By Jonathan LePera
Special to BassFan

Mike McClelland has always marched to the beat of his own drum. Bucking the norm is nothing new to him, so when anglers learn that he targets the shade in cold water instead of the sun, it might raise an eyebrow or two.

“So many guys will pull up to a boat dock in the spring and disregard the shade and just fish the cover of the dock,” McClelland said. “Through my years of fishing, I realized so many of my bites have come from the shade line instead of the dock itself."

Regardless of what part of the country he’s fishing during the cold-water months, McClelland will seek out the shade.

“A shade line gives bass that sense of security and cover,” he said, “but they want to be close to the sun which is creating the shade because of the cold water and the temps they are fighting this time of the year."

Cruising for Cover

In the spring, the bass use the sun to warm themselves but the shade becomes the cover, McClelland says. Once the water temperatures start to warm in the cold-weather months, baitfish and forage start climbing in the water column seeking the warmth of the sun.

Bass still have predatory instincts in wanting some sort of cover, McClelland added, but they don’t want to bury up into shade by hiding under a dock, preventing them from using the “soft shade lines” as ambush points. Fish will utilize the shade thrown over a point by a big tree the same way.

They’ll cruise the edges, always keeping their body in the sunshine to feel the warmth of the sun and their nose and eyes into the shade to make them feel like they are hidden, yet always ready to ambush, McClelland says.

When dealing with larger areas of shade created by a larger set of docks or a larger dock that may harbor a number of fish, the bigger fish tuck a little further into the shade, ducking just out of sight. Most often, the smaller fish are the first to commit while the larger fish are less aggressive when covered by shade.

Photo: BassFan

The SPRO RK Crawler is a good tool for targeting bass hovering lower in the water column around shade lines.

When dealing with isolated fish, McClelland knows their behavior well. Big bass typically occupy the high-percentage areas like the very corner of the shade lines where two lines intersect. Those spots hold more potential than a shade line that runs parallel to a dock.

Follow their Movements

Early in the morning, baitfish tend to be out deeper, but as the sun rises they’ll move shallower and the bass will follow. Bass will initially set up on a shade line and wait for the bait to arrive. McClelland has studied this behavior repeatedly using Garmin Panoptix.

Knowing that bass will be lethargic, he tries to keep his bait in the upper portion of the water column when targeting shade lines. Pinpoint placement of a jerkbait is a great option for this pursuit and McClelland relies on the SPRO McStick 95 and 110 versions in these situations. He’ll pair a 6-foot, 8-inch medium-heavy Falcon Cara ST casting rod with a low gear-ratio reel, which forces him to fish slow.

Some fish tend to hunker on the bottom once they move shallow. McClelland favors a 1/2-ounce ball-head or Dirty Jigs Tour Level Skirted Football Jig paired with a Big Bite Baits Chunk or a small crawfish trailer.

“Those fish will pull up real shallow, but they’ll still use those shade lines,” McClelland said.

A 3 1/2- to 6 1/2-inch Big Bite Baits Suicide Shad or a Cabela's McClelland Competition Series 3.4 Swimmer fished on an under-spin or a ball-head jig is great when imitating bait. He’ll fish it through the water column wherever the bass are holding. He’ll mix in a SPRO RkCrawler 55 crankbait when targeting bass in the 9- to 14-foot range.

“You need to understand why fish are at a certain depth level,” he said. “Many times, the fish will suspend at the depth level that the sunlight is just able to penetrate. They can be two feet down and the sunlight is still penetrating into the water column and they can still feel the warmth of the sun, which dictates how deep they’ll suspend.”

McClelland uses the ClearVü and Panoptix features of his Garmin units to locate bait in the water column. He’ll make sure his bait is just above them and if they’re on the bottom, right in front of them. The role of good mapping and electronics is key.

“You need to read your mapping to understand the lay of the lake to ensure you’re taking advantage of the shade lines throughout the course of the day,” McClelland said. “Other than when the sun gets directly overhead, and that doesn’t happen much during the winter months, the sun is rising and setting so much further in the south. Typically, you have some shade lines throughout the course of the day in the colder months of the year.”