The siren song of schooling bass has lured many an unsuspecting angler to spend the rest of his days wondering what the heck just happened.
They’re up. They’re down. They’re 10 yards farther than your longest cast.
Then, just when you’re ready to give up and head back to the launch, they blow up within easy reach, and reward you with a catch or two confirming your decision to stick it out just a little while longer.
Simsborro tournament angler Sid Havard has pulled his hair out many times chasing schooling bass.
But through trial and error, he’s figured out how to catch more of them — without driving himself crazy by having a plan.
“I’m going to throw in a little twist right from the start,” he said. “I figured out a few years ago that there are three kinds of schooling bass. First, you’ve got your small schoolies that are up feeding on threadfin shad. Then you’ve got 5- and 6-pound fish that are up feeding on gizzard shad. In either case, you’ll see all the action on top.”
But the third kind of schooling bass won’t be found on the surface. These are the kinds of schools that earn professional anglers a lot of face time on television .
“They’re no different than the surface schoolers — except that you won’t see all the action,” Havard continued. “Lots of big fish will school under the surface over humps and ledges in deeper water. You’ve got to learn how to find them with your electronics, but when you find them you’ll see that they’re schooling for the same reason as those on the surface — to eat.
“And I’ve found that a lot of times they’re even easier to catch.”
Spotting a school
For whatever reason, Havard has found that bass don’t school on the surface as much as they used to, and he contends that it has something to do with the amount of shad they have corralled.
“I’ve seen it on Toledo Bend when they would just school all day long,” he said. “Now they seem to bust up a school of shad then go five or six different ways, and you get a little action here and a little action there.
“I guess the more shad they have pressed against the surface, the more likely they are to stay up on the surface.”
Although many anglers come across schooling bass somewhat haphazardly, Havard says keeping a lookout over any kind of structure near deep water can put you within casting distance before other boats spot them and show up.
These kinds of locations are great for initiating schooling activity because bass that have been pushing shad around will eventually push them over the shallower structure. This will drive the shad closer to the surface, where bass will have them trapped: That’s when all heck breaks loose.
Havard also mentioned that anglers should keep an eye out for bird activity.
“I look for diving birds and great blue herons,” he said. “You can spot the diving birds at a distance, and you can bet they’re diving on shad. Nine times out of 10, bass will be under them for the same reason.
“And the blue herons? At Toledo Bend you’ll see them just dropping out of the sky, or you’ll see 30 or 40 of them on stumps. That’s where you need to be.”
What's on the menu?
Once he’s within range of schooling bass, Havard tries to determine if they’re feeding on threadfin or gizzard shad. It doesn’t really affect how he fishes the school, but he likes to know what kind of fish he’s dealing with.
“Catch a few and you’ll know quick what they’re eating,” he said. “Of course, if they’re on gizzard shad your first couple fish will likely be pretty good. But you can verify it by taking a look at what they’re spitting up. Threadfin will be about 3 inches, while gizzard shad will be around 6 inches. I’ll also take a look in their throats to see if there is a tail sticking out. If I see one, I know it’s not just a threadfin.”
Havard typically targets schooling bass on three north Louisiana lakes — D’Arbonne, Caney and Black Lake at Campti.
“Caney used to be awesome, but they don’t come up there like they used to,” he said. “I’d say D’Arbonne and Black Lake are my two favorites for schooling fish. The funny thing is what works on D’Arbonne won’t work at Black Lake or Caney. They all have their own little deals when it comes to baits.”
Havard throws a Spook Jr. or a Pop-R at D’Arbonne, a clear Tiny Torpedo or white Ribbit at Black Lake and a chrome/blue Rat-L-Trap at Caney. And although he doesn’t throw it much, Havard said an Alabama rig can really be effective at Caney.
“But I’ve got couple more little things I like to do no matter where I get on schoolies,” he said. “One’s kind of old school - a Sidewinder spoon. I can throw it a mile and reel it as fast and crazy as I can… even make it come out of the water… or I can kill it and let it flutter down. The other is a pearl Fluke.”
Both baits are really good at catching larger bass that frequently suspend beneath the surface activity waiting on a wounded shad to fall their way.
“You can throw that Fluke past the schooling action and just let it fall,” Havard said. “I mean don’t do anything but strip out line and let it float down dead-stick style. That’s a great way to catch a really big bass under a school.”
Of course, tail spinners like the Little George and the Wing Ding work well, too.
What time does school let in?
Although you never can tell when a school of bass will appear on the surface, Havard says some times seem to be better on certain lakes.
“Mid-morning seems like the best on Black Lake, but on D’Arbonne they school early and late up toward the flats,” he said. “All you can do when they come up is try to make as many casts as you can. Get your fish off quickly and get back in there before the action stops.”
Schools that disappear as quickly as they surface can be frustrating for many anglers; however, Havard said those fish haven’t left the country. They typically stick around in the same spot and go back down to whatever structure helped them push the shad to the top.
“They’re still there,” he said. “Just put down your schooling baits, and pick up something you can fish the bottom with — and you’ll find them again.”
Havard loves to fan cast a Texas-rigged worm, but he noted that Carolina rigs and deep-diving crankbaits also work well.
“Just sit on them a while and pick apart whatever that structure is underneath,” he said. “Just remember: They may not be in a feeding mood, so you may have to make multiple casts. Before too long, they’ll probably surface again. If you leave, you’ll wind up in the wrong place at the right time.”
As frustratingly fun as the surface schooling action is, Havard really gets excited when he finds a school of bass on structure that never surface.
These fish are feeding just as voraciously as those on the surface, but you’ll never see them.
“In fact, you’ll ride right over them most of the time and never know what you’re missing unless you learn how to read your electronics,” Havard said. “It’s a matter of learning what bait balls look like on your screen, and then being able to pick out the arches that show the bass nearby.”
Havard says most bass fishing today has turned into riding around looking at your fish finder until you spot a school of fish off shore, marking them and then turning around to fish them.
“I’ve done it at D’Arbonne, Claiborne and Caney,” he said. “It’s no different than when you see those guys do it on the tournament shows. Only they may be riding a 40-foot river channel and looking on a 20-foot shelf, where I’m running a 20-foot channel looking on a 12-foot shelf. It’s the same principle — just in a little bit shallower water.”
When he spots a school on his electronics, Havard throws several different baits to see what the fish prefer.
“I may have to throw a DD22 or a 6XD crankbait… maybe a big Texas-rigged worm, or even a Carolina-rigged finesse worm. As long as they’re eating, they’ll usually hit one of those,” he said. “It’s really easier to catch these schooling fish than those on the surface, once you learn how to do it.”
Summer school precautions
Since surface schooling is more of a summer thing, Havard said it’s really easy to get so caught up in chasing them that you forget to take care of yourself on the water.
“Man, it’s really easy to get too hot this time of year,” he said. “You need to be careful with your body and wear sunscreen, wide brim hats, long sleeves and stay hydrated. Stay on top of it, because once you figure out you’re too hot, it could be too late.”
There’s no doubt trying to stay on top of schooling bass can make you pull your hair out. The key to catching them, though, is to have a plan amidst all the chaos. Because if you’re as reactionary as the fish, you’ll be just as scattered as they are.