still canít get used to catching big bass in wave-tossed shallows when my nose is blue and my ears are about ready to snap off. Even if you donít take fish in four feet of water, plenty of worthwhile bronzebacks are cruising and holding in pre-spawn stations at less than 15 feet, which is much easier and less time-consuming to fish than forty feet in mid-summer.
Much of Idahoís bass waters are slow-moving streams like the lower Snake River, Boise, Payette, Clearwater, and Pend Oreille Rivers. Smallmouths generally predominate in these streams. While a few extra spawners can be taken in the spring, the advantage isnít as great as in reservoirs -- thereís just too much suitable spawning water in rivers.
A major early-season technique, though, is to hit slack-water sloughs adjoining currents. Chilled fish seem to congregate here, and theyíll readily inhale slow-moving jigs worked along the bottom.
Tournaments Tell a Story
At a U. S. B.A.S.S. tournament at Brownlee Reservoir one April, I witnessed 325 smallmouths between one and five pounds being weighed in and released at dayís end. Most of these were taken on jigs and crankbaits in 10 to 15 feet of water, where they had apparently retreated after a week of raw weather. A week or so earlier, big spawners had been "cranked up" right in the shallows and were expected to return there shortly when the sun resumed its magic.
Tournament contestants assured me that during July and August meets, nearly everyone resorted to scratching bottom in 40-feet-plus depths, using mostly crawdad-imitating jigs.
It just goes to show that if you like shallow-water bass action, you ought not to miss Idahoís brief but dramatic spring spawn fishing.