Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Fishing for Bass and Other Warmwater Species

John Capaletti with his first Oregon Largemouth Bass

Russell Wright with a Largemouth Bass caught from a float tube
Russel Wright with a Smallmouth Bass caught from a float tube
As the weather warms up and rains subside, water levels drop, the currents the back of river sloughs slow to a crawl and giant lakes start shrivel up into small, individual ponds. There are several stages to the spring spawn of bass that provide good fishing conditions for this time of year. Early in the season, muddy or murky water can still produce bass on very slow presentations of dark colors that provide a contrasting profile. The toughest part of fishing in these conditions is visibility. The bass however are in pre-spawn mode, seeking warmer water near the edges and foraging for food after remaining dormant for the winter. As the water temperature rises, especially on sunny days, their metabolism will begin to increase in favor of delighted fishermen.

Three types of bass are typically present in the valley, largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. The largemouth and spotted bass are striking in similarity, but the largemouth gets it's name from a gigantic bucket of a gullet. They typically feed on other fish, frogs, snakes, mice, baby ducks, quite literally anything they can fit in their mouth. The spotted bass has a slightly smaller mouth and pattern of color, but the difference is hardly noticable. The one very unique defining characteristic is that they have a patch of teeth on their tongue that helps them hold onto prey. The smallmouth however is visually distinctive from it's two closest relative species. They are typically bronze or brown in color, have red eyes, and of course a significantly smaller set of jaws. Their diet isn't much different, but they normally feed on smaller fish or crustaceans like crawfish.

Once the water clears up, bass will begin to gorge themselves on anything and everything with the intention of fattening up for spawning. While largemouth and spotted bass move into the shallows near overhanging trees, smallmouth tend to hold near rockpiles or points in the shoreline. Bass will often cruise long distances over short periods of time in search of food during the pre-spawn and simultaneously search for mates. They will start to school up and once you have found one there are probably more in the same area.

After the water level has been clear enough for vegetation to take hold and the water levels begin to drop, bass will begin to pair off and make "beds" where eggs will be laid and fertilized. The pre-spawn will overlap during this time and some fish will hold to particular areas of cover and others will cruise individually or in schools. All of them will be feeding, but as spawning fish begin to lay eggs they will bite more as instinctive aggression in response to threatening their nests than to actually feed themselves. As the eggs mature and develop inside the females, they increase tremendously in girth and become the hefty "lunker" fish that most bass anglers desire.
Randall Bonner with his first Oregon Smallmouth Bass

Eventually, bass will pair up, build their nests and spawn. By the time these bass are "on the bed" they have seen so many presentations from anglers and many have already been caught and released. Water levels are low, visibility is crystal clear and most fish will scoff at presentations with skepticism their young are in any real danger. This is when you will be able to visually see the most fish and catch the least. Younger or stray fish however that have not paired up will be actively feeding and cruising structure along the edges, so it's still possible to hook up during the spawn and post spawn. At some point the fish that have spawned will leave their beds and feed to regain their energy spent on defending their territory.

Although most bass species can potentially be delicious, catch and release ethics vary in each fishery. Smaller lakes that hold good populations of larger fish exist because the fish are allowed to grow and mature into dominant specimens that inhabit the area for a number of years. There are also rivers where bass species like the smallmouth inhabit the same waters as young steelhead and salmon smolts which they often feed on. Anglers are encouraged to remove these bass from the fishery, resulting in smaller individual catches. Other warmwater species with similar spawning patterns include bluegill, crappie and yellow perch. They are all palatable table fare when battered and deep-fried, but tend to be slightly higher in mercury than most freshwater fish and much like anything deep-fried, they should be consumed in moderation.

The most appealing factor for anglers is the simplicity of fishing for these species. Minimal gear and tackle are all that's necessary to have a productive outing and the fish will take a wide variety of presentations. Additional tags aren't necessary and if you can put a worm on a hook you can catch pretty much all warmwater species, which makes it a great opportunity to introduce fishing to newer or younger anglers. Oregon is so well-known for it's salmon, trout and steelhead that these fisheries tend to get overlooked and under-rated by many anglers. Once you've taken the time to develop your techniques and learn different patterns on your local body of water, you'll understand what those anglers are missing out on. Go out and get your line wet!

This piece was published in the May 8th, 2014 issue of the Corvallis Advocate:

A highlight video on fishing for Bass, Warmwater Species and Trout from 2013:

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