When bass fishing new lakes baitfish type, movements, and seasonal patterns are just as important as the same for the bass we are after. No different than any species, a bass requires food and shelter to survive. In fact, with the exception of reproduction, food is the primary concern for a bass. A bass will abandon the perfect shelter in search of food. Bass will position themselves in a lake or river in such a way as to provide the best feeding opportunities. Keeping this simply concept in mind when fishing a lake for the first time will put a bass angler leaps and bounds ahead of other bass anglers. In order to do this, we must know what the primary bass forage is for the lake we are fishing, and how the forage reacts to its environment. Lake composition, weather, current, season all effect forage which in turn effects bass location.
Bass Fishing New Lakes Baitfish – What’s In It
Lakes in the central and western United States have shad, many lakes in the eastern United States have herring, and mixed in the middle some lakes have both. Shad are very predictable in their movements while herring are very nomadic and anglers have to search daily sometimes hourly to find them. Sunfish species like bream, bluegill, perch, even bass, inhabit nearly every body of water in the United States and can be a factor in determining patterns.
Forage can change significantly based on region and lake composition. For example a shallow natural lake in the southern United States will have a variety of shad, panfish, and amphibians. While a shallow natural lake in the northern United States can be void of shad, and the panfish species might be entirely different. Online searches, area Wildlife and Fisheries, and local marinas can be very informative as to the primary forage for a lake or river.
Bass Fishing New Lakes Baitfish – What’s The Forage Doing
By knowing what types of forage inhabit a lake we can use seasonal patterns to eliminate water. For example, if fishing a lake in the late spring with a primary forage of threadfin shad, we can expect to find post spawn bass targeting spawning shad. At this point, we can eliminate deep water ledges and creek channels. Shad will be shallow, especially early and late and bass will be feeding on them. Look for areas providing spawning cover for shad and then present baits to mimic the shad spawning activity.
Here is an in depth article I wrote on the Shad Spawn
Here is a video of shad spawning around a cypress tree on Caddo Lake Louisiana
There is generally at least one forage species spawning at any given time throughout late spring and summer. When visiting a new waterway, anglers are wise to build patterns around the forage species currently spawning. First, forage is generally easier for an angler to find when it’s spawning. Second, bass seek out spawning forage. Just like a bass will feed heavily before it spawns, so do forage species. The spawning forage is fat from this heavy feeding and provides a nutrient rich food source for bass. These spawning prey are also oblivious to the environment, because of the spawning ritual, making them easy for bass to consume. Starting with perch, then shad varieties, ending with bream, bass have feeding options throughout the warm water seasons. Learn as much as possible about the available forage species.
A bluegill in the south will spawn during the early summer months, while a perch in the north spawn in late spring. One constant rule is how water temperature affects a species. When dealing with the same species, no matter what part of the country, they will have the same life cycle habits (remember I also said this about bass). If a bluegill spawns in 78-82 degree water in the south, the same bluegill species will spawn at 78-82 degrees in the north. Obviously the actual calendar time will be different. This concept holds true for deeper reservoirs with nomadic species like shad and herring.
Bass Fishing New Lakes Baitfish – Where to Look
Finding forage and shelter for bass in the same location greatly increases the chances of catching bass. Shelter can come in many forms from depth to cover. Many times the primary forage will be living in an area also providing shelter for bass. We simply have to be open minded as to what quality shelter is. During summer months, shad position themselves on ledges and deeper drop offs. These deeper zones provide excellent shelter for bass. Small panfish live in vegetation, bass are extremely comfortable lying underneath a large canopy of grass. Knowing what bass are feeding on and then knowing what the food source is doing at the time is instrumental in quickly determining a bass catching pattern.
One last general fact about baitfish, just like a bass, baitfish can be in a seasonal pattern transition. Nothing in nature happens all at once, even if a forage species is spawning or migrating, there will be forage in all stages of spawn or migration. A forage species migrating from deep water in the winter to shallow spawning grounds in the spring can be found in both locations for weeks at a time. In this situation, rely on confidence techniques to find feeding bass. If more comfortable fishing crankbaits in the deeper water, than fishing topwater in the shallows, then do so. Just make sure to understand the stage the forage are in.
By using lake composition, the primary type of forage, and seasonal patterns anglers can dial in the location of the lake with the majority of actively feeding bass. This can be done prior to arriving at the lake with map study and research.
Bass Fishing New Lakes Baitfish – Baitfish Movements
Over the years I have experienced forage activity from coast to coast. In general, it’s all the same based on water temperature. Here are a few things I’ve learned and used to help me when visiting a new lake for the first time.
Winter Baitfish Movements and Locations
Threadfin shad are a warm water species and start to die when water temperatures drop into the mid 40’s. The die off will trigger a cold water feeding spree for bass. On those mornings when the air temperature has cooled the lake past the breaking point for shad, bass will get crazy. Use electronics to find schools of shad and present bait choices mimicking the dying shad. Depending on depth, everything from senkos to jigging spoons are effective. The goal is to replicate a falling dying shad. Slow sinking jerkbaits can also be extremely productive.
Crawfish are a food source to be considered year round. However, in the winter if bass are targeting crawfish the biggest factor to keep in mind is slow. Most anglers work jigs and other crawdad mimicking baits way too fast. A victim of water temperature, just like a bass, a crawdad metabolism is very slow.
Sunfish are typically very deep and difficult to pattern. Sunfish will be schooled up on ledges and drops and very lethargic. When a bass happens across one of these schools, it will feed; however, it’s difficult for anglers to pattern winter sunfish.
