What’s more fun than hammering skinny water largemouths—those fish that bust your topwater over shallow, emerging weeds, or inhale a spinnerbait helicoptered beside a dock piling? Not much. Problem is, shoreline fishing is so much fun, and the targets are typically so easy to identify, that everybody and their bass-busting brother beats the bank—even when more and bigger bass await in deeper water.
The professional bass scene offers numerous cases in point: Last March, tournament angler Anthony Gagliardi cashed a $125,000 check at Table Rock Lake, Missouri, by zeroing in on bass sus- pended above gradually tapering channel-swing points. The fish were hovering 10 feet down over 20 feet of water, just before the point dropped into the channel.
The suspended bite was so hot it allowed Gagliardi to rocket forward 40 places—from the outhouse to the penthouse—but only after he gave up beating the bank and moved his boat into deeper water. After the dust settled, he explained how similar the suspended bass pattern was to those found on lakes like Clarks Hill and Hartwell near his home in Prosperity, South Carolina.
A month before that, David Fritts notched a $200,000 win on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville, casting diving crankbaits deep while the majority of his competitors strained shallow grassbeds with lipless rattlebaits.
For those of us who enjoy catching bass even when six-figure incentives aren’t part of the picture, the lesson is simple: Quite often, the best bassin’ isn’t along shore, it’s behind you, out in open water. With that in mind, we asked the NAFC’s resident fisheries biologist, Dr. Hal Schramm, to share his perspectives on tapping the suspended bite now.
To win at Table Rock, Gagliardi exploited a pattern with which Schramm is intimately familiar on the Tennessee River impoundments a short cast from his Mississippi home, as well as other world-class bass destinations from Texas to the Great Lakes. A longtime student of bass and bass fishing—and an accomplished angler—he relishes the chance to chase suspended prespawn largemouths as they hover off bottom in deep water adjacent to the spawning grounds.
In the hunt for key locations, Schramm’s first word of advice is to learn the lay of the lake you’re fishing—and identify potential bass-holding areas—because there’s no single magic scenario of depth or structure for all lakes.
“There are so many variables that you have to treat each lake differently,” he says. “On Guntersville you have big flats, while Pickwick has deep gravel bars and clay banks, and Rayburn has such a gradually sloping bottom that a one-foot gut will hold all the fish.” Still, a few generalities are worth remembering.
“When water temperatures are in the 50- to 60-degree range, bass are aggressive and looking for food,” he says.
That means finding schools of prime forage species such as gizzard or threadfin shad can be critical. It also helps answer the question of why bass are suspended in the first place. Schramm explains that, in the late winter and spring, water temps are higher near the surface. This draws baitfish upward, and hungry bass follow.
Most bass anglers realize that finding warm water is key in locating prespawn bass, but not all recognize that it needs to be consistently warm to produce consistently good fishing. So, even though the shallow, upper sections of a reservoir may warm faster than deeper areas downlake, they quickly cool when cold rains flood the system via swollen tributaries. And that can shut down a hot bite faster than you can tie a Palomar knot. This explains why Schramm advocates checking a lake’s “thermal history” before wetting your line.
“If a steady influx of cold water drops the temperature in the upper arms, I head for mid-lake structure,” he says.
Clear water is also important, mainly because it facilitates the use of high- octane, fish-finding search methods we’ll get to in a minute.
Of course, all this is occurring as bass are shifting from winter ranges toward spawning areas. So, structure connecting the two—like Gagliardi’s slow-tapering channel-swing points—can be golden, as long as food is available. While some anglers try to predict bass location along these migration routes by photoperiod or water temperature, Schramm cautions that the prespawn commute is not that cut-and-dried.
“It’s not like the bass are slowly inching along from deep water to their beds in a steady, predictable march,” he says.
Often, the procession pauses on or near ledges, deep grasslines and other attractive waysides. Expect bass to hunker down tight to bottom on tough-bite days, and suspend above them when harassing schools of baitfish. It’s also worth noting that not all bass are on the same schedule. Smaller males are inclined to move shallow first, while larger females are in less of a hurry. So a dink-fest at the bank could clue you in to better odds of bigger bass in a bit deeper water.
Local guides, bait shops and fisheries biologists can be great sources of information for finding the best areas to fish, but there’s still no substitute for time on the water.
“Changing water levels and other factors can make it impossible to predict where the bite is going to be on a given lake,” Schramm says. “Past experience and reports from other anglers can put you in the general area, but beyond that you need to cover some water, casting and watching your sonar.”
