Catching schooling bass on topwaters and subsurface baits can be some of the most exciting times of the year. The action is often fast and furious and there is always a good chance to catch a true giant.
Professional angler and fisheries biologist Michael Murphy spends most of the year with guide clients chasing schooling bass on Lake Murray, South Carolina. Over the years he has developed a system for catching fish keying on baitfish and it is based on his scientific knowledge of how water temperature and forage size impacts how bass feed. In this article, he shares his schooling system that covers spring to late fall.
Know Your Forage
As a fisheries biologist, Murphy knows more than most when it comes to what is going on underneath the surface of the water and he is always willing to share his knowledge to help anglers catch more bass. One thing that he points out when it comes to baitfish is how their spawning rituals affect bass.
“The first shad spawn of the year typically overlaps with the last part of the bass spawn. Generally, this is in April in many parts of the country and the water often has a slight stain to it,” he begins. “Shad need something hard to spawn near and this can be seawalls, docks, marinas, shoals or any kind of vertical cover they can use to spawn.” The shad spawn also generally kicks off the bass schooling season.
For lakes with blueback herring, their spawning habits can also impact fishing and lure choice. “Bluebacks spawn on much flatter cover and are mostly subsurface. Rocky points are one of the best places to find them spawning,” he says.
Know Your Bass
As we all know, bass are opportunistic feeders and they eat whenever they are given the chance. When it comes to topwater baits, Murphy says to pay close attention to the weather. “One thing I always talk about is the temperament of bass. If you are fishing during post-frontal conditions, it can definitely affect the topwater bite,” he says. “Any temperature drop, even if the water is 80-degrees and drops, will affect how bass act and how willing they are to eat a topwater.”
With this in mind, he always has a subsurface bait like the ima Glide Fluke ready and this is also the bait that he says kicks off the bass schooling season around the time the shad and bluebacks spawn.
Step 1: Glide Fluke
This bait was designed by Murphy and fit a need for the periods right before surface feeding begins. “In the past, I would always start the season off with a soft jerkbait, but they often swipe at it and miss it. The Glide Fluke has the same action but since it is a hard bait it has trebles and the rear treble is at the very rear of the bait. You land many more of those fish that are just swiping at it,” he says.
Murphy will generally use the bait until the water is warm enough to start the topwater season and then also has it ready as a back up throughout the year when fish are not as willing to hit topwater baits.
Step 2: Skimmer
The Skimmer has a unique action compared to many walking baits and Murphy describes it as a turkey call. “It has a nice tail action that grabs water and it has a unique sound to it. As you are walking it you can hear a crunching sound when you are walking it,” he says. “The key is to not give them a good look at it and if you are seeing fish following it but not striking then speed it up a little.”
Step 3: Skimmer Grande
Next in Murphy’s schooling system is the Skimmer Grande. “Your progression to bigger and bigger baits has to do with the size of baitfish getting bigger. The fish will let you know when they want a bigger bait,” he shares. “As it gets warmer the fish want a bigger profile and more of a commotion on the surface.”
Step 4: Little Stik
Continuing to climb the bait size ladder, Murphy moves on to the Little Stik next. “It makes a big commotion on the surface and this is necessary because during the middle of summer bass are typically much deeper and need to be called up to get strike a topwater,” he shares.
Step 5: Big Stik
“The next step up is the Big Stik. Some years the water will never get warm enough where it comes into play, but for warmer years this can be a big player in September in October,” says Murphy. Like the Little Stik, the Big Stik has an aggressive sound that calls fish from the depths. “When the bass are feeding on fall bluebacks and big gizzards, the Big Stik is the perfect size lure. It is also a great tool to catch the biggest fish in the school instead of the two pounders.”
Step 6: Reverse
Murphy has learned that once the bite with the biggest topwaters slows, you can go backward in the cycle and continually downsize your topwater baits and then return to the Glide Fluke. “The difference is that the progression up in size will take several months and the reverse only takes a few weeks or up to a month,” he adds.
This system has worked for Murphy for years and he is happy to have a complete arsenal of baits from one company. “In the past, I was using this system and had baits from several different brands, but I worked with Ima to so we have a bait for every step in the system,” he says.
By following the forage and their growth throughout the year you can utilize Murphy’s system to have success with schooling fish for the better part of the year.