A big storm is rolling in as I write this. There is thunder in the distance, so the yard work I neglected for fishing is out of the question. The sky is darker than a crow feather, the air is yellow with pollen and only a fool would venture outside. It’s the sort of dramatic weather that makes us paddle hard and fast to reach safe harbor.
Experienced anglers know that weather plays a large role in influencing how fish feed. To some, it is equal to or even more important than moon phase, or the animal’s biological clock, or even bait selection. But where can we draw the line? How subtle can it be? Does the sky have to look like a Hollywood special effect to make us think how weather impacts a bite? No – Sometimes the smallest margins make the biggest difference.
That’s especially true when bass spawn. I noticed something remarkable about water temperature while bass fishing the 2019 KBF National Championship in Louisiana, and I’d like to explain how it affected the bite, and also my strategy and tactics at the event. It was a subtle difference, but I hope it will help people figure things out when fishing new water this time of year.
First, a note about “Seasonal Heat.” I borrowed the phrase from the Roman poet Virgil, where it appears in book 3 of his Georgics. In that section, the poet describes a springtime mating season. In the translation from the Latin I quoted, the animals and fishes “rush madly to the furnace.” That’s a hell of a line. Love – we’ve all been there.
Of course, “heat” refers to two things here. One is the mating instinct, the other is the weather. Both were a factor at the KBF National Championship in Shreveport-Bossier City between March 23-30, when more than 450 qualified anglers reached the eligible lakes. Bass were in various stages of the spawn: some had recently left beds, some were near prospective beds, while others were still hanging around looking for a date.
Wind and rain had stirred the lakes and there were buds on trees when I arrived. By the end of the week, everything was in bloom and plants had crossed the seasonal threshold. I won’t soon forget watching a Louisiana season appear in the span of a few days. The weather fluctuated, as it tends to in springtime: a few mild days and cool nights, a hot day, then a dip back down a few degrees. And it was those little dips that determined a lot more than I expected.
First, a bit of context. I have qualified for and fished in all 4 National Championship tournaments. In a total of 8 days of competition, I have never been skunked. In the first 6 of those days, cold fronts blew over Kentucky Lake. In 2016, I placed in the money during the KBF Open on a beautiful, warm Friday, and landed about 30 fish that day. But a cold front arrived the night before the championship and I managed only 6 fish (anglers needed five over two days that year). In 2017 & 2018, I simply couldn’t find a consistent bite. In each case, cold water got colder, and fishing was tough.
As a result of those cold fronts, I had never managed to put a good bag on the leader board at the National Championship. Now, it’s partly my fault – slow, cold water fishing is one of my weak points as an angler. When I reached Louisiana and found water temps consistently over 60 degrees, I was happier than a bead vendor at Mardis Gras.
Like most experienced anglers, I approach new water with a method: I split big water into smaller, more manageable areas. If I find a pattern in one of those, I try to replicate it in other, similar areas (B.A.S.S. legend Rick Clunn has written some great things about this approach to breaking down a lake, by the way). If I can’t find a consistent pattern, I look for indicators that might tell me that the fish are doing something unexpected, or maybe moving into a predictable pattern.
That is what happened in Louisiana – I found two indicators of potential patterns, but I wasn’t sure which to target. One pattern turned out to be a warm day pattern, when fish were aggressive, the other a cooler day pattern. It was ultimately the seasonal heat that helped me decide. Here’s how….
On the first day of practice, I found warm water and active fish, but the water was also pressured. I also found slightly colder water nearby by. Reasoning it would warm up, and its fish had seen fewer lures, I focused on the second, slightly colder lake. By doing so, I developed an understanding of its structure and behavior, or its personality. And if you can figure out a lake, you can figure out the fish.
I noticed something about the lake over the span of three days: every day when I launched, the water temperature dipped or rose by two degrees. So on day 1 of scouting the water temps were 65 or higher, on day 2 they were 63 or higher, on day 3 of scouting they were 64 or higher. That little difference of 2-3 degrees affected the bite in a very big way. On the slightly warmer days, I found fish that were aggressive and shallow. On the slightly colder days, they backed off the same spots by a few yards, and became less active.
On the night before the first day of competition, I sat down and drew a lousy map on a sheet of paper. I made an arrow indicating wind forecast and placed marks on the spots where I had bites while pre-fishing. Based on those factors, I asked “Will the temperatures be warm enough at first cast so I can count on the fish to be shallow?” Sure enough, the pattern pointed to slightly warmer and more active fish. As a result, I selected a narrow flat, about one-eight of a mile long, with a creek channel running parallel to it. There was also shade on the bank, limited shoreline structure, and a very strong possibility that it would be protected from the wind for at least most of the morning. I didn’t second guess it – I knew they would be there. How many fish would be there was another matter. I was in for a surprise.
I reached the spot 10 minutes prior to first cast, and waited. I landed my first fish, a 16.25”, and followed it shortly after with a 14.50”. Not big fish or hard bites, but a start. And then I lost a fish, and a second. I landed a third, but it was only 11” and too short for the board. And then I lost another, and when it jumped into the rising sun, I saw what I noticed with the others: the fish were short striking the lures and barely getting hooked. But I was on them and too excited to stop and adjust (that was a mistake) – I would take a 50% landing rate. But then I lost 2 more good fish, and knew I had to adjust. In all, I landed three and lost five along that single stretch of bank.
I was distracted by a conversation with the tournament director for a while, and then the wind started to pick up. I had to return to my starting point and repeat the pattern with a new lure. I worked my way half way back to the starting point, making a few casts, but then I ran into two anglers and close friends of mine who were fishing there. I let them alone, and paddled elsewhere. I only managed one more fish.
The next day, the water temperature dipped two degrees. The fish moved off that flat, back into the channel, and I struggled to get bites. If I had landed those 5 fish – my guess is it was a good bag in the 85” range – I would have adjusted for day 2, but instead I fished for Big Bass. On day 1, however, I had them right where I wanted them; the fish simply beat me. But here is the important thing: the lake and the weather didn’t.
What you need is time: a solid 3-4 days to scout and fish and understand both the water and the weather in relation to the fish.
During pre-fishing, I saw many anglers come and go. They were lake hopping, looking for bites. Some had found a pattern on one lake, but wanted to test it elsewhere. Others were simply scouting. Others still were worried, because they couldn’t figure things out. As a result, most of them did not end up giving themselves a chance. As I said before, that was nearly me – but I gave myself a chance by focusing on one lake, breaking it down carefully, and then making a strategic decision based on the water temperature patterns I had seen. The plan worked beautifully until the fish showed up.
What’s the lesson? It isn’t “Don’t hop around lakes like a frog hopping at puddles.” That can work sometimes, but probably not at a multi-day event like the National Championship. What you need is time: a solid 3-4 days to scout and fish and understand both the water and the weather in relation to the fish. During more stable seasons, it’s an easy task, but in early spring, it’s another story. Why? Because subtle variations in water temperature can help you figure out how the fish will behave. A difference of two degrees – not ten, two – determined whether fish would be on the flat I chose. Barely noticeable to us in the dry air, that slight variation pointed to whether fish were willing to move up near spawning flats or back away when the temperature chilled just a bit. It was simply the seasonal heat.
© Henry Veggian 2019