Pete Ponds slid his big bass boat into position, with the bow pointed right into a little nook of a cove on the upper end of Okhissa Lake. He was kneeling on the front deck working the trolling motor with his hands.
With the boat stopped and held in place with the two Powel Poles on the bow, Ponds slowly stood and cupped his hands around his eyes.
“They’re they are,” he said. “They’re on the bed. The male’s back and he’s got a big female with him.”
Ponds, a B.A.S.S. Elite Series pro from Madison, had found the bed on Lake Okhissa a couple of days before, while the solitary male was finishing the task of preparing the spawning spot. The fisherman decided to pass it up and return later to see if a bigger female would come.
“You wanted to experience bed fishing, well you’re going to see it right now in its truest sense, with both a male and female on the bed,” Ponds said. “Hope you got good sunglasses.”
Ponds grabbed a rod and reel, already baited and ready. It was a 7-foot-2 inch heavy action Duckett Rod, with an Ardent reel spooled with 14-pound Vicious fluorocarbon line. There was a quarter-ounce bullet weight and a Bruiser Avenger soft-plastic lure in a pumpkin seed color on a 4/0 Gamakatsu big bite hook.
Warning me to settle in for what could be a long lesson, Ponds began the task of flipping the lure into the bed.
“If all goes to plan, I’ll get the male first, probably pretty quick, and then the female, but she might take some time,” he said. “It’s all about aggravating them because their mind is not on eating; it’s all about producing baby bass. They won’t be picking it up to eat it, but to move it out of the bed. The trick is in the timing of the hookset. Too early, and you can snag it on the outside of the mouth, which isn’t legal in tournaments. Too late, and they will have already blown it out of the bed.”
On Ponds’ third flip, the 2½ -pound male inhaled the lure, and, before it could move over and blow it out, Ponds buried the barb of the hook in its lips.
“Got him! Watch the female,” he hollered, and I looked in the bed and couldn’t see her. “Uh … she’s gone.”
“She’ll be back … I hope,” Ponds said, reaching down and lipping the male. “I’ll put him in the livewell now and release him later. If I put him back, he’ll go right back to the bed and he will be the one that keeps biting the lure. You can catch him over and over, and I have done that. If I want to get her, he’s got to go.”
It didn’t take long for Ponds to spot the female, which was hanging around a small log about five feet from the bed. We stayed quite, Ponds watched and we waited to see if she’d return to the bed. It was a short wait.
“There she goes, see her,” Ponds said, pointing to the fish that was slowly swimming back toward the circular indention in the hard lake bottom. “And … she’s back in the bed.”
The fish stopped and stayed in position, only slightly turning in what appeared to be an attempt to spot her male friend.
Ponds pitched the lure into the water, about 3 feet past the bed and drew it back into the ring. He shook it and shook it, without a reaction.
This was repeated about 30 times over the next 45 minutes, with the patient Ponds watching and reading the fish’s reactions. He never took his eyes off the fish. Not once.
“She’s getting a little agitated now; see how she went toward it, then retreated and flared its gills like a yawn,” he said. “They do that when they’ve about had enough. It won’t be long now.”
His next cast got the same reaction, but the one that followed got the desired result.
The big female moved over to the bait, tilted her body down and sucked the soft-plastic bait into its cavernous mouth. As she turned to the edge of the bed to spit it out, Ponds beat her to the punch. He set the hook and soon the 5½-pounder with a big, fat, egg-laden belly was in his hands.
“Thank you,” he said to her, as he very tenderly handled her, extracted the hook and slid her back into Okhissa. “Now go make babies.”
Ponds returned the male, too, and we watched for his return to the bed. It took a few minutes, probably while he was getting reoriented to his waters, but he went right back to bed.
Bed fishing for bass is not for everybody. It can be a slow process that limits the amount of fishing time during a day.
“But, it is a way to target big fish, and the only way you can catch them when they are bedding,” Ponds said. “The spawn in a long, long process that begins weeks ahead of time when the males move up and build the beds, followed by the brief visit from females who are only there a day or two or three to lay their eggs. When the females leave, the male remains to protect the eggs until they hatch and then he follows the fry around to guard them.
