By Jonathan LePera
Special to BassFan
Be it a Major League Fishing Cup event or the Bassmaster Elite Series trail, Kevin VanDam has made a living off targeting schooling bass.
“Why not fish for fish that you know are there and that are feeding, if you can?” he asks.
VanDam is a competition junkie and cracking the code on schooling bass is just another game to him. Knowing they’ve probably been pressured and are usually harder to catch with food readily available, he knows they’ll be tricky.
“Bass have an abundance of shad in the area and to make our bait stand out and get them to eat it instead of one of the real things, I love the challenge,” he said.
Below are a few tactics VanDam employs when targeting schools of fish:
For VanDam, the party starts once bass finish spawning through the threadfin spawn and carries through fall when the temperatures start to drop.
Schooling bass group up and physically chase bait – they’re bullies, VanDam says.
“Bass are going to chase bait to an edge,” he added. “The only two edges in the lake are the bottom and the top. They may use a grass line or a sea wall during a shad spawn, but they’re going to push them somewhere where they can’t go any farther.”
When formulating his game plan for this scenario, VanDam identifies what kind of lake he’s fishing and the behaviors of the bait living within it. Most often, it’s a threadfin-shad spawn that triggers the schooling behavior of bass. He has witnessed similar events around emerald shiners and bluegill.
Yes, gizzard shad also school up, but not in the huge pods like threadfins. Congregating in smaller clusters, bass in fisheries like the Tennessee River target the jumbo gizzards.
Water clarity dictates VanDam’s lure selection and approach to each school, how easy they are to catch and how long they’ll stay up in the water column.
“The clearer the water, the trickier the schooling bite can be,” he noted.” That’s where it gets more sporadic with little pods breaking off. You have to be quick to react.”
When the HydroWave was first introduced, it had all the makings of a gimmick. Today, VanDam has banked millions using the unit, thereby reinforcing the credibility and utility of the technology. Yes, he helped create the unit, but he’s won multiple tournaments with it, too.
“When you are targeting schooling fish, a HydroWave is as important as your trolling motor,” VanDam said.
VanDam pointed out the 25 different sound patterns available on his signature series unit that were the result of different shad activity being recorded, including when they were being attacked by bass. Sometimes notes were blended together, like a song, to sound more natural.
Once he’s able to match the sound patterns to the conditions and time of year, VanDam is adamant that the volume and delay (the quiet period in between sounds) be exact.
“It’s critical to have the quiet time in between the sounds to allow the bait to calm down,” he said. “When the HydroWave starts playing again, it makes the bait get nervous. Once one bass attacks, it gets them fired up, or once the shad flinch that’ll trigger the bass into biting.”
Before the introduction of the HydroWave, anglers would spook shad by turning their trolling motors on and off hoping to attract the attention of a bass that would blow up on the shad that showed themselves.
He doesn’t run his volume very high when it’s slick calm – sound carries easily under water. VanDam reasons that bass will be swimming around waiting to get in position on a pod of shad and when they see an opportunity, they’ll capitalize on it.
“Most times, that sound is the trigger,” he said. “You don’t want them to be feeding 100 yards away. You want it to be within a cast of the boat.”
When it’s windy, he’ll crank up the volume to mitigate the background noise.
“It’s hard to see schooling activity anyways,” he added. “Then, you have to be on a certain piece of structure, or a current point, something they are using like an ambush spot that you still see them.”
When the water is stained, odds are they’ll be shallower and relating closely to a piece of structure like a shallow creek channel in the back of a flat.
In clear water, like at Table Rock Lake, they’ll school in 100 feet of water, not relating to anything out in the middle of the lake. They’ll literally “pop-up like ghosts 200 yards away following pods of bait,” he said.
VanDam relies heavily on his Humminbird Helix 12 Mega-Imaging units when fishing schools. He’s learned that by utilizing the 360-Imaging feature, not only can he see how the bait is positioned all the way around the boat, but also how bass are relating to it. He’ll know how long of a cast he needs to make and the depth his lure should be targeting and at which angle.
Catching the larger fish in the school is no easy task, though. They’ll let the smaller fish do the majority of the work, corralling the bait and pushing them toward the surface. The larger fish are opportunistic feeders that pick off wounded bait and those that break the surface first.
Over deeper water, he’s found the better fish will hover below the school while in shallow water they’ll set up on the perimeter of the activity.
VanDam stresses that a stealth-like approach is imperative. Keep your distance and be quiet. When moving between schools within an area, whether using an outboard or trolling motor, he’ll “glide into the area.”
Casting angles are key. When fishing clear shallow water, he’d sooner park his boat super shallow and cast to deep water, always keeping the sun at his back.
VanDam believes his background in hunting and understanding of predatory instincts helps him when targeting schoolers.
“Many times I let the wind move the boat so I didn’t have to make as much noise and I’ll just fan cast,” he said. “You want to keep the element of surprise as long and as much as you can.”
Coming up on a school initially will be the easiest to get bit. Once their buddies have been stung a few times, they’ll wise up fast.
Lure choices are all a matter of calculated risk taking into account the landing ratio, but also the size of the bass he’s targeting. Equipment choices are all about making the longest cast possible.
VanDam’s first choice is a 4- or 5-inch Strike King Caffeine Shad depending on the size of bait and bass he’s targeting. He’ll pair a 40 series Quantum Smoke Speed Freak spinning reel spooled with 10-pound BPS XPS braided line with a 7-foot, 4-inch KVD Tour spinning rod.
He’ll run an 18-inch piece of 14-pound BPS XPS fluorocarbon from a ball-bearing swivel to the hook. This helps to prevent line twist, increases casting distance, and it allows VanDam to keep his soft-plastic jerkbait deeper in the water column.
Using a belly-weighted Mustad Grip Pin hook helps also. He’ll fish the 4/0 size with the 4-inch model and 5/0 or 6/0 hook with the larger 5-inch bait.
“Most people think it’s just another soft-plastic jerkbait, but if you’ve seen it in the water when you burn it, it quivers. That’s why I love that bait,” VanDam said.
Mixing in a twitch or two can be all it takes when burning and killing the bait every few feet to get those bass to flip the switch.
To call up schooling fish, he’ll throw a Strike King Sexy Dawg with the larger #3 Mustad KVD Elite Series Triple Grip treble hooks.
He prefers fishing larger topwaters on 50-pound braided line because it not only facilitates long casts but also gets the hooks into fish.
For calling up big fish, a 4-inch glacier-colored Strike King Ocho is hard to beat. He’ll fish it either wacky or Neko-rigged depending on the depth of water that he’s fishing and the rate of fall he wants the bait to achieve.
For both baits, he likes the Mustad Neko Wacky hook. If he needs it to fall faster, he’ll wrap lead fly-tying material around the shank of the hook.
When the bite is tough, he says it’s hard to beat a ghost-shad colored 2.75-inch Strike King Rage Swimmer rigged on a 1/4- to 3/16-ounce ball-head jig.
While he will mix in a jerkbait, it isn’t his first choice. Being a treble-hooked bait, he knows that losing fish is a very real possibility. He prefers the security afforded by a single-hooked Caffeine Shad for a better hook-up/landing ratio.
“Over the years, time and again, I’ve targeted schooling fish,” he said. “It’s something I’ve prided myself in, in being able to figure and get them to bite and all different situations – spotted, largemouth, smallmouth in all times of the year.”