By Ronald F. Dodson, Ph.D.
The period of the spawn is one of the hardest times to catch bass. In fact if you have had a chance to see the film, Big Mouth, you soon realize from the section of the life cycle of the bass, which covers spawning, that a bass on the nest is not a feeding fish. While some folks do fish for bedding fish (usually by sight fishing), these bass are caught because they are trying to defend their nursery and get the lure out of the nest instead of wanting it as food. The good thing about the spawning period is that not all the fish are on the beds at the same time and therefore you always have some feeding. The rules change when you reach the post-spawn period in that you are now fishing a period when the majority of the fish, including females as well as the males, that had been guarding the nests once again become active feeders. The bass will eventually tend to gather into schools and use the school advantages for foraging.
But just like the fact that all of the bass do not spawn at the same time, neither do all tend to participate in forming schooling patterns at the same time.
This means you have fish that are at various stages of changing their patterns towards a more "summer" rhythm. For example, bass that have migrated to the back of coves and flats associated with major creeks will first begin to forage in the areas around the spawning locations before they move out to the more open or deeper waters during summer.
The first thing needed to hold fish in the areas closer to the spawning sites for longer periods is an abundance of food. If there are plenty of baitfish and other forage close to the areas where major spawning activity has occurred, then there is no reason for fish to rapidly leave the area in early summer periods. This is particularly true when there is sufficiently deep water close to the spawning areas, such as a creek channel. It is of particular importance for encouraging the fish to stay close to the spawning sites for longer periods when there is abundance of cover.
I mentioned baitfish, but maybe it would be more important to specifically define these as members of the sunfish family or minnows. I make this distinction because shad are more open water fish and thus the greater tendency of bass feeding on schools of shad is when they form schools themselves. There are always numbers of crayfish in shallow water. You always have to include the bass fry themselves as forage in the immediate post-spawn period, particularly those from the earliest hatchings. The only thing that saves most of the bass fry in the immediate post-spawn period from being food for their larger cousins, or even their parents, is that they usually are not large enough to pose much of a meal for larger bass until early summer. Typically, fish that are finishing the spawn are also not going to pass up any other opportunity to feed on shallow-water food sources.
This combination of food options means you can think of a couple of front line baits to tempt them into striking. The differences in presentation and the aggressiveness of the bass dictate the approach you want to make covering an area where post-spawn feeders are holding. These fish are likely to have a considerably larger strike area than in some other periods of the year. Remember many of these fish have not been actively feeding during the spawn and are prone to try to make up for lost time.
A great bait that takes advantage of this larger strike zone is a spinnerbait. Since the fish tend to be more likely to chase food this time of year, start by working a spinner. Initially it should be worked with a more constant retrieve. In fact this is the time of year when a buzzbait will also tend to be very productive and to do so for longer periods during the day than it usually will in the mid and late summer periods.
My suggestion for spinnerbait blade combinations is to use a double blade with the choice for the end blade being a willow leaf. My personal favorite in skirt color is either white or chartreuse. These colors are going to come close to the flashing tones of shiners with the first color (white) and bream with second (chartreuse). I usually determine the color of the blade by the visibility of the bait in the water and the time of day. You can get a difference in the degree of flash during certain periods when you shift from something as simple as a silver chrome to a gold chrome blade.
Another group of baits that are excellent producers in the post-spawn periods are the soft or hard plastic jerkbaits. There are major differences between the way you can work the soft plastics such as Bass Assassins or Zoom flukes versus a hard plastic such as a Red Fin or Rogue. The first is obviously that the soft plastic can be rigged weedless and fished through the thickest cover whereas the treble hooks on the hard plastics will grab anything as it goes by. The other advantage of the soft plastic jerkbait is it offers a "soft" entry into the water (a point we will discuss in greater detail later). Finally, the soft plastic can be fished as a count down bait by virtue of either its natural fall from the weight of the hook or accelerated by putting a small split shot on the line ahead of the bait.
You can of course catch fish on topwaters in the post-spawn period. As with all topwater fishing you are going to find times when the fish will hit subsurface baits and aren't prone to break the top for a pure topwater bait. If you like to fish topwaters (and who doesn't), then you need to realize that particularly in the late spring and early summer most forage is small and you will get more topwater hits if you downsize your plugs.
