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Spawn: When Bass Get Shallow Minded

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When Bass Get Shallow Minded

Story by Russ Bassdozer

The spawning process - inside the fish's body - starts a lot earlier than most people think. For example, out here in Arizona, by late November, bass have pretty much developed eggs and milt glands - and that's even before the onset of winter here - and that's about five months ahead of when they'll actually spawn. It's often said that the late summer and fall feeding frenzy helps bass store fat to last them the winter, but I feel the fall feeding frenzy also helps them develop the egg and milt glands for next spring. I think a lot of the spawning success for next year is a 'fait accomplis' even before the onset of winter.

Also, mustering or meeting or gathering and acknowledging the presence of opposite-sex spawning candidates happens a lot earlier than nest-building does. Fish will start gathering and acknowledging the presence of other potential spawning mates in deep water off points and other focal areas long before they move shallow to nest. By finding and confirming that there are mating partners present offshore, that will move onshore when it's time to spawn, the bass in deep water doing this are confirming that there will be other fish to mate with in the vicinity when they do move shallow. It's a lot easier to find these available potential mating partners at concentrated focal points offshore before they spread out few and far between across the vast expanses of the shallows. So that mingling and meeting period also precedes the nest-building period by some length of time. In fact, if you get far enough south such as Florida or Mexico, there may not be a winter inactive period, and fish may be mustering offshore to confirm presence of spawning candidates as early as November in order to spawn during January some years. So really, the entire reproduction cycle starts in late summer with the onset of egg and milt gland development and doesn't wrap up until early next summer's post-spawn culmination, only to begin again anew. So it's a 12-month cycle, but for most of us, spring means the spawning season.

Spring has Sprung!
Spring, more than any other time of year, means shallow water fishing for bass. No matter what corner of the country you are in, there’s a period of approximately 4 to 6 weeks in spring when the majority of bass in any lake, reservoir, pond, stream or river system all tend to be in shallower water and more accessible to anglers than any other time of year. Many bass will be active in only a few feet of water, often close to the shoreline.

What brings bass into the shallows is that spring is the season when bass spawn or reproduce. To accomplish that annual feat, most male bass will build a nest in shallow water to attract gravid females to lay eggs in his nest. Most studies indicate highest spawning success comes from nests covered in from 1 to 3 feet of water. Deeper nests may occur in very clear water but are comparatively few.

Exactly where to build the nest is the first crucial decision (or instinct) that each male bass must make.

Nests are commonly established close to shore in protected bays and creeks, or on the sides and tops of mid-water shoals. Nests are usually in areas of quiet water. Nests are usually in areas of very slow current. Nests are usually on the leeward shore or sheltered from prevailing winds.

You may, however, find a bass nest almost anywhere, and sometimes in unusual places. Bass may spawn on depth breaks (rim edges of natural underwater pools, shallow eaves jutting out under cliff walls, submerged ledges, etc.), provided these areas have minimal wind and current exposure, and at a depth sufficient so that wave action will not destroy the nest. Nevertheless, the majority of nests are shallow and shoreline-oriented in sheltered areas.

Males dig nests by dishing out the softer top layers of sediment with their tails to ideally get down to harder ground. They use their tails like brooms in order to do this. Many times, the lower strakes of the tail will be rubbed raw. They prefer to nest on gravel, stone and hard sand bottoms that have recently been flushed clean of silt by natural water action. After sweeping it out vigorously, the bottom of the nest may be scoured down to clean chunk rock, gravel, roots, etc. Where the bottom is sand or dirt, the diligent tail-sweeping will tend to remove all the finer granules, leaving behind a slightly raised floor of pebbles, twigs, shells, rubble, etc.

Male bass instinctively prefer not to build nests wherever turbidity may be a concern. Clear water is preferable for spawning. Studies have shown that there is limited survival in moderately turbid water, and eggs may not hatch at all in highly turbid waters.

Not only may a soft bottom composition (mud, silt, clay) be avoided if that's possible, but areas that are prone to have wind disturbance, waves or water flow are also avoided, since both wind and water action can induce fluctuating temperatures, raise turbidity and deposit silt that may suffocate eggs.

