“Post-spawn fish want to eat,” says Fort Worth Elite Series pro Chris Zaldain, as he preps for the 2021 Bassmaster Classic in his hometown. “Water temps are rising, the days are getting long, and the fish’s metabolism is cranking up. They want to feed and get ready for a long, hot summer.”
That’s the easy part about early-summer bass fishing. The fish are hungry. The tricky part is what to feed them. This time of year, some bass stay shallow and seek shade, others hold along the first dropoff adjacent to spawning areas, and some slide into deeper water, seeking cooler water temps. That means there’s a whole bucket of baits you can use to catch fish now. But which are the best?
To find out, I asked bass pros to name the hottest presentations on the tour right now for landing these early-summer fish. Here are the top five.
1. Throw Big Baits for Big Bass
“I like to show these feeding bass a larger-than-normal lure,” says Zaldain. “I’m just looking for one of those wall-hangers or picture-takers that I can be proud of.” For that, he’ll usually go with one of three baits: a big plastic worm, a 5-inch Lake Fork Flutter Spoon, or a glide bait, a truly jumbo swimbait that can bring up a bass of a lifetime.
Jointed in the middle, a glide bait swims with a calm, side-to-side motion on a steady retrieve, but strategic stops and starts can cause more abrupt movement, like a sudden 90-degree turn. The combination of size and lifelike movement has obvious appeal to bass, wall-hangers included.
“I’ll use a heavy 8-foot rod, 25- to 30-pound fluorocarbon, and a big 9-inch glide bait,” Zaldain says. “On the retrieve, the lure’s joint breaks left and right, giving the bait an easy walk-the-dog action. It drives big, hungry post-spawn fish absolutely nuts. I love to play with the retrieve; it’s not a straight retrieve like a normal swimbait. I’m cranking a half turn at a time and letting the lure give me feedback.”
2. Try Summertime Jerkbaiting
Conventional wisdom assigns hard jerkbaits to cold water in winter and spring, but a number of experts have taken to using them as water temps climb through the 70s. The bass don’t seem to be aware that the baits are out of season. After all, hard jerkbaits attract attention with their fishy profile, bright colors, and shiny finishes, not to mention their panicky, manic movements on the retrieve. They’re easy to cast for distance, and are a good choice for prospecting along a shoreline or breakline.
When jerkbaiting in the summer, you’ll want to take a different approach than you did in February and March. Retrieve more rapidly, stop more suddenly, and after a quick suspension that affords the fish a good look at the lure, jerk it hard again. Warm-weather bass are eager feeders, and this erratic action triggers bites. That said, don’t be afraid to mix in a straightforward swimming retrieve now and then to find out what’s working best on any given day.
3. Use Finesse for Summer Bass Success
There’s a lot of interest in finesse fishing with soft baits, and for good reason. Fishing natural-looking baits on light rods and lines helps overcome any wariness your bass might exhibit, especially in open water. Sure, there are usually a few aggressive bass around that will attack a spinnerbait or a crankbait. But the subtle, lifelike movement of Senko-type worms, whether they’re crawling along the bottom on a Texas rig, suspended on a drop-shot setup, or wiggling irresistibly on a wacky rig, has a wide appeal to largemouths.
The Neko rig, a technique developed in Japan, has won over a lot of American bass anglers in recent years. The Neko (how it’s pronounced depends on who’s doing the pronouncing) can be thought of as a wacky rig with weight on one end of the worm; the weight drops to the bottom, and the other end of the worm sticks up more or less vertically, trembling and waving enticingly. The hook (weedless or plain) is inserted parallel to the bait, rather than perpendicular like the wacky rig. Naturally, a Neko rig is a better choice for deeper water than the usually unweighted wacky, and has come to rival the shaky-head rig among fans of weighted-head baits.
4. Go Deep-Water Crankbaiting
As warming water sends some bass looking for cooler depths, many anglers turn to deep-running crankbaits. Wobbling along in the fish’s comfort zone at 10 or 15 feet down, a chubby, big-billed crankbait is tough for the bass to pass up, especially if they see it bumping into structure like a rock or brush pile. Side-imaging sonar is a big help in determining how deep to dive and for spotting things like humps, boulders, or timber that will hold fish. Find the depth that the bass and bait seem to prefer, then identify structure at that depth, and you’ll have a good idea of where to fish your crankbait.
Well-tuned lures that swim straight back to you during the retrieve will perform best, and you may want to think about replacing the stock trebles with sharper premium hooks to ensure solid hookups. Stout tackle is recommended for deep cranking, with medium-action rods in the 7-foot range for making long casts and low-ratio casting reels for better cranking power. Thin fluorocarbon line in the 12-pound range will help your lure dive, but you may feel better spooled with 20-pound line for the big fish often found deep in open water.
5. Remember, the Old Stuff Still Works
Sometimes, the best part of understanding a trend is knowing when to buck it. Seth Feider was an early adopter of finesse techniques like the Neko rig and has built a successful career fishing with modern tactics. But when I asked him what will catch bass this summer, he said, “I think the old-school bass fishing is coming back—just flipping a tube, flipping a jig, throwing a spinnerbait or buzzbait.”
Feider believes that the off-shore fishing isn’t as good as it was five or six years ago because everyone has all the graphs and all the tools to find bass out there now. “There’s a population of fish that never go off-shore, and it’s getting even more so,” he says. The banks and shallows are an especially good bet in early summer on waters where rain and cool temperatures keep fish shallow, and tubes, jigs, spinnerbaits, and buzzbaits all work well. Still.