Spring Baitfish Movements and Locations
Shad will spawn between 68-72 degrees. Usually two to three weeks after the major bass spawn ends. I think of the shad spawn as nature’s way of providing a significant food source for bass starved from their spawning rituals. Millions of shad hit shallow targets to spawn. Shad will spawn against anything, but rip rap is very popular. If rip rap or seawalls are not available, then dock pylons or standing timber will work. Shad are not picky; they will also spawn in and around vegetation. Some anglers have trouble determining when the shad spawn is in full swing; however, there are a few dead giveaway signs. First is to watch a bait as its retrieve gets close to the boat. Shad are not very smart, and anything small moving through the water looks like a partner. Spawning shad will follow a spinnerbaits, crank baits, and surface lures in an attempt to find a new mate. Spawning shad often break off from the school into small groups of 6 to 20, these smaller groups will spawn anywhere and everywhere to include twigs, floating debris, or a single lily pad. Typically, shad are easiest to see around pylons, along banks with chunk rock, or along vegetation break lines. During the shad spawn, any bait choice resembling a shad is productive. Squarebill crank baits and spinnerbaits allow anglers to cover a lot of water quickly in search of bass feeding on the oblivious shad. Early morning, before the sun hits the water, is the best chance to get in on this action. Once a good concentration of spawning shad is found, there will likely be a good concentration of hungry bass nearby.
Bass hate sunfish species this time of year. Sunfish rob a bass’s nest of eggs and are a general all around menace. Given the opportunity, in the spring, a bass will pound a bluegill into the gravel just to warn it. When fishing sunfish imitating baits, expect bone jarring strikes from angry bass.
Summer Baitfish Movements and Locations
After the shad spawn there is a lull in forage action. As the seasons roll towards summer, a new feeding opportunity presents itself for bass; bream. The bream will start their spawn when the water temperatures reach the high 70’s. Beam or bluegill spawning activity can last most of the summer. One of my favorite summer patterns is to find bream/bluegill beds and work large top water baits around it. Big summer bass will cruise bream beds in search of food. While there will be bream activity all day in the bream beds, the best chance at catching the bigger bass is early and late in the day. A single bream will feed a large bass for the day, so unlike bass feeding on shad a bass can eat a single bream and head back to its resting grounds for the day.
As the seasons continues into summer, warm water, high plankton concentrations, and a successful spawn cause summer shad population to explode. In most reservoirs bass and shad will migrate along ledges, creek channels, and drop offs. Using electronics look for schools of shad in main-lake regions. Once shad are found intersecting a bass holding bottom structure or contour, it could be a buffet line.
Baitfish Movements and Locations Exceptions
Crayfish play a significant role in a bass’s diet. Bass will eat crayfish year round; however pre-spawn is the most important season for an angler to consider crayfish imitations as part of their angling arsenal. High in protein and readily available in all lakes and rivers, crayfish, are an important component of a bass’s diet before the spawn. Bass crave crawfish in the early spring because the protein rich morsels help with egg development. There are hundreds of crayfish species and they come in just about as many colors, it’s important to determine the color and size of the crawfish in the waters being fished. While at the ramp, walk the banks looking into the edge of the water. Turn over a couple rocks or dig through some shoreline vegetation; the effort can lead to a very productive day. During the early morning, before the sun hits the water, crayfish are active and it should be easy to find them.
When fishing a natural lake or river, forage options are seemingly endless and it can be wise to know what the most prominent forage is during a visit. Shore minnows, frogs, snakes, mice are all possible forage for a bass in a natural lake. If there has been a particular hatch of forage it’s an excellent idea to key in on it. I have been on lakes when a frog explosion of biblical proportions happened; if anglers didn’t throw frog imitations, they simply did not get bites. Mayfly hatches can bring about an amazing opportunity, bream and smaller fish eat the Mayflies and bass feed on the smaller fish.
I could write a book on the baitfish activities I have used to find bass in my bass fishing career, the most important thing is to understand forage plays a large role in bass location. With the exception of a bass’s spawning activity, the rest of its life cycle is based around eating. It’s important to know what the primary forage are and know how bass react to them. Study the lakes forage population to determine migration, spawning, and feeding habits. Knowing what the main forage for bass is doing gives an angler the advantage.
If on a body of water with no evidence of forage to work with, use the wind. I have learned there are always shallow bass feeding on something. Using wind-blown banks has saved me many times. The wave action stirs the ecosystem and gets everything in the food chain active. Once on a wind-blown bank, fish reaction baits while investigating. Eventually a forage species will reveal it’s self along the bank somewhere. Shad, bream, bluegill, herring, perch, eventually something will show. Once forage is identified, match the hatch and continue to cover water.
My final lesson on forage is “don’t be shy”. First know the laws in the region being fished, places like Louisiana have seasons on crawfish hunting, or amphibian collecting. A Fish and Game Officer may not understand the search for forage to help determine what color, size, and shape of a lure to use. If it’s legal, use crawdad traps or small cast nets to collect forage and get a close look. A few minutes spent collecting local area forage can cut hours out of trial and error in developing a bass catching pattern. During prefishing efforts on new waterways, I will keep several bass in my livewell in hopes they will cough up a clue as to what they are eating. Do whatever is legal to get an advantage, even if it means rolling up your jeans and getting your feet wet.
Be sure to check our the rest of the articles in the Bass Fishing a New Lake series