May 16, 2011
This month opens a long window of sight-fishing for Florida bass.
By Vance McCullough
Bed fishing is so much fun the technique should come with a warning label: WARNING: Once you get the hang of it, you may not be able to stop. Please enjoy responsibly. Loss of job and family could result.
For anglers who've never tried it, the game is not as easy as it may sound. Patience and confidence are tested. From a tournament perspective, give up too soon and you forfeit the fish needed to cash that big check. Stay too long trying to coax a bite from one that will not cooperate and you lose precious time that could have been spent putting bass in the boat.
Bass rely on the sun's rays to incubate their eggs, the prime reason for the annual temporary abundance of otherwise inaccessible giants in the shallows that ring our waterways.
Mature fish fan beds in firm bottom, and that's what you're looking for. A good early-season approach is to begin your search on the north shore of a lake where water will warm first as it soaks up radiation from the winter sun. Canals and coves that offer protection from chilly north winds will see the earliest activity. Flats that border open expanses warm more slowly and produce better later in the spring. North-facing banks may not host spawners until summer.
Cover is important to these shallow fish. Where eelgrass and hydrilla are absent, downed logs and other hard objects draw them like iron shavings to a magnet. Females also rub against structure to loosen the eggs in their engorged bellies.
For bass that spawn in soft-bottomed areas, root balls of lily pads or the concave top of a submerged stump provide support and stability for 10,000 or more eggs.
A full moon that coincides with water temperatures in the upper-60-degree range will usher in bedding season. At that point it continues through all moon phases, unless water temperature takes a dive. But it will be strongest around full and new moons, especially three or four days directly following such lunar phases as bass guard recently deposited eggs.
Anglers across America wait for a window of opportunity when they can watch feisty fish circle their bait. In the Sunshine State that window is as big as a garage door. The bedding season runs half the length of the calendar in any given region. August and September are the only months when sight fishing may be totally out of the question.
“On Okeechobee they consistently have their first big spawn in October and go for six months,” said Bassmaster Elite Series pro Bryan Hudgins, who has won many thousands of tournament dollars in Florida and beyond by sight fishing. “In January you'll start seeing the fish on Lake George. The same goes for Lake Toho.”
While January and February are good months in Central Florida, Hudgins ranks March and April as prime bed time from the tip of the peninsula to the Panhandle.
Lee Stalvey Jr. has earned a fierce reputation as the man to beat when bass are bedding on the St. Johns River. He wins more money there in the winter and spring than many of us make in a year at our jobs. “I've caught them in November and I've caught them in July on the river,” Stalvey said, regarding spawning bass. “I have had a 32-pound stringer in June, turned around and gone back to the same place and had 24 pounds in July.”
Conventional wisdom holds that the biggest females are the first to move up. A June 3rd fishing trip with Hudgins proved this is not always the case. While anglers do catch lots of lunkers about the time the dogwoods start to bloom, Florida boasts so many monster bass that they can be found throughout our long spawning season. “Look at today,” he noted, “we saw plenty of big fish.” Though our five best weighed just shy of 20 pounds, Hudgins hooked one that would have gone well over seven—had she come to the boat rather than flex his hook.
We also saw a few sows that would not sit. Some bolted into the depths at the sight of a 4-inch soft bait. That's part of the challenge in this game. Even pros often get skunked by persnickety bass, especially the giant females that break records when caught—and hearts when lost.
Camouflage is unnecessary as Hudgins sees it. “I think it's more important from a mental standpoint than anything else,” he said, wearing a bright red hat as he scanned the shoreline, peering through lily pads 20 feet away. “Whatever gives you confidence will help you fish harder and stay focused. But we're fishing out of a big boat with a trolling motor below the water. We're making noise. I think the last thing those fish are worried about is somebody in a white shirt throwing at them.”
The speed with which they work separates master sight fishermen from the rest of the pack. I've watched Stalvey pick bass after bass off a flat faster than most folks could put fish sticks in a shopping cart. He silently slides his anchor over the bow to tether his boat just far enough away, yet just close enough. Experience has taught him where and how to place his lure for maximum effect.
Hudgins practically made a living during the month of April alone when he won a national tournament and placed 4th in another. He credits those successes to his decision to not spend more than 10 minutes on any one fish. He explained, “You can leave a fish that won't look at your lure, come back in an hour, and they'll be so fired up you couldn't shake them off if you wanted to.”
Tackle used today differs from that touted by pros two decades ago. “I generally go with 1/4 ounce of lead for all bed-fishing applications, no matter what size line,” Hudgins said. “Sometimes I'll throw a 3/16 when the fish are bedding in something that a heavier weight would get caught on, such as roots.”
Bait selection is simple. Tubes, craws and lizards dominate the boat decks of sight fishermen. The soft baits are almost always Texas-rigged with a sliding bullet sinker to anchor them in the nest.
