As you’re reading this, bass are in transition, migrating from wintering areas to pre-spawn and spawn habitat, signaling an end to difficult cold-water fishing conditions.
What’s your early-season gameplan? Return to the same spots and do the same things you’ve done year in, year out? Whether fishing with family, trying to set a new personal best, or working our way up a tournament leaderboard, reducing the time it takes to find and catch fish is paramount. Seldom is that accomplished by a “fishing a memory.” A better approach is to pay close attention to weather and water conditions, adjusting where and how you fish.
This month we discuss the topic with four-time Bassmaster Classic Champion and seven-time AOY Kevin VanDam, a man with an almost machine-like ability to cover water fast, find, and catch bass. A champion on many levels, KVD shares his thoughts on early-season bass and how to utilize electronics that will make for perfect advice for everyone behind the scenes who outfit anglers or rig their rides.
“A lot of people get hung up fishing spots where they caught fish in the past and it’s the wrong time of year, the wrong conditions,” says VanDam. “If I don’t see something positive on a spot in 10 minutes, I’m typically gone. You can’t catch fish there where they’re not. The most important factor in successfully catching fish is finding them. Location is key.”
What can anglers do right now to find early-season bass?
KVD: Monitor the weather, not necessarily the water temperature. Warming or cooling patterns will give you a guideline for what areas of the lake to study ahead of time. Also look at lake topography, which will determine if bass are earlier or later in that spring process than they might be in another body of water. This can help you choose the right lake to fish. Like choosing a shallower lake vs. a deep, clear lake. Shallower, stained waters warm quicker and the fish start that spring process sooner than they do in deep, clear waters.
What are your key early-season presentations?
KVD: This time of year I like techniques that are going to be really efficient for the depth, terrain, cover, and water quality where I’m fishing, so I’m using moving lures: spinnerbaits, jerkbaits, swim jigs, and crankbaits.
What’s the next step after picking a lake?
KVD: I try to think about areas utilized by bigger populations of bass. Spawning areas may be in large bays, large flats, or other shallow water. Look closely at northerly banks, shores or bays. If there’s a cooling pattern I look for structural features that are close to those areas, like a deep break or a channel swing that comes close to a large spawning bay or flat. The predominant sun in the south is going to warm those areas first. And if it’s a full-on warming trend, then bass may be all the way back in those spawning areas.
Turn on your Humminbird and study the LakeMaster chart before you even hit the water. I like to use the Depth Highlight feature. Early-season I’m looking at 10 feet and under. I’ll highlight everything five feet and shallower in red and five to 10 feet in green. That makes the big flats and spawning areas really stick out on your map. And it’s great for highland-type reservoirs like Table Rock or Dale Hollow where the flats are much smaller. If you can find one little flat area and there’s deep water all around that area, boy, that one little stretch can be a goldmine! Depth Highlight makes those areas stand out. Eliminates a lot of searching.
How do you deal with fluctuating water levels this time of year?
KVD: I use Lake Level Offset to adjust the map. If it’s a reservoir that’s drawn down, you can dial in the true depth relationship on your map and then highlight whatever zone you want. I want my map to be as accurate to depth scale as I possibly can. LakeMaster makes it easy. Look at Grand Lake; the Grand Lake Authority has an app that gives you the current lake level right on your phone, so can easily adjust your LakeMaster offset to be current with it. Or adjust it to what you’re seeing consistently on your 2D SONAR.
There’s also the safety issue. Like Florida lakes with treacherous shallow-water areas. Using Lake Level Offset is a simple thing that you can do to make sure your map is spot-on for safe travel. Why guess? You’re crazy not to use Lake Level Offset all the time.
Any other tips for using LakeMaster maps and GPS more efficiently?
I run my units Course Up; some people prefer North Up. I love the responsiveness of the map and GPS. And the accuracy is a matter of feet! I can put myself right on top of the same brush pile or I can know I’m 30 feet from it to make the perfect cast.
Use the Casting Rings feature, which I worked closely with Humminbird engineers to develop, to help you make perfect casts. Turn on Casting Rings and you now have distance and direction orientation on your LakeMaster map screen anytime you drop a waypoint on a piece of cover, a school of fish, a stump or any other target. This tells me I’m a specified distance from it to make the perfect cast. Again, it’s about efficiency. This is another reason 360 Imaging is awesome. It’s a real-time, updated casting ring that continually shows your position and relationship to the target.
Just making a cast and hitting the ledge with a crankbait is okay, but I’ve found that if I can get a precise distance, so my crankbait releases off the ledge and starts off the bottom toward the boat, bass can be triggered into biting. You have to know your precise distance from that target zone to be able to do that. That’s where the casting rings and 360 really help you.
