By Dustin Wilks
Special to BassFan

(Editor's note: "Catching Bass with Dustin Wilks" airs four times per week on the Sportsman Channel – 6 a.m. Tuesday, 11 a.m. Wednesday, 10 a.m. Sunday and 4:30 a.m. Monday (all times EST). The six-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier writes about various aspects of the sport in these periodic submissions.)

Bass anglers in the South eagerly await the time when the baitfish come shallow to spawn, as it brings some of the most exciting fishing opportunities of the year. It's fast and visual, often involving topwater action.

I’ve been fishing this scenario in my traditional ways and have discovered new stuff along the way. Here I'll offer some of my own experience and combine it with insights from two top touring pros.

Brandon Cobb and Brandon Card are often confused due to the similarity of their names. They're two of the most consistent fishermen on any tour and are wise beyond their years because of the amount of time they spend on the water. Cobb is from South Carolina, home of the world-class blueback herring-dominated fisheries, and Card grew up in Tennessee and now calls North Carolina home.

It was extremely interesting talking to them as I both learned and confirmed things I’ve seen about these annual baitfish migrations.

I’ll first go over the items all three of us have noticed, then dive into some differences and discuss tactics that have proven effective.

It's widely accepted these fish start their spawn when the water temperature climbs just past 60 degrees, normally in April in the mid-South. This easily stretches into May with the herring spawn and sometimes lasts until June on lakes as far north as Kerr Reservoir on the North Carolina-Virginia border.

We all agreed on the best baitfish locations: Bluebacks like flat points and shoals, mostly clay; threadfin shad prefer rocks, docks, flooded trees, even weedbeds, but will still go to clay banks – they are generally less picky.

Cobb stressed the bluebacks prefer clear water for spawning and noted they will also use rip-rap in addition to the flat points. “The one exception to the flat-point deal is if the lake is flooded, the blueback spawn will happen all over, even in pockets – especially flat, round-shaped ones”.

I’ve noticed this exact scenario for years as the water at Kerr Lake is generally in the bushes at least every other year as this spawn unfolds. The best way to notice this is to use a spinnerbait and you’ll see schools of the brownish olive-backed fish schooling with the blades – you can often feel them ticking them, too.

All three of us agree that the blueback herring, threadfin, and gizzard shad spawns overlap, although Cobb and I have not really noticed a huge gizzard shad spawn from year to year. Card, however, noted that the gizzard will be in schools on shallow, flat points mixed with gravel as their preferred spawning grounds.

I posed the same question to both anglers, citing examples from my days of fishing the Top 150 and Elite Series: On blueback fisheries, how do you approach a tournament? I mentioned that in my day it was one big merry-go-round as most everyone would run as many points, islands and shoals as possible to try and get lucky with an active group of bass.

Card answered that he preferred to stay in an area and wait them out while Cobb likes to keep moving, except in the case of a really large structure or community hole that he happened to get to himself.

"Bigger structures will have several key spots and as the bait moves through, the fish will become active," Card said. He added that it is often both threadfin and herring and it can be hard to tell which, although he believes bass prefer eating the herring.

I asked Cobb how long it takes for the fish to settle after a boat has left. He said all it takes is 20 or 30 minutes and if a school of bait passes by, you can catch them. I found this most interesting that it only took that long. So if you are out on the lake and can observe other spots nearby with a boat, if you wait just 20 minutes you have a shot at some fish if you are lucky enough to arrive when some bait passes.

I asked if the bass kept moving all the time, hunting the baitfish. Both Cobb and Card replied they just sit and wait. They have a preferred small area on any structure and become extremely aggressive when bait passes by. After it is gone, they just sit. I’ve noticed this exact behavior as well with schools of five to 20 bass using an area the size of a bass boat, sometimes smaller.

With threadfin, I’ve seen bass just sitting there, staring at rip-rap and docks as hundreds of shad pass by until something clicks in their pea brain and they attack.

Brandon Card fishes a 3DB Pencil Popper with a short fluorocarbon leader to prevent the hooks from snagging on the braided main line.

