Going Deep in the Name of Bass Research

kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and learn about their spawning behavior in the spring
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and le
By Kirk Deeter
Photos by Mike Johnson I am a 225-pound largemouth bass, guarding a bed on the edge of Lake Jennings. Looking up through 10 feet of slightly hazy water, I see the silhouette of a boat. From its deck, John Kerr, one of the premier big-bass chasers in America, pitches a white jig and lets it settle on the lake bottom 3 feet in front of me. He gives it an annoying twitch. I watch the bait shake and shimmy for another 20 seconds. Finally, a small male bass finning nearby cannot stand the provocation anymore; he angles over and crushes the bait. "He couldn't help himself," I say after resurfacing and pulling the mask onto my forehead. "If you'd wiggled that thing any longer, I'd have bit it myself." Kerr smiles and releases the fish he just caught. In yet another "be the fish" scuba experiment (see fieldandstream.com/troutresearch), we prowled the bottom of one of the classic trophy bass lakes near San Diego. Our goal was to watch largemouth bass in spawn and postspawn modes to pinpoint some practical lessons for better fishing. Here's what we learned.
Mike Johnson
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and learn about their spawning behavior in the spring
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and le
(1) Never Block the Escape Route
I was surprised by how closely the fish let me approach underwater, especially the male bass guarding beds. As I dove among them, I noticed that surface shadows and motion disturbed the larger females somewhat. But they went into panic mode quickly when I, or the boat above, cut off either the male's or the female's escape route from the shallow bed to deep water. Every time I intentionally cut off this exit path, the bass left the area, even when I was several feet away. If I approached from the side, I could swim to within arm's reach. The lesson: Block the escape route and your chances of hookup decrease exponentially.
Mike Johnson
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and learn about their spawning behavior in the spring
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and le
(2) The Male Is the Telltale
In the spawn situation, the male (which is the smaller fish) makes and guards the bed. The larger female typically lurks at the perimeter, not far away, and usually in deeper water. Interestingly, the male fish tends to indicate the position of the female as he guards the bed, pointing to her like a weather vane. Observing them as I drifted into view from a distance, I saw that until the males became preoccupied with my swimming (very close), they consistently gave away the females' locations. If I wanted to find a female, I just looked at the tip of the male's nose and scanned a trajectory about 20 feet out. Usually she was right there. The lesson: When you see one fish on the bed and cannot see the other, but suspect "mama" fish is nearby, assume that he's looking right at her.
Mike Johnson
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and learn about their spawning behavior in the spring
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and le
(3) Females Are Smarter
As if I were telling you something you did not already know (or your wife wouldn't tell you): The female bass is wary. The male bass is stupid. Diving close to the latter was a piece of cake; getting near the former was much trickier. I had to move slower, more deliberately. Understand that if you hook and catch the male bass, the female partner will not eat. You might as well write her off. Catch the female first, however, and the male will still eat. In fact, you can catch him two or three times in a row; he won't quit. The lesson: Ladies first. Try to catch the female before the male. That might not necessarily mean casting at the female first; see No. 4.
Mike Johnson
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and learn about their spawning behavior in the spring
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and le
(4) Tease Small to Catch Big
If you're trying to catch the larger, female fish, you generally must trigger the male before she'll get involved. He is the primary guardian, so you need to get him worked up. Kerr showed me how from the boat deck. Throw a smaller bait to agitate the male, and let him carry it away a few times without setting the hook. When you see the female showing some interest, toss a larger bait on the bed, and she'll often nab it. The lesson: It's a tricky game to sort through male fish without hooking them, but it is key to targeting the trophy-size spawning bass.
Mike Johnson
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and learn about their spawning behavior in the spring
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and le
(5) Lure Color Matters to the Angler
You are trying to elicit a response strike when bass are spawning. Lure color is not a factor, other than to help you see and manipulate the bait. At other times of the year, especially well after the spawn, color can be paramount to effectively matching forage. But now, you simply want to anger the fish. Sitting on the bottom as Kerr teased and frustrated a male bass with a white jig, I thought, Man, if they had fists, they would punch the bait. But they don't, so they brush it, bump it, puff on it, and ultimately eat it. And that's exactly what this fish did. The lesson: Your ability to watch your bait is key to knowing when and when not to set the hook, so let that dictate color choices as you fish the spawn.
Mike Johnson
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and learn about their spawning behavior in the spring
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and le
(6) Find the Sweet Spot
There is a "sweet spot" on the spawn bed¿¿¿¿¿-¿it might be a certain rock, or crevice, or sandy spot¿¿¿¿¿-¿that, when you hit it with a lure, sets the male bass off, almost as if the fish were saying, Okay, buddy, this time you've gone too far. We've known about sweet spots on spawn beds for some time, but I had a chance to view from underneath how hitting the sweet spot triggered the response strike, time after time, from one bed to another. The female on the perimeter also has a sweet spot, which is much trickier to pinpoint, but if you get the bait in that zone, you will prompt a similar response. When I violated what I figured to be this perimeter sweet spot, I discovered that even the females came closer and were more investigative and defensive, and less prone to scatter. The lesson: Cover different spots on the bed (and off) with different casts, and learn to find the sweet spot to elicit strikes.
