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The Pre-Spawn

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Overview

Although periods of the spawn and its progression change due to many different factors we will dive into later, for the sake our discussion, I will use water temperature as an easy-to-follow guide.  This can help you guesstimate what stage of the spawn the bass may be in at a given time.  These temperatures are approximate, and should by no means be the only thing you take into consideration when trying to determine what the fish are doing.

The pre-spawn usually occurs when water temperature is between 48-60 degrees Fahrenheit.  During this period, bass will go through three stages.  These stages can take two months or more to progress through and they begin much sooner than many anglers realize. 

As days get longer and the water temperature starts to climb into the mid to upper 40s, bass will begin the first stage of the pre-spawn.  This stage sees bass starting to come out of their winter haunts and schooling on structures such as main lake points and ledges.

As the water continues to warm and the days get even longer, bass will continue to get closer to their eventual spawning areas, stopping at key spots along the way.  These “stopping points” are call Staging Areas.  These Staging Areas can be pieces of structure, creek channels or pieces of cover such as brush piles and docks.

The final stage of the pre-spawn happens really close to actual spawning, and often sees male bass buckling down on spawning flats and begin nesting.  Females may start to cruise the shallows, but actual spawning behavior has not yet occurred.

Migration in Detail

As mentioned, the bass pre-spawn migration can happen over the course of a few months.  Bass are making their way out of deep, wintering areas to their eventual shallow water spawning spots.  In order to get a better understanding of this process, we’ll look at the details of where the bass are coming from and where they are going.

The first phase of the pre-spawn sees bass coming out of their winter homes.  These areas can look different on different bodies of water.  In rivers, these could be deep backwater areas or slow pools with minimal current.  In reservoirs, these might be main lake bluff walls or areas where creek and river channels intersect.  These are by no means the only areas bass will winter, but rather examples of areas to look for.

Skipping ahead, the last phase of the spawn sees bass moving into areas of hard bottom.  This could be pockets that have sand or gravel bottoms, or little coves that have some form of hard cover like logs.  These areas also need to be shallow enough to warm their eggs.  In muddy water, this may be as shallow as one foot.  In clear water, this may be ten feet or more!

Once you have found areas that meet both wintering areas and spawning areas, the area in between (phase two) can be thought of as the migration route, aka “The Bass Highway.”  The Bass Highway is the most likely route bass will take to get from winter areas to spawning spots.

The Bass Highway

One key factor in finding a good Bass Highway is to try and find the shortest path from wintering areas to spawn areas.  The less distance a bass must travel, the easier they will be to find and target.

You will also want to look for structure and cover between these two spots.  These are where bass will stop along their migration to eat, rest, and wait for conditions to improve. 

Another thing to note is the Bass Highway may look different on different bodies of water.  On rivers, you are looking for these paths in slow moving water areas such as backwaters.  When looking between wintering areas and spawning areas, look for small depth changes near shallow flats or maybe islands or wing dams that block the current.

When fishing reservoirs, specifically target channel swings, ledges, points, break lines and isolated cover. These areas can all prove fruitful for finding staging bass.  These areas tend to hold food and shelter for bass as they make their way to their spawning grounds.  If you can find these areas on banks that have a steeper grade, that increases their potential.

In natural lakes and ponds, try to find areas where the bottom composition of the lake changes.  Areas such as muck bottom to gravel or any sort of drop-off or ledge can be great.

Now, keep in mind that not all bass migrate in every lake.  There is approximately 30% (give or take) of a bass population that stays shallow throughout the year...  Shallow being a relative term as they must stay deep enough not to become frozen in winter ice.  Also, shallower fish are more susceptible to weather and water changes.  This could be good when conditions are favorable, but when things turn south, they can be nearly impossible to catch.

One final key feature that may help you determine a good location to start fishing would be to search for the cleanest, clearest water on the lake.  This is especially helpful when the water is still cold.  Trying to catch fish in colder, muddy water, is a monster that can cause even the most seasoned of anglers to shutter.

Staging areas

As bass migrate down the Bass Highway, they will stop at different spots along the way.  Many times, these areas will contain groups of fish waiting for conditions to improve.  Theses stopping points are called staging areas.

The first staging areas in late winter and early spring will be rock transition banks.  These are banks where the bottom composition changes from one medium to another.  A couple of examples are banks changing from bluff rocks to ledge rocks, or big chunk rock to smaller rock.  The more drastic the change, the better the banks will be.  Bare rocks will also be where bass typically start their journey, but finding any type of cover always increases the likelihood of tracking down a school of fish. Areas of chunk rock with docks seems to be killer this time of year.  Bass will hold up and suspend under these docks as they wait for the water conditions to improve.

In the late pre-spawn, you will want to look for banks that transition from chunk rock to pea gravel, or some other type of compact hard bottom.  These should also be fairly close to spawning areas.  This is the last stopping point before bass start to take over the spawning flats and find areas to make beds and mate.

Finding great staging areas is more than just looking at the type of rock that makes up the banks.  In addition to rock type, look for areas that:

  • Have drains and ditches – bass will follow these depressions to their spawning areas

  • Have a spawning flat with a creek bed running through it

  • Have deep holes in the backs of creeks

  • Have the last channel swing before entering a spawning flat

  • Have the last bit of deep water before a flat

Finally, if you can find schools of baitfish in these areas, they increase the value of that spot.

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