Largemouth bass inhale 8-inch trout and slurp melon-size balls of shad with ease, and many top anglers believe offering the same sort of colossal banquet is the best way to catch double-digit sized bass.
Eager to test that notion, I arrive at California’s Lake Casitas, one of the top trophy bass lakes anywhere. My fishing partner is Los Angeles firefighter Bill Siemantel, an authority on big bass. Recently, Siemantel and his partner Mike Hart won the 2006 Western Outdoor News (WON) Bass Tournament on Casitas with a winning five-fish limit of 34.94 pounds, which broke the WON Bass all-time weight record. Siemantel’s approach is simple: If you’re looking for fish over 10 pounds, throw baits much bigger than the norm.
As we motor through the early morning fog that envelops Lake Casitas, Siemantel explains from the console of his 19-foot BassCat the phenomenon of big baits.
History of Big Baits
“In the early and mid-1980s, a handful of anglers, including me, were carving giant lures from pool cues and table legs, but they were designed to catch the giant stripers that inhabit many California reservoirs,” Siemantel says. In reservoirs around the country, anglers were fishing other big baits for stripers—the J-Plug, Cordell Redfin, and heavy leadhead jigs with bucktail or vinyl skirts. When Siemantel began to troll his handcrafted lures for landlocked stripers, he made a discovery.
“I started catching huge largemouths. And I wasn’t alone. We went back to our shops to craft lures better suited for bass. Big bass baits soon appeared, including Alan Cole’s wooden jointed AC Plug, Worm King’s 6- to 9-inch soft plastic swimbaits with external jighead, Optimum’s 7-inch internally weighted swimbait, and Castaic’s 9-inch wood trout bait.”
But relatively few anglers were converted to the hulking artificials launched from salmon and ocean sticks. Recall that during the late 1980s and early 1990s, many bass anglers relied on small lures, considered “finesse baits.” In California, finesse proponents such as Mike Jones, George Kramer, and Don Iovino considered petite lures the most consistent method of catching bass, particularly in tournaments.
It wasn’t long before anglers fishing giant plugs began winning tournaments. Big-bait fishermen were becoming efficient at luring big fish and getting them to strike oversize lures. When Dana Rosen and Darin Tochihara caught a 6-fish limit weighing 63.26 pounds on April 30, 1994, with big wood plugs at an American Bass Association tournament on Lake Castaic, big baits finally hit the big time. By the mid 1990s, many anglers had made the switch to big artificials, and the number of giant bass caught rose accordingly.
Siemantel’s devotion to big baits was solidified when he studied the behavior of big bass. “Bass are mean, vicious animals that may attack just about anything from a two-foot snake to a careless duck,” Siemantel says, referring to bass as super-predators. “Anglers shouldn’t let the size of a lure intimidate them, since bass have no fear of large baits.
“I compare it to walking into a room occupied by a vicious toy poodle. The dog may only be a foot long, but he’ll try to rip your leg off because he has no concept of size. Bass are the same way.” Siemantel’s success with big baits led him to establish relationships with tackle companies eager to jump on the big-bait phenomenon, which continues today.
“Lure companies asked my opinion of various lure designs and wanted me to field-test prototypes,” Siemantel says. “I’ve always advised them not to be intimidated by the enormous size of a bait, since bass are not intimidated by the size factor. But some have considered consumer acceptance and demand, as much or more than the effectiveness of a lure. I believe that the only thing preventing a bass from striking big lures is the unwillingness of anglers to use them.”
Today, almost every western angler, particularly in tournaments, has a big bait in his tackle box. For some, it’s all they use. For others, it’s what they use if all else fails, or if they have caught a limit on small baits and need a kicker. But my experience with Siemantel convinced me that big baits are scarily effective if you know how to fish them.
Giant Tubes and Swimbaits
As we fish, Siemantel positions the boat in an open stretch of water off a narrow point. “Anyone can throw a big bait, but they won’t catch bass unless they understand how a largemouth functions,” he says. “Say, for example, Casitas has just been stocked with rainbows, which often is the case here. Anglers who hear this typically tie on a trout replica, thinking the trout bite is on. But they often fail to connect.
“It generally takes time for bass, which have been feeding on a particular food source such as shad or bluegill, to switch to a new food item, no matter how desirable. In this scenario, you should stick with baits that resemble the prey bass have been feeding on for previous weeks.”
When he wants to imitate shad, Siemantel throws a Tiger Tube, a giant tube bait he developed for Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle, and which looks more like a halibut jig or something you’d troll for dorado or skipjack tuna. But Siemantel’s tube technique is intended to create the illusion of a ball of shad darting and changing direction, which he achieves by retrieving slowly while jerking the lure repeatedly. The size of the Tiger Tube and its sudden directional changes trigger shad-feeding bass to strike. Siemantel notes that there isn’t another lure on the market designed to emulate a ball of baitfish, explaining why a large tube can be so effective.
Once Siemantel feels the bass have switched to stocked trout and are no longer feeding on shad, he uses an 8-inch replica rainbow trout jointed in three sections, which he recently created for SPRO, called the BBZ-1. It’s a hefty 5-ounce bait made of hard plastic. When asked if a tube can also be fished to mimic a trout, Siemantel nods. “If I paint a tube with trout colors and bring it in with a slow, steady retrieve, the tube, which is an illusion bait, can trick bass into thinking it’s a delicious rainbow.” Siemantel says, however, that it’s easier to fish a more realistic trout bait like the BBZ-1 than reconfiguring a tube.
The BBZ-1, which can be fished as either a topwater, a slow-sinking, or a fast-sinking lure, not only looks like a rainbow but swims like one. Siemantel, who considers himself a hardcore weekend angler, chose to develop a lure that would be affordable. “I’ve seen big baits priced as high as $200 and $300. I never bought one because I’d be afraid to use it for fear of losing it.” The BBZ-1, priced at around $30, is durable, stores well, and rarely foul-hooks, due to its hook placement.
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