The largemouth bass is, without a doubt, the most important gamefish in North America. Its popularity is due to is widespread distribution (they’re common in every state except Alaska) and the adaptability to various habitats. You can find excellent bass fishing in small farm ponds, big rivers, reservoirs, natural lakes, and even ditches and canals.
The success of this species is due in large part to its most obvious feature, its huge mouth. Bass attack and eat all sorts of prey, from microscopic zooplankton to mice, ducks, and snakes. But in most waters, they rely on preyfish and crayfish for food. The key to catching them is offering a lure that presents an image that makes the bass think it is prey. If you looks at some popular bass lures, you can see that they don’t all look much like a crayfish or a shiner. But the small brain of the bass focuses on certain elements of a lure and they can be fooled by baits that create naturalistic flashes or vibrations, without closely resembling the real thing.
Deciphering Bass Habitat
The most important key to catching largemouth bass is figuring out where, in a large body of water, they will be living. Bass generally prefer warm, shallow areas of lakes, reservoirs, and rivers. They typically choose locations that offer cover in the form of moderately thick vegetation, brush, fallen trees, or other wood cover. At times, largemouth bass feed in open water, but that is the exception to their predominant pattern.
Plants grow thicker as waters warm in spring and summer. In these dense stands of vegetation, bass roam the edges and wander through the dense middle zones, searching for preyfish and crayfish.
In clear water, aquatic plants may grow as deep as 20 feet and bass often occupy that depth in those situations. But in murky water, vegetation is limited to shallow zones and bass are rarely found much deeper than 8 or 10 feet during spring and summer.
Where vegetation is limited or entirely absent, such as in many impoundments and farm ponds, bass seek brush cover. Even a small stick lying along the bank of a pond will attract a bass or two.
Since bass often hold in thick cover, you need a selection of lures that can fish through it without constantly hanging on brush or grass. For many decades, lure designers have spent considerable time creating artificial lures that can be fished through such areas without hassles.
One of the truly breakthrough designs for rigging softbaits is the Texas rig. With a large offset-shank hook, you can hook a soft plastic lure so that it moves through the weeds or wood without snagging, as the hook point is buried in the lure. When a bass bites, however, you can set the hook with a powerful snap of the rod, which pulls the point through the soft lure and into the bass’ mouth.
Another advantage of a Texas rig is that you can fish lures without weight, for working shallow areas just a few feet deep. Or you can add a slipsinker on the line ahead of the hook, which brings the lure into deeper water where bass may lurk. Heavier sinkers also help you cast farther to reach distant spots.
A vast array of softbait shapes are available and they all catch bass at one time or another, as long as you present them where the fish are. Some of the most popular and successful are shaped like worms. These narrow baits slip easily along the bottom and through vegetation and sunken trees. Lures shaped like crayfish also work well since bass are always looking for craws to eat.
Texas-rig them and cast into a pocket in the grass and let the lure fall to the bottom. Wait a second, them slowly pull the lure to the edge of the hole. Sometimes bass get excited when you shake the lure as it sits on the bottom. In more open areas with scattered cover, drag the plastic worm or other lure along the bottom, pausing it from time to time. One neat trick is to place a glass bead between the sinker and the hook. As the lure moves, the metal clicks against the bead, creating sound that can alert bass to its presence. Other shapes to try include tube baits, lizards, creature baits with various arms and legs, stickworms, and minnow-shaped softbaits that are best fished with no weight so they can glide like a wound minnow.
If you asked 10 top professional bass anglers what lure they’d select to catch a lunker bass, 7 of them likely would mention a jig. This lure combines a compact frame, heavy-duty hook, and silicone or rubber skirt into lure that can be fished nearly anywhere. With a soft plastic crawfish or other trailer on the hook, it appeals to bass in thin or thick cover, vegetation or timber, and at almost any depth. The most popular weights are 3/8-and 1/2-oumce, followed by 1/4-ounce. Weight doesn’t much affect the size of the package but it defines how fast it falls through the water column and how well it can punch through vegetation. In addition, heavier jigs can be cast farther.
Jigs work very well when cast to cover, such as fallen trees, boat docks, or lily pad clumps. In extremely thick cover, dropping them vertically into gnarly bushes or thick vegetation, called flippin’, can be very effective. This pattern works best when the sun is bright and bass push into shaded spots, and when cold fronts reduce bass activity.
