Kevin VanDam needs no introduction. He’s done everything there is to be done in the world of professional bass fishing … multiple times.
I’ve shared a boat with VanDam several times, and I have been amazed at his uncanny ability to find and catch bass on lakes he either hasn’t fished for years or has never fished before. When I asked him about his gift, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I just follow my Seasonal Guide. It works on any bass lake, anywhere in the country.”
Just what is this mysterious “Seasonal Guide” VanDam refers to? How is it different from the seasonal patterns bass anglers have long used to guide them to lures and locations?
VanDam agreed to explain his all-purpose approach to bass fishing in his own words to Bassmaster.com readers. We guarantee it’s a framework you can use to get on bass quickly all year long, regardless of where you’re fishing.
Background on the System
The Seasonal Guide is a system I’ve adapted to help find bass on unfamiliar waters. As a touring pro, I fish all kinds of lakes in many regions throughout the year. Obviously, I don’t have time to become intimately familiar with each of these venues prior to tournament competition. When you only have three practice days to unlock the secrets of a 75,000-acre body of water, you need some guidance to help you quickly get on a viable fish catching pattern. The Seasonal Guide provides that information, regardless of where or when I’m fishing. It helps me make educated guesses about where bass are most likely to be at any given time of the year. It’s a system that quickly eliminates unproductive water and helps me home in on areas holding the most bass.
The concept operates on the theory that at any given time, the majority of bass in a given lake will be on certain key types of structure. Of course, not all bass will adhere to this “rule.” I could probably catch some bass off flats or in shallow bays in winter if I spent long enough trying, but in a tournament, I’m better off spending my limited fishing time in high percentage areas. The Seasonal Guide gives me the general direction I need to form a fish catching pattern quickly. How well I fine-tune this generalized pattern during competition determines how high I’ll finish in the standings.
The temperature of the water is critical information — you can’t fish the Seasonal Guide without knowing how cold or warm the water is.
Sometimes, especially in prespawn, water that’s just one degree warmer will hold most of the bass. If you don’t have a surface temperature monitor on your boat, get one.
Of course, the weather helps drive the Seasonal Guide. I’m addicted to The Weather Channel, and stay tuned to it constantly before and during tournament competition. I pay attention to both general weather trends and daily conditions. For example, I want to know if there’s a warm front or cold front on the way in or out. I begin checking conditions for the area I’ll be fishing as early as 15 days before a tournament.
In using the Seasonal Guide, it helps to determine what type of lake you’re fishing, because bass use different places in different types of lakes. I follow the classification of bass waters that divides them into lowland reservoirs, highland reservoirs, natural lakes, tidewater lakes and rivers, both natural and dammed.
Let’s take a walk through the six seasons of the bass fishing year and see what direction the Seasonal Guide can give us about each.
Winter: 48 Degrees and Below
In reservoirs and natural lakes, most of the bass population will be on the main body of water, as opposed to tributary arms. They will be relating strongly to vertical and fast sloping structure: rock bluffs, river channel dropoffs, standing timber, 45-degree rock or earthen banks, or standing timber. These are all places where they can make a major depth change by moving up or down: In cold water, bass are lethargic, and won’t swim long distances to change depths. In clear lakes, bass often suspend in the water column rather than hold tight to cover.
Water clarity is a major determinant of bass depth in winter. In clear lakes, bass can go extremely deep — 50 to 60 feet is not uncommon. In murky lakes, they’ll be much shallower.
Since bass are sluggish, I’ll use a slow presentation. In any season, I use search lures to find active bass. In winter, I prefer ones that draw strikes without moving fast. Suspending jerkbaits are my favorite winter artificials, if the water clarity is sufficient to use them (these lures don’t work as well in very stained water). The fact that you can fish these lures in the same place for long periods of time makes them extremely deadly on suspending bass. Leadhead grubs also work great now; they probe vertical and fast sloping structure efficiently. The same goes for jigs, metal blade baits and spoons. I may fish a crankbait in the upper end of the winter temperature spectrum.
While searching out likely bass holding areas, I’ll fish parallel to the structure; this keeps my lure deeper in the water column longer.
This generalized winter pattern applies to natural lakes and all reservoirs, but in rivers, it’s important to fish areas with no current. A big hole in the river bottom, where current washes overhead, is a good spot for smallmouth. Largemouth like backwater areas with some depth to them, like close to a marina.
Prespawn: 48 to 55 Degrees
Bass begin moving from their deep winter haunts toward their eventual spawning areas. I fish the same type of vertical areas now as in winter, but they should be close to a flat area, because bass like to spawn on flat places in protected water. If I had been fishing bluffs in winter, I would now fish the ends of the bluffs, close to some shallower water.
Northern banks are very important now because they’re warmer than other areas on the lake. Avoid places hit by cold north winds.
Once the water hits 50 degrees, bass are definitely in a prespawn mode. Migration routes are important now in lakes and reservoirs. Bass will follow ditches, depth contours, tapering points and fallen trees on sloping banks toward shallower water.
If there’s some stain to the water, a deep running crawfish pattern crankbait rooted along the bottom is strong now; bass feed heavily on crawfish emerging from hibernation during the late winter/early spring transition period. A slow rolled spinnerbait also works well. For combing large expanses of water, I love a lipless rattling crankbait like the Strike King Red Eye Shad, and I’ll use this faster moving lure in the upper ranges of the prespawn temperature zone. I’ll also continue to use a suspending jerkbait in clear water. Bass relate to cover such as stumps strongly now, especially in murky lakes; a jig-and-pig rules here.