“The thing to remember is that all this takes a while. It takes about three weeks for each male and his partner, but not all fish are ready at the same time. It is a long process. It can start in early February in South Mississippi but may not start in the Northern part until late March. April is a peak bedding month in most of the state.”
Prespawn is best
Water temperature is key, but fish also relate to daylight. They can sense the transition of winter into spring by the growing percentage of light hours to dark hours. Cold temperatures can delay it, but only for so long.
“When the surface temperatures reach into the mid 50s and stay there, look for the males to move up and start looking for a spot to build beds,” Ponds said. “That’s why it happens earlier in South Mississippi. As you’ve seen this winter, we had a couple of times in February when the water got into the 50s and then dropped back out. When you get into March, you see more stable overnight temperatures and that is when the water warms up and stays warm and initiates bass spawning behavior.”
Ponds said that the fishing on the front and back ends of the process is the best, especially the front end or prespawn.
“When the males move up that’s when you can catch a lot of fish in a short period of time,” he said. “If there’s a lot of vegetation, I will throw a swimming lizard or a swim jig, the jig catches bigger fish. In more open water, I throw a lipless crankbait and cover a lot of water. The males will be aggressive.
“If I need bigger fish, like in a tournament, then I have to move out to the nearest deep water, either a ledge or a ditch, with cover. That’s where the females will stage until they are ready. I’ll throw a crankbait, like a square bill, on those stumps, or a spinnerbait. The females will be actively feeding, too, because they are trying to build up their strength for the spawn.”
Once the fish are together on the bed, it’s strictly a battle of wits, or is it patience?
“It’s a lot of both,” Ponds said. “And I really like that part, because it is you against that one fish, two fish at the most. You know they are there; you can see them. They know you are there; they can see you. It can get personal, too, especially in a long battle where you keep trying to aggravate it and the fish is reluctant to participate.
“There was one tournament when I had a big female on the bed and I spent over 1½ hours trying to get inside her head and a hook inside her mouth. I was that locked in on that one fish and I was the one that got agitated. It was like I had to catch her and I finally did.”
It is far from a sure thing.
“A lot of fish will get bored or tired of it and just move off the bed,” Ponds said. “They will eventually come back, unless you have really spooked them.”
The window is narrow on females on the bed; they spend far less time there than the males.
“I don’t know how long it can vary, but it seems like it is only a few days,” Ponds said. “What happens is that the males build the beds and then wait for the females. He’ll circle the nest looking. When a female gets near, you will see the male actually start trying to nudge her toward the bed. He will bump against her trying to move her to the bed, and there’s another purpose to the bumping. It loosens the eggs and gets her closer to being ready to expel the eggs. While that is going on, you can forget getting one of them to bite. It ain’t gonna happen.”
When they move up on the bed, feeding is still out of the question.
“It’s all about aggravation and that takes the soft-plastics. I like the Bruiser Avenger (one of his sponsors), but you can use a lizard or a tube bait and some guys even use a Senko-type bait,” he said. “I use the weight because it’s easier to control and gives me some feel.
“As for color, if you want to see it and the fish haven’t been pressured, then use white or chartreuse. I tend to use more natural colors, and that is all I will use in very clear water, or on small public waters where this a lot of pressure on the fish.”
After the eggs have been deposited and fertilized, the female’s role in spawning is complete. She will not stay long on the nest and will not be there when the eggs hatch and fry are released.
“They’re out of there and will be dormant for about a week, 10 days or two weeks — it varies,” Ponds said. “But, when they do get active again, they will bite like crazy. You can find them on the first drop back out toward deep water. They will move there and stay a while and they will stack up in hot spots. Crankbaits and soft plastics will both work. A topwater in the right conditions will be deadly. Once they start eating, they will be hungry and therefore aggressive.”
The males will stay close to the nest, and watch the eggs closely. They can still be caught by the same bedding techniques, Ponds said, but also with other lures. They will also hit topwater baits and other lures passing close to or above the bed.
“Then when the fry hatch and start to move, he will follow them and protect them, usually they will move to some shady spot or under vegetation,” Ponds said. “They are easy to spot. When you make a cast and see some small fish activity, it is likely tiny bass fry. The male is very protective during this time and he will hit just about anything. A Pop-R is real good and a small frog like the Mississippi-made Small Dog will work. Crankbaits and lipless crankbaits are good, as well as spinnerbaits.”