To catch bass on the spawn, knowing when they do it is obviously important. And not only does a good understanding of its timing help with catching bedding bass, but it will also help in catching pre- and post-spawn bass, because those phases will be better timed as well. Basic spawning information is widely distributed throughout the literature and online and I highly recommend searching out some of these sources. The information I present here doesn’t come from any of those sources, but instead, it comes from the observations that I have made over many years and many diverse fisheries spread north to south.
Bass begin spawning in the springtime when water temperatures hit about 60° Fahrenheit. Early in my career, legendary pro bass fisherman Rick Clunn told me that the spawn in the south can be timed according to blooming dogwood trees. Once they bloom, bass start bedding. Being from Minnesota where there aren’t many dogwoods, I couldn’t distinguish a dogwood from an apple tree. But I made it a point to learn their identification. Now many years later, I feel somewhat embarrassed to have doubted Rick at the time, because after many years of my own observations of dogwoods and the spawn, I see that Rick was right on the money!
Another sign that I have observed in southern states is the simultaneous occurance of pine tree pollen. Countless times I can recall straining my eyes as I try to focus my gaze through a surface film of yellow, pine pollen. Most often the pollen will collect in backs of coves and pockets where many bass will be bedding. But a person doesn’t have to be on the lake to see the pollen, because it can be observed coating cars and trucks left to sit for a day or two.
In Minnesota, I have tried to time the initiation of the spawning period with dandelions. I’ve noticed that once the first, big wave of blooming dandelions switch over to the puffy, seed stage, then the beginning of the bass spawn is at hand. Let me know if you agree/disagree by sending a message to my facebook fanpage. I know some Minnesota fisherman like to predict bass spawning by observing blooming lilacs.
Another of nature’s signs to look for is the spawning of crappies and bluegills. There is a specific order to which crappies, bass, and bluegills spawn. Crappies hit the beds first, then bass, and lastly bluegills. Overlap of the different species’ cycles does occur. In fact at some point, all three will be nesting at the same time. Expect bass to bed very shortly after the crappies begin, in fact just a few days. Bluegills wait for even warmer water temperatures. Once bluegills begin, crappies are close to being finished. And note that bluegills may continue spawning well into the summer months long after the others are completely done. So anyways, use this knowledge to better time the bass spawn. If crappies are bedding, the bass may be too, or about to be very soon. I believe the peak of the bass spawn (that period when the most females are physically around nests) occurs just a few days before the first bluegills start colonizing nests (maybe longer in the south). And once the bluegills do start bedding, understand that many female bass have laid their eggs and left the spawning grounds, but more should still be on the way. And as the season progresses, when bluegill bedding is observed in multiple main lake areas (not just protected bays and canals), then the bass spawn is nearly over. At this stage, most of the remaining bass in the spawning areas are males guarding their fry or rogue bass preying upon bedding bluegills.
Considering water temperature, take note that certain parts of a lake/river will warm faster than others. Shallow, protected bays and canals are capable of having temperatures spike to 60 on an early, hot, spring day while the main lake remains in the low to mid 50s. It’s probably still too early for spawning activity at that stage. I like to see main lake temperatures higher, something near 59 degrees. Then the push to spawn will initiate in protected bays and canals which will be even warmer.
Provided the water is clear enough, the best confirmation of where the spawn is at is done by using one’s eyes. If preliminary indicators suggest the bass may be spawning, then take some time and cruise through likely spawning grounds with a trolling motor and look for beds. Keep an eye out for crappies and bluegills too. Be sure to wear polarized sunglasses to cut surface glare and enhance the subsurface view. My favorite lens color is yellow or amber. Beds are usually round shaped and have a different color as compared to the surrounding lake bottom. That is because the male bass has fanned away the silt from the nest, exposing the underlying substrate which is usually a different color.
So how long does the spawning cycle last? It varies, a lot. First understand what happens with an individual bass. A male bass needs to find a nesting spot in the shallows, fan silt away from the nest, entice a female to lay eggs in the nest, guard the eggs (2 to 5 days depending upon water temperatures) and finally guard the fry when they hatch (until the fry are about an inch long which takes a week or so). As you can see, a male bass is committed to the whole process requiring a couple weeks of his time, while a female simply shows up for a couple days, dumps her eggs during that time, and then splits.
Now consider the entire bass population as a whole. Not all bass in a given lake spawn at the same time. Some will take advantage of the shallow, protected areas that heat up first; while other bass prefer to wait and spawn on main lake shallows. Main lake temperatures can lag behind considerably, making spawning bass available for several weeks. I have termed this a “layered” spawn. But aside from this, some bass are simply biologically ready to spawn earlier in the spring than others. So this biological variance also adds to the duration of a lake’s spawning cycle.
Let me highlight two extremes. Florida and Minnesota experience two very different spawn cycle durations. In conversations with professional angler, Scott Martin, regarding his home lake – Lake Okeechobee, he has told me that bass will spawn December through April. I say “wow!” That is so much longer than a lake in Minnesota. In Minnesota, the bass spawn is compressed much more tightly. When winter’s ice cover finally melts off, water temperatures in a matter of a few weeks, race their way to spawning temps. Minnesota bass invade the spawning grounds in big numbers nearly all at once. For example, the spawn cycle on Lake Minnetonka usually lasts no more than four weeks. Ice-out and the weather thereafter determines when it begins. A late ice-out generally pushes the spawn later, while early ice-out allows the opportunity for the lake to warm up earlier in the calendar.
Weather does play a major factor in determining the length of the spawn. If it brings in cold fronts during this time, it can knock bass off their nests before eggs are laid, and slow the development of eggs and fry with cooling water temperatures. Such cold weather obviously delays, pauses, and draws out the spawn. On the opposite side, a prolonged hot spell will accelerate spawning activity causing it to cycle through more quickly.
The lunar influence on the bass spawn is one variable that I am in the minority regarding its importance. It is widely believed that a full moon will cause bass to begin spawning or increase the intensity of the spawn. I don’t see any correlation. I think it is all about water temperature. When the lake’s temperature marches into the 60s, bass will hit the spawning grounds regardless of what the moon is doing. Many times I’ve seen massive waves of spawners, north and south, show up during half-moons. It was always when the water temperatures heat to the right levels. Also, I’ve seen full moons trigger nothing. Does anyone know of any science substantiating a lunar influence? I’d love to see it.
Knowing when bass spawn is the first step to catching bass in the spring time. Observing nature’s signs, reading water temperatures, and doing some visual recon are three ways to zero in the spawn’s timing. The big females will only show up only during brief windows during the whole cycle. So understanding and knowing the timing of the cycle will increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time!