If the day is extremely bright, the fish will have either shifted to the closest drop-off from the spawning area or if cover is available simply aligned themselves adjacent to the cover during the bright periods. Remember these fish are different than fish feeding in schooling packs in that they are prone to act more like a stealth-attack predator than they will later as a member of a larger school that counts on panic and "herding" of the baitfish as much as ambushing them. So look for areas that will likely be holding, or ambush places for these post-spawn fish. Areas with underwater stump fields, logs, brush, or moss lines are ideal locations from which a bass can avoid brightness and yet not have to travel far from the spawn areas to position itself for ambushing forage.
A creek channel, in an otherwise shallow spawning area, acts the same way as brush during the bright periods of the day. A bass can shift from one side to the other just as they can with brush, logs, and moss lines as the angle of the sun changes during day.
The spinner is still a great but works even better if you use strategy on your cast of playing the percentages as to where you think the post-spawn bass may be holding. In the early and late periods of the day or on cloudy days it is not as critical, but on brighter days you need to focus on working the spinner very close to the protective cover along the lip of a creek channel or over the underwater portion of logs. If you find the brightness has caused a reduced strike zone, then spot cast to the high priority holding areas and zip the bait back to the boat when you have worked it past the reasonable strike zone.
These concepts, as discussed, will work in any lake but you have to realize that the comparative depth will change in lakes or parts of lakes where the water is clearer. In other words, the fish in clearer waters will be slightly deeper for all parts of their life cycle. This includes the depth at which they spawn and the areas where these fish tend to stay in the post-spawn period. Thought of in another way, bass in lakes with stained water or areas of lakes with stained water will spawn shallower and stay in shallower water longer in the post-spawn period. The post-spawn bass will particularly tend to stay in the shallower waters into even the early summer when adequate cover is present in the area.
Soft plastic baits are highly effective this time of year, and to a lesser degree so are jigs-and-pigs. You are likely going to catch most fish with these baits during this period by presenting them close to, or directly into, the structure when post-spawn bass are holding tight to cover. If you do not know how to flip or pitch then you should try hard to pick up these techniques if nothing else than to enable you to present soft plastics or jig-and-pig type baits this time of year. The advantages of the more silent presentation of a flipped bait over the crash-bang approach of a cast plug can mean the difference in numbers of hits per day.
Yes, I know some folks do not worry about the noise factor. However I was convinced long ago, while watching bass in shallow water, that noise will spook them. The silent entry of a well-pitched plug will not spook a fish that's holding close to cover in shallow water. Furthermore being able to spot-cast to a small target is the name of the game if you want to cover the maximum number of high percentage holding areas in the minimum period of fishing time.
There are some differences in the style of presentation of a soft plastic lizard or jig-and-pig when fishing the cover type of habitat for post-spawn bass. If the bass are locked onto the cover, you may want to go with the jig-and-pig because you are likely to be getting strikes during a vertical presentation straight up and down into the cover. Once you have bounced it up and down a few times, then bring it in for another spot cast. If the bass have a larger strike zone (as indicated by their tendency to hit away from as well as near the cover), then I prefer the use of a lizard. Often a bass that is feeding with an expanded strike zone will come from a larger area around the cover to hit the lizard. Under such conditions I try to work the lizard with a stop-start swimming action. You can, under such conditions, work it several feet from the general target and still have fish come to it as a morsel.
By the way when you catch bass on a spinnerbait in a shallow water area, you can generally also catch them by swimming a lizard through the same area. Though this action is not one most folks think about when fishing a lizard, I have actually seen post-spawn bass want a lizard that was retrieved with a slow but almost constant swimming action and ignore the same plug worked in the more classical "lift and drop" approach. Actually I did explain the difference in retrieve that I had been using to the partner I had drawn, but only after the tournament was over.
It is important to get a handle on the water temperature when determining the likelihood that bass are moving into shallower water for pre-spawn staging. Likewise, it is important to keep an eye on the water temperature for determining the potential of water to hold bass in the post-spawn period.
The post-spawn bass we have been talking about are fish in relatively shallow water. These fish will eventually move to summer patterns in deeper water. This will be either due to the influence of warmer water, or they are being driven by the instinct to shift to a diet of largely shad (which are more open-water fish).
While they are in these post-spawn patterns you can have some great fishing but you must think through your strategy and presentation to get the maximum number of strikes from these potentially catchable fish. As with any other time of year let the fish tell you what mood they are in and what presentation they desire.