Tips For Catching Schooling Bass

Just beyond casting range, the placid water exploded with activity as hundreds of 5- and 6-pound bass smashed into a terrified school of shad.

We dropped our rods and kicked the trolling motor into high gear. As we began casting to the now empty waters where bass once schooled, fish again erupted just beyond casting range behind our boat. Again, we pushed volts to the motor only to see bass explode where we just left.

Jimmy Houston, a professional bass fisherman, shows off a bass he caught. (Photos by John N. Felsher)

Such eruptions commonly tantalize anglers across North America as bass fanatics futilely chase these "ghosts of summer." They appear without warning and suddenly vanish, only to reappear in another spot moments later. An angler can sometimes spend nearly all day chasing schooling fish without putting ONE into the livewell. However, in the right spot, an angler can fill a livewell in minutes!

Find The Shad
"Patience is the key to catching schooling bass," said Sam Swett of Covington, La. "By the time we motor over to where the school was, it disappears. Nine times out of 10, the school reappears behind the boat. It’s tough to resist chasing after them."

Find the shad and anglers usually find bass. At the right opportunity, bass attack from all directions, herding shad into balls and forcing them to the surface. At the surface, shad run out of room to escape. Then, the bass come in to gorge on anything they can catch, churning the surface in the process. If anglers happen to sit in the right spot at the right time, they can quickly catch several fish, but they must react fast.

"It’s almost impossible to predict where schooling bass might come up next," said Randy Blaukat, a professional bass angler from Lamar, Mo. "Chasing schools is an opportunistic situation. If I’m in an environment that I think might have some schooling activity, I rig up a bait for making really long casts. People just need to be aware of them and prepared to make long casts when they surface in an area."

Kevin VanDam, a professional bass angler, unhooks a bass he caught.

Rig Light For Long Casts
In areas where they might see schoolies, many anglers keep light spinning rods loaded with 8-pound monofilament handy. For making long casts at schooling bass, most people also throw lipless crankbaits. Lipless crankbaits, such as Rat-L-Traps or Cordell Spots, sail effortlessly for long distances. Chrome spoons and spinnerbaits also work well on schooling fish. Often, quickness and accuracy mean more than lure selection or color, but stick to shad colors, such as chrome and blue, gray, white, silver, or bleeding shad to mimic wounded baitfish.

Toss these baits as far as possible in the direction of schooling activity and run them through the area. Over the spot where the bass struck, let baits fall a few feet before resuming the retrieve. Bass attacking shad often wound fish. Seconds after the attack, the largemouths return to slurp the fluttering morsels as they sink.

Although bass might attack shad in extremely deep water, topwater baits still work well on schoolies because the predators herd baitfish to the surface. Jerkbaits, such as a Rattling Rogue, walking baits, including Frenzy Walkers, Super Spooks or Rapala Skitter Walks, effectively entice schooling bass in any depth. Also try Tiny Torpedoes, Pop-Rs, and similar topwater baits. 

Although bass might appear instantly and disappear in seconds, they didn’t necessarily leave the area just because they stopped popping the surface. Often, attacking bass break up baitfish balls. Shad disperse and drop deeper to regroup. Beneath the water, bass reorganize for another assault, herding the shad back to the surface in another spot. Continue to fish the area where schoolies surfaced.

Work Lures Deeper
"Just because you don’t see fish, doesn’t mean they aren’t there," Swett advised. "I use the depth finder to find schools of shad. If I see a lot of shad balls, I know I’m in the right area. When bass go back down, I continue to fish the area with crankbaits. In deeper water, I throw Carolina rigs, but I keep a Spook or a Spot handy."

The author admires a bass he caught while fishing at Lake Tohopekaliga, Fla.

Diving birds can indicate schooling bass. As bass herd shad to the surface, birds frequently dive upon them to snatch meals before bass get them. Diving birds or concentrations of fish-eating birds could indicate schooling activity. 

With bass gulping them from beneath ,and beaks ripping at them from above, shad live short, difficult lives.

Although not guaranteed success, anglers could add several more fish to their catch almost instantly in the right spot at the right time if they stay alert and prepare to take advantage of opportunities as they appear.

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