Headwaters for Prespawn Bass

Posted by  Thursday, March 21 2013 7:00 am
expert

 

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When fishing headwaters in early spring, there's always a chance of boating an enormous bass.

Catching bass during the prespawn period is often a hit-or-miss proposition. One day they're there, the next they're not. Bass enter a period of stress and instability as winter changes to spring, and their behavior may change markedly from day to day, frustrating many anglers.

The weather during this time is unstable, to say the least. Warm "bluebird" days are sporadic and of brief duration. Cold fronts are apt to pass through any time, driving bass deep and giving them lockjaw. The wind is blustery, and the water temperature is rising as the hours of sunlight increase. These rapid weather changes throw bass, and bassers, "off balance."

That's the bad news. The good news is, this is one of the best seasons for catching lots of bass, including some trophies, if you can find them. The fish are coming out of a period of dormancy and reduced feeding and must condition themselves for the rigors of the spawn just ahead. They migrate in schools from deep winter haunts to shallower holding areas and begin feeding heavily on baitfish, crawfish and other forage. A properly presented lure is almost sure to garner a strike.

One key to success, of course, is knowing where bass are most likely to be found during this time. And that's my cue for telling you about headwaters.

Why Headwaters?

The headwaters area of a lake is the "upper" end — that portion where the major stream or streams that feed the lake flow into it. This is usually that part of the lake opposite the dam.

In early spring, many bass gather in the headwaters reaches because this is where the water first begins to warm. Creeks and small streams above the lake warm first because they are shallow and fed by the first warming rains. These in turn feed larger streams flowing into the lake, and they, too, warm up before the deeper main lake.

As winter's cold begins to ebb, bass begin roaming and feeding, and eventually they encounter warmer water flowing in from headwaters tributaries. Moving against the current, looking for its source of warmth, they move shallower and shallower. Initially, they'll be positioned near primary creek and river mouths, but as the water temperature reaches the upper 50s, bass move onto flats and into secondary channels. The migration of prespawn fish begins in 20 to 30 feet of water in the main body of the lake; at the end of this period, fish will be in 8- to 15-foot depths, at the mouth of or within headwaters tributaries. Later, when water temperature nears 64 degrees, they'll move into 3 to 5 feet of water, and the actual spawn will begin.

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Smaller baits are less intimidating to small bass, allowing you to catch more fish.

Current is another guiding force in the headwaters. Bass react positively to moving water, even if it's just a runoff of water after a shower or the slight current produced as the result of power generation. But during the winter-to-spring transition period, current takes on added significance. Bass are lethargic after a season on reduced rations, and when possible, they prefer to sit in cover where food is delivered to them by the current. Headwaters again provide the ideal situation.

Bass concentrate in a lake's headwaters region for other reasons, too. As water warms and the spawning urge begins to take hold, the basses' instincts drive them to the shallow areas where spawning will eventually take place. The headwaters portion of a lake is usually shallower than the lower, dam-site end, so it's logical many bass will migrate toward the headwaters.

Water clarity is another important consideration. Lakes are usually at their clearest in early spring, and moving from clear water into a slightly turbid creek or stream can produce more fish. Largemouths are less spooky and more likely to hit a variety of lures in dingy water. After a shower, headwaters streams are also full of food that has washed in. Bass actually pile up at the mouths of headwaters tributaries and gorge themselves on forage animals.

One key to successful early-spring fishing, then, is to locate headwater areas that offer current, slight turbidity and food near shallow spawning areas, and fish those areas with the lures that produce best. The headwater area you want to fish usually is around the lake's main source of water, the largest arm or arms of the river that feeds the lake. But major creeks also can be factors in headwaters fishing. An early-spring rain can change a non-moving creek into a moving environment, thus creating exactly what you're looking for — a moving, food-rich environment where bass are concentrated.

There are many types of bass-holding structure in the headwaters reaches of most lakes. Some of the best are points and flats lying adjacent headwaters tributaries. Let's examine these structures, and look at some of the best lures and fishing techniques for catching headwaters bass.

Points & Crankbaits

During the earliest part of prespawn, headwaters bass often hold on points that slope toward the main river channel. These points may be conspicuous as they jut into the main current areas, or they may be inconspicuous, barely showing on the bank but gradually sloping toward the channel drop. The best lure for fishing these areas is a crankbait.

