Cold fronts disappearing, green grass returning, flowers blooming, and groundhogs dodging their own shadow are all sure signs that Spring is near! Warm days, cool nights, maybe even a St. Patrick's Day pinch or rumors of chocolate bunnies. These bring back so many memories of childhood, growing up in a rural farming community in north-central Florida.
There was one more sign that would mark the start of a new season without a doubt. Trucks, pulling boats, lined up at the boat ramp on the east shore of Lake George FL at the butt-crack of dawn, beginning the first of many quests of the year for that trophy largemouth Bass. Highly elusive and instinctual, it's by far the most coveted freshwater fish that has ever graced the "trophy wall" of any angler.
Bass fishing in this area my whole life, I was fortunate enough (because of favorable climate conditions) to fish for this species all year long. Notably, the action would significantly increase as the water temperature made it's turn upward. Along with that change in water temperature came an increase in vegetation, the start of the bedding season, and rightfully so, an increase in fishing pressure.
The southwestern shore of the lake would always experience the rise in water temperature first. This was due to extended exposure to the sun. As the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, this area of the lake remained exposed from sunrise through the hottest parts of the day. Lake George is also 9 miles wide at it's narrowest point, separating Marion and Volusia Counties. Lakes of smaller volume will have the same result, but in larger bodies of water the change will be more drastic and remain that way for an extended period of time.
It was on this southwestern shore that bass would begin preparing "beds" for laying their eggs. Now, by beds I mean a small pocket in the sandy bottom usually located in less than 3 feet of water. The female and male bass will take turns fanning with their tails to create this shallow indention in the lake bottom. After both prepare the bed it is now left to the female to maintain it and ultimately lay her eggs in it. There will only be one "sow" bass and up to 4 or 5 "buck" bass occupying one particular bed. Of course the males compete for fertilizing rights, as the female stays close to protect her prize nest.
"Okay. Enough with the biology lesson," you say? Well, to understand this fish you must know why it does what it does. You find this out and "where" this fish are at this time of year becomes pretty easy to determine. Even then, only certain presentations and bait will be the most effective in landing one of these fish. Now, on to locating these critters!
I recommend scouting an area like this thoroughly before you plan your "fishing trip." A smaller, light vessel makes it much easier to navigate the shallows. I recommend a flat-bottom aluminum boat, Carolina Skiff, or skip jack. One with a poling/spotting platform is also quite handy. Poling around the shallows will take a while but it ensures that you don't spook fish and possibly ruin their bedding areas. If in grassy, highly vegetated areas, or covered in lily pads, look for wide, open pockets within these areas. Then keep an eye out for 2-3 feet circles of white sand with a pocket in the middle of it. A good pair of polarized sunglasses does the trick for sighting these areas through the glare of the water's surface. Active beds can be identified by their freshly "fanned" appearance and when approached stealthily, you can usually see the female bass on the bed. Pay attention to this as it is important to only fish active beds. Fish that are spooked off the bed will return later when the threat decreases. After finding active beds mark them with a small buoy about 6 feet away from the bed so you don't disturb it. This will make it easier to find these areas when you come back with your rod and reel!
Now let's talk about bait and tackle for these fish. There are hundreds of artificials, live baits, and other tackle that frequent a bass anglers tackle box. The first instinct of the traditional bass angler is to tie on a rubber worm and dance it in front of the big-mouthed monster! When in fact, the last thing on the female bass' mind is feeding. She is protecting her eggs from the dangers of underwater life. The most effective bait to catch her is known as the bullhead minnow, or pimephales vigilax. The bullhead is a natural enemy of the Largemouth Bass. It's primary food source is fish eggs. They absolutely love the bass beds and in turn, the bass utterly despise the bullhead! It's the perfect bait for the job!
Remember earlier when I spoke of the "sow" and "buck" bass? Well, time for one more biology lesson! The female will be bigger than the male bass 90% of the time. She will also be the most lethargic. As mentioned before, her feeding has slowed greatly and her energy has been conserved for breeding purposes. The male bass on the other hand, are quite frisky, a traditional Spring characteristic! They are usually the first fish caught off the bed and the strike will be violent and explosive! They usually range in size from 2-6 lbs. The female is the one with the girth and weight that would look awesome above your mantle! Be patient and never leave the bed until you have caught at least two fish.
A medium action rod no shorter than 6 feet in length, a spinning or bait-casting reel equipped with 14lb test (min.) fluorocarbon low visibility line is optimal for best performance. The bullhead minnow should be rigged free line, on a 1/0 live bait hook, hooked under the dorsal fin. Make sure not to handle the bait in excess as this shortens the life span thus decreasing activity. You'll want to present the bait with a fragile, low splash cast directly behind the bed and reel up until you feel it drop into the pocket. Now wait...sometimes it takes a long time. The cast, your approach, or boat noise might have spooked the fish and you'll have to give them time to come back. As said before, the male will usually hit first like he's on a mission! The female bass, not into feeding at this point, approaches from a different angle. She will pick the bait up with her mouth, crush it to kill it, swim off the bed and drop it. This process takes just a few seconds and is very easily missed. The trick is to keep just a little slack in your line and watch your line closely. You don't want to rush your hook-set, but when you see the line move, count to three, lay into her, and hold on for the ride!
These methods have been used by bass guides for more than 30 years and have proven themselves as a high-return freshwater fishing tactic. Remember that the bass guides themselves have devoted long hours in perfecting their own means within this method and it comes with large amounts of field research and determination. There are people who pay big money to have someone hook up a bullhead minnow and set them up on big bass hot-spot. So to all of you bass guides, I'm sorry! The cat's out of the bag! Now to you readers, get out there and catch the bass of a lifetime! To you dads out there, take your kid fishing. All of my experience can attributed to my father, who knew the importance of taking his son fishing. Some of the best moments in my life were spent with worm guts on my fingers, and laughing with my dad and uncles as we pulled in the fish.
I hope that this was helpful to all of you fishermen and I hope to see you out on the water! Keep fishing!
"Give a boy a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a boy to fish, you feed him for a lifetime."