The bass are spawning as you read this
By JIM MATTHEWS
I have often wondered what exactly triggers the bass spawn in our local lakes and officially kicks off the beginning of our fishing season.
You might believe that fishing is a year-around activity here in Southern California, and at some level that may be true. However, the reality is that fishing season starts when the male bass start nosing up into the shallow water and start fanning out nests where spawning will take place. Oh sure, you might have been fishing for mutant hatchery trout with a bunch of made-up names since November. There is generally pretty good winter-time striper fishing, and something can always be caught in the ocean. In fact, just about any fish can be caught any month of the year. That’s not the point.
It’s just that the bass spawn marks some sort of biological marker that seems to line up each year as winter trails off and there are warm spring days and wildflowers start to erupt in our deserts and valleys. This is the start of a new season. I don’t care what you’ve been doing before this point, fishing season is starting now. It’s the natural beginning of our season.
If you’ve been down to Long Beach to the Fred Hall Show, you can feel the springtime energy bubbling through all the booths, with all the anglers. Fishing before now is a forced activity; from now on, it is a biological imperative. You need to collect vitamin D and make sure last year’s fishing shorts still fit. Most of us have pulled out the fishing rods and reels to check line and clean off the dust. We’ve reorganized our tackle and made some resupply trips to local sporting goods stores, and we make sure we have a current fishing license. It has happened almost without thinking. We do this because we feel the same pull that bass feel to move up out of the deep, dark winter to the sun-warmed shallows. Tell me you don’t feel it.
In a sterile biological sense, the spawn will still happen this time of year regardless of the weather or water temperature – never delayed or pushed forward by more than a few days. It is driven by the length of the day. That’s the boring biological truth. By late February or early March each year, most of Southern California’s low elevation and desert impoundments see a major movement of fish into shallower water and there is an increase in activity and feeding. (Anglers generally call this the “pre-spawn.”) No later than the middle of the month, bass are in the shallows fanning out beds and females move inshore to check out the accommodations for the spawning ritual. Selections are made and mating takes place. Loads of eggs and milt (fish sperm) will be expelled together in a happy, undulating dance. The next generation of bass will then rest in the depressions fanned out by the males all over the shallows. There the eggs will develop into fry in less than a week (just two or three days if the water is warm), and the male bass hangs around protecting the eggs and fry until they grow to about an inch long.
So what exactly triggers this spawning activity? And why does all of nature jump up when that internal alarm clock start to jingle?
Bass fishermen with active imaginations envision things and ask themselves questions: Do schools of male bass cruise around checking out the female bass, flaring their fins, opening mouths wide and expanding gill plates to show off? Do the females roll on their sides slightly to expose their bulging abdomens filled with eggs? Are crawdads scarfed up by the boys and taken to the girls and offered as dinner? There is certainly jostling and a pecking order established by the males, with the bigger, stronger bass claiming what they believe are the best locations to entice the females. They run off the interlopers. (Footnote: There’s no such thing as toxic masculinity in the natural world.)
Anthropomorphizing bass may not actually be a bad way to try to figure out a game plan that will make us better anglers, allowing us to catch more – but maybe not bigger – bass this time of year. For the next month or so, the visible males hovering in the shallows will be the easy targets for anglers flipping all manner of lures and baits onto the beds the male bass will dutifully pick up in their mouths and move away from the eggs and fry. These dads are protecting their kids often to the detriment of their own health, a trait any father will understand. I always say that even I can catch bass this time of year because the males are preoccupied with protection. The fact that so many are caught repeatedly (sometimes in the same morning) proves the point.
With all black bass (which includes largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass), the males are smaller than females, sometimes dramatically so. I’m going on memory here, but in the all the years the Texas fishery department has studied largemouth, they have never found a male bigger than about six pounds – and most are under three pounds. So when you catch a bass over three pounds, it is likely a female. That is something to celebrate and brag about – especially this time of year.
Why? Because it’s a fluke. Catching a big female bass is what infuriates and frustrates bass anglers throughout this pre- and full-spawn period. At other times of the year, the big females are at least a little more predictable. You know they are going to eat at some point in time, so persistence will eventually pay off if you put in the hours fishing to big females with live bait or imitations of familiar food items (big swimbaits are all the rage because they work.)
But in the spring, there is no predicting what the female bass are going to do. Sound familiar? I’d say their hormones were running wild and destroying any sense of normalcy and predictability, but I don’t want any to take that as some sort of gender slur and be offended. So, I’ll just say the big girls cruise between male bass’ beds trying to make up their mind, weighing their options. Food? They just don’t care. Perfectly presented, perfectly scented artificial lures or perfectly edible live baits are scorned. They swim off to check out another male’s nest.
All I know is that fishing this time of year reminds male anglers of being young again -- or young still, depending on your age. It validates who and what we are. That is why men go. I have no idea about women anglers. Perhaps they go this time of year because they like to torment males, whether human or bass.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 909-887-3444.