By David A. Brown
Special to BassFan
Every year, we celebrate Father’s Day on the third Sunday of June. But well before that, bass anglers in southern latitudes find proud papas doing their best to keep their recently hatched offspring safely secluded from a host of predators.
These fry-guarders work around the clock to shepherd their young and ward off would-be threats — even to the point of attack. This aggression makes the fish a prime spring target, but it’s no gimme. Strategy, stealth and seasonal awareness guide this game.
Bassmaster Elite Series angler Kyle Welcher said he actually caught a couple of fry-guarders the week before Easter. With the exception of Florida, that’s typically on the early end, as the bulk of the southern fry-guarding season usually kicks off around late April, lasts through May and tapers off by early June.
Looking at the year’s quarterly make up, that makes perfect sense. From the winter solstice to the summer solstice, days growing longer and once we pass the vernal equinox, the balance shifts toward sun exposure and that cracks the whip on the fish’s reproductive processes.
“More than anything, I believe the length of the day dictates when bass spawn,” Welcher said. “It’s like clockwork; the second or third week of April I start seeing them every year. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold, if it’s flooded water, low water, full moon, it doesn’t matter what it is.”
Obviously, once that starts, the little guys start showing up not long after.
Welcher’s fellow Elite pro Wes Logan points out that fry are keenly aware of their vulnerability, so they’ll cluster tightly and instinctively huddle around whatever safe room their dad selects. Laydowns, pads, grass, stumps, big rocks — anything that offers shelter and/or shadows is a likely fry nursery. Logan’s particularly fond of manmade cover.
Photo: Courtesy of Kyle WelcherKyle Welcher likes a prop bait for fry-guarders because he can create a lot of commotion without moving his bait too far.
“If you find a dock with steps or a ladder, or just an irregularity, that’s what they’ll get on,” Logan said. “A lot of people know to throw at an irregularity, but a lot of times, they don’t know they’re catching a fry-guarder.”
And while a dock’s perimeter structure holds plenty of opportunity, Welcher says don’t stop there. “I always pay extremely close attention to looking under docks. The ones with dock poles are most productive, but I focus on looking under the docks, even in the shade, to see if I can locate that bass swimming around or that ball of fry.”
Anywhere he finds fry-guarders on duty, Welcher uses baits that fit the playing field. “Fry stay high in the water column, so you want something that will stay on top or fall really slowly. You don’t want it to get out of (the strike zone) too quickly; You want it to slowly stay in that fry.”
Welcher’s go-to is a wacky-rigged 13 Fishing BFF (Blunt Force Finesse Worm). In grass, under docks with a lot of cross-members or any snag-prone environment, he’ll switch to a Texas-rigged BFF to keep it weedless.
“Another big one is a prop bait because it looks like a bluegill, which is what’s (commonly) trying to eat those fry,” Welcher said. “Also, you can give it a lot of action without moving it very far. Whenever you get it around that fry, you can still have a lot of water displacement and not move that bait out of the strike zone.”
Frogs, while less obnoxious than a prop bait, offer a similar stationary advantage. From a full-size SPRO Bronzeye Poppin’ Frog 60 to the tiny 1 1/2 inch Bronzeye Pop 40, the persistent threat drives irritated fry-guarders over the edge.
Make ‘Em Move
Earlier in the year, covering shallow flats with a soft plastic swimbait or some other moving bait often prompts those aggressive pushes, wakes and boils that bespeak territorial bed fish. Similarly, you’ll often locate the protectors by first locating their protected.
With good light, you’ll often see these distinct balls of baby bass huddling around their cover, but such proximity puts the male on high alert and often lessens his likelihood of biting. Distance is your No. 1 ally, but leveraging the fry’s natural reactions runs a close second.
“Anytime I skip under a dock, I pay close attention to see if I do spook those fry,” Welcher said. “One of the sneaky things I do is look way back underneath docks to try to find some that you can’t see quite as easily
“Whenever you see those fry get spooked, you know that triggers the response in that male that’s guarding them.”
Logan agrees and adds this: “You’ll locate a lot of balls of fry with a swim jig because you’ll be working it through them and they’ll spray. That’s not saying you’ll (always) catch the fish, but nine times out of 10, if the fish hasn’t been already caught, he’s somewhere around there. You can stop, throw the wacky rig over there.
Photo: David A. BrownWes Logan likes to cover water with a swim jig to scatter fry and identify their position.
“When you bring your swim jig through a ball of fry and they spray, you may have a wake come up behind your bait and then turn off. Well, now you know where that fish is at. You throw your worm over there and 99 percent of the time, he’s going to bite it.”
Logan will throw at any fry-guarder he actually sees, but he’d prefer a distant encounter. Kind of like fishing for unseen bed fish, he believes he’ll do better from a strategic distance.
“Every now and then, you can catch one that’s really aggressive, like you saw him, he saw you and he’s still going to bite,” Logan said. “Ninety percent of the time, I’m just casting down the bank and throwing to places where one might have spawned or where you think a ball of fry might be or maybe you can see the ball of fry from way off but you can’ t see the fish.
“You have a lot better chance of that fish biting than if you’re looking eye-to-eye with him.”
Take Off the Blinders
Given spring’s dynamic nature, Welcher remains alert for the multi-layered opportunity that any attractive protected cove, creek or backwater might hold. An open mind, he said, serves well the prepared angler.
“This is the same time of year where the fish are spawning, they’re guarding frying and there may even be some post-spawners chasing around bluegill,” he said. “They may all be in the same area.
“You want to take every piece of cover and fish it like there’s one spawning and there’s one guarding fry. After you throw that wacky rig or prop bait to see if there’s a fish guarding fry, then you might want to pitch your Texas-rigged craw in there.”
Later in the year, there will be plenty of time to lock into one dominant pattern, but spring is the time to lay multiple baits on your deck, keep your head on a swivel and take advantage of every opportunity.
“The fish are in so many different phases this time of year that you really can’t burn through an area with one mindset because then you’re going to miss those fish that are in a different phase,” Welcher said. “Every piece of cover you come to, you have to maximize it in three or four different ways before you move on.
“The fish are going to be super shallow this time of year and once you run your boat over a spot, it’s done.”