Heading into the second round of the March 2015 Bassmaster Central Open on Barnett Reservoir, Gene Bishop had 8 pounds and was on the outside looking in at a possible paycheck.
That’s when he switched gears and went back to a long-proven pattern on The Rez, going shallow and swimming an 8-inch june bug lizard around any vegetation he could find.
Day 2 produced 26 pounds, and Day 3’s finale brought another 21 to push Bishop from just trying to win back his entry fee to taking the winner’s trophy, the $48,000 top prize and a berth in this month’s 2016 Bassmaster Classic.
He proved what a lot of anglers know, regardless of the lake — old patterns work.
On Barnett it’s a lizard in March. On Pickwick, it might be a lipless crankbait in creeks. On Mississippi’s big Corps of Engineers lakes, there’s belief in a squarebill crankbait on secondary points along migration routes.
In this story, we’ll share some of the top March patterns on Mississippi’s top bass lakes, starting with Bishop’s amazing comeback.
“Everything changed when I went to the old swimming lizard,” said Bishop, whose home in Ridgeland was literally a two-minute drive. “It’s no secret, and everybody who fishes Barnett Reservoir in the spring knows it’s what you do in March when the fish move up.”
It’s a pattern nearly as hold as the 33,000-acre lake, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015. The swimming lizard is what locals turn to when the right number — 58 — shows up on the surface-water thermometer.
“During practice last year before the tournament, the water temperatures were down, around the mid- to upper 40s and the females were out holding on those first small drops,” Bishop said. “I didn’t even fish the final day of practice; I knew the fish were there.
“But, I only caught four fish and a little under 9 pounds (the first day of competition). I kept throwing and couldn’t get a good bite. Then I looked at the surface temp gauge that first afternoon and saw it was in the upper 50s, like 57 degrees. On 58, that’s the number I look for the fish to move shallow. That’s the magic number for me.”
Bishop knew that each year, when the water hits 57 or 58 degrees, it’s like somebody flips a switch to turn on bass movement.
“That’s when the big fish go shallow in mass, and they go in stupid,” he said. “They’re big and dumb, and if you can find an area holding them, you can put up some big numbers quick. That’s what I did: After I moved in about 100 yards from where I had fished the day before, I started hitting the pad stems and other patches of grass.”
It didn’t take long to know it was the right decision.
“Within 10 minutes — I mean the first few casts that morning — I boated a 7 ½(-pounder), and that made me feel great,” Bishop said. “I got confidence, and I had an area that nobody else was hitting. I had it to myself, and it was an area where during the day more and more fish were moving in.
“The action never stopped.”
After a brief hiccup on the event’s third-day finale — his primary area from Day 2 failed to produce — Bishop finished his run with the lizard.
“I got scared for a bit, because in the first few hours I had this one 4 ½-pounder, and that was it,” he said. “But I looked around, and there were several boats all in shallow near me and I didn’t see anyone catching fish.
“So I looked around and saw a little flat area where the water was a little deeper, and I went there and did the same thing. I threw the lizard around the stems and, Bam!, I hooked up right away, and it never stopped.”
A key to the pattern, Bishop said, is braided line.
“I used 50-pound PowerPro that day,” he said, “but I usually use 60- or 65-pound. You need that. You’re fishing shallow, and you’re fishing some tough vegetation. Those pad stems have strong root wads, and a big fish can get around several of them, especially on a long cast.”
And getting the bait away from the boat is another key to success.
“Long casts are part of the pattern, which is why I use a 1/4-ounce bullet weight,” Bishop said. “It gives me the distance, even if I have to make a throw into the wind.
“The braided line gives me the power I need to set the hook if I get a strike at the end of the cast.”
Murky water means bass don’t shy away from the line.
“I’m not worried about line visibility because on Barnett in March, when the fish go shallow, the water is usually muddy,” Bishop explained. “A 2- to 3-inch visibility range is pretty normal. They can’t see the line, but they can see the big profile of the big lizard coming through the water.
“That’s why I use an 8-inch lizard: It’s a big profile bait, and it has a lot of vibration from the curl tail.”
The retrieve is pretty simple.