I pick up my fishing pace considerably as the water hits around 52 degrees, and I may run down a bank while quickly throwing a Red Eye Shad or spinnerbait, then pause to pitch a jig when I come to a submerged log or brushpile.
Spawn: 55 to 70 Degrees
Many bass will now be on flat, protected structure. Large expanses of shallow water are critical (10 feet or less on a lowland reservoir or natural lake, 8 to 20 feet deep on a highland reservoir). Look for areas on a contour map where the lines are spread far apart, not close together.
Not all bass spawn at once. Many will move onto their spawning beds around the new or full moon, or when the sun comes out after a long period of cloudy weather. At the same time many bass are spawning, others will be in a pre- or postspawn mode. Normally, the biggest bass are the first to spawn. You need to make a decision now as to which group of fish you’ll target, because different approaches are required for each. Personally, I like to stay with prespawn bass as long as I can, because they’re more aggressive and they’ll weigh more.
The upper end and the north side of a reservoir are two major spawning magnets. In spring, the water warms up earliest in the upper end, and later in the lower end. You can therefore target spawning bass in April in the upper end, and May in the lower end.
Again, look for migration routes leading to shallow, protected water. In clear reservoirs and many natural lakes, you’ll be able to see bass on their beds; a tube bait is awesome here, as is a floating worm. A soft jerkbait works well for spawners if the water is a bit stained.
Postspawn: 70 to 75 Degrees
This is a real tough time to pattern bass. I try to target either the fish that spawned earliest and are moving out toward their summer digs, or the late bedders.
When bass leave their beds, they’re likely to hang around their spawning grounds awhile. Cover that’s sticking up vertically from the bottom is very important now. They’ll hang around boat dock pilings, submerged bushes or the trunk of a standing tree. You’ll often see bass suspending near the surface now, looking like they’re sunning themselves. Most bass are not very aggressive and won’t feed much right after spawning, but they can be tempted to bite a reaction-type lure.
It’s real important to keep your presentation up high in the water column, as opposed to bumping bottom. In dirty water, I’ll swim a 1/4-ounce jig with a grub trailer — just reel it in, not hop it on bottom. A tandem Colorado or Colorado/Indiana spinnerbait is excellent in stained water. In clear lakes, topwaters work great: try Strike King’s Spittin’ King and KVD Floating Wild Shiner, or Lucky Craft’s Sammy. These stay in the strike zone a long time — a big plus during postspawn.
Summer: 75 to 90+
Summer is main lake time. Bass migrate back onto the main body of water, where they hang around channel-oriented structure: humps, points, dropoffs, ledges. Your best bet in the first part of this phase is a slow tapering point at the mouth of a spawning cove.
In summer, light penetration is a major factor in determining bass depth. Bass will hold at the lower end of the light penetration spectrum, where they can still see adequately but remain concealed from their prey. In extremely hot water, bass avoid overstressing themselves by holding or suspending near cover or a dropoff for long periods, then feeding in short, aggressive bursts.
Rivers and river-run reservoirs are especially good in summer; they stay cooler longer and have sufficient dissolved oxygen from top to bottom. Smallmouth will be right in the current, often behind a rock or stump; largemouth favor slack water close to some flow. Bass in river-run reservoirs often have been conditioned not to feed until the upstream dam releases water and the resulting current repositions baitfish. Once current picks up, they focus in tight groups and often move shallower to feed.
Weed growth proliferates in natural lakes and in some reservoirs. Baitfish and bass will gravitate to weedy bays and pockets, where the water is cooler and highly oxygenated. Bass position themselves near irregularities in the weed bed, such as holes, pockets and points. They can be taken on the surface with a weedless frog or rat, or by flipping or pitching a plastic worm or tube bait through the grass.
Where weeds aren’t prevalent, this is the best time to crank, especially if the water has a little stain to it. In clear lakes, a topwater lure can draw strikes until the sun gets above the tree line.
Fall: 75 to 55 Degrees
I actually begin fishing a fall pattern when the water has cooled 10 degrees below its hottest point of the summer — this can vary greatly from lake to lake. A rapid temperature drop is best, for this can really put bass on the move from deep main lake structure to shallow water. Bass react to cooling water by moving shallower to big flats, long points with a gradual taper, and tributary arms.
Bass are more baitfish-oriented now than in any other season. Look for large schools of shad, alewives, etc., on your graph. In reservoirs, cooling water causes vast numbers of shad to migrate into tributary arms, and bass are close behind. Follow this migration by fishing the first third of creek arms in early fall, then gradually pressing farther back into the tributary as the surface temperature drops. I’ll often idle my boat up a creek arm, watching my graph for suspended shad schools or looking for bait flipping on the surface. Isolated wood cover or boat docks in the backs of creek arms are dependable fall bass patterns. In lakes that don’t have shad, bass feed heavily on bluegill and shiners, both grass-oriented species, so target weedy areas.
It’s important now to keep your lure off the bottom, because most baitfish are suspended in the water column. Match lure size to baitfish size. My fall lure preferences include spinnerbaits with willow leaf blades (they match the profile of baitfish), and shallow to medium running crankbaits. In clear lakes, I like shad patterns; in murky lakes, I want standout colors, like chartreuse with a black or blue back.
Their aggressive pursuit of baitfish means bass often school on the surface in fall. Always keep a topwater lure, especially a noisy chugger, tied on now. As the water cools to the lower end of the autumn range, a suspending jerkbait will catch fish.