What makes largemouth bass fishing so challenging is the fact that these fish are constantly on the move. From day to day, week to week, and season to season, the movement of largemouth bass throughout a lake is dictated by water temperatures, spawning desires, and the need to find food while avoiding predators. The first step to becoming a better bass fisherman is understanding how these factors drive bass migrations so, at any given time of year, you’ll know where to search for them and how to target them.
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After ice-out in late winter or early spring, bass begin moving from deeper areas where they spent the winter toward rapidly warming shallow waters. However, early spring weather is unpredictable, and as the water temperature in the shallows fluctuates from day to day, bass will move back and forth between shallow and deep water. Along with water temperature, spring largemouth location is driven by spawning behavior, so fishing can be broken down into three stages: pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn, with largemouth exhibiting different behaviors and holding in different locations through each stage of the spawning process.
Spring Tip: Always keep a crankbait tied on one of your rods in the springtime. Before, during, and after the spawn, a baitfish-colored square-bill crankbait, like the Bass Pro XPS Squarebill Crankbait in natural bream or river minnow, is deadly. If the water is very shallow, use a Bomber Square A. Bump the crankbait off wood or rock cover and run it through the isolated grass patches left over from the previous year. Rip the bait free from grass to trigger a reaction bite. Target sloping banks and wood cover with the square bill and large flats with isolated weeds using lipless crankbaits.
Early in the spring, largemouths will be looking to feed to regain the weight lost during the lean winter and to build up energy for the spawn. Until the shallows begin to warm, shoreline points near deep water, sharp breaks that lead to large flats, channels or depressions in spawning coves, or any type of cover in deeper water located near shallow spawning areas will function as staging areas for pre-spawn bass. Many of these structures are not visible and must be located with electronics. Crankbaits, lipless crankbaits, and jigs slowly dragged across the bottom are all effective on deep, early-spring bass.
Bass moving toward spawning coves will stop to feed at isolated cover such as rocks or fallen trees. Even old weed patches from last year will hold fish. Use a medium-diving crankbait like the Storm Wiggle Wart to explore the water leading to spawning coves and flats. Go with bright color patterns in stained water and natural patterns in clear water. The crankbait should run deep enough to bump bottom. A jig tipped with a plastic craw is another good option to slowly explore an area. Use black and blue in stained water and pumpkin or watermelon in clear water.
Bass will begin looking for the warmest available water and start to move into the shallows as soon as these areas warm under the spring sun. Shallow, stained lakes will warm the fastest, and bass in these waters will move shallow earlier than those in deeper, clear lakes.
Look to the northern sections of a large lake, particularly south-facing shorelines that are exposed to the sun for long periods of the day and protected from cold northern winds. Protected, shallow coves will also retain water that warms quickly in the spring. Avoid shaded areas and areas exposed to wind that will mix the water.
Once the water temperature in spawning coves is above the 60-degree mark, bass will move shallow and spawn. However, water temperature in the shallows can change rapidly—literally overnight. A cold front can chase the bass off the beds and send them deep until the weather stabilizes. Most of the time, the bass won’t move very far. If you were catching them a foot off the bank before the cold front, try 5 to 10 feet off the bank and closer to the bottom after water temperatures drop.
You will see spawning beds on the warmest, most protected sections of the lake first. Bass spawn in shallow water on a hard bottom, preferably next to some sort of cover like a stump, dock piling, tree or bush, which helps protect them from wind and predators.
All bass in a body of water don’t spawn at the same time. Some bass are spawning while some are still moving up. So when shallow bass are unresponsive, target the bass that are staging in deeper water.
Though bass in shallow water are often more aggressive, they also experience more angling pressure than bass holding in deeper water. Shift your focus to the mid-range fish and you will be rewarded.
Another benefit to fishing the mid-range depths during pre-spawn/spawn is the shot at the large females that lurk on the outskirts of spawning areas as the males prepare the beds. When you see the smaller male sitting on the bed, know that there may be a large female waiting somewhere nearby—fish the deeper water leading up to the spawning bed for a shot at this bigger fish.
When the time is right, the female will move up and spawn, only holding in the shallow water for a short period of time.
If you choose to target bass on their spawning beds, it can be very easy at times. The less you are seen by the bass, the easier it will be to get them to bite. Low-light conditions and wind will help camouflage you. The most basic way to fish for bedding fish is throwing a 4- or 5-inch Texas-rigged soft-plastic bait past the bed and slowly moving it into the bed. If the bass picks it up, wait a second and set the hook.
After the spawn, the larger female bass will move off to the outskirts of the spawning area to recuperate from the stresses of the spawn while the smaller male protects the eggs and fry.
After the bass spawn, bluegills move into the same areas and set up shop. This is a great time to catch big bass. Bass will wait at ambush points during bluegill spawning and readily eat lures worked past these points. Wakebaits in a bluegill pattern have taken some huge fish for me; a War Eagle finesse spinnerbait and Rapala Rippin’ Rap also work wonders. The best spots are shoreline points on either side of a spawning cove, shoreline pockets, the front and sides of a downed tree, dock, or any kind of large structure near the bluegill beds. When you find early season bluegill beds, know the bass are somewhere close.
