Unlocking a Lake

When spawning season is over, fishing can be tough. Here's how to smooth some of the bumps.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

A wise man once observed, "Catching fish is easy. Finding them is the hard part." And there's no trickier time to pinpoint the location of game fish than late spring. For most of the popular fish species in our lakes -- bass, crappies, bluegills, catfish, walleyes, muskies and northern pike -- late spring marks a period of transition. Many fish gravitate to areas between their shallow bedding areas and deeper summer haunts.

Don't let all that water intimidate you. While it may be true that only about 10 percent of a lake contains 90 percent of the fish, you can find that productive water. It takes a basic understanding of what game fish require to survive this time of year, and where their favorite environments are. The following pointers will help you zero in on America's favorite freshwater game fish in a typical lake where various species are present. We've also included some tips on how to catch each species -- lures and presentations you can use in late spring to put more fish in the boat. Besides your fishing tackle, perhaps the most important tool you'll need is a good depth finder, presuming you'll do most of your fishing from a boat. And because every fisherman needs a few more rods and reels, we have suggestions for the best gear for the fish you're going after.

BASS
Right now, with the water temperature around 75 degrees in some lakes, largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass are in a post-spawn mode. If you've ever had trouble catching bass this time of year, don't feel alone. Even professional tournament anglers complain that post-spawn bass can be maddeningly difficult to pattern.

Of the three major bass species, smallmouth and spotted bass tend to spawn earlier than largemouths. If you're like most bass anglers, you probably prefer fishing shallow water. You may want to hunt for largemouths first -- they'll be close to recently abandoned spawning areas, especially pockets along the bank and shallow bays. After leaving their nests, largemouths will hang around drop-offs or in weed and wood cover close to bedding areas for a brief period of rest.

**Tackle for Bass **
Recommended equipment includes a 61/2-foot, medium-action spinning rod with 8-pound-test monofilament (for floating worms and small crankbaits) and a 6-foot, medium-action bait-casting rod with 14-pound-test mono (for topwater lures and spinnerbaits). Smallmouth and spotted bass will be closer to deep water than largemouths. They often move to gravel points that run into a deep creek or river channel and may hold near channel drop-offs where they intercept passing schools of baitfish. While largemouths are seldom deeper than 8 feet now, smallmouths and "spots" are often 15 to 30 feet deep and relate more to a depth change than to cover.

Tips & Tactics

  • Post-spawn largemouths are notorious for not preferring any one lure. It's common to catch 10 largemouths on 10 different baits in late spring. A weightless plastic worm twitched around flooded bushes in spawning coves is a great search bait, and one of the most exciting lures with which you can fish for bass. But if it doesn't produce largemouths fairly quickly, try a buzzbait, spinnerbait or shallow-running crankbait in the same area to find bass.

  • As the water continues to warm, largemouths will move from shallow, protected areas to deeper, more open water via a migration route such as a steep bank or creek channel. Use your depth finder and a set of marker buoys to delineate these underwater highways; then cast small crankbaits, plastic worms or Carolina-rigged lizards to isolated stumps or weed patches occurring along the route. Fish as deep as about 15 feet. The largemouths heading offshore use this scattered cover as rest stops during the transition to their deeper summer pattern.

  • Smallmouths and spotted bass are becoming more aggressive now and will smack a toater lure fished around points at the mouths of tributaries. A jerkbait like a Rapala or a stickbait like a Heddon Zara Spook is especially effective because it mimics injured baitfish. In a clear lake, direct some casts well off the end of the point; spots and smallies won't hesitate to swim up 20 feet to nail it.

CRAPPIES
Spawning season is over for most crappies now, and, like bass, they may be hard to locate. Crappies tend to develop wanderlust after the bedding season and won't stay in one area very long as they make their way from shallow spawning areas toward deeper water.

Any fish that is suspending in the water (not relating to either the surface or the bottom) can be difficult to catch, and crappies often suspend after spawning. They begin backing away from submerged brush piles, stake beds and other shallow, man-made spawning attractors in creek arms and sheltered bays and will suspend in 8 to 15 feet of water. Check banks that have fast slopes into deeper water; a school of suspended crappies will show up on a depth finder as a dense cloud. Put a bait in front of them.

Crappies will continue to migrate out of protected spawning areas toward the main lake as the water warms. Like largemouth bass, they'll use creek channels and 45-degree banks as highways, but they're unlikely to be tight to cover at this time. Instead, look for crappies to be suspending above isolated stumps, brush piles and sunken weed beds.

**Tips & Tactics **

  • A spider rig (multiple-rod system) is the best bet now for covering large creek and river channel structures, including flats, bars and ledges. Dedicated crappie anglers mount several telescopic poles in rod-holders at strategic locations in their boats, then use their electric motors to slow-troll a buffet of tube jigs, hair jigs, small swimming-tail grubs or live minnows along drop-offs or submerged points. Crappies usually are preferential when it comes to color; using a spider rig allows you to present a smorgasbord of colors so you can quickly determine which ones the fish favor that particular day. (Note: Be sure to check state regulations regarding the number of rods that may be used legally at one time).

  • Crappies usually are sluggish for a while after spawning, so a fast-moving presentation should be avoided. Instead, try dangling a small minnow on a bobber rig and adjusting the line below the float so it's just above the depth of the school. An alternative presentation for suspending crappies is to cast a small tube or swimming-tail jig on a light jighead (no heavier than 1/32-ounce) into the school and letting it sink slowly.

  • Passing cold fronts can scatter crappies during this period, making them hard to locate. Any "hooks" on a depth finder that indicate fish suspending "in the middle of nowhere" might be crappies. A good place to look is in the middle of a reservoir creek arm or in open water between two main-lake points. Slow-drifting a lightweight jig or minnow rig over their heads best catches these scattered fish.

