Lake Hartwell, on the Georgia/South Carolina border, has long been known as an excellent bass fishery. Both largemouth and spotted bass are present in good numbers, and anglers can land strings of quality fish if they know the territory and habits of the bass. But, right now is arguably the best time of year to head out to Hartwell in search of bass. These acrobatic fighters are at their most vulnerable this time of year. Yep, it’s finally spring, and following our abnormally long and extreme winter, bass are itching to get into the shallows. With warmer surface temperatures and longer days, the bass know it is the season to spawn.
Patrick Bone, of Cleveland, is a tournament angler who calls Hartwell his home lake. Patrick’s career as a farrier allows him to set his own schedule. As a result, he can spend the amount of time on the water it takes to be successful on the tournament trails. Patrick is active on both the FLW and BFL circuits, and this year he qualified for the All American tournament, a pretty impressive feat for being a new addition to the trail.
I met Patrick at the Broyles ramp on a Monday morning in mid March, and we set out in search of some spring bass action.
When asked how he would approach Hartwell in the spring, Patrick responded with three words. “Spawn, spawn and spawn,” said Patrick. “By that I mean prespawn, spawn and postspawn.”
Patrick said bass will be in one of those three stages at some time during the month of April. And it is highly likely that all three stages could be going on at the same time, depending on surface temperature, daylight time, weather conditions and moon phase. In any case, the fish will be moving into the shallows and will stay there, or close by, through much of the month.
“The winter has been so tough this year it is hard to say exactly when the bass will go on the beds, but it is a good guess that it will be later than normal,” said Patrick.
The day we were out the surface temperature was in the high 40s early in the day, and later we saw water as high as 52 degrees. This surface temp was still too low for spawning activity, and more importantly, temperatures had been fluctuating widely with the extreme shifts in weather patterns. Patrick said for spawning to occur, surface temps need to reach the high 50s and stay there. Once that happens, the bass will move to the beds, particularly if the moon phase is at or near full.
When Patrick heads out this time of year he pays particular attention to two significant factors: the presence of bait and surface temperature. Because temperature is so important, Patrick focuses on the northwest sides of coves and pockets off the main lake.
“The northwest side of the lake gets more sun and tends to be a few degrees warmer than other parts of the lake,” said Patrick. “And a change of temperature as little as a degree or two can make a lot of difference in finding and catching bass.”
On Hartwell, Patrick likes the lower portion of the lake in the spring.
“I work the area from Beaver Dam Creek down,” said Patrick. “Bass tend to spawn in the same locations year after year, and I know this section of the lake well.”
Many of the pockets on the northwest bank will be targets for Patrick in early April. Most will hold staging and bedding fish at some point during the month, particularly those with hard bottom in the backs. Patrick said bass need a hard bottom to spawn, like hard-packed sand or pea-gravel.
Pockets that are silted in or muddy at the back are not likely to hold spawning bass. Pockets that are deep at the front and flatten out in the back are good candidates. These provide deep water for the prespawn and postspawn periods, as well as the hard-bottom flats required for the spawn.
At the end of March or first part of April the big females begin to stage at the mouths of pockets and secondary points in about 15 feet of water. Patrick moves in to these areas and uses his electronics to look for bait. The presence of bait and the surface temperature are two extremely important factors in the early prespawn stages.
Once temperatures get into the lower 50s, bass come out of their winter doldrums and start to feed on bait in preparation for the spawn. If Patrick sees bait in an area, he begins working the points with a Carolina-rigged lizard or a medium- to deep-diving crankbait. For crankbait selection, Patrick said you can’t go wrong with the Lucky Craft RC 1.5. Natural colors like a Tennessee shad or crawfish pattern work well.
He fishes the crankbait on 15-lb. mono spooled on a casting reel and a graphite rod. Patrick uses graphite rods for virtually every application but changes the action to suit the fishing conditions. The Carolina-rigged lizard is fished on 17-lb. fluorocarbon also spooled on a casting reel.
If there are docks in the deeper water, Patrick fishes the deep end of them with a slow-moving bait like a jig. Patrick will also drag a big jig along the bottom in the middle of the pocket if he sees fish on the graph holding near the bottom. This often happens when a cold front comes through and the bass back off a bit to wait for better conditions. When casting the jig in open water, he fishes it on 17-lb. fluorocarbon, but around docks he spools up with 20-lb. mono. He feels the extra stretch that mono provides reduces the shock of the hook-set with so little line out.
