DAN KIBLER COLUMN: Dreaming of bass spawn

For about 10 weeks, about the only thing that bass fishermen around Piedmont North Carolina have been thinking about is the bass spawn.

Dan Kibler

From March when largemouths are just beginning to think about reproducing, to mid-May, when most of the state’s big, green fish have finished off trying to guarantee the health of the species, fishermen concentrate on where bass are in relation to the spawn: pre-spawn, spawning and post-spawn.

Now that mid-May has arrived and Memorial Day is right around the corner, fishermen should be paying attention to a different kind of spawn: the baitfish spawn. Typically, May and early June are the pages on the calendar where blueback herring – in lakes they occupy like those on the Catawba River chain – and shad spawn.

When shad and herring begin moving to areas where they like to spawn, bass fishing can take on a wonderful top-to-bottom profile. You can catch them on top – and on the bottom.

Hall of Fame bass pros David Fritts of Lexington and Davy Hite of Ninety Six, South Carolina – the only two pros to win the Bassmaster Classic, the BASS Angler of the Year award and the FLW Tour Championship – take advantage of both situations.

“May is my favorite month to fish topwaters,” said Hite, who retired several years ago and now hosts the Bassmaster Live shows on television and on-line. “You just can’t beat a big bass blowing up on a bait that’s moving along the surface. It’s usually a violent strike, and it’s some of the most-exciting fishing you can do.

“If you have a shad spawn (on the lake you’re fishing), find a bank where they’re spawning, usually the first few hours of the morning, and fish a topwater. If you have bluebacks in the lake you’re fishing, that changes everything, because bass will really key in on them. If your lake has bluebacks, you need to spend more time fishing around flat points than anywhere else. They’ll be hanging around them.”

Fritts said that, depending where you’re fishing in North Carolina, the shad spawn will start from mid-May to early June.

“Most of our lakes have a pretty good shad spawn,” he said. “The shad all get up on the banks, and the bass are going to follow them, so you have a pretty good topwater bite. In some of our lakes in the northern and eastern parts of the state, the topwater bite could last all day. In lakes farther south, like Lake Wylie, it will be mostly an early morning bite. I’ll look for big, flat points; the shad like to spawn there.”

Fritts likes to fish a big, walking bait on top, like a Berkley J-Walker in shad, white or clear colors. He likes to make a long cast up close to the bank and work the bait all the way back to the boat, keeping it in the strike zone for the maximum amount of time.

Hite loves to catch fish on topwater, and he loves a variety of baits for late May and early June – even on into June when the bream spawn begins in his native state and brings more bass into the shallows.

“I love to fish walking baits, sometimes maybe a frog or a buzzbait to mix it up more, more because of fishing pressure than anything else,” he said. “All of our lakes get fished so much, that if everybody is throwing a topwater walking bait, and if a bass gets caught three times on one, he’s going to be shy of the next one.

“That’s  one reason I like to fish topwater with a soft-plastic jerkbait, something you don’t think of as a topwater bait, but the same way that lots of fishermen fish floating worms, I like to fish an unweighted soft jerkbait like a Yamamoto D-Shad in shad or white, on a 4/0 VMC offset hook. I fish it on the surface, or within 2 or 3 inches of the surface. I work it fast, and I don’t pause it enough for it to sink – not super fast, but you’ve got to keep it moving to keep it up.”

Fritts loves topwater fishing, but he’s really licking his chops when that bite ends and fish begin to move off the bank, toward deeper water. That’s when he can go to his crankbaits – plugs with diving lips of varying shapes and sizes.

“The thing I really look for, is fish pulling out after they recover from the spawn, getting on little drops and corners, ganging up and really feeding heavily,” said Fritts, who years ago grabbed two huge back-to-back wins in lake-May tournaments on Lake Wylie, fishing crankbaits for fish just moving back to deep water.

“The mid-lake area is usually a good place to start; I think most of the fish will be from halfway back in the creeks to the main lake,” he said. ‘ What I like to do is start at mid-lake and work my way down a little. If I’m catching quality fish, I’ll keep going. If I’m not, I’ll turn around and go up the lake.”

Hite loves the two weeks after Memorial Day because of the same fish Fritts likes to target.

“They’re ganged up in relatively small areas, and they’re hungry from not eating for a couple of weeks,” he said. “They generally look for some good offshore structure that holds bait. It can be a secondary point in a creek fairly close to a spawning pocket, a point close to the mouth of a creek that’s along the route the fish will take to get to the deep, main-lake areas where they’ll spend the summer, or a hump along a creek channel.”

Hite likes medium-diving crankbaits like a Rapala DT-8 or DT-10; most of the fish will be in that depth range.

“Typically, when I feel like the bass are ready to eat a crankbait, I’ll have several different ones tied on. I’ll have a bait that runs 6 to 8 feet deep, one that runs 8 to 10, maybe one that runs out to 12 to 14. I want to be ready to fish different depths depending on the kind of places I might find them. I use a lot of shad colors in June because that’s the predominant baitfish in most lakes.”

Hite said that if he gets on a good bunch of fish on a spot – maybe a couple of stumps or a hump close to a creek channel, he’ll catch his crankbait fish, then slow down and work the area even better with a Texas-rigged or Carolina-rigged Senko.

“This is important because people don’t realize that bass usually aren’t scattered out all over a point or a drop, but they will be ganged up on one specific little spot; there may be one place on that point where all the fish are going. Once you find one, you can catch a lot of fish in a hurry.”

Dan Kibler has covered the outdoors since 1985 as outdoors editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and later as managing editor of Carolina Sportsman until his retirement in 2021.