By M.L. Anderson
We’ve been having quite the cold spell out west for the past few weeks. After a major tournament on Lake Mohave, anglers were referring to it as “Blowhave”, and the other lakes around here haven’t been much better. It’s cold, it’s windy, and it can be hard to throw a light lure or feel anything with your frozen fingers. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t catch fish. On the contrary, you can catch a lot of fish if you know how. You do it with spoons.
Nitro Pro Matt Shura is an incredibly versatile fisherman, but he considers spooning one of his most important strengths. “I saw an article where full-time bass pros were asked about their greatest weaknesses as anglers, and a big percentage of them said they didn’t understand spoon fishing,” Matt says. Being strong where others are weaker means you have an obvious advantage. On deep clear lakes you’ve got to know how to spoon.
TO SPOON OR NOT TO SPOON?
We met Shura at Canyon Lake in Arizona on a nasty, cold, windy day in January. Canyon is a typical Arizona reservoir: very deep and very clear -- most of the time. On this particular day, we ran straight back to the river end of the lake, only to be stopped cold by the sudden muddiness of the water. There was a visible demarcation line of muddy / not muddy. His favorite spots were in the river, but rule number one in spoon fishing is: if the water is muddy, don’t bother. Shura says spooning is best in clear water where the fish can see the flash. So we turned around and headed toward the main lake to fight the wind and fish the clearer water.
FINDING THE FISH
The key to finding bass is to find what the bass eat, and that means locating schools of baitfish. For that, Shura uses his electronics. Modern depthfinders make it easy to distinguish vegetation, structure, and fish – but only if you know how to use them. Even when he’s idling near the ramp, waiting for his boat number to be called, Matt is watching his graph and looking for balls of shad. When he sees one, he makes a mental note of how deep the shad are and what kind of structure they are on. If the bait are shallow, then he’ll fish shallow, but at this time of year they are usually deep. Shura will fish spoons all the way from 25 to 80 feet deep. “This time of year I’m usually fishing 40 to 60 feet deep,” he says.
Shura says that once you find the balls of baitfish, you can be pretty sure that the bass are nearby. It can be a waiting game, because they may be nearby but not eating at the moment. That’s how some well-known anglers win tournaments, he says – they’ll sit on a spot for eight hours, waiting for the bass to bite, then catch a limit in a matter of minutes. If you’ve ever tossed a rock into a school of shad near shore, you’ve seen that ball of bait scatter instantly. If you see that on your graph, you know that something is after them, and that something is hopefully bass.
Of course, the best thing to find is the actual bass, and most anglers know that a nice solid arch is a bass. But bass only show an arch if they are moving. If you’re still and the bass is still, it will just show up as a line across your screen. Streaking fish are active fish, and you’ll most likely see those near the bottom. Matt calls it “spaghetti noodles” because on the graph it looks like a mess of spaghetti. That’s what you want to drop your spoon to.
You should also see your spoon on the graph. He keeps his graphs running off the same transducer, and that transducer is on the trolling motor. That way, if he is up front fishing, he can drop his spoon down and watch it fall, plus he can put it right in front of the fish. If you don’t see your spoon, something is wrong, he says. Usually it’s an easy fix: Matt recommends you adjust the settings on your depthfinder, putting noise rejection on low and sensitivity on auto. If you run two separate transducers, they will often pick up interference from each other, and you won’t see the detail that you should be getting. Modern color graphs will show different colors for more solid returns. With experience, you’ll be able to see fish inside trees, and you’ll also be able to tell if a fish is moving toward you or away from you. On his Lowrance, yellow and red are stronger signals, and blue is weak.
If you have a mapping feature on your graph, or even a good paper lake map, look for places that will hold bait fish – Matt likes flats with a good break to the channel, or flats with channels cutting across them. Bass will attack the shad and force them up against those walls.
