Marsh bass will cover the banks this month. Here’s how to get them on the end of your line.
Have you ever seen those guys on TV trying to catch a bedding bass during some big-money tournament? Man, they have it made. Crystal clear water, big shiny beds, hardly any wind … and then they prance around and kiss the fish or yell at the poor thing after they yank it over the side of their boat.Put that clown in the middle of a Southeast Louisiana marsh, and see how much dancing he does. You can bet he won’t find that crystal clear water. He’ll definitely have trouble finding big old shiny beds. And the wind? Let’s just say he better keep his pucker in his pocket because he’ll have a hard time finding any fish to kiss.
But the old cliché that a bass is a bass no matter where it lives is no more true than it is in the marsh. Just because they live in brackish marsh doesn’t mean that they don’t have the urge to make babies. Marsh bass spawn too, and anglers who learn how to find and fish active beds just might do a little dancing of their own.
“There are a lot more variables to consider when trying to catch a bedding marsh bass than a bedding bass in a near pristine reservoir environment,” said Jason Pittman, a professional angler and Champion Pro Staffer living in Covington. “The neat thing, though, is that once you find a couple bedding fish in the marsh, they tend to be a little more aggressive than reservoir bass when it comes to removing an intruder.”
Ah, but there’s the rub — finding them. Everything else about the spawn in the marsh is the same as in a reservoir. They still have to wait for the right combination of water temperature and moon phase. They still have to fan out a bed on which to lay the eggs. And they still have to stand guard over those eggs until they hatch.
Once they’re found, though, they typically aren’t that difficult to catch.
Water temperature plays the most crucial role in determining when bass move in to spawn in the marsh. They tend to spawn anytime the water temperature is between 58 and 66 degrees, with the initial wave moving in once it hits 58.
“I’ve seen them move onto beds as early as late January and as late as late February,” said Pittman. “When they move in is a seasonal thing, and it can be different each year depending on the number of cold fronts moving through Southeast Louisiana. The best time to find bedding bass is any time from February through April.”
Another angler who has put in his time learning how to bed fish for marsh bass is 2007 Wal-Mart BFL All American Qualifier Chad Hartzog from Bush. He starts looking for bedding fish once the water hits the 58-degree mark, too, and he believes that the first wave of spawning fish are the biggest ones.
“It’s been my experience that the bigger females tend to move up and spawn first,” Hartzog said. “They’ll first move up and kind of stage on the points of the trenasses and cuts when the water hits 55 degrees. Then they’ll commit to spawning once it hits 58 to 60 degrees.”
Knowing when marsh bass move up to spawn won’t do you much good, though, unless you know where to look for them. Pittman focuses primarily around Delacroix, and Hartzog likes to look in the marsh around the lower Pearl River.
“One of the difficult aspects of finding bedding bass in the marsh is that the fish will bed just about anywhere,” Pittman explained. “For example, I’ve seen beds out in the middle of Lake Lery, but they typically spawn along the edges and in the backs of dead-end canals.
“Some good places in Delacroix to look for beds are Grand Lake, the canals off Oak River, the backside of the Reggio marsh and Canal Marine.”
Hartzog has consistently found bedding bass in canals like Carr Drive and Salt Bayou near Slidell. He’s also found some good bedding areas in the lower Pearl in Tourner Mill, Lower Black and Upper Black, which are marshy areas as far as the eye can see.
Getting in a good spot solves only half the problem, though. Visually identifying the beds is where things can get a little tough. There are so many variables that affect how deep marsh bass will bed and how visible their beds are that it takes an educated eye to spot them.
“One of the first things to consider is that marsh bass don’t have the luxury of fanning away silt until they get to a sandy substrate,” Pittman suggested. “Therefore, few marsh bass beds feature those white spots characteristic of reservoir beds. Marsh bass could fan for days and never get to a hard bottom.
“All they do when they fan that marsh bottom is keep pushing out silt until they create a little rut in the bottom that’s the same color as all the surrounding bottom. Sometimes they get lucky, though, and they’ll hit a shell bed. If that’s the case, you’d probably see a little light spot.”
Another factor that can make marsh beds more difficult to spot is that they are typically deeper than reservoir beds. Whereas a bass in a reservoir could spawn in as shallow as 6 inches of water, marsh bass have to bed deeper because they have been burned before by low tides and north winds that push water out of the marsh.
“That’s why you find most beds below the low water mark,” Hartzog said. “Three feet seems to be deep enough to ensure their bed isn’t left high and dry.”
Pittman believes that marsh bass counteract fluctuating water levels by spawning over a broader area than reservoir fish. He said bass are programmed to spawn in waves each year to ensure at least a couple successful spawns. The same can be said for spawning over a larger area in the marsh.
“It’s a survival thing,” he explained. “If they all ganged up and spawned in the same area and at the same time, and that area was suddenly out of the water, they would lose an entire year-class of fry.”
Since the beds are more difficult to see on a marsh bottom than they are on a reservoir bottom, it’s important to look for other signs of spawning activity, which could lead to the discovery of a bed.
Pittman and Hartzog both believe it is important to keep an eye out for other signs of bedding bass like water movement from fish chasing off predators or from the actual fanning of the bed.