Jigs work in many of the same situations where Texas-rigged softbaits do. Jigs are more compact, but tend to hang up a big more easily that Texas rigs. But again, they appeal to big bass in every season of the year. While countless colors are available, top selections for most waters include black/blue, brown/purple, green pumpkin, and white.
Where cover is not too thick, rigging a work, craw, or other softbait on a jighead works well. A rather light (1/16- to 1/8-ounce) ballhead or mushroom-shape jighead works best with a worm from 5 to 7 inches long. Since the hook is exposed, bass are readily hooked with a rod lift, as a powerful hook-set isn’t needed. As a result, you can use a light fishing rod and light line, which often gets more bites than a heavier rig.
The jigworm’s simplicity contributes to its persistent popularity, along with the fact that it continues to catch loads of bass in many different environments, in an amazing display of longevity. Moreover, a Ziploc bag can hold all the tackle needed for a day’s fishing.
To rig one correctly, be sure it is straight on the jig hook. To do this, measure the hook shank length against the softbait to the hook point emerges at the spot that will keep it straight on the hook. Straight rigging improves its action on the fall, reduces line twist, and adds to the natural look of the lure.
Spinning tackle is the universal choice for jigworms. While many anglers prefer monofilament line, thin braided line (6- to 10-pound-test) casts very smoothly and lasts for years. In clear-water conditions, adding a leader of 8- or 10-pound fluorocarbon can help fool a few more fish. Attach it with a double uni-knot.
Since the hook is exposed, fish this rig on the edge of cover—outside the deep edge of plantgrowth, where it breaks to open water, or around brush or boat docks. Some jighead styles allow you to insert the hook point back into the worm, so it can be fished through thicker cover without snagging.
A jigworm often works best when cast to an edge and allowed to fall on slack line. Let it hit bottom and sit there for at least 15 seconds. Bass often see it fall, then swim over for a look. At times, gently shaking the worm also draws strikes.
The perennially popular spinnerbait is another versatile bass lure. It excels in shallow vegetation but can also be worked over deep structure, since its lead head drags it downward while its blades spin and flutter. The safety-pin design helps make this lure effective around brush and weedbeds, as the overhead arm deflects sticks and weedstalks away from the hook.
Many different designs exist, each best in a particular situation. The blades are the focus of its action, producing both flash and underwater vibration that attract bass and cause them to bite this lure that looks, on the surface, unlike any natural prey. The lure’s skirt adds color and water disturbance from the blades causes it to flutter.
Models with round Colorado blades produce the greatest vibration and work best in murkier water. Since the big round blade catches a lot of water, it must be retrieved at a slow to moderate pace. Indiana blades are more elongated and many anglers like their versatility, adding substantial flash and vibration. Willowleaf blades are the third primary category, shaped like a long, narrow leaf of that water-loving tree. Willowleaf blades spin rapidly but don’t catch much water so they excel for fishing fast through thick cover. Vibration is reduced but their flash is unmatched.
The most popular weights for spinnerbaits are 3/8- and 1/2-ounce. Those sizes cast easily on spinning or baitcasting tackle and work through water from 2 to 10 feet deep with little effort. And in many situations bass simply cannot resist their flash and action.
At times, though, fish may follow or bump these lures, not engulfing them. In those situations, slipping a trailer over the hook and securing it with a rubber keeper ups your catch. Many experts also add a grub or double-tail trailer to the spinnerbait hook, as this extra action fools more fish at times.
At times, though, a 1/4-ounce model is the best thing for working slowly through shallow emergent grasses such as cattails, bulrushes, and maindencane. And for fishing deep areas and in rivers, heavier spinnerbaits stay down where lunkers lurk. Letting a spinnerbait fall to the bottom, then retrieving it over stumps or deep vegetation also can be effective, particularly in summer and fall. As the lure falls, its blade spins, creating flash and vibration, and bass sometimes bite as it descends.
In the old days of bass fishing, anglers used wooden “plugs” to cover water and tempt bass from all sorts of waters. Today, these lipped lures are called crankbaits, since they come to life once you start retrieving them. The most important feature of a crankbait is its bill.
It determines both how deep the lure runs and what kind of action it produces when pulled through the water. In the hands of experienced anglers, crankbaits are deadly bass lures. And they work for anyone since the action is more or less built-in! Most crankbaits float at rest and dive when the retrieve begins.
Shallow-running crankbaits are fun to fish, as you aim your casts around boat docks, stumps, rock walls, and other cover. Accuracy is more important that distance in these types of situations. Retrieve them slowly so they occasionally bump the bottom or objects in the water.