Patrick makes his own jigs, and for these prespawn conditions, he likes to present a big bait to the fish. To achieve this, he uses a thick, untrimmed skirt and adds a hefty chunk to provide bulk. The weight of the jig, either 3/8- or 1/2-oz., depends on the depth he is fishing and the amount of wind. But as a rule of thumb, he uses as light a jig as possible so it will fall slowly.
“When fish are just beginning to move into the docks, they want a big, slow-moving bait,” said Patrick. “Almost all of the strikes will come on the fall.”
The bass are trying to expend as little energy and get as much food for the effort as possible. That’s why the slow-falling big jig is so effective.
As the spawn gets close, bass move farther into the pockets and into shallower water. In addition, they become more aggressive, so a more active style of fishing is in order. This is when the big bass are the most vulnerable, and you are likely to catch a trophy female feeding up in preparation for the spawn.
During this period, crankbaits like the RC 1.5 are still effective. Patrick also likes the Spro Little John during this time. It runs to a depth of 3 to 5 feet and can be very effective. Again, natural colors are the choice since Patrick generally likes to work clear water. The crankbaits are fished on 15-lb. mono to provide a little stretch when the bass strikes.
Once the bass are just getting ready to move onto the beds, Patrick starts working the edges of the flats that will become the bedding areas.
Spinnerbaits are a good choice in the shallows, and Patrick employs both the 3/8-oz. Hawg Caller and 1/2-oz. War Eagle spinnerbaits in natural colors equipped with flashy blades. He fishes the War Eagle as it comes but changes out the second blade on the Hawg Caller to a silver Indiana blade in place of the standard willow. More flash is the key. Patrick fancasts the edges of the flat, moving fast and covering a lot of water. The fish will be very aggressive and will smack the spinnerbaits hard.
Also during this period, Patrick likes to fish a walking action topwater bait like a Sammy or Spook. He has seen bass come from 15 feet away to attack a topwater bait on the flats.
Once the bass get on the bed, things shift dramatically. This is all about using your eyes and a good set of polarized glasses.
“When the fish are on the bed, I move down the bank and look for activity,” said Patrick. “It could be the shadow of a big fish on a bed or bass chasing bream in the shallows.”
When he sees a bass on the bed, he watches to see how it reacts.
“If a bass spooks off the bed and moves out of sight, I keep going,” said Patrick. “That fish is not likely to bite.”
But if the bass moves away and stops after a short distance or comes right back to guard the bed, that fish is a good target. Be persistent, and work hard for that fish, particularly if it is a big female. Patrick says he once made casts to a bed for two hours before an 8-pounder finally struck the bait.
Another good sign is bass that chase away carp or bream and come back to the bed. That fish is also likely to hit your bait if you are patient.
Patrick uses only two baits when bed fishing: a lizard and a Zoom Speed Craw. Both baits are Texas rigged with a pegged 1/4-oz. bullet weight and a 3/0 Superline Gamakatsu hook. The baits are offered on 17- to 20-lb. test mono line. If the beds are near dock cables, he’ll switch to braid.
The big females don’t stay in the area long. Patrick said that within a couple of days of going on the bed, the females disappear. They begin reversing their field and heading back out to deeper water, almost always very tight to structure like stumps or dock pilings.
To catch postspawners, Patrick rewinds and uses the same techniques, just in reverse. However, the females are pretty beat up and are tough to catch until they begin to recover from their spawning ordeal. A better bet is to focus on the buck bass guarding newly hatched fry in the shallows.
“If you get right up next to the grass, you’ll see balls of fry right in the cover,” said Patrick. “Look closely, and there will be a buck bass nearby.”
Patrick goes after these bucks with a topwater bait that can be worked without moving it very far. A well-placed Pop-R or Spook that is jiggled in place will often draw explosive strikes from the guarding bucks.
Another technique Patrick uses for catching the early postspawn bucks is to sight fish for them with a weightless Trick Worm. Natural colors like watermelon, green, etc. work well in the clear water. Patrick fishes the worm weedless on 10- to 12-lb. fluorocarbon spooled on spinning reels.
So, as you head out to Hartwell this month, Patrick recommends you follow a simple approach. Start deep, and move shallow until you find the bass. Once you determine the stage the fish are in, you can map out your strategy for the next several weeks in any particular stretch of water.
The stages will vary in different sections of the lake depending on the conditions in that section. When the timing is right, you can catch pre-spawn, spawn and postspawn fish at different places on the lake all in the same day.
Most bass-fishing anglers feel the full moon is a very important factor that’ll cause fish to lock down on the beds and spawn. As you read this, we’re just coming off the March 30 full moon. This month’s full moon will be April 28. In a spring when everything is already behind schedule, late April could be dynamite for spawning bass.