Cody Hahner and Joel Nelson reveal strategies for finding and catching smallmouth and largemouth bass once they leave the beds
There’s plenty to love about northern bass coming off a spawn. The weather is invariably nicer than it has been, with some built-in stability to most frontal patterns. As temps gradually warm, weed beds become more defined, young-of-year bait species hatch, and that lake is once again alive from top to bottom – shore to shore. But this is where things can get confusing for many bass anglers. Fish can be everywhere, scattered in great number and not always as predictably loaded up in their frequent haunts. Your shoreline milk-run might be a thing of the past, so it’s time to build a new list of spots with a few key post-spawn thoughts in mind.
As a Bassmaster Elite pro, Wausau, Wisconsin native Cody Hahner makes it his business to figure the ins and outs of bass behavior after the spawn – from north to south. Back home, Cody spends time tackling both brown and green bass, noting how each reacts differently to everything from pressure to general schooling patterns. “They’ve got totally different brains between them,” Hahner says. “I can think of lakes where both are common and you just find them in different places, doing different things, and moving later at different times.” That requires some different processing, depending on where you fish and for which species.
Hahner sets up the general mood of brown bass as spawning activity starts to fade. “So, you’re fishing bass that don’t just drop eggs and sprint for the depths. These fish hang,” says Cody. “The trick is that they’re not super hungry. They linger but are docile. They eat, but not aggressively.” Hahner uses that as an indicator for how he fishes them, especially when targeting giant smallies, a personal quest for him when hunting through the shallows. “This isn’t the time for plowing through spots, especially in clear water,” he mentions.
Instead, he hangs back, using his eyes more than his trolling motor, all in the effort to fine-tune his shallow-water observational skills. “Probably the best thing you can do for fishing this time of the year is to wear a pair of high-end polarized glasses,” says Hahner. Noting that this advice cuts against the grain in a world of 360-degree viewing and other real-time electronics work, Hahner stands by his statement. “Even though using your eyeballs is pretty old school, it’s tough to notice the detail on electronics that your eyes can to find a pattern that fish are holding to.”
Hahner is talking about small differences that mean a big deal when it comes to smallies, and it’s not always fish he’s looking for. “You have to train your eyes to look for any anomaly. A big boulder, patch of sand in mud, or rock-to-gravel transitions. So often the biggest fish I catch are the ones I never see. Instead, I see something that sticks out and just looks fishy.” Says Hahner. What’s “fishy” can change from lake to lake, and day to day, making it perfect for your eyes and brain to process rather than static or even dynamic images on a graph. “It’s a lost art, but it’s rewarding to spot something that looks like it would hold fish, then test that theory with a cast,” says Hahner.
Once you’re in a target-rich environment, it’s simply a matter of which bait to throw. For Hahner, that usually starts and ends with a simple hair jig. “The best part about hair is that on top of just being a flat ‘bite-getter,’ it’s just so versatile. It’s finesse, it’s a search bait, and it’s a catch-bait all in one,” he adds. He also notes that when the hair jig bite is on, it’s really on. “You won’t just catch one or a few of them. You’ll catch all of them.”
Hahner strings 8-pound nano-type braid with a 6-pound fluoro leader on a 7’6” St. Croix Legend Elite (ES76MLXF) for most of his Great Lakes smallmouth bass fishing. “That rod just loads up and bombs a hair jig of almost any size. When you need distance, that’s the rod for it,” says Hahner. Lightweight 2500-series reels like a Daiwa Tatula won’t overweight the setup, and will help aid casting distance, too. For inland waters, Hahner opts for the same rod in a 7’ setup (ES70MLXF), noting that it too handles a hair jig well when extreme distance isn’t a major factor.
For the green bass, Hahner notes, “largies are lazier.” He continues, “if you know where largemouths bedded, it’s safe to assume that they won’t be far away. Maybe a nearby dock, dense weed flat, or any decent cover nearby.” Hahner also notes that largemouths aren’t the roamers that smallies can be. “You won’t see a largie just cruising a shallow rock bar, they seem to hole up a bit more,” he says. That means you’re targeting efforts more towards specific locations. Where they are, they really are, but that also means you may go long stretches with search baits in the hunt without making contact.
That’s why Hahner prefers a swim jig in almost all circumstances for green bass past Memorial Day. “The water gets busy, and boat traffic can push some fish around. Pressure moves fish, so you’ve got to have a versatile presentation that covers water,” says Hahner. It’s hard to fish a swim jig wrong, and you can use it to target a variety of depth ranges, all while remaining relatively snag-free in heavy cover and developing weed growth. For shallower lakes and target zones, he bulks up the offering with a craw-style trailer, and for away-from-the-bank applications in deeper water, a simple boot tail is added for thump and attraction.