**Tackle for Crappies **
Recommended crappie gear includes a 61/2-foot, medium- action spinning outfit with 8-pound-test mono (for minnow fishing), a 7-foot, light-action spinning rod with 4- or 6-pound-test mono (for small jigs) and telescopic crappie poles from 10 to 20 feet long (for spider-rigging).

BLUEGILLS
Not counting the spawning season, this is the beginning of the best time of the year to fish for bluegills. Most bluegills will be coming off their shallow beds and are ready to pack in some serious groceries. They'll often hit any small morsel you throw at them. What a great time to introduce your kids or grandchildren to the excitement of fishing!

Bluegills crave cover, if only because they are preyed upon by some of the other fish being discussed here. They hover over submerged weed beds, lurk around stumps and hide in the shadows beneath boat docks. These fish are highly oriented to the lake's shoreline and usually shun open water. They also avoid open areas buffeted by high winds and prefer quiet, clear water with a high level of light penetration -- muddy water is bad news for bluegill fishing. The bluegill diet includes worms, insects, small minnows and crustaceans. Mayflies are among bluegills' favorite foods; the fish gather around willows and flooded bushes in late spring to gorge on these delicate flying insects as they fall to the surface from the branches. If you happen upon a mayfly hatch in progress, unlimber your flyfishing tackle and tie on a popping bug or foam spider. Bluegills will be waiting to inhale just about anything that hits the surface.

** Tips & Tactics**

  • The standard bluegill rig consists of a live cricket or earthworm dangled beneath a bobber. However, late spring is not the time to mess with live bait, unless you want to spend all day baiting your hook. A combination float/jig rig is more efficient. Search tackle outlets for the tiniest jigheads you can find (1/48-ounce heads are perfect). Tip these with tiny soft-plastic baits such as artificial wax worms; these are durable and will stay on the hook through dozens of fish. Bright colors -- white, yellow or chartreuse -- are consistent producers. Featherweight jigs are virtually impossible to cast, so attach a bobber or clear casting bubble above the lure and adjust the drop line so the jig is presented just above the bottom. The offering probably won't make it to the bottom, however. Usually it will get smacked immediately after it hits the water.

  • Sometimes bluegills want a horizontal rather than a sinking presentation. This is when a split-shot rig pays off. Simply pinch a small lead shot above a lightweight jighead, cast it past shallow cover and reel it slowly and steadily back to the boat.

  • Bluegills are a blast on a fly rod. Try presenting a popping bug or sponge spider around weed patches and flooded bushes, as bluegills are especially fond of terrestrials that fall from bank cover.

**Tackle for Bluegills **
Recommended equipment includes a cane or fiberglass pole for natural bait, a 7-foot, ultralight spinning rod with 4-pound-test line (for long- distance presentations of tiny jig rigs) or an 81/2-foot, 4-weight fly rod (for poppers and spiders).

CHANNEL CATFISH
Channel cats like to spawn in water that's about 70 to 73 degrees and stay longer near their spawning areas than some other fish. Typical channel cat spawning locales include undercut channel banks, crevices between large rocks, holes in sheer rock bluffs and practically anywhere there's a submerged log, stump or brush pile in 5 to 15 feet of water. A likely place to look for catfiubmerged weed beds, lurk around stumps and hide in the shadows beneath boat docks. These fish are highly oriented to the lake's shoreline and usually shun open water. They also avoid open areas buffeted by high winds and prefer quiet, clear water with a high level of light penetration -- muddy water is bad news for bluegill fishing. The bluegill diet includes worms, insects, small minnows and crustaceans. Mayflies are among bluegills' favorite foods; the fish gather around willows and flooded bushes in late spring to gorge on these delicate flying insects as they fall to the surface from the branches. If you happen upon a mayfly hatch in progress, unlimber your flyfishing tackle and tie on a popping bug or foam spider. Bluegills will be waiting to inhale just about anything that hits the surface.

** Tips & Tactics**

  • The standard bluegill rig consists of a live cricket or earthworm dangled beneath a bobber. However, late spring is not the time to mess with live bait, unless you want to spend all day baiting your hook. A combination float/jig rig is more efficient. Search tackle outlets for the tiniest jigheads you can find (1/48-ounce heads are perfect). Tip these with tiny soft-plastic baits such as artificial wax worms; these are durable and will stay on the hook through dozens of fish. Bright colors -- white, yellow or chartreuse -- are consistent producers. Featherweight jigs are virtually impossible to cast, so attach a bobber or clear casting bubble above the lure and adjust the drop line so the jig is presented just above the bottom. The offering probably won't make it to the bottom, however. Usually it will get smacked immediately after it hits the water.

  • Sometimes bluegills want a horizontal rather than a sinking presentation. This is when a split-shot rig pays off. Simply pinch a small lead shot above a lightweight jighead, cast it past shallow cover and reel it slowly and steadily back to the boat.

  • Bluegills are a blast on a fly rod. Try presenting a popping bug or sponge spider around weed patches and flooded bushes, as bluegills are especially fond of terrestrials that fall from bank cover.

**Tackle for Bluegills **
Recommended equipment includes a cane or fiberglass pole for natural bait, a 7-foot, ultralight spinning rod with 4-pound-test line (for long- distance presentations of tiny jig rigs) or an 81/2-foot, 4-weight fly rod (for poppers and spiders).

CHANNEL CATFISH
Channel cats like to spawn in water that's about 70 to 73 degrees and stay longer near their spawning areas than some other fish. Typical channel cat spawning locales include undercut channel banks, crevices between large rocks, holes in sheer rock bluffs and practically anywhere there's a submerged log, stump or brush pile in 5 to 15 feet of water. A likely place to look for catfi