“Really, this time of year — the late post spawn early summer timeframe — bass have been done spawning and off the beds for a while, but they don’t run to the structure and deep water like their brothers and sisters. I think they stay around for the shad spawns and the bluegill spawns. The shad will get up on the bank early and then mid-day move out to that 6- to 15-foot zone and suspend and that causes bass to hang out in those zones around vertical cover.”
As you go on the prowl for bass this time of year on lakes with standing timber, bridge pilings, dock posts and other forms of vertical cover, you’ll see those bands of bait and bass suspending on your electronics around those vertical structures. But fishing vertical cover like docks on lakes covered in docks or timber on lakes covered in timber can seem like finding a needle in a stack of needles.
Bassmaster Elite Series pro James Niggemeyer is also a guide on Lake Fork and as well as an instructional coach for anglers wanting to learn to find bass like a pro. He’s spent countless hours on Lake Fork learning to catch bass from the maze of standing timber and actually looks forward to this season every year.
“May and June have always been strong months for me targeting bass around vertical cover,” Niggemeyer said. “I always look forward to this bite. A lot of guys look forward to the shad spawn this time of year, but I like when they come out and stay in the timber. And it’s funny because the bass in that timber always seem healthier to me. They are thick, fattening up from so much feeding. They are the aggressive ones that stayed behind to feed before going to structure.”
On the surface a field of timber looks the same. But under the surface there are contours carved by ditches, points, creek channels, humps and more. Those contours or irregularities create feeding zones and places for bait to congregate. Then when timber is added to the mix, you have a great feeding and subsequent bass catching area.
Niggemeyer targets more main lake stuff this time of the year. Sometimes the mouths of bays can be good as can further back in the larger, deeper bays. But as a general rule, Niggemeyer finds more irregularities and features in the main lake that hold better concentrations of bigger bass. A lot of the irregularities occur on main-lake banks.
Once he finds some nice contour changes in an area like the side of a creek channel point or a hump, he hunts with his electronics for bait. Bait, vertical cover and contours mean it’s time to break out your tools and determine upon which you can build.
Niggemeyer likes a variety of baits when he finds bass in an area, but starts with a few staples to determine if they are present.
“I really like shallow to medium running crankbaits this time of year,” Niggemeyer said. “Before square bills were en vogue, I’d use a Strike King Series 3 or sometimes Series 5 when they got out on the ends of that 15-foot zone. But I’ve also had tremendous success with a Strike King Jig. I really like the new Hack Attack Heavy Cover jig for fishing around timber in 1/2 to 3/4 ounce sizes. I will use a Strike King Rage Craw with the jig because you’re mimicking baitfish and small bluegill and that movement in the trailer is key.”
The key to Niggemeyer’s presentation on vertical cover is getting the bass to react. Sometimes the bass are up high in the water column and you can get them to react easily. Other times they are down in the bigger root systems on standing timber and you’ve got to get down to them and tease them more. In fact sometimes, his specific pattern becomes finding the trees on contours with the gnarly root systems.
If the water has some stain or color, a crankbait can be very effective but he’s found over the years that in clear water the crankbait looses some effectiveness and he often does very well with finesse baits like drop shots and shaky heads. A little wind certainly improves the crankbait bite as well.The clearer the water, the faster he wants his baits moving. He’ll go up to a 3/4 ounce jig so that it shoots down past the tree trunk and hop it away. A lot of the time the bass has the jig before it ever hits bottom. If not he’ll hop it hard once or twice and then pitch to the next tree. Again he’s looking for those feeding bass to clue him in to a productive area and then he can hunker down and pick it apart with a variety of techniques.
But when he’s cranking he either likes a square bill or a medium running crankbait. And he starts by targeting the shade portions.
“I prefer the 10-2 time of the day this time of year because it can really put the bass in predictable places on each tree,” he said. “I’m going to cast shallow and bring it out to deeper water on the contours. I want the bait to come across the land mass and then out over open water where the shad may be suspending. Because the bass are targeting the shad there are times where I’m not casting to the trees at all but rather the shad between the trees. ”
When Niggemeyer doesn’t see shad present, he fishes a lot faster, hitting a lot more pieces of vertical cover in short order. When he finds an area with a bass or bait, he slows down and works his targets from a lot of different angles and casts between the targets a lot more . He has also learned that a stop and go retrieve with a crankbait can be a lot better around timber, pilings and other vertical cover. It’s the stops, twitches and variations that trigger the bass relating to vertical cover.
His tackle is pretty straight forward. He likes an old St. Croix Premier Glass rod for cranking and an Ardent XS 1000 reel spooled with 12-pound Gamma fluorocarbon line for the Series 3 crankbait and a heavier 14-17 pound line for the square bill or the deeper Series 5 bait to keep it up out of the roots or nearer to the surface. For the jig he likes the St. Croix Legend Tournament Punching Rod with an Ardent Edge reel with the 7.2:1 gear ratio to take up line fast for not only hooking aggressive feeders but also making more presentations in a day. He will use 20-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon with the jig around vertical cover for its added abrasion resistance.
As for lure choices, he likes darker color in dirtier water and more natural colors in clear water. He’ll use green pumpkin jigs with Watermelon red Rage Craws to make the profile a little more translucent in clear water.
The key is not just the vertical cover, but where the vertical cover is located. Coming out of bays out to the main lake along irregularities in the contours will put you around more fish. Find baitfish in that 6-15 foot zone and hit your targets from multiple angles to improve your bass fishing for these vertically challenged fish.