There are a few anglers who it seems can slap a big sack of bass on the scales tournament after tournament this time of year. As much as some would like to believe it’s luck, the guys who consistently wow the crowds are using no magic, but time-tested, methodical approaches to catching quality fish during the prespawn period.
In a trek across the middle of our great state, three very successful anglers tell us how to find and catch quality bass on West Point, Oconee and Clarks Hill in March, and their tactics can apply to other lakes as well.
David Millsaps, of Ranger, is a feared name if you are fishing against him in a tournament, especially on West Point. He has a knack for huge bags of fish, especially in March. During an Eliminator Series event on West Point in March of 2006, his best five bass weighed 20 pounds. He had 22 pounds in a BFL on West Point, and David owns the record catch for two-day tournaments held out of Highland Marina with 56.2 pounds.
“West Point has been good to me. I’ve won 10 or 15 tournaments there, ” he calmly and confidently shared.
He said the lake is loaded with bass in the 4- to 6-lb. range, and they will chomp from now until April or May (probably the latter with our cold winter). He fills many of his huge sacks with prespawn fish, but he said almost every pocket has 3- to 5-lb. bass during the spawn.
“The thing I’ve noticed is that people don’t fish with big enough baits on West Point,” David said.
Full-sized jigs and crankbaits are his tools of choice to fill a limit with quality fish. He said that so many folks throw a spinnerbait on West Point that it is hard to catch good bass on one. His favorite big-fish crankbait is a brown Poe’s 400 series with chartreuse sides and an orange belly (color No. 39). They are made of wood, and he believes they trigger the big bass to bite.
“On West Point I have caught lots of 7- to 8-pounders on that Poe’s crankbait,” he said.
He uses 7-foot rods for cranking, and alternates between American Rodsmiths David Fritts signature series and G. Loomis cranking rods. His reels are spooled with 12-lb. test Seaguar fluorocarbon because the sinking line gives him a little extra depth.
A 3/8-oz. brown rubber Jimric jig is his favorite, and he threads on a blue Paca Chunk trailer in clear water and a black version if the water is dingy. If hanging up a lot in the rocks, he switches to a 1/4-oz. jig to keep it from dropping quickly into the crevices. David throws his jigs on G. Loomis 6 1/2-foot, medium-heavy action rods and 20-lb. test fluorocarbon line. He will not even consider throwing lighter line, and he believes the clarity of fluorocarbon disguises his presentation.
David’s approach seems too simple to produce the humongous sacks of fish he brings to the scales. While simple, David masterfully executes his plan. He looks for the bass to pull up to the main-lake points first and then the secondary points in pockets. In March he usually starts about one-quarter of the way back in the pockets and casts a Poe’s 400 crankbait to brush in about 8 feet of water. He believes making a long cast is crucial to keeping your lure in the strike zone a long time. He digs his bait along bottom until he bumps brush, and then he pauses it.
“That pause is so important if you feel brush. That’s almost always when they hit,” he said.
As the sun warms the shallows, the fish move shallow and feed. On West Point, he said the fish will get right up on the bank. He focuses on treetops or brush in 5 feet or less and stays with it.
“The big fish will load up on shallow brush. Sometimes I will catch several big fish out of a brushpile and leave it, and then I come back later and catch another fish or two from it. The good areas will recharge,” he said.
Barry Hooper, of Monticello, has learned how to capitalize on the big-fish bite on Oconee. He fishes open tournaments and the HD trail, as well as the HD Couples trail with his wife, Bethany. Most of his 20-plus pound sacks have come in March.
Barry’s method of producing big sacks of bass is a five-pronged approach utilizing spinnerbaits, jerkbaits, crankbaits, jigs and lizards. One of the five baits will produce big fish, depending upon where the fish are positioned and how well they are feeding.
Barry concentrates his March efforts on the lower portion of the reservoir below Sugar Creek. Everything he does centers around spawning flats, and he tries to figure out where bass are between their deep-water, winter haunts and the spawning beds.
“A spawning flat does not have to be a big huge flat. It can be something as simple as the back of a short pocket right off the main lake,” Barry said.
First thing in the morning, he looks for deeper channel banks leading back to the spawning flats. He plies the water with two main baits during this time. His first option is a spinnerbait worked along the deeper rocky areas. His favorite spinnerbait is a Picasso with a silver Colorado blade and a gold willowleaf blade. He throws 1/4-, 3/8- and 1/2-oz. models depending upon how deep the fish are located and how quickly he needs to work the bait to get big fish to react. White/chartreuse has been his most productive color at Oconee, and he fishes it with a white Zoom split-tail trailer.
“This time of year I have a bunch of short strikes, so I almost always use a trailer hook. That extra hook has accounted for many of my big fish early in the year,” he shared.
As the sun gets up, Barry works the 5- to 10-foot deep stretches where the channel swings against the bank. He looks for chunk-rock banks because of the rock holding heat. His lure of choice for this application is a Spro McStick hard jerkbait. This suspending jerkbait has produced some pigs for him. He prefers shad colors unless the water is heavily stained, like this year, when he prefers chartreuse hues. Barry flings spinnerbaits and jerkbaits with a medium-heavy action Powell 703 rod (7-foot, 3-inch).
When Georgia Power is moving water, the lure that has produced many of his kicker fish in tournaments is a crankbait. He has a box of Rapala No. 5 and No. 7 Shad Raps set aside for just this situation. Crawfish shades are his go-to colors during March. He bumps these crankbaits into rocks or any cover on the edges of spawning flats to pick off prespawn hawgs. He throws both with baitcasting gear, the No. 5 on a Powell 7043B cranking rod and the No. 7 on a Powell 704CB fiberglass cranking rod.
