If you’ve been around largemouth bass for any length of time, you’ve come to learn and dread a term that’s often used to describe fishing during the spring and fall: “transition.”
To best understand the word, think of the way things used to be before everyone had cell phones stuck in their ear or clipped to their belt. If you wanted to get in touch with somebody, you had two phone numbers: home and work. If the party you were trying to reach was in “transition” between the home and work, you were out of luck, because nobody really knew where they were. You could leave a message or call back later, but you weren’t going to reach them in “transition”.
When you pick up your rods and reels, think about how bass might be in transition this month on Lake Wylie. Two local bass pros — Todd Auten of York, S.C., and Bryan Thrift of Shelby, N.C. — understand that “transition” fishing presents some challenges, but they can help you reap bigger rewards.
For Auten, a three-time Bassmasters Classic qualifier, March comes in with a crankbait and goes out with a jig. He suggests that the early-spring largemouth bite on Wylie is highly dependent upon weather and rainfall.
“Early March is a good time for fish to start staging on Wylie, especially if the weather starts to warm up,” he said. “For me, that’s when the crankbait bite is pretty good. I’ll start out on the secondary points near the mouths of major tributary creeks and start trying to put together a pattern. I use a custom-made bait called a ‘Brian’s Bee 6.’ It’s a shallow-running bait that gets down to about six feet and is a great search tool to cover a lot of water early in the month.”
One of Auten’s favorite places to start is Mill Creek, the northernmost tributary on the South Carolina end of the lake. The mouth of the creek is only a couple of miles from the popular and convenient Buster Boyd Bridge access area. A number of long points lead all the way out to the old creek channel, and they are good locations for staging fish.
“In addition to the crankbait, I’ll also slow-roll a spinnerbait along these secondary points,” Auten said. “I especially want to pay attention to any rocky points I find. Not only does that water warm a little quicker, but I feel like bass prefer a rocky point to stage on because they can find crawfish and other foods hiding around the rocks.”
Rainfall is another factor. Auten’s hopes are for enough rain to give the water a good stain. Not only does that contribute to bringing the water temperatures into a more comfortable range, but it provides a measure of security and helps push the fish towards the shallows.
After secondary points, Auten starts to hit boat docks with a double willow-leaf spinnerbait.
“With boat docks, you need to establish a pattern,” he said. “If the water is high and has a good stain, then I’ll key more on shallow docks over flat areas. On the other hand, if we don’t get the necessary rain and the water stays pretty clear, then I’ll try to work docks that stick out over deeper water and hope to find some cover like brushpiles or submerged rocks.”
At times, Mill Creek may turn muddy, depending on the amount of rainfall. If that happens, Auten will work his way down the lake, towards the dam. His first stop is Crowders Creek, a mile or so south of the Rt. 49 crossing at Buster Boyd Bridge.
“Crowders has plenty of long secondary points, drop-offs and creek channels” he said. “It’s also got a ton of boat docks, and that’s generally what I’m going to target if I suspect bass have moved up close to the bank. The big key is finding boat docks that have some sort of rocks around them — whether it’s natural rock, concrete, or rip-rap used to line the shoreline.”
Auten has noticed over the past few years a change in the way Wylie bass behave, and he has a hard time providing an explanation.
“Years ago, fish would move in from the deeper water and load up on the secondary points, and they’d be there a while — sometimes the rest of the month — before they moved into the shallows” he said. “Maybe it’s the clearer water or something else, but over the last few years, they’ve almost skipped the secondary spots and gone straight to the bank.”
Auten suggests that this progression may have a lot to do with water temperature and moon phase. When water temperatures are steady — somewhere between 54 to 62 degrees — and a full or new moon hits, he can count on finding them on the bank. That’s when he goes to the jig.
