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School's In!
By Paul Crawford

It's that magical time of year again when the bass are schooling up thick. It seems a good time to review the basics of fishing for schoolers or "How to Load the Boat Without Really Trying".

The first step is obviously to find the schools. Look for diving birds or surface splashing, (obvious). What may not be quite so obvious is you can pretty well predict where the action will take place. Look for structure, (points, ledges, holes), near deep water. The easiest way for a school of bass to ambush a school of bait fish is to push them out of deep water onto a shallow piece of structure then attack from beneath. It more or less pins the bait to the surface with the shallow structure acting as a corral. If you're in the area of a lake where the main lake body is broken up with a lot of shallow structure, your chances are better than most for finding a school of bass. And don't overlook that isolated oil slick over deep water, or that familiar "fishy" smell. It could be a sign of active feeders wailing on a school of shad just below the surface. And if not, you found a good crappie hole for the next trip.

When a school comes up, there are still a couple of things you need to find out before you throw that first lure. What size are the bait fish? What size are the bass? Is the school tightly packed or a loose area of single feeders? Are they slashing and chasing anything that moves, or leisurely picking off the cripples? Is the school staying pretty much in one spot or pushing and chasing the bait all over the lake? Once you find the mood of the fish, that will pretty much tell you how to work the school the most effectively.

The biggest and most common mistake made happens when a boat approaches a school. I can't count how many times I've seen a boat come roaring in on an active school only to watch them disappear before the first cast is made. If left alone, most schools will be active for at least an hour, any many times several hours. If you spook them once, they're gone for the day. Approach a school with your trolling motor, not the big motor. Try to come up from behind, be that: from down wind; from the deeper water towards the shallows; from where they were to where they're going; or in most cases, all of the above. Use the time as you approach to figure out what the shape, size, and mood of the school is going to be. Have your partner tie up both your lures once you've settled on your choice. A couple of extra minutes now could well spell the difference in a boat load or a bust. Keep far enough back so a long cast just catches the edge of the school, not the middle or across the active area. By just tickling the edges, you may not get bit every cast, but once every fifth cast over an hour isn't bad. If you are coming from behind the school, don't wait until you get to the surface action to start fishing. The biggest fish are generally less aggressive and many times will trail a school of smaller feeders and pick off the leaving!

The most important information about a school is the size of the bait. Match your bait to the size of the bait fish. For 3 to 5+ inch shad, a large willow leaf spinner bait or a 3/4 oz Rattle Trap is a good start. If you don't get hit on these baits, try a 7 inch jerk bait or large shallow running crank bait. If the bait fish are your basic 2 inch minnows, a Little George, Gitzits, or a 4 inch Sluggo could just be the ticket. For a faster bait try a 1/4 oz Rattle Traps, Pop-Rs, or Tiny Torpedoes in Chrome or White.

The size of the bass will dictate how you fish the school. If you have small bass chasing small bait, you've got a good chance to waste your day trying to find a legal fish. If you have small bass chasing big bait, chances are some good fish are in the area. Try a suspending jerk bait or a Carolina worm just behind the school if it's moving, or at the edge of the deep water if on a shoal. The bigger fish are most likely feeding on the fresh kill as they drop to the bottom. If you have 3 - 5 lb. fish on the surface, a real kicker could be near but get your limit off the feeders first. A 7 inch Sluggo or a Zara Spook would be my first choices. A Willow Leaf Spinner Bait or a Poe's 300 could also work well. If you have those 1 - 2 lb. grade fish working the top on smaller bait, still get a limit before trying for the hawgs. This is the time for those Little Georges or a Salt and Pepper Gitzit. A 4 inch Sluggo will work at times when nothing else will draw a bite.

A tightly bunched school boiling the surface will generally hit anything that moves, as long as they don't get too good of look at it. In this case work what ever bait you chose just a fast as you can. Now is when those high gear ratio reels work wonders. There's just no way to out reel a fish if he really wants it! The trick seems to be to give the fish just a spit second to see the bait and have him hit it before looking. Clear or Salt and Pepper lure works great in clear water since the fish can't see it and are just hitting at the movement. Pop-Rs will draw up bites from schoolers that go down if you really rip it as fast as you can. Speed is the key and those with faint hearts need not apply.

If your school is scattered over a wider area, then you're more on a feeding station than a true school. If you see fish busting all over the place in seemingly random small schools, it's going to be a bit tougher, but the results can be spectacular if you find the key. But, try to work this situation as a typical school, the end of the day will find you with a great story and an empty livewell. This condition normally has number of predictable conditions associated with it. It is characterized by reduced light, either cloud cover or a high wind, a large volume of bait in the area, medium to shallow water flats, and a rising surface temperature. These conditions will bring the bass up in droves but it's also the time when horror stories abound about lock jawed fish and short strikes. These fish will be feeding but are likely to be gorged by the time you find them. They will have had their fill of bait and be very selective about what to have for dessert. Present an opportunity just too good to pass up. If you have your heart set on surface lures, try the clear plastic ones or with just a hint of color. Clear Spooks, Crippled Minnows, or Bang-O-Lures work well in this situation. Work them slow with plenty of pauses. Most strikes come just as the lure to starting to move after being stopped for a while. You may find better success trying under the surface. A suspending bait or one that falls slowly can be deadly under these conditions. A slit shot Sluggo in Shad color or on a light Carolina rig just twitched every once in a while can convince even the most stubborn fish to bite. Dead Worming works now when nothing else gets a second glance. Be slow and patient and don't expect the hard hit. These fish may just pick up the lure and move awhile before they bother to eat it. Concentrate on what you're doing and don't miss a bite you work hard for.

What ever the conditions, don't assume just because the fish go down for a while that the party's over. The fish are there they're just recovering from the last lunge. Work the area with small slow moving baits that won't spook the school out of the area. Be ready when the action gets fast. One old trick for schoolers is to have your partner cast right beside a fish you have hooked. Many times your partner will catch a second bass curious about what the first bass just ate. You won't need many doubles for your limit, just make sure your fish is hooked good before you try anything except putting him in the net.

Fishing schools give us some of the best memories we'll ever have about fast action and tons of bass. It's not hard and works most of the time if you'll pay attention to what you're doing and think before you act. When you're on the water this spring, please be careful because "School's In!".

Paul Crawford

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