Last October, during a break in my fall fishing, I parked my truck alongside a lonely backwoods road, slung a tree stand over my shoulder and sneaked along a clear-cut to a heavily used deer trail I knew would be there—despite the fact I’d only seen the spot on aerial photos taken from a mile-and-a-half above. I hung the stand in a sprawling oak and tip-toed back to my truck.
Days later, I returned and killed a whitetailed doe that walked past the stand on cue—one of five deer that used the trail that afternoon.
What does this hunting story have to do with fishing postspawn bass? As strange as it might sound, I probably wouldn’t have killed that deer were it not for spending a rainy day fishing with Waco, Texas, bass pro Alton Jones the spring before. He, like many of bassin’s most successful tournament anglers, adopt a hunter’s mindset to track bass from the moment they hit the spawning flats till the time they’re on main-lake structure in summer.
Pattern For Success
Hunters call it patterning—they pour over photos and topo maps and spend countless hours scouting to identify travel routes of animals, on both daily and seasonal timelines. In other words, they identify how their quarry gets from cover to feeding areas on a daily basis, as well as how those circuits will predictably shift as the season progresses, cover matures, and food sources peak or become less desirable.
In my scenario, I simply knew a deer was going pass that spot because it had all the right elements: Several vegetation transition lines (natural travel corridors for both bass and deer) extended from a thick bedding area and led toward a major food source. The habitat necked down, funneling all of those edges down to one major trail. And although there had been no deer standing in that exact spot when I hung the tree stand, I knew it was the animal equivalent of a Los Angeles freeway—it just wasn’t rush hour yet.
The best anglers apply those same principles to tracking bass in the weeks that follow the spring spawn. By studying every nuance of a fishery’s underwater topography and cover, they can pinpoint travel corridors bass will predictably follow—sometimes without so much as launching their boat. Actual fishing puts the final pieces of the puzzle in place for these elite anglers. On-the-water observations, fish behavior, and subtle changes in conditions give top anglers the info they need to waylay bass all spring.
Jones can do this like few others. I fished with him just days after he’d taken second place at the 2006 Bassmaster Elite Southern Challenge on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville, where he’d held the lead for two days before being overtaken by just 2 ounces in the final hours of competition.
Unseasonable weather and a funky spawn had many pros struggling to find fish during the event, because bass were spread out between the spawning flats and main-lake summer structure—everywhere, but nowhere in particular.
Jones, however, stayed a step ahead the fickle fish and most of the skilled 104-angler field with a strategy that was equal parts deer hunting, bass biology, cartography and Zen. He identified where bass were coming from, where they were ultimately headed, and where they needed to stop along the way, then connected the dots. And he stayed on fish the whole time.
“Would you put a McDonalds on I35 or out in some farmer’s field?” he asked me over a cup of coffee at the marina while a downpour turned the Alabama clay into red grease outside. “You’d put it on 35 because of traffic, right? That sounds obvious, but it’s something many fishermen tend to forget—to fish where the traffic is.”
Many very skilled anglers catch a lot of fish—at least at times—by being “spot fishermen.” They set up shop in prime spots and fish them for all they’re worth. But not Jones.
“Years ago I used to sink brush piles and fish them. Some worked, some didn’t,” he says. “I had no idea why two identical piles would produce so differently until I finally realized that if a bass doesn’t swim by something, it’s not going to be there.”
Jones says a spot can contain the perfect cover, but it won’t hold bass if it’s not along the route bass take to fulfill their most pressing seasonal need—in this case, spawning and/or recovering from the spawn. That’s why fishing “good spots” that aren’t part of a network of travel corridors often flops this time of year.
Instead, put yourself on a bass highway by fishing edges—weedlines, submerged, roadbeds, creek channels, long points—that provide the most direct path between the spawning areas and primary main-lake structures.
“Home in on spots where an edge meets another—the more pathways that come together in one spot, the better it is. “That’s the kitchen,” he says.
Focus on funnels as well; look for spots where a vast structure—or better yet a travel corridor—necks down to a relatively small area. A steady stream of bass will pour through these spots as fish come off their beds and make their way out to the main lake.
On Southern reservoirs like Guntersville, the shad spawn is a major factor in patterning postspawn bass. It’s so predictable, in fact, that you can sometimes literally set your watch to it, if you pay attention.
The deluge that had been pounding the water while Jones and I hunkered inside the bait shop eased slightly and he looked at his watch. “If we leave now, we’ll have about a half-hour window at my shad spot,” he said. “Let’s go.”
So we raced downlake to a small grass flat on prime real estate between an expansive spawning cove and the main channel, and began casting spinnerbaits. The shad were there in force, spawning on the weedtops—in numbers so thick it was actually hard to keep your spinner-bait blades rotating on the retrieve. The baitfish would actually crowd alongside your lure and bump it.
Obviously, the bass where there, too, and Jones quickly put together a string of quality 4- and 5-pound fish. “You need to factor shad into your game plan this time of year, because the bass sure do,” he says. The Guntersville tournament he had just wrapped up was proof positive of the postspawn shad bite’s intensity. “I could literally see fish getting bigger during the tournament—they were feeding that much.”
It’s a short-lived phenomenon, though, as shad are nighttime spawners. About an hour after first light, they’re gone and so are the bass.
That’s where true patterning comes in. You need to roll with the punches, interpret what bass are doing and ask yourself what they need most, then use that to anticipate their next move.
That’s exactly what Jones had done to put us on those shad-gobbling bass. The weed flat we caught them on wasn’t his “A” spot—in fact, he’d never even fished it. Another angler was on the weedbed we’d planned on hitting, so Jones put his previous patterning work to use by backing off and finding the next significant pocket of grass between his go-to spot and the bank.
“Adjacency is a principle many anglers don’t think about,” he says. “There are usually prime spots on either side of other prime spots. Think of them as gateways to bedding areas and you’ll recognize them more easily.”
When he’s on fish, Jones never stops analyzing what the bass are doing. “Whenever I catch one, I keep fishing the spot. I’ll often catch one or two more—or a hundred.”
Perhaps more im-portantly, though, he says this helps him learn more about where active fish are concentrating—and why.
“I cover at least 100 yards on either side of every fish I catch to find the scope of the school,” he says. “A lot of times you’ll find a little sweet spot outside the main school. I al-ways want to ask myself why would a fish be here?”
Jones believes most anglers are usually guilty of not paying attention to exactly what they were doing when they caught a fish. That’s a big mistake, because every bass that bites gives you information you can use to pattern other fish—at a time of year when patterning is critical.
“These are basic things, but they bear repeating,” he says. “I honestly have to remind myself of all of them before every tournament I fish.”