Clarks Hill, Murray, Hartwell and Russell, all the lakes that have good populations of bluebacks, have incredible fishing this month, maybe more than any other month, because of the herring spawn.
The herring spawn is the only time when bass can really take advantage of them. At other times, they're deeper than bass like to comfortably live, and stripers are their only predator. But when they spawn, they move up within range, and the bass get so aggressive, the fishing can be just tremendous.
What I really love about it is that it's a topwater bite - and a different kind of topwater. I love to fish topwater baits anyway, but when the herring are spawning, the way the bass strike is one of the most exciting things about the whole deal. Instead of getting a subtle little strike or having a bass come up and just kind of suck a plug down, they have a totally different attitude. The strike can be almost violent.
I guess it's like the difference in my attitude between eating a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich and a nice, juicy ribeye. I'll eat the sandwich because I'm hungry and there's one around, but when I'm going to get to eat a ribeye, that's definitely different.
You get some herring spawning in late April, and a few on into June, but they spawn the whole month of May, and you can get great topwater fishing anytime you can find them spawning. There will be lots of herring, and the bass are going to be right there.
Finding them is the key, and you have to understand that, unlike shad, herring don't have to spawn on the bottom. They'll spawn close to the surface, but they might be over deep water. A lot of times, you'll find 'em shallow on points, but it depends on water temperature, water clarity and the available cover.
What I do is put on my polarized Solar Bat sunglasses and go looking for 'em. There will be so many, you'll be able to see 'em; they might be over 30 feet of water, but they'll be within a foot of the surface. Besides my eyesight, I rely on my Humminbird electronics, and on the real professional fishermen - the egrets and herring and osprey.
Birds of prey are really good to watch, because, like bass, the spawn is the only time of the year when birds get the chance to feed on herring. These guys fish for a living, and when the blueback herring are around, they'll be on top of them. If you see heron or egrets stalking in an area, don't leave it, because the herring are pretty close by - and the bass will be right behind them.
As far as lures are concerned, any kind of noisy topwater bait will do: Zara Spooks, Sammys, Pencil Poppers, Pop-Rs. They'll hit a variety of different baits; I like to fish a Spook the most. Of course, if you find herring up shallow close to the bank, you can throw a Mop Jig or a Senko or a Carolina rig in there and catch 'em. It's just not quite as exciting as catching them on topwater.
Early on in the month, the topwater bite is an all-day bite. As you get later in May, it will be more of an early-morning thing, but it will be all-day most of the month. The herring will stay up shallow after they spawn - they don't just rush out back to 50-foot deep water; they'll be within 10 feet of the surface for a while after they finish.
You'll know the spawn is starting to wind down when you can't find the herring shallow anymore, when they go back deep. If you can't find bluebacks within 20 feet of the surface, when you don't see a bunch of them going shallow, when the birds of prey start to stalk bream beds, then the herring have probably finished up and gone back to the deep water where they'll spend the rest of the year.
And we go back to trying to catch bass the way we usually do.
The May herring spawn is a special time for bass fishermen. If you fish Lake Murray and you only have a few days to fish, if you can only get away on weekends, this is the time you need to go.
Davy Hite is a 43-year-old native of Saluda who lives in Ninety Six. He was the BASS Angler of the Year in 1997 and 2002, and he won the 1999 Bassmasters Classic and the 1998 FLW Tour Championship. He is sponsored by Triton boats, Evinrude outboards, All-Star rods, Pfleuger reels, Berkley Trilene, Yamamoto Baits, Owner hooks, Humminbird depthfinders and Solar Bat sunglasses.