Keep in mind, however, that the ideal conditions may not necessarily be possible on every body of water. For example, studies indicate that although turbidity (to choose one circumstance) is not preferred, it is not necessarily a limiting factor on bodies of water where it is the only option. Bottom line, bass are a tenacious species and will find places to successfully spawn on most bodies of water.

The nest-building urge in males is thigmotrophic. That means that they will build nests that are protected on one or more sides by "things" - whatever's available, including logs, rocks, pilings, stumps, ledges, etc.

Bass usually will not nest right on top of logs, rocks or other objects (although that happens). More common is to nest right next to them. Often one side of the nest is up against something tangible, and the male tends to keep this at his back. This may provide partial protection from predators and egg robbers, or a break from wind or water current.

In southern areas where it stays warmer and the shallow water stays weedier year round (for example, Florida or southern California), bass will use potholes or little patches of hard bottom in the midst of dense weed beds. These are little hard, gnarly spots where the weeds won't take root. These areas don't need to be very big, and are often hard for an angler to spot as the lush vegetation tends to grow up high toward the surface, often concealing the bald bottom spots. A little wave action helps to part the underwater grass momentarily, letting you get a glimpse of the small open patches and male bass nesting there. So a large expanse of underwater weeds that looks like an endless sea of vegetation may, upon closer inspection, have numerous hard-to-spot nests scattered throughout the weed bed.

Wherever there are reed berms (long rows of reeds, tulles, phragmites, cat tails or any tall grass), male bass will use little pockets or indentations in the tall grass lines to make nests. The tall stalks can still be dormant and straw-colored or growing and green. In any case, they offer shelter from wind and waves and the tall stalks radiate heat from the sun down into the water. So any little indentations or pockets tucked along the edges of tall grass berms are great nesting locations.

Where there are beds of flooded brush in shallow water, base often nest at the very base where the main stem or trunk of the brush is rooted, fanning out a nest right at the very base, on the side facing the sun. You'll need to look down through and past all the limbs, since the nest will be right at the trunk where it's rooted in the bottom.

Sunlight, temperature stability, that the nest is secure from being battered by the wind or waves, with a hard bottom for eggs to cling to – coarse, grainy sand, fine gravel or whatever is available in terms of hard bottom, without the risk of siltation - those are some of the necessities that the male bass hopes to find for his nesting location.

As an angler, look for a combination of pebbly sand and rocks, and area that gets sunshine for much of the day. A place where you would plant a vegetable or flower garden to get good sunshine as opposed to a shadowy place or silty shoreline. You'll find nests in such places, and it is one of the most fascinating aspects of bass fishing to simply see the spawning grounds, the nests, the adult bass, the eggs and eventually the new crop of fry unfold over the course of several weeks each spring.

What does a nest look like? Usually round or orbital, often white or lighter-colored than the surrounding area. Eggs themselves are pretty hard to see unless you get very close or the water is very calm. Fecund (or hatchable) eggs tend to be beige in color. An active nest with fecund eggs appears crisp, spiffy and bright. An abandoned nest that has failed to produce fecund eggs will appear fuzzy, unkempt and not as neat.

We've spent a lot of time describing general nesting location requirements because that's why bass are so shallow in such large numbers in spring - to nest and spawn, to hatch and raise their fry until the hatchlings can survive on their own. Once all that's accomplished, most bass will move out of the shallows in order to seek the sanctuary of deep water for the remainder of the season.

Bass don’t pair bond but one female may visit a series of nearby nests so that she doesn’t deposit all her eggs in one basket. And one male may try to usher multiple females onto his nest site. So there can be a number of males and females in the same area spawning somewhat cooperatively and gregariously. On the other hand, there could be just an individual male or two and one or two female(s) that have found each other in a more isolated area, and spawning on some remote nest site(s) sequestered from the crowd.

One last important point about where bass nest is that, usually there are colonies of nests that are built in the same place each year – and it's often the same bass that return to the same general nesting locations year after year.

Just like a bigger bass will occupy the prime feeding spots – so too will the prime males occupy the prime nesting real estate. So if there is a large male bass, it will usually return to and stake claim to the same choice spot to nest year after year. The size of the nest usually is an indication of the size of the male that built it. The bigger the male, the bigger the nest.