Herring are different sizes on different fisheries, so it is important to take note of that. At Lake Murray, for example, they often run 6 inches, making bigger lures effective.

Interestingly, all the bait prefers to spawn at night (especially threadfin) and this is what makes early morning so crucial. Clouds and wind will extend the bite. The bluebacks are a bit different as many will stay shallow even though they are not actively spawning at mid-day.

We all agree that a long-casting topwater bait is a prime choice for blueback herring lakes. The Yo-Zuri 3DB Pencil Popper in 130 size (5.12 inches) can figuratively be cast into the next county and both Card and Cobb mentioned it as one of their top choices. Card prefers a bone color when it's cloudy and Cobb said he primarily uses bone or clear versions and often incorporates a Zoom Fluke in shad colors. Casting is key because bass tend to bust a long way from the boat for brief periods, so you need be deadly accurate at a distance.

Both Cobb and Card use Yo-Zuri Super Braid in 30- or 40-pound test. Card uses a short leader to avoid snagging on braid and Cobb goes with straight braid.

I've had success on a Yo-Zuri color called ghost pearl shad when the herring spawn is going on – it perfectly matches the drab olive-back color of a blueback, which I feel is important for secondary strikes. What I mean by that is often the first fish will miss the bait, causing a second fish, third fish, etc., to not want to be left out and it will attack too.

I have two secret weapons specifically for the herring spawn. This first is a soft jerkbait called the Culprit Skinny Jerk. I designed this bait years ago and it incorporates a thinner design with a 6-inch length to mimic the herring. I wanted this bait to be thin for better hook-ups and I rarely miss a fish with it. It casts great and I often add a little weight to the bait itself or the hook shank. I use 15-pound Yo-Zuri Super Braid to 15-pound Yo-Zuri Super Fluoro leader on spinning gear or 30-pound braid to a 15-pound leader on casting gear.

The second is an under-the-radar bait that is akin to a saltwater-style offering called the Yo-Zuri 3DB Twitch Bait. The first year this came out I caught hundreds of fish on it when the fishing was off for everyone else. I fish it very differently than the name would suggest. I don’ t twitch it very often – I just burn it as fast as I can go with a 8.5:1 gear ratio reel. A 7’9’’ Falcon Toledo Special is my choice for the super long casts. Occasionally I stop it and make a twitch or two, but that’s it.

This bait triggers the herring's instincts to eat. I told both Cobb and Card about it and they were all ears, so it will be interesting to get their take on this bait as they get a chance to try it.

Card has learned that a jerkbait can be an effective tool as well this time of year, as he loves to fish a Yo-Zuri 3DB SP 110 in ghost sexy shad and natural Tennesee shad. For shad that are spawning on deeper banks, docks or bluffs, this can be the ticket. I’ve noticed this as well, especially later into the spawn process.

For a threadfin spawn or lakes with smaller bluebacks, all of us agree that a smaller lure is better, so scaling down to the 110 size (4.33 inches) on the Pencil Popper or switching to the standard 3DB Pencil is a better option – unless it is a known big-fish lake and you really don’t want to catch as many smaller fish.

My top lures for the threadfin spawn are a Culprit Skinny Jerk in Albino, a 1/2-ounce Glamour Shad spinnerbait in either white or natural shad hues, and a host of Yo-Zuri topwaters (popper, pencil, and pencil popper). In fact, the 3DB Popper in gizzard shad or sexy shad is my top choice on rip-rap, steep rock or a bluff bank first thing in the morning on stretches I already know bass are using. I can extend the bite later throughout the day with the jerkbait as well. To move fast, a walking bait or spinnerbait is best.

Card finished by saying big topwaters such as the 130 Pencil from Yo-Zuri and even big glidebaits can be the ticket for the gizzard spawn as they can reach a really large size.

If you find this gizzard shad scenario, a large-bladed spinnerbait can do wonders as well. I’ve done well in May with a 7-inch Top-Shelf Deep Runner Swimbait and that may be related to the gizzard spawn as well. Large postspawn females love a big easy meal on a shallow point.