This winter has been a butt-kicker, but Pete Ponds isn’t worried. For one thing, the bass pro from Madison has plenty of warm clothing, and he’s thinking that recent weather patterns will produce more opportunities to catch fish during the seasonal transition period known as the prespawn.
Extremely cold weather across the south this winter has put a dent in the shad population. Winters always affect shad, but this one has been brutal, and it will likely impact March fishing — not totally in a bad way.
“I think that it’s going to push back the spawn a little bit, but also we’re having more of a threadfin shad kill than normal,” Ponds said. “That’s the main forage in all of our lakes in the south, but as the water gets into the 40s, it starts to kill the shad.
“That affects the fishing, but not necessarily in a negative way, but a positive way. It depletes the food supplies a little bit. Some of our lakes were overabundant in shad, so your odds of catching a fish certainly increase. It’s like having a buffet line with barely enough for everybody. All of a sudden, people will become more active looking for food.”
And aside from the supply-and-demand scenario, bass pro Gary Klein said the prespawn brings more quality and trophy-sized bass within reasonable reach of anglers than any other time of the year. Proximity, plus appetite, he said, equals great opportunity.
“Prespawn is a cool time of year, because Mother Nature is forcing the fish into the shallows,” Klein said. “They’re starting to sit up there in the warmth and incubate their eggs. They’re putting on weight for the spawn, and they’re taking care of all the bream and other critters that are going to harass them on the nest.
“A higher percentage of these big fish are more accessible to anglers, because most guys that fish just on the weekends are shallow-water fishermen who throw to the targets they can see with their eyes. That’s what makes the prespawn cool; there are more fish relating to those targets at this time of the year.”
The when and where
Increasing daylight periods and moon phases put the giddy-up on ripening bass, but there’s no denying that severe winters delay the parade. That being said, bass, especially those with egg-swollen bellies, have to eat, and warming trends can trigger some absolutely amazing action.
“When we have consecutive cold nights and cold days, those fish almost go into a dormant stage,” Ponds said. “They don’t eat as much, and they’re not as aggressive. But when it finally does warm up, it’s like when we come inside after being outside in the cold. The fish will become more active.”
Of course, such perk-ups don’t happen everywhere, at least, not at the same time. Savvy anglers will use geography for maximum prespawn success.
“In the course of a day, you can’t fish the entire body of water,” Klein said. “So, I try to put myself in areas where I can see where the fish have come from and where they are going to move to for the spawn.
“I like to be on the side of the lake that’s out of the wind, the side of the lake that’s going to get all the afternoon sunshine. Those are usually the areas of the lake where the prespawn movement will start taking place before any other area.”
Ponds agrees, adding, “One main factor in your success would be the time of day you choose to go fishing. Afternoons are definitely better than mornings in the prespawn stages, especially on banks where the sun’s been shining and heating the water.
“Another point would be the water temperature. You would have a hard time searching for fish without a water temperature gauge. That’s so important time of the year.”
Clearly impacting water temperatures, at least in the shallows, sun angles should always rank high on your prespawn checklist. As Ponds explains, planning your day around solar exposure can make a tremendous impact on your productivity.
“It’s so important to know when the sun rises and sets on your lake because you want the sun shining down on the area you’re fishing,” he said. “You might go to some area at 7 o’clock in the morning and never get a bite, but go back there at 5:30 and just tear them up.”
As far as prespawn targets, Ponds likes lily pad stems because they indicate the hard, sandy bottoms where bass like to spawn. He’ll also consider what’s on the bank, as this can further direct his search.
“I’m looking for naturally occurring pines, because most of the time, they grow around sandy areas,” Ponds said.
Early in the prespawn, Ponds likes a lipless crankbait, like the high-pitched Booyah Hard Knocker and the lower-pitched One Knocker. Both will produce this time of year, but Ponds taps each for different duties.
“I like the One Knocker on highly pressured waters and the Hard Knocker when there’s not as much pressure,” he said.
Another classic, the Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue, allows him to make slow presentations to suspended fish. Jerkbait cadence is something you’ll have to dial in almost daily, but it’s usually best to start with slow twitches and long pauses and then increase speed and frequency.
When it comes to covering water and finding groups of prespawn fish moving up, an alternative to lipless baits and the square-billed crankbaits often used are baits with a swimming presentation. Swimbaits and swim jigs certainly work, but Ponds likes probing shallow flats by swimming a Texas-rigged YUM Lizard with a ¼-ounce weight and a 4/0 Hyabusa hook.
“The lizard is a natural enemy of the bass,” he said. “A lot of times, they’ll hit it out of spite; they don’t want it around their nests. They’ll hit it just to kill it.
“You pull into the shallows, drop your Power Poles down and get very still just like you were squirrel hunting. Keep still for about 15 minutes and look for movement in the water. Then, you make short casts to where you saw the fish move, and a lot of times they’ll ‘shark’ behind it.”
Ponds said adding a weight for the swimming presentation facilitates casting distance and accuracy. And if you attract a follower, don’t slow the retrieve. Keep it going to stoke the fish’s fire and maintain his interest.
Klein is another fan of the swimming lizard; he even helped Berkley design the Boss Dog, a thick-bodied lizard with sizable legs and a broad, ribbontail. Swimming a lizard, he says, is a way to find fish on productive waters if you don’t know where to start.
“When you have so many areas that look good, the only way you can find them is to fish to locate fish,” Klein said. “That Boss Dog swims so good, you just make a long cast and reel it. I’ve seen it happen so many times: you go through an area with a spinnerbait and get no bites ,but then go back through with a lizard and get 20 bites.”
In addition to swimming, Klein likes flipping lizards. He can be extremely accurate when prespawn bass are holding tight to cover.
“On man-made reservoirs or backwater oxbows with wood — whether it’s cypress trees, logs or bush tops — bass love to be around hard cover in prespawn,” Klein said. “I probably spend more time fishing hard cover in prespawn than I do just about any other time of the year.
“Hard cover offers them a shallow advantage where they can float up and get high in the water column to take advantage of the sun’s warmth. I love the flipping technique with an 8-foot rod and jigs or Texas-rigged plastics, because I can make very precise casts to particular spots. I’m very precise in how I present my baits, and ... you have a better advantage of landing that fish.”
With lizards, craws or any bait he is flipping, Klein often changes accent colors to increase the chances a fish will notice his bait, and to show the fish a convincing image. Whether it’s chartreuse to mimic the bream’s fin accents or reds and oranges to imitate those subtle hues of crawfish pincers, any advantage can help steer the game.
Find travel routes
Ponds said it’s always prudent to consider a bass’s travel routes. Nothing is random in nature, particularly the movement of fish charged with perpetuating their species.
“One of the things I look for is a creek going into a spawning flat,” Ponds said. “Sometimes it’s a road bed; sometimes it’s something as small as a fence row. The fish will use them for roads like cars on the highway.
“There are two reasons the fish are where the are this time of year. One is because they’re reproducing, and the other is because of food. If you combine those two, that helps you find fish during the prespawn.”