Bass Migration

by Ken Nance.

 

    Multiple requests from interested anglers have prompted me to pass along some of my observations Iíve made as a scuba diver and angler. First off as an occupation I am a Paramedic and I only work 10 days a month. This allows me plenty of time to chase these fish all over the country. I was trained in scuba diving by the county agency I work for. We are all trained to the level of dive rescue being that the northern part of our county is bordered by the Ohio River. I went on and completed the Dive Master program and am an Assistant Scuba Instructor now. Once in a practice session with a close friend, we were diving around some bridge piers in the Ohio River. On the down streamside I swam into a school of bass feeding on a large school of baitfish. I watched them for a few minutes and saw how they moved as a school to feed on these fish. I remembered the old saying that 90% of the fish are in 10% of the lake. The very next morning I idled up to the bridge pier, slid my trolling motor in the water and began to run a buzzbait down the side of the pier. After a few minutes I had produced just one small spotted bass but knew there were more fish here as I had seen them the day before.  I backed off the pier and sent a tube down. About 15 feet down I felt a tick as one picked up the bait, pulled back, felt pressure, then crossed his eyes. When the day was finished I had one of the best days on the river Id had all year. Driving home I began to think about why those fish were there. The fish were there because 1, they had cover (the bridge pier and rubble on the bottom) 2, they had forage to feed on, and 3, the water temperature on the bottom was 10 degrees cooler than on the surface. It was then that I began to dive more looking for bass, observing them, and seeing how they react to different seasons. What follows is some of the notes Iíve made season to season and how I feel fish migrate. About 80% of these notes are mine and others are notes Iíve written down from various sources. I started keeping a log of all my observations and notes on migration and I'll be writing this article out of these notes.

    First I feel that fish migrate due to 3 things, water temperature, available forage and the need to breed. In my opinion water temperature is the most prevalent reason that causes fish to move. I have dove a few times in January when the water temperature has been in the upper thirties to lower forties and have found the fish stacked up on creek channels that have points running into them. The fish are extremely lethargic and wont move unless you swim within a few feet of them. Again I observed that they move as a unit, or school Ėvs.- solo swimming in this situation. They tend to want to move more vertically along a drop than they do horizontally along a log as well. Itís almost as it they relate to each other as cover when theyíre staged like this. I guess they are like us humans when we become cold, the more we huddle together the warmer we will be.

    In February to March when the water temp hits the middle to lower forties the fish are in what I call pre-spawn. Bass will begin to follow migration paths such as river channels, creek channels, road beds, standing timber lines, and bluff walls towards the back of coves and flats. The fish are at the time of the year when they will weigh more than any other time of the year. Theyíre full of row and waiting for some nice warm days to go up in the shallows and begin the spawn. I haven't watched them as a diver much this time of year as it seems this region of the country is always pounded with snow and I cant motivate myself to break ice in a snow storm and jump off the side of a boat. I cant really comment on what the fish are doing here other than offer a guess that I feel they are staging near the spawning grounds in deeper water waiting and feeding. I feel the fish move shallow in this stage when the water temperature tells them to do so. The first fish I have found in the shallows in March are always the male buck Bass. They move shallow earlier that the heavier females to find the best real estate to build a nest. I have seen fish use the same nest for several years in a local lake and this spring you can bet I'll be there watching to see if they move into the nest again. I watched a small buck bass making a nest on Yatesville Lake in Kentucky one march for about an hour. He would make super powerful bursts with his tail and rocket through the nest to clear it out. This guy was really on the ball. He would stir up the bottom and hide in the off colored water he had created and guess who would show up to check out the commotion, bluegills. When they would get close he would rush out of the nest and nail one. From what I have seen the females move shallow when the water temperature reaches 60 to 64 degrees. Iíve watched when several of the larger females would arrive in the nesting areas and then dive to where they were staging pre-spawn and the numbers of fish had reduced quite a bit. Usually the shallower ends of the lake warm up to this temperature first so the fish will spawn here before they do at the deeper and cooler part of the lake, which is usually the lower end. All fish donít spawn at the same time even in a given area. Several years ago I was traveling to a lake with my father to pre-fish a tournament and was studying the lake map. I saw some areas that looked to have migration paths heading into spawning areas. The best part of this was that the migration paths had what I call funnels in them. Funnels can be either man-made or be part of the way the lake is naturally laid out. They are an area along a migration route that causes the bass to move into a really confined area. As my father dropped me off in the water and was parking the truck I lay on the front deck of the boat and began to turn over some rocks in the shallows looking for crawfish.  The crawfish were really dark this time of year and were almost black. I tied on a Berkeley Power Craw in black-n-blue and went to where we found the migration paths on the map. We pulled up and began moving down the wall and I instantly started marking large schools of fish on the graph. Within a half hour I had boated a 4, and several 3 pounders. We picked up, left and went to check on other parts of the lake to reproduce what we had found here. Needless to say we both did extremely well in the tournament and I wanted to use this as an example of how figuring out where the fish will be at a given time of year will narrow down where the fish are.