Rod choice can be critical when fishing heavy cover. Hudgins noted, “I like a 7-foot, 6-inch flipping stick just for the sheer fact that I can turn their heads with it so much easier. I have that much more control over them. I can steer them whichever way I want them to go.”
Anglers once believed they had to use whisper-thin line. This turned out to be another half truth. “In real clear water where the fish are spooky and there is not much for them to tangle in, I may use lighter line,” said Hudgins, “but you can't rip them out of pads with 8-pound test.” As a rule he sticks with 20-pound line. Heavy line does not intimidate bass when they are serious about protecting the bed.
When it comes to hooks, Hudgins does lighten up. “5/0 offset Gamakatsu—always,” he said. “Thin wire, too. A lot of people use hooks made from real thick wire and they just wallow a big hole in the fish's mouth. I lost a lot of big fish that way before I figured it out.”
Another mistake Hudgins sees is anglers not “finessing” the bait enough. “They cast a lure to the bed and drag it through as if they were fishing a rubber worm—they move it six or eight inches at a time. You cannot do that. Fish the bait with a slack line and use your rodtip to just barely move that bait—not more than an inch. You want to get that bass's attention. If you rip it through the bed, he never has a chance to get aggravated with it.”
How the lure finds its way into the bed is also important. “The biggest thing is to not throw on top of the bed—always throw past the bed and bring it up under the water so it doesn't scare the fish away.”
While fishing a charity event with Hudgins, I got some first-hand tutoring. “Okay, keep a little more slack in your line. Now just make the rod tip pulse slightly. That's it. See how the tentacles are shaking but the lure is staying in place? There it is, he's getting mad,” Hudgins said as a bass circled and turned nose-down on my tube lure, his fins raised in protest while his color patterns brightened in threatening tones. “Yeah, he's got it—good hookset.” After a short, splashy struggle I flipped a chunky bass into the boat.
“You need a real quiet approach to the bed,” said Hudgins. “Let the fish tell you how close you can get to them. I like to get just far enough away that I can't see the fish well, but I can just see the outline of the fish and tell when she comes into the bed and when she swims out—just enough to let me know where the fish is.”
Polarized sunglasses are vital for cutting through glare. Amber is excellent for brightening features in the dull light of early morning or fog. Darker shades are useful on extremely bright days. Shades of green seem to work well under a wide range of conditions.
Because you need to keep the sun at your back in order to peer through the water, you need to be careful of your shadows, especially early and late in the day. The bass is king of his underwater domain but he has learned that danger usually comes from above the waterline.
Another consideration: Fail to understand the concept of the “hot spot” and you will suffer the most maddening fate known to fishermen. The bass will be there, actively defending his turf while totally ignoring your lure. There is usually a spot in the bed, sometimes no bigger than a dime, which must be disturbed to elicit a strike. “It's a small area of the bed that is a lot cleaner. Maybe the lily pad roots are shinier, or the sand is whiter. You can often let the fish tell you where it is—a lot of times they are sitting right on top of it,” suggested Hudgins.
Bass are nearly impossible to catch while actually doing the spawning dance, showing vibrant colors, rubbing and turning sideways to release eggs and fertilize them. “Forget about it when they're all lit-up and rubbing on each other,” said Hudgins. Hey, if someone threw a pizza into your bed while you were getting down, you would probably ignore it until you had finished your business—unless you're married. But afterward bass jealously defend their nest. This is when the big females are most vulnerable.
Many believe that a female will not hang around once the male has been removed. Once eggs are down, that's simply not true, which is good news, since there is no surefire way of catching the ladies first. Often, the buck must be caught and held in the livewell before mama can be boated. Even larger-than-normal lures may not help.
“When the males are guarding the bed they're very protective and it really doesn't matter what you throw at them,” said Hudgins. “You can let him spit it out several times and a lot of times she will come in and eat it. Sometimes she'll eat it first. When they're right, they're right.”
Ethics of Bed Fishing
Decades of research by biologists have produced stacks of data that prove that a fishery is no more impacted by a guy who sees a fish eat his lure than by one who wears a blindfold and catches the same fish.
There was an 11-year moratorium on bed fishing in a 3-mile area of Lake George that was roped off to appease politicians 20 to 30 years ago. Biologists have flatly stated that it did nothing to help the fishery. In fact, a University of Florida professor hired by Putnam County commissioners—who lobbied for the closure—told the commissioners that there were no more fish produced in closed areas than in open areas.
DNA testing has confirmed that fewer than 10 percent of all beds will produce a single fish that lives to maturity, even if left to spawn unmolested. The odds are slim that an angler is interfering with reproduction when he targets a bedding bass. It only takes a couple of successful beds to replenish the fish that are caught and removed in a year from a given area.
The most important thing is that people observe size and bag limits. Employ ethical harvest and catch-and-release practices, and everything else will take care of itself.