There's a possibility you could catch a 10-pound bass while fishing a point, but it's a slight possibility, so don't get hung up on the old adage, "It takes big lures to catch big bass." Large lures might eliminate, through intimidation, enough bass to rule out a limit. Small crankbaits are most productive, and deep-runners have an edge when fishing points. They offer extra depth, and in shallow areas, they'll bump bottom, creating a bass-attracting disturbance.

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Deep-diving crankbaits are among the best lures for fishing points in lake headwaters.

Many bass anglers decline to use crankbaits during this cool-water season because it's difficult to keep the lure at the favored depth and still move it slow enough to entice lethargic bass. Using a neutral buoyancy or sinking crankbait helps eliminate these problems. If you use light line, say 10- to 12-pound test, these lures can be cranked down to the proper depth and then slowly crawled across the bottom.

Fish crankbaits around the available cover on each point, retrieving the lure from shallow water to deep, or working across the point toward the deepest side. Bass move up and down points as weather and water conditions change. Consequently, they may be difficult to pinpoint. But when the first fish is found, you may be able to take a limit on consecutive casts.

Because the best points to fish drop quickly into deep water, you'll have to crank the lures hard and fast several turns to get them down near bottom before slowing to an effective pace. Always try to keep these lures bumping against or bouncing off something solid — stumps, logs, boulders, etc. If no cover is around, walk the lure along the lake floor, not plowing but just nicking the bottom. A good crankbait with a big diving lip will roll on its side when contact is made, and this is usually when a hungry bass will nail it.

Fishing Headwaters Flats

Flats are a prominent type of structure in headwaters areas. Every time an in-coming stream channel swings from one side to another, a flat is created. Flats are among the first areas visited by bass leaving deep-water winter sanctuaries.

As the prespawn period begins, bass migrate into timber and other cover on the deep (channel) side of these flats. Then later, if suitable spawning sites are available, they'll move to shallower reaches near shore. Throughout this period, the fish will be actively feeding.

Bass also will move between different areas on a flat in response to changes in weather and water quality. For instance, the passage of a cold front may drive them from mid-depth shelters back to the deep edge of the adjacent stream channel. They may respond to warm, overcast days by moving to shallow wind-swept quarters where baitfish are concentrated. If current is carrying a heavy silt load, fish may be suspended right at the mudline in whatever cover is available. To catch bass, you may have to fish several different areas using different techniques and lures until you determine a pattern.

Stumps often are present on headwaters flats, and bass use stumps as ambush points. Shallow-running crankbaits are excellent for catching these fish. The key is to bump the stump with your lure. Stop it for a second, then resume your retrieve. Feeding bass rarely resist this presentation.

Dingy Water & Spinnerbaits

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Spinnerbaits are excellent for fishing dingy headwaters creeks and streams.

If you're fishing a headwaters creek or stream that is dingy from spring runoff, consider using a spinnerbait. Bass often move shallow to feed when the water is heavily colored, and a spinnerbait is hard to beat for catching them. Work the lure around stump fields, log jams and buckbrush on shallow flats adjacent river arms. Fishing around the mouths of small creeks may also be productive. Work these areas slowly and thoroughly, and you've got the perfect ingredients for some spectacular headwaters bass fishing.

White or chartreuse spinnerbaits are among the most productive under these conditions. Many anglers also prefer spinnerbaits with a big flashy blade or blades. These send out more fish-attracting vibrations and reflections than small blades.

In dingy water, bass will be holding tight on cover, so cast past your target and work the spinnerbait slowly back by it. Make the bait bump the structure if possible.

If a straight retrieve doesn't produce, it may help to run the spinnerbait right up to the cover, then allow it to drop. This may elicit strikes when nothing else works.

Conclusion

There are literally dozens of other places and tactics you can try. And you may have to try them all before you start hooking fish. There are no guaranteed catches this time of year, even in the headwaters. A fisherman might spend the entire day slowly and methodically working a few areas of headwaters cover, and if he's lucky he'll locate one school of bass. But, oh, what a school!

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Keith Sutton
expert

With a resume listing more than 3,500 magazine, newspaper and website articles about fishing, hunting, wildlife and conservation, Keith Sutton of Alexander, Ark., has established a reputation as one of the country’s best-known outdoor writers. In 2011, Sutton, who has authored 12 books, was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as a “Legendary Communicator.” Visit his website at www.catfishsutton.com.

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