I love May because it's a month you can just go out and fish. I like to get out on the lake and pick up a rod and fish whatever bait is tied on. You can catch fish in May on a crankbait, a spinnerbait, jigs, topwaters, worm. There have been tournaments I've won in May when I've caught fish on two, three or four different baits, which is quite a lot when you're fishing for a 5-fish limit.
May is extra special in South Carolina. February and March are probably better months to catch big fish, but in May, you can catch big fish moving out after the spawn, and you'll still have a lot of quality fish on the bank. This year, with the mild winter we had and the early spring, bass are probably about two weeks ahead of schedule, but I think the topwater bite we look forward to will still happen the first half of the month.
That topwater bite is driven by the presence of blueback herring. We have them in some of the lakes that are closest to my home: Murray, Clarks Hill and Hartwell. Bluebacks spawn on the bank in May, and the largemouth bass will take advantage of all that food moving into shallow water.
Bluebacks will get up on the banks, especially early in the morning. I'd advise you to get out early, because that's when you take advantage of the topwater bite. The bass will school, and they'll get real active at dawn. Unlike shad, which spawn mostly in the backs of coves, blueback herring are going to move up and spawn on main-lake points.
The neat thing about fishing the blueback spawn for bass is that you can catch 'em on a lot of different baits. When I won the BASS tournament a couple of years ago on Clarks Hill in May, I was fishing the blueback spawn, but I caught them on a mop jig, but I could have caught them on topwater or swimbaits. One reason I fish a lot of different baits during the blueback spawn is that I think we've educated our bass so much. I think you need to fish baits different from anybody else to catch quality fish.
Like most fishermen, I love to throw topwaters early in the morning to catch the first fish that are moving in. I've had good success fishing prop baits, poppers, stick or walking baits. I don't think one is better than the other; you play around and fish the one you have the most confidence in.
I usually start off with a walking bait, which I fish on a 7-foot, medium-action All-Star rod and Pfleuger Patriarch reel. I prefer the wide-spool model, because you can fill it with a lot more line and make longer casts, which is always important when you're fishing topwater. I also want to use monofilament anytime I'm fishing a topwater bait, Trilene XT in my case, because you don't want to use braid or fluorocarbon when you're fishing a bait at the surface.
The key to taking full advantage of the blueback herring spawn is being able to adjust after the first hour or so of daylight. As the sun gets up good, I back off and start to fish other baits: swimbaits, mop jigs, Carolina rigs, around the same areas. If the blueback herring were active, spawning on a point at first light, they won't move far, and the bass won't go far. I think the bass feel like they can get a lot of their feed on the first thing every morning, and they won't leave until the bluebacks leave.
What I'll do is fish the same spots throughout the day, just back off and fish a little deeper. If you find a good point where bluebacks are spawning, you might be able to come back and fish it later in the day with a swimbait or a jig, and sometimes, throwing a topwater will trigger them again, get them exited enough to come up and hit a bait. And on a windy day, they may stay up and hit topwaters all day.
If my second choice after the fish start to back off is a swimbait, I'll fish the 7-foot All-Star soft swimbait rod, and I'll spool the reel with 15-pound Trilene 100 Percent Fluorocarbon. I'll fish a half-ounce brown Mop Jig on an 7-foot-2, medium-heavy All-Star jig rod, with 15- to 17-pound fluorocarbon.
When the herring spawn ends, it ends pretty quickly and the fish will all leave. The herring will move out into extremely deep water. I don't think the bass will go out that far, but they'll go out and suspend. I don't think they wander too far away from those places where they fed on the bluebacks. But it will definitely signal the beginning of the summer patterns.
So take advantage of the time you have this spring when bass are shallow, ganged up in small areas and hungry. Tie on some of your favorite baits, enjoy a quiet dawn on the water and catch some fish.