Are you using AutoChart Live?
KVD: I have and it’s a game-changer. If you go to Kentucky Lake and look at your LakeMaster chip, it’s amazing. But even there, there are places that you could improve on the map. And for anglers in regions of the country with a lot of smaller unmapped waters – like the North – you can now create your own map. For example, my parents live on a small, private lake that hadn’t been mapped. So I used AutoChart Live to make one. But on a lot of the big lakes that I fish tournaments on, you just don’t have time to re-write an entire map. But you dang sure can for certain areas that you’re fishing. So, the next level of mapping accuracy is creating your own maps for areas that haven’t been mapped. And it’s easy to use: basically turn on your Humminbird, hit a button, and fish while it’s mapping and working for you. You can get as extensive as you want, doing transects like LakeMaster surveyors do, or you can go out and just fish and slowly build the map at the pace that you fish those areas. Plus, you’re building it in real-time, right on your HELIX or ONIX. No uploading. That’s the other thing—your data is kept private.
What about SmartStrike?
Humminbird’s SmartStrike is a great pre-fishing tool. Enter your various criteria like season, weather conditions, etc. and it’ll automatically highlight high-probability areas of the lake to fish. Used to be an ONIX-specific feature, but now it’s available for the HELIX 9, 10 and 12 with a free software update and card purchase, which is amazing. Then, once you get on the water, you can use SmartStrike to narrow it down even more. It’s kind of like having your own guide or local knowledge.
How are you using Side Imaging on a day-to-day basis?
KVD: The depth of the water, type of cover, and structure all determines how I use my Side Imaging. Typically, I have my SI set to look 50 feet left and right in the Amber 2 color palette, which is best for my eyes and helps me read nuances in bottom composition. If I’m looking for isolated large objects, I may got out as far as a 100 feet. The closer the range, the better the detail, the better the target separation, the better you can see individual bass, cover and structural elements. As a general rule, if I’m idling along at 5 mph or less, I’ve got my Side Imaging on to mark brushpiles and other cover. Especially during early-season, I love to Side Image around docks. You can find really interesting pieces of cover: old lawn chairs and other stuff that has blown off of docks, or intentionally-place brushpiles, Christmas trees – all stuff good for holding fish. Side Imaging is probably the most significant development in my fishing career. Instead of just seeing a small area right underneath the boat, you can look off each side.
When are you running 360?
KVD: It really depends on the depth, cover and terrain on the lake where I’m fishing. That determines how much or how little I’ll use 360. If I’m flipping grass mats, I’m probably not going to use it. But if I’m trying to follow an underwater grass line, it’s absolutely critical. Or if I’m in the back of a pocket on a highland reservoir, it can be key for finding brush piles and other cover you might not find otherwise. 360 is another great tool. One HELIX 10 on my bow is dedicated solely to 360, which I’m running a lot of the time.
Walk us through your boat electronics.
KVD: I have four units on my boat: a HELIX 10 and ONIX 10 at the console and two HELIX 12 CHIRP units on the bow, all networked together, so if I drop a waypoint on a brush top on my console unit I can see it on any of my units. That’s a really great feature. You definitely want to have your bow and console unit(s) networked together.
At the console, I have a HELIX 10 dedicated to mapping, which I run in full-screen LakeMaster map or split screen to view a large area and a very focused-in area. The ONIX 10 is used for Side Imaging, Down Imaging and SONAR.
On the bow, one of my HELIX 12 units is used solely for 360 Imaging when I’m on the trolling motor. The other one typically runs SONAR and my LakeMaster map in split screen.
The ONIX 10 SI and DI units have the absolute finest imaging I’ve ever seen. But I fell in love with HELIX for two primary reasons: the flush, flat screen and the improvement in brightness of the actual screen itself. I’m super impressed. I started using them last fall and have to say that in real-world applications the imaging is pretty darn close to ONIX.
The thing that I’m really proud of is the tremendous value that Humminbird has put into the HELIX Series. It is an incredible, detailed and quality picture at an amazing price. It’s an amazing value across the line! It’s incredible. For the features you get, the quality and size of the screen – and the price – it’s amazing.
The other thing is ease of use. There are a lot of anglers who have experience with an 898, 999 or 1199, and the great thing about the HELIX is the menu system is very similar to what we already know.
And just the improvement in the screen as far as visibility and brightness goes. It’s stunning! What I love about the new HELIX is it has the best screen brightness for any light condition – and a simple operating system with all the features that I need with uncompromised reliability. They’re just bullet-proof.