Finally, states and specific bodies of water may have regulations that limit or prohibit fishing during bass spawning season. In some cases, the most well-known and successful spawning areas will be put off limits, but the rest of the lake may be open to fishing. Point is, fisheries management varies from state to state, on different bodies of water, and may even be managed differently on different sections of a waterway when it comes to bass spawning season. So please check with your state and local authorities before you venture out to fish for bass during the spring spawning period.

Concerning different bass species, you may find smallmouth and largemouth spawning in different places and at slightly different times. In general, smallmouth nest building may start a few degrees colder on average, and may be in slightly rockier areas on average than largemouth. These factors are different - but not different enough - to warrant much special mention. Most studies have not indicated a major difference between largemouth and smallmouth spawning in terms of temperature, nest substrate or much else.

Nor do studies show dramatic differences between bass in their northern or southern ranges based on water temperature, areas used and so on. In general, bass in the deep southern ranges may get their urges a few degrees warmer than their far northern counterparts, but it's not substantially different.

Also, the further south you go in the country, the more staggered and spread-out that spawning may be since there is a longer period of clement time when spawning conditions are favorable The further north you go, the shorter the window of time conducive to successful spawning, hence the more concentrated the spawning season will be up north. For that reason (since the spawning season is so concentrated), northern states tend to be among the ones that prohibit or limit bass fishing during the critical, brief time when all bass must spawn almost in unison.

The Spawning Act
The spawning act itself is beautiful and fleeting. It often takes place under ideal environmental conditions. Bass pick the most incredible moments of the most perfect days for their offspring to be conceived....water like glass, a pleasant day, flowers blooming on shore and all that. Both the male and female bass appear to have heightened body colors, almost an aura or transformation of their bodily appearance that signals the moment. The larger female lays over on her side above the nest substrate and shudders with the smaller male also laying on his side almost touching right above her, then she moves off the nest. It's not long! A matter of seconds. She'll often do some inspecting and tidying up the nest when she comes onto it and she often 'takes charge' or acts more aggressive to intrusions by nearby egg-robbers like sunfish than will the male at that moment. The male seems more intent on keeping her there, and will often circle her and position himself to cut her off from leaving him. She'll do a lot of lingering near the nest both before and after, usually at the nearest weedline or bottom contour slope, usually within eyesight of the male and the nest. But actual spawning tends to last but a fleeting, brief moment. The female will typically slip back up onto the nest several times within a short period, or at intervals throughout the day. When there is no nest-robbing varmint nearby, the male will move off the nest for a few short seconds to go out to where the female is stationed, and try to poke or nudge her toward the nest again. She'll usually remain present in the area for days, especially so if there are several males with nests nearby. She'll rarely be very far from one of the nests, often hidden in the closest cover that offers concealment.

The Spawning Thermometer
Many anglers miss out on the peak bass spawning period. No matter where, bass tend to spawn a little earlier in the season than most anglers think they do. Whether you fish in the north or south, east or west, the peak spawning period often occurs just a little earlier than the majority of anglers are ready to go fishing. It's Mother Nature's way of giving spawning bass a headstart on raising their offspring before most anglers begin fishing in earnest.

Many anglers often use the full moon as an indication of when bass should be spawning, but there is little scientific fact to back that. True, the moon, the sun, other planets and their relationship to our spinning earth can and do exert forces that influence life here, but fisheries biologists focus on more down-to-earth indicators of when bass will spawn, and water temperature is one of the more dependable factors for determining that.

Most scientific studies see spawning primarily as a function of water temperature - the stability and duration (taken together, the persistence) of the average daily water temperature over time, the velocity of the season's overall warming water trend over time, the average delta of daily low and high water temperature extremes, the frequency of sudden changes in water temperature. All these temperature factors have measurable effects on spawning success.

Water temperature is probably the one factor any angler can use to pinpoint when bass are spawning in his area.

So what are some of the key water temperature ranges to look for, and what may you expect bass to be doing at those moments?