When the bass are buried up in heavy cover near the spawning flats, Barry goes in after them with jigs and lizards.
For jigs, he flips and pitches a 3/8-oz. black/blue Bob Williams custom-made jig with a green-pumpkin plastic trailer or a solid brown jig with a brown trailer. His lizard of choice is a Texas-rigged junebug Zoom 8-inch Mag Lizard. Powell 705 flipping sticks are what he uses to fish both jigs and lizards.
For all of his March presentations, Barry employs Berkley 100 percent fluorocarbon line. He believes this line has the perfect combination of low stretch, clarity and abrasion resistance to get the job done on Oconee.
Barry concluded, “If the bass don’t hit one of these five presentations, they aren’t there, and you need to look for another spot.”
Craig Johnson, of Martinez, is generally at or near the top of the standings during March tournaments on his home lake, Clarks Hill Reservoir. Craig was second in the 2006 Georgia Bass Federation state championship at Clarks Hill, and he’s a BFL All-American qualifier. Craig has more than $100,000 in career earnings from the various FLW tournament circuits. He has wowed the crowd many times with huge sacks of bass from sprawling Clarks Hill Reservoir.
“March goes from one extreme to another and is a time of transition. You can find fish at Clarks Hill in all stages of the spawn, and you can usually catch them however you want to catch them during March,” Craig said.
His preference is to find the big sows moving out of the ditches and feeding up on the flats in preparation for the spawn. When the sun gets up and the water starts warming is when this bite gets fired up.
Craig explained that every cut on Clarks Hill has a deep side and a flat side. He finds bass first where the ditch transitions into the flat in about 6 to 8 feet of water, and then the bass spread out over the flat as they forage during the day. His most effective lure for fishing the flats in clear to stained water is a Rat-L-Trap. He throws a 1/4-oz. copper version as far as he can cast and burns it back to him as fast as he can reel. He tunes this small lure to keep it from rolling by removing the front No. 4 treble and moving it to the back split-ring and adding a No. 2 treble in the front position. This little bit of extra weight keeps it tracking perfectly.
Gear selection is important to achieve the correct presentation. Craig uses a 7 1/2-foot medium-action Big Bear Pro Series graphite baitcasting rod (the graphite model is noticeably lighter than fiberglass over the course of a day) paired with a Abu Garcia Revo SX 7.1:1 high-speed reel.
“You simply cannot crank fast enough with a slower-speed reel,” Craig said.
He spools up with 15-lb. test Berkley 100 percent fluorocarbon, and insists that the low-stretch line allows him to put lots of extra fish in the boat that would get away with stretchy monofilament.
“There are lots of small fish that will bite worms and other presentations, but I catch the bigger females by power-fishing. In March, I always check the Trap bite,” he said.
When Clarks Hill is heavily stained, as it probably will be with all the rain we have had this winter, Craig relies on crankbaits and jigs to sack the big ones. He searches primary and secondary points close to the channels with crankbaits, and he always keeps a jig at the ready to fire it out whenever he finds rocks on the points. The long, shallow-sloping points that run far offshore and then drop into the channel are the ones on which he concentrates his efforts.
His crankbait system is based on three main lures. He chooses between them depending upon how deep he needs his lure to run. His tool for working shallows is a Lucky Craft RC1.5 in the copper-perch color (copper back/white sides). For the medium depths in the 4- to 6-foot range, he opts for a Bandit 200 Series. He likes the splatter-bass color (white/black flake/orange belly). He reasons that the baitfish are coming out of deep, cold water and are usually whitish in color. For deeper applications down to about 8 feet, Craig relies on Norman Middle N cranks. He likes the flaky-bass (green back/white sides) and lavender-shad (purple back/white sides) colors in the Middle N series. In really dirty water and when working shallow areas, he abandons the baitfish colors and goes with crawdad color schemes that have reds, oranges and browns in them.
Hydrilla is a factor these days on Clarks Hill. Craig expects the weedline to be about 8 feet deep this year, and figures the Middle N is going to play a big role in his tournaments this year. That crankbait comes through grass really well and works the depths he expects to be fishing.
Whichever crankbait he throws, Craig fishes it on a 7-foot, medium-action Big Bear rod paired with a Revo SX 6.1:1 reel spooled with 12-lb. test fluorocarbon line. The slower-speed Revo keeps him from working the crankbaits too fast.
Craig’s ace-in-the-hole for big fish on Clarks Hill in March is a Buckeye Lures Mop Jig, and he throws it wherever he finds chunk rock on points. The 3/8-oz. model in brown is his favorite, and he trails it with a green-pumpkin or green-pumpkin/red-flake Zoom Super Chunk. He fishes this lure on a 7-foot, heavy-action Big Bear Pro Series rod and Revo SX 6.2:1 reel spooled with 17-lb. test fluorocarbon.
Craig frequently brings 18 to 20 pounds to the weigh-in scales in March at Clarks Hill, and when the jig works, his weights are even heavier. He expects to catch 3- to 4-pounders with the crankbaits and even bigger fish with the Rat-L-Traps and jigs. With crankbait limits like that and a kicker fish or two with jigs or Traps, 25-lb. limits are within reach.
As you are aware by how often you’ve had to don your snowsuit this winter, the cold is going to push everything back. Most patterns will probably be about two weeks behind because of the late spring.
These three guys frequently get jaw-dropping, “how did you do that” looks from other competitors as they plunk their limits on the scales each spring under tough conditions. Follow their lead, and you too might be able to bring a magical bag of fish to the scales in March.