Cranking can be hard work, however, since long casts are essential when fishing deep-diving lures. It takes the lure a while to reach its maximum depth, where it may bump bottom, crack into stumps, and tempt some deep-dwelling lunkers to bite. So the longer the cast, the longer your lure stays in the fish zone. Moreover, many deep divers have long bills the cause substantial water resistance, which causes the lure to dive. Crankin’ experts favor long rods that are rather flexible, which cast far and keep bass hooked on these lures.
Lipless crankbaits, also called rattlebaits, are a unique class of lures, but they can be extremely effective when fished over and through shallow vegetation, especially in early spring and early summer, when plants are just starting to grow into clumps.
Rattlebaits lack a diving bill and do not float. To fish them shallow, start winding the reel as soon as the lure lands. But if you want to fish is deeper, simply let it fall before beginning the retrieve. For this reason, they are highly versatile for probing the water column to find active fish.
Rattlebaits also produce a lot of sound underwater, which can alert nearby bass of potential prey in the area. Active bass may begin to search for the source of this sound and then notice the lure. Their reaction often it to engulf it in their massive mouth.
When you shop for crankbaits, you will see lures of countless different colors. This can be confusing, but a selection of several general colors are all you need. Since these lures certainly imitate baitfish, those colored like shad, shiners, or other common preyfish work well. Where yellow perch are common, lures colored like them also are good. And since bass favor crayfish wherever they find them, lures with mixed greens, browns, reds, and oranges imitate the basic hues of these big invertebrates.
For the last ten years or so, swimbaits have been among the top lures for catching lots of big bass. They’ve won countless tournament and accounted for many huge bass. The term swimbait can be used to describe several styles of lure including large boot-tail bodies fished on jigheads or wide-gap, weighted hooks; lipped divers with bodies made of soft plastic, wood, or hard plastic; internally weighted swimbaits, usually with boot tail; and big jointed hardbaits.
These lures tempt bass with their lifelike action and looks. Big ones imitate big preyfish like gizzard shad, bluegills, and rainbow trout that huge bass seek. Swimbaits feature a tail shake, and the best ones also have a natural rolling motion when retrieved. These two movements create unique natural vibrations underwater that bass detect and typically follow if they’re feeding. Fish often completely engulf the lure.
Sinking swimbaits can cover the water column from near the surface to as deep as you want to fish. Most experts recommend a slow, steady retrieve, with just the occasional twitch or pause. Match your tackle to the weight of the lure you’re fishing; equipment can range from medium-heavy spinning gear to extra-heavy power baitcasting tackle.
We generally lump long, narrow-bodied crankbaits into the minnowbait category. This group of lures is not as versatile as others, but when bass want a minnowbaits, nothing else will do. In early spring, when water temperatures are below 50°F, suspending minnowbaits, often termed jerkbaits, often are your key to success. The colder the water, the slower you should work these baits. With their rather small lip, they don’t dive much deeper than 5 feet. Using medium-light tackle, work suspending models with slow twitch-pause cadence, sometimes letting the lure settle for up to 30 seconds. Bass are sluggish in these frigid conditions, and may slowly move closer to take a look, then finally gently bite the lure. Suspending jerkbaits work in shallower coves and also over deep areas, as bass may suspend high in the water column in spring, say 6 feet down in a 20-feet-deep spot. That’s when these baits prove deadly.
Floating minnowbaits also tempt a lot of bites from bass scattered in shallow or mid-depth vegetation, in the range of 4 to 10 feet. These baits, made of wood or hollow plastic, can be twitched below the surface, then allowed to rise to the surface. Work them slowly in pockets and edges of grass as long as bass remain shallow and vegetation isn’t too thick.
This is a specialized lure category that’s relatively new. It started with the Chatterbait, a lure with a jighead and skirt like w eedless jig, but with a small aluminum blade attached to the nose of the jig, which serves to make the whole package vibrate and swim through the water with a weaving motion. The blade in front also serves to deflect off vegetation, so these lures work well in grassy areas. To increase the action, add a trailer to the hook, such as a double-tail spinnerbait trailer, grub, or small swimbait.
Tempting bass to charge the surface to attack a lure is both exciting and productive, as long as the water is warm, above about 60°F. Topwater lures also are fun to fish because you’re in charge of what the lure does. They float and when retrieved may pop and chug the surface, walk back-and-forth in a steady rhythm, or churn the water with small propellers. These actions seem to imitate the look of weak and dying baitfish. As opportunistic predators, bass don’t often pass up such a treat.
