Black crappie appear first on the spawning grounds in late February, and largemouth bass get in the mood shortly thereafter, drawing the attention of fishermen far and near. Even though some move shallow as early as February, April marks the peak of spring bass fishing on Lake Moultrie.
The smaller of the two Santee Cooper lakes, Moultrie offers anglers more than 60,000 acres, but spring conditions drive bass into less than 10 percent of its total area, concentrating them in the super shallows of the famed spawning grounds. Big females move into the shallows to deposit thousands of eggs into personalized craters created by the males a few days earlier. Fortunately for anglers, bass prefer to fan their beds in waters shallow enough to be visible from the casting decks of bass boats.
Guide Rob Thames of Thames Bass Fishing Adventures believes that rising water temperatures are the primary key for the timing of the spawn.
"I've seen bass on the bed with the water in the upper 50s, but I really get serious about sight-fishing when the water temperature reaches 62 or 63 degrees," said Thames (803-309-6320).
Water temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees are typical in April on Lake Moultrie, but not all bass spawn at the same time.
"From February to May, there will be a revolving door of bass in different stages of the spawn in the shallows and in the staging areas," Thames said.
Water temperature and photoperiod (the amount of sunlight in a 24-hour period) play a vital role in the timing of the spawn, but the moon fine tunes bass activities from 238 million miles away. The full moon and new moon phases get fish tuned in to the spawn.
Kevin Davis, who owns and guides out of Black's Camp on Lake Moultrie has a long history of fishing Santee Cooper's lakes for just about every species. While many anglers visit his camp to catch crappie and catfish, Davis almost has big largemouths on a string. He prefers the full moon over the new moon but will fish both periods each month during the spring in 7-day cycles.
"Ideally, we target bedding bass three days before the moon peak and three days afterwards," said Davis (843-753-2231). "(That) allows us to target the buck bass making the beds and guarding the nest. The day of the (new or full) moon is usually the best time to catch the larger females dropping eggs.
Even though males guard the eggs from predation, female bass will not be too far away from the nest. Davis likes to catch the male first, then the female.
"In order to catch the much-larger females, we catch the buck bass off the bed and put him in the livewell," he said. "Then, the females will show up angry and ready to take almost any lure posing a threat to her resting eggs."
After catching both fish, Davis will return them to the water unharmed so they can return to their duties protecting the bed.
Another key is knowing the timing of the spawn as it relates to different areas of the lake. Davis hones in on spawners in familiar places in the spring, beginning with blackwater ponds on the northern side of Moultrie.
"Bass love to spawn in the shallow, blackwater ponds found in coves off the big water," Davis said. "Bass don't like to lay eggs in rough water, and they seem to prefer the dense vegetation and sandy bottom of the blackwater ponds."
Blacks Camp is located in Black's Cove, one of Davis' favorite places to catch early spawners as the water warms. Northern coves will get more direct sunlight and warm up more quickly.
"Bass will bed in water two to three feet deep but can even be found in water so shallow their dorsal fins are exposed," he said.
Shallow water is critical for the fish and for the angler. Feeding is not a priority for bass when they're spawning, but strategic coercion can be rewarding.
"Visibility is all-important. You really need to be able to see the fish and the bed clearly to catch the fish," Davis said.
Clear water is helpful and usually is a common component to the blackwater ponds and coves in the extreme shallow areas of the lake. As the water continues to warm, bass begin spawning heavily in other shallow regions of the lake, in wind-protected areas with adequate cover and a sandy bottom.
"The sandy bottoms in The Hatchery's stump fields, The Duck Pond, and The Trash Dump are ideal spots to find bedding bass in spring," Davis said.
Shallow water in spawning areas is generally packed with cypress trees, stumps and logs and will be generously covered with native and non-native aquatic vegetation, including hydrilla, duckweed, water hyacinth, waterlily, alligator weed and pond weed. The over-abundance of structure and vegetation provides bass with cover, but offers anglers with protection upon entering these fish's comfort zone.
The actual beds resemble craters and are anywhere from two to five feet across, cleaned of any rooted vegetation and quite easy to spot from a distance. Fish won't feed while hovering over their saucer-shaped beds, but they can be enticed to strike a lure out of maternal or paternal aggression, guarding their nest from pesky predators.
Davis prefers high-visible lure choices that represent a threat to their vulnerable eggs.
"It's a game of sight. You must be able to see the lure disappear on the strike. I choose a heavy (1-ounce) white jig or lizard with a crawfish or worm-shaped trailer," he said. "Bottom line, you must disturb the bed in the right spot with a large, 'threatening' lure."
When Davis tosses a jig into a bass bed, he allows it to settle on the cleanest part and waits for the bass's natural instinct to take over. If placed on top of the eggs, bass will not hesitate to inhale the threatening critter. However, some bass my be difficult to coerce into taking the lure. Repeated presentations to the same fish will eventually draw a strike or possibly cause the fish to flee.
Fishermen will be rewarded for their patience and perseverance. Thames repeatedly delivers his lure into the bed and watches for the fish to quickly spin around and nose down toward it. At that point, he'll twitch the lure, making it quiver just the least bit, but that's enough to typically provoke a strike.
As Davis mentioned, clear water helps catch spawners, but it is a double-edged sword, allowing fish to see fishermen just as easily. In a foot or two of water, a bass can easily look up, see and hear a boat plowing through the waterlilies to get within accurate casting distance. A stealthy approach is important, and anglers should try to keep their distance in order to catch bedding bass.
Sun and cloud cover pose as obstacles for seeing the beds before getting close enough to disturb the occupants. Thames uses a "search lure" to locate bedding bass before he gets close enough to spook the fish.
"I'll throw a Cold Steel Last Hop Frog out in front of the boat. Instead of blowing up the frog, a bass will wake up behind the bait in an effort to chase it out of the area," Thames said.
Lures for sight-fishing should be soft-plastics including creature baits, lizards, crawfish and worms, rigged Texas-style or fished as a trailer behind a jig. Colors should be bright enough to see, and a combination of bright colors will often help provoke a strike.
As mentioned before, the playing field among the bedding fish is full of obstructions and strong tackle is required. But line must be invisible beneath the surface for concealment, as well. Davis and Thames prefer stiff, medium-heavy 6½- to 7-foot All-Star rods with flexible tips to hoist the fish out of the cover, and Abu Garcia baitcasting reels with high gear ratios spooled with 14- to 17-pound fluorocarbon. They will often tie in a leader of three to four feet to the line on the reel to get the best of both worlds.