    I'll finish up what Iíve observed about the spawn now. The spawn is really stressful on the fish. They have a multitude of obstacles to overcome and are continually harassed by other predators. Bluegill, turtles, and other game fish will literally hang out by the nest waiting for the bass to start laying eggs and then gobble them up. The male chases these predators away to no end. Iíve watched sometimes as the male nudges the female in a way that he is almost trying to reassure her or try to calm her down. When she begins to lay the eggs she will swim through the nest and the eggs will fall into the nest and filter down to the center. The male will swim over and fertilize them over and over. Iíve yet to be present when the eggs hatch but will try again this year to witness this. The female doesn't hang around much after she lays her eggs and she abandons the male to be the baby sitter. As the spawn winds down all the fish seem to migrate back to deeper water. By June or July (depending on the cold fronts of the spring) the fish will be back in the areas that they wintered in. They spend their summer here in the deeper haunts of the lake and will move shallow at dark and in the morning to feed. Iíve dove a lot at night but have yet to have the proper equipment to watch fish move and feed at night. I feel that they become nocturnal in the summer months and primarily feed at night. Donít get me wrong, they will feed heavily during the day if given the chance, especially in lakes that have shad that remain in deeper water. A lot of times when Iím diving I carry the top part of a 2 piece fishing rod with me. Iíve had everything from tubes to Carolina rigs tied on fishing for fish subsurface. The interesting thing here Iíve noted is that when Carolina rigging they pick up the weight and rattle area more often than they do that bait. They will spit it out and when they see the lizard they'll inhale it. Iíve watched them hit a jig-n-pig so violent that I thought they were going to destroy the jig. Most of the time when they hit the jig they immediately spit it out and follow it to the bottom. I think they hit the jig thinking its a crawfish and theyíre trying to kill it. They follow it to the bottom and pick it up when it hits. Iíve started fishing my jigs like this and have had much more success this way rather than setting the hook, missing the fish, reeling in and pitching the jig out for another go around. Wrapping this up I'll talk about how I feel fish move through out the rest of the year. Fish remain in their summer haunts until the water temperature begins to cool down in the fall. When this happens the baitfish will begin to school up and migrate themselves. Iíve learned that shad seem to spawn twice a year. It seems they spawn every time the water temperature hits 70 and this may be a reason the fish migrate back into the creeks to feed before winter. Bass will usually always follow the migration of the baitfish and feed heavily on them. The fish are really actively feeding this time of year as they are putting on the fat they'll need to help them survive through the winter months. When the water temperature drops again the baitfish will migrate out of the creeks and head of the lake and move back to the summer/winter haunts. Right behind them will be the bass as they follow their dinner back to the places that they reside in the summer and winter. Donít get me wrong here, some fish will stay shallow year round, and the deep fish will move shallow to feed. This is how I see the whole migratory pattern of the Largemouth Bass. I haven't watched Smallmouth Bass migrate but am planning to once I finish up watching the Largemouth migrate. This is only one phase of finding and catching fish. There are so many other factors out there that aid me in finding fish that I would have to write another article on it i.e., weather patterns, lake conditions etc..... I would like to add that I am not a fisheries biologist and that the preceding in what I have observed as an angler and a scuba diver. This pretty much ends up how I feel fish migrate. Anyone with questions or comments can email me at knance@ntelos.net   and I'll try to answer any and all questions. What Iím going to do now is to write about a few other little things below that donít pertain to fish migration but I think are kind of cool and want to pass along.

    One summer I watched a Smallmouth in Summersville Lake W.Va. swim along a break actively hunting for crawfish. This fish would swim up to a rock and nudge it with his nose looking for a crawfish to scoot out the other side. Every time crawfish would swim out of the rock this guy would nail it. I followed him for about 30 minutes watching him actively feed the whole time. He even made wild slashes at the air I exhaled through my regulator. I guess he thought they were a school of baitfish. On several occasions he would get within a few inches of my mask and just sit there looking at me. Finally when he had his fill of crawfish he swam to a bluff wall, found a little cranny and suspended off it in about 40 feet of water. I checked on him several times that day and he remained there, suspended.

    Thermoclines. Iíve swam through many, many, thermoclines and let me be the first to tell you that there is a drastic change in water temperature below them. You can actually see a thermocline. It looks like the heat rising off the highway in the summer as your driving. I guess if I had to put it into words it would look blurry. Iíve seen stacked thermoclines in Summersville Lake W.Va.. The water may be 100 feet deep and you may go through 4 thermoclines to get to the bottom. I watched a school of bass in Grayson Lake KY suspended above a thermocline once in early spring. They were just hanging out doing nothing. There was nothing for them to relate to as they were pretty much in the middle of a creek. Iíve caught fish like this before on Kentucky/Barkley lake using Silverbuddys when I spotted them on my graph. Iíve also spotted schools of fish on my graph in the Ohio River, sent a Silverbuddy down and caught catfish. What a thermocline looks like on a graph is a false bottom that is suspended. Iíve never seen what multiple thermoclines looks like on a graph but when I do I'll post a message about it. I trust my graphs more and more each day and have really become to rely on them since I started graphing fish, putting on my scuba gear and jumping over the side of the boat and seeing whatís below. I hope that I have passed along some tidbits of info that can help you in your search for the ever-elusive master of disguise that we all love to chase.  Again I urge you to e-mail me any questions or comments. Tight lines, Ken Nance.

    Ken Nance is sponsored by Triton Boats, Mason Dixon Marine and Polaris, Sliding Weight Company, Kick'n Bassģ Fish Attractants, Silverbuddy, Eat-em-up Bait Company, J.R.s Custom Rods, Caps Tackle, Susky Bugs, Bonzai Bait Company, Cabin Creek Bait Company and Nichols Bait Company.

All articles are re-printed with permission from Ken Nance from his web site Crankenstein.
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