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Smallmouth bass: the spawn is on

River braids, like this one on the Tioughnioga River, can make for great spawning habitat. They offer the right depth conditions (3 to 5 feet), protection from high flows, cool water, and cover.
River braids, like this one on the Tioughnioga River, can make for great spawning habitat. They offer the right depth conditions (3 to 5 feet), protection from high flows, cool water, and cover.
Bob Bruns

For serious warm water fly anglers, the spawning habits of smallmouth bass are very important. Being able to key in on these terrific gamefish before they spawn - a period known as "pre-spawn" - can give a fly angler some of their largest bass of the year. The reason: after spending winter and early spring not eating much, these fish sense warming temps and feed up voraciously to be able to face the rigors of spawning.

Each spring, smallmouth will stage near prime spawning habitat. In general, once water temps creep into the 50's, bass will move from their deep winter holding lies to the shallows. They may even move back and forth, looking for a prime nesting site, then retreating to deeper water to rest and feed. As temps continue to rise, males will actually select and prepare the nest. This "pre-spawn" period is a great time to catch many bass eager to feed up.

Shallow bays, river braids, and feeder creeks offer good habitat for spawning smallmouth. See the slideshow for examples. Water depths of 3 to 5 feet are prime, although shallower and deeper areas can also hold spawning sites. In fact, of over a dozen such locations recently scouted on the Tioughnioga River, most were in water of 2 feet. Water temps on that sunny day were in the 60 - 62 degree range, flows were good, and half a dozen bass were seen patrolling and/or guarding their nests. Fry were also seen around a number of the nest sites.

Unfortunately, high spring flows can greatly impact angler accessibility. After a long snowy winter, like this past one, rivers are often high and unwadeable / unfishable for pre-spawn. The last two years were exceptions, where good spawning habitat on even the big Susquehanna was available to anglers. Once bass are on the beds, as they are now, fishing changes. Some anglers fish bass on the beds and certainly these fish are quite wary, but vulnerable. Anything cast into the area of a nest is likely attacked or moved. But most anglers prefer to leave spawning fish alone - a wise move for those looking for good bass fishing in the future.

The male bass does more than typical 'fatherly' duties. Besides selecting and building the spawning bed and then participating in the spawn, males hang around and guard the nest during post-spawn. They will linger and protect the fry after they hatch. On the day the slideshow pictures were taken, several bass were actively guarding their offspring. The females leave the nest after spawn, retreating to deeper waters to recuperate. The males then do the same. And for roughly two weeks after the spawn and post spawn guarding duties, bass will get 'lockjaw'. Though they can be caught, this time-frame is often not very productive.

So what's a bass angler to do when the spawn / post spawn is upon us? Give bass a rest when they are seen on the beds. Focus more on trout fishing during this time and / or scout out different waters, keeping in mind that spawning will occur at different times dependent on conditions. Where beds are vacant, wait about two weeks and then return to try fishing once again. Once bass have had ample recuperation time, they will begin to feed. And this part of early summer can be a very productive time to fly fish for them.