Post-spawn bass hold in shoreline cover as the spring weather stabilizes. There is a lot of fishing pressure at this time of year, and to catch more fish, you need to get your lure where most guys don’t. Weed lines have not yet set up, so bass are keying in on trees and brush. When fishing a laydown, pitch your bait deeper into the tree than most guys—don’t worry about getting snagged, it’s part of fishing.
Summer bass fishing can be tough. The longer days, hotter temperatures and direct sunlight can send bass from the shoreline areas to deeper summer haunts. The best times to fish are early morning, the last two hours of daylight, cloudy days and nighttime.
While productive depths during the early summer are dependent on the lake, I like 6 to 12 feet of water. During the height of summer, bass may move as deep as 15 or 20 feet, especially in clear water.
Weeds have grown by summer and bass will relate to them. Weed edges that are well defined, like a wall of weeds, will hold the best fishing. These edges are usually so defined because of a drop-off bordering the weeds. Early morning bass will be positioned toward the outside, so pull right up to the weed edge and fish parallel to it. Use crankbaits, spinnerbaits or jigs like these:
Try slow-rolling the spinnerbait along the bottom as close to the weeds as possible.
During the day, bass will move toward deeper water or deeper inside the weeds. When the sun is high, always fish the shady side of cover no matter how deep or shallow. Cast a frog into the weeds, pausing and twitching the bait at any openings. Pitch a punching jig into the same openings to break through the canopy.
In deeper lakes, some largemouths will seek out cooler water by moving to offshore structure such as small- to medium-sized gravel, hard bottom or shell beds. Underwater humps surrounded by deeper water, long points that lead to deep water, areas where the channel swings close to shore, sunken brush piles, fallen trees and channels or deep depressions in coves will also hold summer largemouths. Fish these structures with drop-shot rigs, football-head jigs, Carolina rigs and crankbaits. Football jigs, in particular, feature a flat-bottomed jighead designed to keep your bait sitting upright on the bottom, creating a natural presentation that remains in the strike zone.
Summer Tip: Get some good foul weather gear and make sure to be on the water when a low-pressure system is approaching (as long as there is no lightning). As soon as it begins to rain, get to the best area of the lake—the big fish will start feeding soon after.
As the water cools in the fall, bass move shallower to feed and pack on weight for the lean winter. Once the water drops to 55 degrees, the bite can turn on. Another bonus is that few anglers are still fishing at this time of year. Dress properly and you will have awesome days all to yourself. There are large fish still to be caught as well as large quantities. The bass will stack up in prime areas and you can catch them one after another.
Early in the fall, before the lake turns over, bass will move back into the same shallow areas where they were feeding before the spawn. A small- to medium-sized spinnerbait, like the War Eagle, and a square-billed crankbait will work wonders in the month of September. Points once again will be sure spots for fish as well as any cover adjacent to deeper water.
I have three go-to lures for fall—a medium-diving crankbait, a lipless crankbait, and a jerkbait. Topwaters, spoons and spinnerbaits can also be effective, but jerkbaits reign supreme.
As the lake turns over, fishing will be tough for a stretch. After turnover, when the lake has settled and cleared up again, bass will move to the steepest ledges leading to flats with the last remaining weeds on them. Pay attention to the weeds that get stuck on your hooks. Bass pile up next to the last remaining living (green) weeds. Dying (brown) weeds will deplete an area of oxygen, and bass will not linger in these places.
As the water gets colder, bass will start ganging up on steep slopes; you can leave flat shorelines alone once the water is in the 40s and 50s. Look for the sharpest drop-offs all around the lake and you can be fairly certain that these will be early- and late-season spots. Action heats up at midday in the autumn, so don’t worry about getting out at the crack of dawn.
A surefire way to score in late fall is to find baitfish and use a jerkbait or spoon. As you motor around, look for bait flipping on the surface. Cast past the bait and bring the jerkbait through them with a jerk, pause, jerk-jerk, pause, retrieve. Pause the bait for longer periods of time as the water gets colder. Try to use a jerkbait that will go at least 5 to 7 feet deep. As the water drops into the low 40s, lakes with a shad population experience a shad die-off, and bass hang beneath the schools waiting for a shad to flutter down to them. If you don’t see bait, work the jerkbait over deep points, humps, channels, and steep slopes—bass will suspend in these areas. Work the spoon under the dying bait with a yo-yo retrieve, and hold on.
Fall Tip: In dirty water, bass will hold tight to shallow structure. In clear water, bass will hold deeper, loosely associating to structure, and sometimes suspending over it. Bass can be picky in clear water—make sure your presentation is as natural as possible.
When water temperatures fall into the low 40s and 30s, it gets harder to catch bass—but not impossible. Their metabolism slows and they don’t need to feed as much, but they still will strike lures. Target the sharpest drop-offs you can find that have bait on them. Most bass will hunker down on the bottom in cover or suspend over points and humps.
Winter Tip: Lipless crankbaits are deadly in cold water. Let the bait fall to the bottom after the cast and sharply rip it off the bottom by lifting the rod, letting the bait fall to the bottom again on a slack line. Watch the line so you know when the bait has hit bottom. Bass will hit the bait as it flutters down, and when you lift the rod, the fish will be there. The Lucky Craft LVR D-7 chartreuse shad is a great choice for stained water and the Xcalibur Xr 50 Real Craw (left) works well when the water is clear.
This article was originally published online in January 2017.