Nest Building. Studies show that the urge to build nests occurs in males at lower temperatures than when females are ready to lay eggs. Most studies indicate bachelor males will begin to build nests in water temperatures as low as 54° - 57° and surely by 60°. There is a "magic number" above 60° when females begin to reveal their interest in the boys and the nests that they've built!

Mating. The actual laying and fertilizing of eggs can range higher or lower, but it usually takes place when the water temperature is stabilized above 60° and rising slowly between 60° and 70°. Dropping water temperature will tend to keep females off the nests, and rapidly rising temperatures have been reported to delay spawning until the warming trend slows down and stabilizes too. Newly-laid eggs will succumb to rapid temperature changes, either up or down.

Sharp drops in water temperature, followed by increases, will cause repeated waves of mating, but that doesn't necessarily mean multiple crops of viable eggs or fry. Waves of mating often indicate false and wasted starts. Sharp drops in temperature will also kill eggs, and studies report increased frequency of males deserting eggs in water dropping back below 60°.

Incubation. Fresh eggs need time to "harden" and become acclimatized to the environment after fertilization. Studies show eggs will become temperature tolerant after 12-15 hours. The males know when that's happened and it's the point when they will 'lock onto' the nests, meaning the males will become committed fathers and caretakers of the egg clutches from that point onward. Males defend their clutch from predators and fan eggs with their tails to keep a small flow of aerated water circulation and to keep sediment from settling and suffocating the eggs. Clutches can also get infected by fungus that destroys them, and fanning also prevents fungus from getting into the eggs. So the male becomes the groomer of the nest, and also the defender.

Hatching. Studies usually indicate optimum incubation and hatching temperatures to be from 66° to 72°. More eggs will hatch, and they will incubate quicker in this temperature range. For instance, almost all eggs will hatch in 3 to 4 days in this temperature range. That seems to be the ideal. Far fewer eggs will hatch and will take much longer to do so at lower temperatures.

Fry Independence. Fry are usually better able to survive temperature changes that would destroy eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the male will continue to shepherd and defend his tiny flock of offspring until the small school of newly-hatched bass fry become mobile and alert enough to evade predators on their own, sensible enough to hide from danger and otherwise fend for themselves. Fry become independent from their father and optimal growth metabolism for fry is achieved during early summer at water temperatures between 78° - 85°. At this time, males considered their fatherly duties to be fulfilled, and will leave the fry for good.

Spring Barometer Readings
It's overlooked. Barometric pressure is usually overlooked by the average angler who's planning what days to fish this week or next, but it can be important. Especially in springtime when bass are shallow, barometric pressure matters. Spring is a time of the season when barometric pressure can make or break a fishing trip. So, here are a few pointers about barometric pressure and how to deal with it. These pointers will help you most if you have a flexible schedule that enables you to fish any day of the week. Favorable barometric conditions do not wait until Saturday, Sunday or your day off to suit your schedule. Instead, you must time your potential fishing days to suit the barometer - not the other way around. If you can be flexible as to what days you take fishing trips, you can be on the water during favorable barometric periods and you may also avoid barometric high pressure periods that tend to be the toughest times to catch shallow bass in spring.

It's also deceptive. Anglers often get the urge to make a few casts when it's fair weather that is comfortable for us (bright, sunny dry, clear skies, light winds) but this same high pressure pattern that's so favorable to anglers often means poor fishing. Conversely, the arrival of wet, stormy weather will cause many anglers to decide to stay home even though such inclemency, as uncomfortable as it is to us, can yield a bounty of fish!

Pre-frontal conditions. When the barometer is falling, you will usually have non-westerly winds. This is usually a good time to fish, but it also means some wet weather is likely on its way into your area. Southerly or southeasterly winds are usually harbingers of wet weather that will usually pass through quickly (albeit sometimes dramatically with heavy downpours and lightning). Northerly or northeasterly winds usually indicate slower-moving larger weather systems which will take longer to pass, and they often trigger protracted feeding sprees in the hours just before their arrival.