“I cast it as far as I can, and then I steadily swim it back using the reel, taking past any kind of cover I can see,” Bishop said.
Bass pro Pete Ponds of Madison is another fan of the swimming lizard, and he approaches is just as seriously as Bishop.
“When you move into the shallow pad stems, you have to let the area settle down before casting, and then you fan-cast the entire area around the boat,” Ponds said. “After you tire out that spot, you move up a few boat lengths and start again.
“I try to pole up in the shallows as much as possible and stay off the trolling motor. They can spot you shallow.”
Ponds uses a twist off the old pattern of swimming lures past pad stems in March to entire more big-fish bites.
“If I see the big females are moving up to join the buck bass, then I move out and look for pad stems along a ditch or a small break line leading into the backs of a spawning flat,” he said. “I like a swimming jig with a Yum trailer on those stems nearest the ditch.
“That’s a big profile bait, and it offers them something different than a spinnerbait.”
Lipless cranks at Pickwick
Up at Pickwick Lake, March is much earlier in the pre-spawn pattern due to its more northern location and clear waters, so finding water temperatures as high as the 50s is more difficult.
“That still doesn’t mean you can’t find the fish moving shallow,” said longtime Pickwick guide and pro angler Roger Stegall of Iuka. “I’ve developed a pattern here that works even when the water is still in the 40s but you get a quick bump in it, say from 42 degrees to 45 or 46.
“That’s enough to trigger a bite and move some fish up into some creek channels.”
When that situation arises, he knows what to do.
“One of the things that really works here, that I love to do, is to take a lipless crankbait and fish those creeks,” Stegall said. “I use the Strike King Red Eye Shad … because I like the way the Red Eye Shad swims down when you pause it.
“I know is sounds crazy, and I even had this one client I guided who said I went from being crazy in his eyes to being what he called ‘the smartest man on the planet’ after we caught about 100 or 120 bass in a channel on a lipless crankbait. It was a combination of both smallmouth and largemouth, and we had some brutes.”
Stegall said he usually goes with a bright color, like orange or chartreuse, to help get a reaction strike.
“But you have to work the bait slow to get a lot of strikes,” he said. “You don’t just throw out there and burn it back. You run it as slow as you possibly can and still get the lure to swim and wobble.
“They’ll kill it.”
Crank up flood-control bass
Ponds has used a Bandit crankbait, either in the 100 (shallow square bill) or 200 (deeper, 4 to 5 feet) series to follow fish in their spring migration on Mississippi’s bigger U.S. Army Corps of Engineer flood control lakes — Grenada, Enid and Sardis.
“On those lakes, when fish start migrating they move to the secondary points and creek bends leading up in the coves,” Ponds said. “Usually when these fish start moving up, the bigger ones will stage off those points, but they are still aggressive. When the water warms up, even just a few degrees, it triggers a feeding period.
“They’ll take a crankbait, especially one you can work slow using a few sweeps of the rod to move it along after a series of quick reels. When you go from fast to slow like that, they’ll hammer it.”
Big swimbaits for trophies
In early March at two of South Mississippi’s best lunker lake, a big swim bait is often a go-to lure.
“At Okhissa Lake and Calling Panther Lake, don’t laugh (but) I use big swimbaits,” McComb’s Riley Barnes said. “I don’t catch a lot of fish, but the ones I get are quality bites. I caught two 8s one morning last year at Okhissa on a joint-back plastic swimbait at Okhissa.
“I had caught a good one about 7 ½ pounds the day before on it at Calling Panther, swimming it off a bank near the corner of the dam. At Okhissa, I went up the creek channel on the far upper end and used it on a slow retrieve on places where the creek came close to the banks. It’s a sharp drop up there, and those fish will move up at the end of a warming tend in early March. They like a place where they don’t have to travel far from the creek to the bank.”
When you find the right staging area, the results can be pretty staggering.
“I caught the two 8 (-pounders) 10 minutes apart in two very similar areas, swimming the lure about 6 feet deep between the edge of the 20-foot creek and the banks, which was less than 15 feet from the creek,” Barnes said. “I pitched them back and ended up catching some 4s and 5s, too.”