“Sometimes you can actually see the water kind of boiling up when they’re fanning,” Pittman said. “It almost kind of looks like a subtle version of a miniature prop wash. This will usually be accompanied by mud or silt rising up off the bottom, so if you’re in a relatively clear stretch of water, and you see a little cloudy area, that just might be a bass making a bed.”
One of the surest ways to locate a bed in the marsh is to keep a look out for bass that dart away from your boat as it approaches. Marsh bass are difficult to see because their coloration helps them blend into the bottom, but that darting action will give them up every time. Other movements to watch for are flickering gill fins or tail fins.
Once you find a bass that’s set up on a bed, the next thing to determine is if that fish can be caught or “locked on” as some anglers call it. Obviously, if a bass darts off a bed and doesn’t come back, he isn’t very committed to that area.
The first sign of a catchable fish is when it darts off only a few feet and almost immediately returns.
“A bass that is guarding eggs isn’t going to stay gone very long,” Pittman said. “Marsh bass have a lot more to worry about than reservoir fish because everything in the marsh wants a crack at those eggs.
“Whereas in a reservoir, a bass is at the top of the food chain, he’s got a lot more predators above him in brackish water. Spawning bass are put on alert every time a big redfish swims by or a crab comes too close. If he comes back quick, you can most likely catch him.”
The best bed fishermen are able to determine if a bass is catchable or not within a minute or two of spotting a bed. Pittman said that anglers should try to determine how far along each bass is in the spawning process to help them make a quick decision.
Is the fish patrolling around the edges of the bed? Is the bass trying to make a bed? Is it trying to lure a female to the bed? Is it trying to protect the bed? The most catchable fish are the ones that seem to be actively protecting the bed.
“You can spot those fish because they almost look like they’re standing guard over the bed,” Pittman said. “If you determine that you’re on a fish that you can catch, the next step is to set up your boat the best you can so as to avoid spooking the fish.”
Fishing beds in the marsh can present a challenge when trying to get close to a fish because of the soft bottom. One wrong push of the trolling motor button can squash any chance you had of catching that bass; it can also squash that particular bed’s chances of having a successful spawn.
“That’s the No. 1 thing you need to be aware of,” said Pittman. “A lot of anglers have even gone to using push poles in an effort to avoid trolling motor problems. How close you can get to a bedding bass is going to be unique to each bed. You’re going to have to stay far away on some, and you can get almost right on top of others. Let the fish tell you when he’s starting to get uncomfortable, and stay beyond that distance.”
Once Pittman and Hartzog position the boat in such a way to block any wind-driven wave action, they ease anchors off the front and back of the boat to keep it steady.
“Those anchors are important, especially if you’re by yourself,” Hartzog said. “It’s hard to maneuver with a push pole with one hand and fish with the other. Two anchors will free you up to fish without having to worry what’s happening with the boat.”
With a few exceptions, Pittman and Hartzog primarily try to catch bedding bass on soft plastics. Bright colors like white, bubble gum and chartreuse are best because they allow an angler to maintain visual contact with the bait the entire time it’s in the bed. Watermelon is also a good bed color, but it is extremely hard to see on the bottom of the marsh unless it has a little chartreuse on it.
“The key to catching bedding bass is to keep throwing something in the bed until you get the fish excited enough to bite,” said Pittman. “You could go through eight different baits without so much as a sniff, then he’ll jump all over the ninth one you throw in on him. You can tell when you’re riling him up because his gill fins will start moving faster. In fact, the faster they move, the closer you are to catching him.”
Each bed also has a small zone that each angler referred to as the “sweet spot.” Every bed has this one particular spot that the bass is watching. They’re most often right where a bass puts its nose every time it comes back to the bed, but sometimes they could be off to the side.
Pittman has seen times when he’s fished all around a bedding fish with no response, only to see it come alive when he finds that spot.
“A bite is imminent when a bass goes vertical over a bait with his nose to the bottom and his tail toward the surface,” Pittman said. “When that fish goes nose down, the only thing you have to do is make sure you hook the fish and get him in the boat.”
Pittman has actually learned to use the muddy marsh bottom to his advantage when he’s bed fishing. He explained that it’s easier to see a fish bite a lure because the white of its mouth will flare against the dark background.
The two exceptions to the soft plastic lures are a gold/black Rattlin’ Rogue and a spinnerbait. Pittman always tries a Rogue in a bed before he gives up on a fish. Sometimes he even weights it so that it stops and suspends right in front of the fish. That’s often more than that fish is willing to tolerate.
Hartzog likes to try a spinnerbait before he throws in the towel. He favors small 1/4-ounce baits like Humdinger, and he’s even been known to actually bump a fish to try to get it to bite.
Pittman made one last point about how quick bedding bass can pick up a lure and spit it out before an angler can react.
“That’s why it’s important to use a little bit longer rod,” he explained. “I fish with an American Rodsmith 7-foot H3 Titanium, for example. That 7-footer helps me set the hook quicker by picking up more line on the hook set than a 6 1/2-foot rod would.”
The brackish marsh may not be the ideal place for catching bedding bass, but as Pittman and Hartzog have proven time and time again, it can be done with a little knowledge and a lot of patience.
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