School is back in session, and the lesson anglers learn through the summer is first light is prime time to catch black bass busting the surface looking for a meal.
Black bass and white bass, too, feed in raucous, splashing commotion as night turns to day at Beaver Lake and other reservoirs across the Ozarks. Schools of bass prowl the open water chasing and gulping down threadfin shad. These small shad are a primary food that all game fish eat.
Black bass, white bass
All three species of black bass — largemouth, smallmouth and spotted — inhabit Beaver Lake. Length limit on largemouth and smallmouth bass is 15 inches or longer. There is no length limit on spotted bass. Daily limit is six black bass.
There is no length limit or daily limit on white bass.
Source: Staff report
Duane Culmer searches the coves and creek arms at Beaver Lake in the Rocky Branch area near his home during summer and into autumn. He’s welcomed a parade of bass into his boat during summer’s hottest days and still catches a few as autumn nears and the water cools.
Beaver Lake was calm on a recent dark and early Monday morning when Culmer steered his boat, with running lights on, toward the mouth of a creek arm near Rocky Branch park. Dawn would break soon as Culmer shut down his outboard.
Nary a school of fish was around, so Culmer cast his Zara Spook top-water plug toward the bank, hoping to catch a solitary bass patrolling the gravel shore. Then came the splish-splash sound of surfacing fish that’s a symphony to first-light anglers.
Trouble was, the ruckus was in open water beyond casting range.
“It’s no use chasing them with the trolling motor because they’ll go deep before you get to them,” he said.
Culmer stayed put, playing the waiting game. Perseverance paid when commotion erupted 30 yards from his boat. He fired a cast and his Zara Spook splashed down. A spotted bass nabbed it, then Culmer let out a chuckle winching in the eight-inch fish.
“He’s a little guy. He’s typical. Most of these schooling fish are small, but now and then you get a good one. I’ve caught largemouth bass to 3 pounds out of a school, but that’s unusual.”
Activity was sporadic through the magic hour of first-light. A splash here and a swirl there meant bass were on the move. Culmer managed a couple more spunky little ones before a 14-inch largemouth bass chomped down on his Zara Spook.
He kept up his surface attack while his buddy in the back of the boat fished deeper with a swim bait, working the lure a couple feet deep through the school of bait and bass. Nothing. They’d only hit on the surface.
Sunup arrived with a blinding glare like a million-watt bulb in the absolutely clear sky. Culmer pulled down his hat brim and slipped on some sporty sunglasses. Sunrise normally spells the end of schooling activity, Culmer testified, but fish kept surfacing.
When a school came up near the boat, it was easy to see the shad they were after. These were tiny threadfin shad the size of a fingernail that had hatched only recently. Adult threadfin shad can be three or four inches long.
Bass chasing itsy bitsy shad can be tough to catch with a top-water lure that’s bigger than the shad. Jon Stein, area fisheries biologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, knows from experience.
“Those little shad hatched in June,” Stein said the next day. “That can be frustrating to an angler throwing a Zara Spook and nothing hits it.”
Matching the hatch is a mantra of fly fishing for trout, and it applies to schooling bass as well. A better lure might be a small spoon or eighth-ounce crappie jig. Little top-water lures like a Tiny Torpedo might get finicky fish to bite.
One trick is to tie a crappie jig on a dropper line tied to the rear hook of a top-water lure. The top-water lure does a dance on the surface while the jig wiggles a foot deeper.
Schools of fish might surface anywhere on Beaver Lake at any time of day, but the catching spotlight shines brightest at first light.
Flip Putthoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sports on 09/18/2018