“I use a half-ounce Shooter jig in black and blue with a plastic Zoom Super Salty trailer in blue sapphire,” he said. “Boat docks are still my main target. I’ll skip that jig up underneath a dock and really work the first two poles. Most of the fish will be in less than five feet of water under the dock, and they like to have something to rub on for later on when they actually go into the spawn.”
While he’s working docks, Auten keeps an eye out for any piece of isolated cover that’s a little deeper than where he’s picking up bass.
“Something like a stump or shallow brushpile out from the dock is a good place to pick up a big fish — one of those big-money tournament fish,” he said.
Thrift agrees with Auten about finding bass. For the 2007 FLW Rookie of the Year, March comes in with a spoon and goes out with worm, sort of. He agrees that bass are definitely going to be moving all over Wylie’s 12,500 acres.
“Starting the first of the month, I’m still going to be keying on baitfish,” Thrift said. “The water temperatures will be somewhere in the low 40s to mid-50s, and bass will still be following around those clouds of shad looking for an easy meal. It won’t be long ’til they move up on the points, but right now, I’m going to hit them with a spoon.”
Thrift’s choice is a Lake Fork Trophy Lures Flutter Spoon. He likes the 4-inch spoon in silver with a colored scale-finish trim. He adds an additional treble hook to the split ring where he ties the bait to double his chances of a hook-up during a slash bite.
“Baitfish will stack up at the mouths of the creeks over the winter, and as March approaches, the bait starts moving into the creeks and can be found about halfway into the backs of the major feeders,” Thrift said. “I like the Flutter Spoon because it is heavy enough to throw a long way, it’s got a better wobble than an ordinary jigging spoon, and that extra action will get you more bites.”
One hot spot to catch bass schooling around bait on the North Carolina or upper end of the lake is literally a “hot spot.”
The thermal discharge from Duke Power’s steam plant is on the South Fork of the Catawba River. The discharge is on the right-hand bank, about a half-mile upstream from the Rt. 273 bridge.
“I prefer to fish the pockets around the discharge rather than the discharge itself,” Thrift said. “The surrounding pockets are shallow and get some of that warmer water, and it’s common to find bass schooling in water between four and 10 feet deep and see them busting in the back of the pockets.”
When those conditions exist, Thrift will change to a half-ounce, double willow-leaf spinnerbait made by Shooter Lures, which is owned by his good friend and occasional tournament partner, Louie Hull.
Thrift said the busting fish are seldom the good ones he’s after, and he believes the bigger fish will often roam below and behind the schoolies, feasting on their work.
Like Auten, Thrift will move to secondary points as the weather warms and bass move from shadowing bait to holding on long points. He also agrees that the bass rarely stage for long on Wylie.
“If we have a good wet season, the water will come up and get some stain to it, and they’ll head in,” he said. “In addition to the spinnerbait, I rely on a jerkbait or a jig-and-trailer combo. I want to cover a lot of ground, because I believe the bigger fish move in first, and those are the ones I want to find.”
Thrift said fish will average around four pounds when the bite is really on and three pounds when it’s slower. Some of his key areas include Paw Creek, Little Paw Creek, Whithers Cove and the portion of the South Fork not related to the hot hole.
“A lot of folks find this hard to believe, but if we have a warm spring, there will be fish on the beds by the last week of March,” Thrift said. “Two years ago, I finished second in a Bass Federation tournament held the last week of March, and the fish were all over the beds.”
Thrift also relies on either the full moon or the new moon to move fish to the beds in late March. When they arrive his bait of choice is a Stinger, a Senko-type soft plastic bait made by Damiki.
“In late March, I’m fishing the deeper poles on boat docks and any submerged stumps I can find in the backs of pockets on these creeks,” Thrift said. “If the water is clear, I like a natural color like green pumpkin or watermelon, and if it’s stained I’ll use something dark like a black or black-and-red.”
Either way, late March is Thrift’s favorite time to be on Wylie.
“The new moon or full moon late in the month is some of the best largemouth bass fishing you’ll have on Lake Wylie.” he said.