Shura likes different types of spoons for different applications. On Canyon in January, he was using a Rapala Jigging Rap (open up that nose hook just a hair). We got on a long point and followed it out, starting to catch the fish at 50 feet. The Jigging Rap darts sideways when you hop it, so you get a vertical as well as a horizontal presentation. You can cover a lot of territory with it, and it gets down there quickly. They’ll go as much as 4 to 5 feet sideways either way.
Canyon Lake, Saguaro Lake, and Apache Lake in Arizona are all connected and simply separated from each other by their respective dams. They are pump-back lakes, meaning that water is released then pumped back among them to produce electricity. Consequently, what happens to one usually happens to the others. A few years back, what happened was Golden Algae. This wreaked havoc on the largemouth population, and the lakes seemed almost barren for quite some time. The Game and Fish restocked with a Florida strain bass, Matt says, and those Florida bass seem to school up much more than the northern strain. This changed the way Matt fishes – he now looks for schools of fish more often now, instead of just schools of baitfish. Once you catch a fish, you can see the others coming out of the woodwork, Matt says. Friends of his were all three standing on the front deck fishing spoons and got a triple hookup – and all 5-pounders.
If he needs to fish a spoon in the trees, Shura will opt for a heavy Crippled Herring, but he changes the hook to a good treble. If you get snagged in the trees, a couple of good shakes will usually break it free because the weight of the spoon gives you leverage. He always uses a swivel hook, but before he drops it in the water he uses his pliers to crimp that little catch down over the hook holder. Also, he tends to use red hooks whenever he has them. Be sure to check your knot frequently, and also inspect that snap swivel, replacing and re-tying often.
A half-ounce Hopkins or Strada (or ¾-ounce) are his go-to baits for fishing vertically or casting and hopping back. Shura calls it deep-hopping: he will fish them just like a jerkbait, but at 30 feet. He’ll check the livewell and see if the bass have spit up any shad, then match the size of his spoon to those. If he’s throwing a tiny spoon like a ¼- or 3/8-ounce Kastmaster, he’ll fish it on spinning gear with 8-pount-test line. Otherwise, he opts for baitcasting gear and 10- to 12-pound-test. The little Kastmasters fall slower and flutter more, so they’re great for finicky fish like after a front.
It also pays to keep a spoon tied on every time you’re in the boat, no matter what time of year it is. If you see a boil, throw it out past them and jerk it back, or just let it fall right through the boil. Bass will hammer it like it’s a dying shad falling out of the school. If you want to fish a big flat, a Cicada or a Silver Buddy is ideal because they are designed to fall fast and swim as you reel. Cast it out, let it hit bottom, then slow roll it back. You can also use a Little George – that tail spinner really flashes.
Shura’s typical technique over a school is to simply drop it down, rip it a couple feet off the bottom, then give it slack as it falls. But you can also pitch them to cliff walls and hop them down. This works all year, but especially in the fall and on through the winter when the shad and the bass are schooled up deep. As the weather warms up toward spring, cast a spoon and jerk or hop it from 15 to 40 feet deep.
Spoons are incredibly versatile and they are dynamite baits this time of year. If spooning is a weakness of yours, now is the perfect time to work on changing that. Get a bunch of different kinds, pay attention to your graph, and watch your line. You’ll be able to add another valuable skill to your arsenal in no time.
- If the water is too dirty to spoon, try a scrounger jig with a Yamamoto Swimbait or a Hula Swimmer. The combination of the wobble from the scrounger bill and the movement of the tail is killer. Pick a darker bait that will silhouette against the light from the sky. Cast toward shore and work them down and back.
- Spoon fish can come from so deep that if you simply let them go, their swim bladder will be so blown up that they can’t stay submerged. So if you’re not planning to eat them, please watch some videos and learn to “fizz” your fish – use a hollow needle to release air so they can swim back down. And please don’t dally – get those fish back where they belong as quickly as you can.
- An alternate to fizzing fish is to put the bass under a metal milk crate with a long rope attached. Lower the crate down to the depth where you caught the fish, then just haul it back up. The fish will be in the perfect spot.