Just before the wet weather arrives, it will be preceded by a "front" (an abrupt change in weather) which can often trigger feeding binges by bass before and during the frontal passage. Keep in mind, however, that fronts can be dangerous, especially ones with high winds and lightning -- not to mention getting soaked, having rough water, and possibly risky conditions. Never risk your safety. Always exercise prudence and restraint when it comes to bad weather.

However, if you want to fish the arrival of a weather front, it can be good to position yourself on a shore that has the wind blowing into it - which often means the northwest shoreline. Try to get the wind blowing into something such as a small bay, a point, a dropoff where a shoreline flat slopes into deeper water for example. These are all areas where bait will be pushed up, and bass will instinctively gather there to feed when those weather conditions occur.

Post-frontal conditions. Fair fishing will usually last for a brief period after the wet weather passes -- especially near mouths of feeder creeks. These are creeks that drain the nearby land and feed into a body of water. They usually flow a little stronger after wet weather, and bass will instinctively gather off the mouths of feeder creeks when they sense the stronger flow.

Immediately after a front passes by, you can expect some fine fishing when wet weather "tails off" gracefully without brisk westerly winds clearing the front out. However, if the wind quickly turns west after the front passes, this means that a high barometric pressure system is being pushed/pulled into the void left by the recently-departed low pressure wet weather. On such a west wind, you can sometimes expect this to cause the fish to get "lockjaw" and pull back out of the shallows. They'll often move out to the nearest deep water or else bury themselves deep in the closest thick cover nearby). This will often last 2-3 days before the west wind subsides and the barometric pressure stabilizes near normal.

Sure, you can "tough out" a high pressure period by fishing deep in the heart of thick shallow cover (if the fish buried themselves there to wait out the front), or you can move out deeper (if you have a boat to reach deeper water) but odds are you're still going to have to trick stubborn "lock jaw" bass to unlatch their lips during high pressure post-frontal conditions in spring.

In between fronts. The barometer and the weather may stabilize for a few days in between fronts, and you can usually expect the fishing to stabilize also. As the barometer starts dropping again for a day or two in advance of the next wet weather coming your way, fishing will improve! Then the whole cycle of pre-frontal low pressure, precipitation and post-frontal clearing will repeat itself. This respective pattern of fronts continues during the entire rainy season associated with spring.

The odds are in your favor. Just like the lottery, fishing often amounts to a game of chance where you can win some and lose some! Fish don't always follow the same game plans we do, but the average springtime angler's odds are better to be on the water just before, just after and during the arrival of wet weather (when the barometer is dropping, bottoms out, and then slowly rises). Remember, you will find that "just before" and "just after" mean exactly that and are measured in hours! If a low pressure front comes through in mid-morning, it may already be "too late" if a stiff clearing wind is blowing through by lunchtime!

Five to ten day forecasts. Five to ten day weather forecasts are the best (and really only) tool to help you plan ahead for when to fish or when not to - according to the barometer. The 5-10 day forecasts lets you see what is coming a few days from now or even next week. Although the weatherman may not be exactly right for any single given day, although fronts may not materialize exactly as they predict them, the "big picture" including the passage of fronts, the lead-in before them and the clearing trend after them should be obvious if you pay close attention to their actual arrival in your area. And if you have the flex time to fish the barometric highs and lows, you will improve your odds of being on the water when shallow bass bite best.

Fishing Tips for Shallow-Minded Anglers
Tending the Nest. The dutiful male bass stands guard to remove any debris that may fall on the nest or get pushed up on the nest by wind or wave action. This is often how many male bass on nests are caught by anglers (where nest-fishing is not limited or prohibited by regulations). Anglers simply cast any lure and let it drop right on the nest. To fulfill their nest-grooming duties, bass often pick up such lures to move them away and then drop them just outside the nest perimeter. The bass is often just tidying up, but can be caught as he holds the lure in his mouth in order to move it off the nest. This sounds simple, but bass quickly wizen up to the game. A bass may only nip at it or move a lure once before realizing that something's not quite right about the situation, and becomes reluctant to bother with the same lure before too long. Some anglers keep several rods rigged with different lure shapes and colors (or just tie on a different lure if you only have one rod). There's a great chance that the same bass will react strongly again and try to move each new lure off the nest when he first sees each different shape or color lure for the first time. It often doesn't matter what the next lure is; what matters is that it's different and 'new' to the bass.