Jerkin’ And Crankin’
Finesse plastics and bottom-oriented presentations like jigging or Carolina rigging aren’t part of Schramm’s game plan unless a stone-cold bite forces him in that direction. Rather, his go-to tactic is casting hardbaits, often with a zip and fervor that leaves other anglers shaking their heads.
“From February on, I cast jerkbaits and cranks,” he says.
Without question, the former are his favorite, and he takes their selection and use seriously—to the brink of obsession.
“Almost all jerkbaits suspend at four to six feet deep,” he says. “But each brand has a different action. The Ima Flit 120, for example, blows out on a jerk-jerk- jerk-pause, but it’s a great underwater walking bait when you give it 8- to 12- inch pulls. Conversely, a Rapala X-Rap Shad lives up to its ‘slashbait’ description, violently slicing to the side on a twitch. And a Smithwick Suspending Rattlin’ Rogue is all over the place, never doing the same thing twice.”
Bottom line? Learn how your jerkbaits behave. Then, run through your arsenal of retrieve techniques until you find the one bass respond to best at the moment.
“I may use 20 different jerkbaits in a day,” he continues. “Some days all they want is a Rogue, and others it’s an XCalibur Xs4 or something totally different. You only learn by experimentation.” No matter the jerkbait, Schramm likes to keep it moving, and pauses are a scant 1 to 1 1 / 2 seconds. This runs counter to the strategies of many fishermen, who favor pausing the bait for 10 seconds or more. But it catches bass.
“Prespawn bass are aggressive,” he explains. “I’ve put it to the test fishing with a partner. A long- pause retrieve caught three bass in a day, while short pauses produced 30.” Cadences, too, are a bit out of the ordinary.
“Most people pay attention to their cadence, but never change it. I prefer an erratic retrieve that works the hell out of the bait,” he says. “That’s what gets bit.”
A fast, jerk-jerk, jerk-jerk-jerk approach, imparted by 18-inch downward snaps of the rodtip—all while reeling steadily—is a typical Schramm locomotion, though no two casts are exactly the same.
He also reminds us that prespawn bass have the feedbag on—if they’re not T-boning your bait, presentational tweaks are in order. “If you’re getting bit but missing fish or losing them, something is wrong,” he says. Sometimes changing from a lure with an orange belly to the same model with white solves the problem. Other times, you need to experiment with different sizes and brands until the fish tell you what they want.
When jerkbaits fail to produce, Schramm ties on a medium-diving crank, like a Bandit 200 Series, a 2-inch bait that runs four to eight feet deep, or a similar style such as a Bomber Fat Free Shad Jr.
“I throw a lot of smaller cranks, generally ½-ounce or less,” he says. “Retrieves are relatively steady, but sometimes I move the bait 1½ to 2 feet, kill it for a second, then move it again. Or I may let the bait float up on a longer pause. Again, experimentation is critical,” he explains.
When a bite goes south, Schramm resorts to bottom-oriented presentations like jigs or Carolina rigs. But most of the time, fast-moving jerk- and crankbait programs put him in contact with the often-misunderstood, suspended bass of spring.
Jerkbaits and cranks are deadly, but there’s a place for lipless rattlebaits at the prespawn table. Years ago, Lone Star legend and former Bassmaster Classic Champion Tommy Martin taught me their value for suspended early-season largemouths.
On Martin’s beloved Toledo Bend, where he’s guided for more than three decades, bass often suspend two feet beneath the surface, over the tops of 4- to 10-foot weed flats on the main lake. Even when water temps barely hit the high 40s, the fish attack fast-moving rattlebaits.
“Reel as fast as you can,” he advises. In fact, the presentation’s genius is its simplicity. Long casts and high-speed retrieves sum it up.
Martin is a big fan of ½- to ¾-ounce Rat-L-Traps, but I’ve found that the C25 Cordell Super Spot and XCalibur Xr75 trip triggers as well. While Martin favors baits with red, brown and orange, key colors vary, so always experiment.
To trigger strikes from suspended prespawn bass, which are often feeding aggressively on shad and other baitfish, Schramm favors a hard-charging, erratic cadence with extremely short pauses. Simply reel the jerkbait down to its four- to six-foot running depth, then, with the rod pointing toward the water, begin a rapid-fire retrieve, reeling steadily while making sharp, 18-inch downward snaps of the rodtip. Vary between two to three snaps per down- stroke. Pauses come naturally at the end of snaps, while the reel takes up slack, and should last no more than 1 1 / 2 seconds on aver- age. Remember, variety is the key to a winning pre- sentation: In a typical Schramm locomotion, no two casts are exactly alike.