Mike Johnson
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and learn about their spawning behavior in the spring
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and le
From left to right: John Kerr, Kevin Norlin, Jordy Kerr, and the author on the dock at Lake Jennings. (7) Bass Are Like Mood Rings
Kerr, his son Jordy, and his friend Kevin Norlin are all extremely proficient at sight fishing for large bass. They say they know when a fish is a "player" and when it is not, by looks alone. The females, in particular, exhibit different shades during the spawn: "watermelon" green with checkered sides means the actively spawning fish is defensive yet preoccupied; grayish with a "haze" is a good guard-mode color; almost black, with a pronounced white belly, indicates anger¿¿¿¿¿-¿see that, and the fish is a biter; "lima bean" green is a sign of a docile, spent fish; and brown fish are cruisers and eaters, though tougher to catch because they're no longer glued to the bed. In scuba gear, I could get closer to the gray and dark fish, whereas the browns and greens were warier. The lesson: Understand that these color phases also vary from location to location, but if you learn to recognize them, you can better target your -efforts and bait choices.
Mike Johnson
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and learn about their spawning behavior in the spring
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and le
(8) Know Where to Look to Spot Fish
I don't care what type of sight fishing you are engaged in¿¿¿¿¿-¿for trout, bonefish, or bass¿¿¿¿¿-¿any pro or guide will tell you that the secret to spotting fish is knowing where to fix your attention. To find bass, find good spawning habitat. Bass want structure with a backdrop (a rock, a log, a man-made object like a barrel or a pipe). With a backdrop, the male has to guard 180 degrees, not 360 degrees. Lastly, remember that the steeper the incline of the lake bottom, the less likely there will be a bed. The lesson: When you're spotting fish, focus on structure in the shallows.
Mike Johnson
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and learn about their spawning behavior in the spring
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and le
(9) Bigger Fish Like Deeper Water
The bigger bass were on deeper beds, we noticed. Some that were not visible from the boat were easy to spot, on beds, when I dove down as far as 20 feet. How deep can bass spawn? That depends, of course, on clarity and light penetration. In milky water, with less light penetration, the fish move shallower to facilitate the spawn. In clear Lake Jennings, we consistently observed that the largest spawning fish tended to set up shop as deep as possible, which was most often between 10 and 15 feet deep. The lesson: In clear water, look for deep spawning beds. Use a depthfinder to locate deeper plateaus, and make a mental catalog of structure spots.
Mike Johnson
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and learn about their spawning behavior in the spring
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and le
(10) A Hooked Fish Moves to Cover
When a bass eats a bait, nine times out of 10 its first and most explosive move will be toward the nearest adjacent cover¿¿¿¿¿-¿a submerged tree, a rock, etc. Not deep water, not away from the re-sis-tance on the line, but directly to the closest cover. This is something the angler must factor in when planning the approach and making the first cast. If you make note of that adjacent cover in the sight-fishing scenario, you will know exactly where that bass is going to try to flee. Be ready to put pressure on the fish immediately. The lesson: Sometimes, the odds are stacked against you. Pros like Kerr will pass on a heavily bunkered bass in the tournament setting to avoid a time-consuming tangle.
Mike Johnson
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and learn about their spawning behavior in the spring
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and le
No matter how early or late bass spawn, they must protect their eggs and fry from marauding schools of bluegills, like this one here, caught hunting the shallows by photographer Mike Johnson. (11) The Biggest Bass Spawn Early and Late
For whatever reason, the largest trophy bass (15-plus pounds) tend to be the very first or very last spawners, according to Kerr's observations. Early spawners do their thing when water temperatures first hit the low 60s, especially around the full moon phase. Late March to early April is prime in many areas of the country (see "Stages of the Spawn"). Late spawners get down to business in mid to late May. We hit the middle window, and while we saw plenty of 5-pound-plus fish around beds during our dives, the several double-digit fish we saw were cruising around cover, not near beds. The lesson: If size matters, fish early or late in the spawn cycle¿¿¿¿¿-¿late March, and late May, in most places.
Mike Johnson
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and learn about their spawning behavior in the spring
kirk deeter goes scuba diving underwater with largemouth bass during the spawn while they're on beds to see what they eat and le
(12) Postspawn Females Will Pair
In several cases, we noticed that female bass, clearly in the postspawn phase, were paired together as they hunted, usually on points, near dense thickets of submerged cover, and in deeper water or around dropoffs. My best underwater encounters with large female bass happened when I was swimming in cover and found pairs lurking in ambush mode. The lesson: As you start targeting postspawn fish, especially -females, remember that where there is one, there are often two.
Mike Johnson