Taking the Garbage Out by the Tail. A key point that many anglers miss is that bass remove debris like lures off their nests by picking it up by the tail. Many times, however, bass lures like soft baits or jigs for example, have the hook in the head of the lure, not the tail. So, unless the bass gobbles the entire lure (which often is not the case), the hook is on the wrong end of the bait that's often outside the fish's mouth. Rigging a second stinger hook in the tail may make a big difference in your success on nests.

Ladies to the Rescue. Another common situation when nest fishing is that if an angler removes the guardian male from the nest, the larger female is often lurking nearby, most likely undetected, hidden in weeds, brush or other seclusive cover. If the male is taken off the nest, the reclusive female will move up to sit on the eggs, keep silt off them, remove any debris and defend the nest from predators until the male returns. So where it isn't prohibited by regulations, some anglers may catch a male off a nest and temporarily place it in their boat's livewell in hope that the female bass will come out of hiding to sit on the nest, to catch her next. Keep in mind that the females tend to be much larger than the male bass, so that's why anglers sometimes do this - to try to catch the more desirable (because they're larger) female bass that are possibly hiding undetected in the nearby area.

Actually, There is No Need to Nest Fish. It's great to see nests and to enjoy the privilege to witness life's renewal going on before your eyes. But when it comes to catching fish, there really is no need to pull parental bass off their nests. It's often the thoughtless or inexperienced anglers who do that. You may often do better simply fishing the nearest cover close to nests. This is where the larger female bass will be positioned. It's almost as if the females are fulfilling a second outer layer of protection for the nesting area, and they are often receptive to hitting most any lure dropped near them. The females don't stay in the immediate vicinity of the nests for anywhere near as long as the male bass. So it may be best to leave the males alone, marvel at the wonder of it all, but don't try to catch them. Why do you think the male's guarding the eggs anyway? Because the offspring are doomed without him, and even under his protection, many of them will be lost anyway. Now if you catch him, take him or release him injured, the nestlings stand no chance. Even if you think you'll release him quickly and easily, it doesn't always work out that way. In some states or on some waters, it's prohibited, but even where it's not against regulations, it makes sense and is self-rewarding to voluntarily wait a few weeks until spawning is over, his parental duties are discharged, and then he's fair game.

Besides, there are better prospects directly offshore of the nesting grounds. When a female has expended all her available eggs, she tends not to linger much longer in the shallows, but heads for deep water close by. At this time, she is relinquishing all ties to the nest, leaving the male to do his best as a single parent. The areas the spent females head toward can be a considerable ways out from the nests, depending on the particular lake, of course. Some lakes have deep water fairly close to shore. In other cases, the females may journey far from the nests before getting to the deeper water breaks where they'll linger for a time. This is called the 'post spawn' period, and anglers often connote this time as a recuperative period when bass rebuild or recoup the energy spent on spawning. Anything manmade is a magnet - riprap rocks, concrete structure, retainer walls, pilings, docks, boat houses, bridges – you name it - if it's vertical structure in relatively deep water, bass migrating off the nearby spawning flats will linger there for the post-spawn period.

Islands – the points on them, any creek channels can be a hangout to some of the best bass right after they spawn. Again, these areas may be near or far from the nesting grounds. For instance, in many narrow creek arms or narrow channels, they may have a shallow side where nests may be constructed and a steeper side where females will bide their time both before and after they have spawned. So in these kinds of narrow creeks or channels, the pre-spawn, spawning and post-spawn locations may all be concentrated within a hundred yards of each other, or only one or two casts apart.

Self-preservation of the individual is a prime survival directive, but bass become shallow-minded and risk their own survival to spawn each spring. The benefits of their brave shallow-mindedness include the renewal and replenishment of their species and their shallow-mindedness indirectly benefits anglers since it ensures there will always be bass for us and for future generations of anglers to enjoy.

So get out and experience the rapture of the spawning season. See as much of it occur as you can. This story has given you tips on where to find spawning bass, but please act responsibly and respectfully toward them.
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Great article! Thanks for the info Roy!
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