Hahner is a big fan of the St. Croix Mojo Bass casting rod in a 7’1” medium-heavy power, fast action (MJC71MHF) for this style of fishing, noting, “you need a rod here that’ll load a touch slower than the extra-fast actions St. Croix is so well known for.” That gives Hahner a little more loft on the casts and allows bass to fully engulf that bait for better hookups. Spool up a quality braid and fluoro combination like Daiwa J-Braid and J-Fluoro in 30- and 14-pound respectively, and pair with a Daiwa Tatula SV for smooth, backlash-free casting.
Sometimes, the best post-spawn bassing can be an incidental conquest, as described by talented multi-species angler and fishing media personality Joel Nelson. “After Memorial Day, there’s a two-week window here in Minnesota I like to call the June boom. It’s hard to do wrong for most species, including smallmouth and largemouth when you’re covering water,” says Nelson. “This time of year is too good to marry myself to one kind of fish, but I love targeting both brown and especially green bass when the cottonwood seed is flying. In most of my waters, that’s a great indicator for topwater and faster subsurface presentations.”
Poppers are a mainstay in the shallows coming out of post-spawn in northern lakes for smallies, but also work well in the river backwaters along the Mississippi that Nelson fishes for largemouth. “It’s such a double-threat kind of offering. When I’m after largemouth and fish are blowing up, I go to a buzzbait primarily – especially in weeds. I fish them like a topwater frog without the pause and fish really seek it out,” says Nelson. He loves the St. Croix Mojo Bass series here, too, pairing an MJC68MXF with 20-pound or even heavier Daiwa J-Braid x8 on a Tatula LT series to do most of the heavy lifting.
In windier situations or on larger water, Nelson is a big fan of the search power of ChatterBaits. “There are days when topwater is how you want to catch them, but ChatterBaits like the Jackhammer do all the heavy lifting,” offers Nelson. The legendary Z-Man bait is a standard among pros because it’s widely recognized as a fine-tuned version of other less-effective imitations that simply catches more fish. In river environments for smallmouth, Nelson prefers a lighter ChatterBait Mini that offers a slightly smaller profile in reduced-weight options that better fit shallow backwater river environments. He fishes them on Cody Hahner’s swim jig setup, a St. Croix Mojo Bass MJC71MHF that can throw these baits well with necessary heft for bass around heavy weeds and other cover.
Being a multi-species guy, Nelson is always poking around on deep weed lines where he finds most of his bigger fish. “A deep cabbage or coontail edge is where I’m always looking for walleyes, and I tend to find great pods of largemouth this way, especially as we progress past the first few weeks post-spawn,” says Nelson. “That’s where it’s really tough to beat a jig worm pitched to edges, pockets, and turns.”
Nelson pairs a Northland Deep-Vee jig with a Z-Man Finesse TRD in any contrasting color, opting for natural colors in most clear northern systems to extract big largemouth that are setting up for summer. “When bass are giving me fits as I try to target other species, I stop fighting it. I string up a jig worm and drop it along edges, shaking it when I need to, but most often they hit it almost immediately,” offers Nelson.
Nelson prefers spinning tackle to get on this bite, opting for any St. Croix Rod offering in 6’8” with medium power and an extra-fast action. “You can go up and down their lineup, from Premier, to Avid, Mojo Bass and well beyond, finding a great jig-worm rod at an incredible price. They’re actually many of the same rods I use to pitch at light-biting walleyes,” says Nelson. For these rods, he locks in any of the Daiwa 2500-series spinning reels that match the rod blank quite nicely. Daiwa J-Braid x8 in 20-pound with a 10-pound J-Fluoro leader offers the jig worm in a very lifelike manner while keeping fish honest in extremely clear, northern environments. “Again, it’s the same setup I’m using for most of my walleye pitching,” says Nelson.
Like most anglers, Nelson loves the visual casting cues the shallows give him, opting first for a pepper-the-bank approach. “If I can get them on topwater shallow first thing in the morning, it’s already been a good day. Typically, though, as the day wears on, I’m throwing that ChatterBait and eventually posting up on a deep weed line and jigging it. Those three options – topwater, ChatterBaits, and a jig worm can catch post-spawn largemouth just about anywhere I’m convinced,” says Nelson. “It’s a time of year to fish fast unless the fish tell you differently. There’s something going on somewhere, so I don’t hole up and work any area too long unless it’s proving it has fish.”
At times, it’s hard to know when the post-spawn pattern has ended and full-on summer has begun, but water temperatures can be your cue to start looking deeper. Beds will be abandoned and as fish push further from them, the shallow bites start to fade. Following fish in that progression then requires a gradual adaptation in presentation, but like Hahner and Nelson both note, there can be no better time to be on the water. Be versatile, store some of these patterns away, and get ready for some of the best bass-fishing of the year.