While surface lures sometimes pull bass to the surface from depths of 10 to 15 feet, the best action comes from shallower spots where bass hold in submergent vegetation or other cover such as rocks, brush, or stumps.
Poppers have cupped mouths that create a splash, bubbles, and sound when you give them a hearty pull. This action often stirs the interest of a bass in the vicinity and the fish looks up to see what the commotion is about. Letting the lure settle after popping it gives fish a chance to approach and strike. This type of retrieve is particularly effective over thick cover or deep water. When schools of bass attack preyfish on the surface, a faster retrieve often works better.
Walking baits are longer and cylindrical, which allows them to glide back and forth across the surface, covering a wide swath of water as they imitate a baitfish the swims aimlessly on top of the water, which is an obvious and tempting meal for any bass.
These versatile surface baits work in rivers and lakes, in water that ranges from somewhat stained to clear, and are best in summer once bass have moved into deeper cover.
Propbaits are enhanced with small propellers to create splashing action on the surface. Some propbaits have propellers on the nose and tail of the lure, while others have just one of the tail. (Include photo from 2014 Bass Guide, p. 30). Models with paired props typically are longer and create more surface splash. These lures also are intended to resemble a dying baitfish. They generally work best when you give them a good twitch or two, then let the lure settle. That’s when bass typically attack. With their rear prop hanging in the water, these baits make a tempting target for active bass.
A less common sort of topwater lure is the wakebait, which initially resembles a crankbait because it has a lip. But the lip extends straight down, so it does not dive, but instead swishes along the surface, moving back and forth in imitation of a distressed fish. Wakebaits are most effective in summertime, when worked over weedy flats from 5 to 10 feet deep, or else over deep edges along bluffs in clear reservoirs and lakes. When it seems like bass have seen every type of lure in a body of waters and become hard to catch, wakebaits can wake ‘em up with their novel action.
There’s a selection of lures that don’t quite fit other categories, but excel when big bass inhabit the shallow, weedy zones of lakes, reservoirs, and rivers, which they frequently do throughout summer and into early fall. That makes for some real exciting fishing, and when conditions are right, you may catch your biggest bass of the year on one of these.
The first category is the weedless frog. These hollow baits float on top, and with an upturned double-hook, they can work through and over dense vegetation. (Include photo from 2012 Bass Guide, p. 42-43). Because of their boat-like shape, anglers can twitch these frogs in open pockets, make them walk back and for the like a topwater lure. This tactic often proves irresistible to any nearby bass. Some anglers also use them successfully in open water and under boat docks. Dealing with thick cover and big bass, heavy baitcasting tackle is essential—7- to 8-foot heavy-action rods and 50- to 80-pound braided line.
The buzzbait is another surface lure that works over shallow flats and among moderately dense clumps of weeds. Shaped like a spinnerbait, its overhead buzz blade creates a real racket when retrieved at a moderate pace. Its combination of sound, underwater vibration, bubble trail, and surface profile can prove deadly from early summer into mid-fall, as long as bass are holding in thick, shallow cover. They’re exciting to fish as you never know when an explosive strike will come. It’s generally best to retrieve a buzzbait so it stays on top, but at the slowest possible pace. At times, though, a speedy retrieve works. Fish buzzbaits on baitcasting tackle with long, medium-heavy-power rods with some flex in the tip. This helps in casting these wind-resistant lures and delaying the hook-set for a fraction of a second, so the bass gets the bait in its mouth.
Finally the weedless spoon is another classic category that is essential in fishing for bass in weedy, summertime conditions. Like the frog, these metal lures pass over matted vegetation, lily pads, and algae clumps, where big bass often lurk, feeding on frogs, baitfish, dragonflies, and even small birds. Weedless spoons typically have a single hook that rides up as the lure is retrieved. Many also have a weedguard. Begin the retrieve as soon as the spoon lands, so it stays on top of the vegetation. Keep your rod tip up and reel slowly, adding occasional twitches to alter its cadence.
Putting it All Together:
Once you get the hang of it, catching bass becomes easy. They are aggressive fish and often gather in large groups. Starting out, it’s best to search shallow areas for bass, as you can see many good fishing spots with your eyes. Things that add cover and shade are attractive, such as fallen trees, boat docks, rock walls, stumps, and overhanging vegetation. Thick weedbeds also are productive. Select lures that can work through that cover without hanging up.
Practice casting so you can place lures into these small areas reliably. Work a good spot slowly, then move on. Try different sorts of areas until you start to get bites. Then look for similar habitat and fish it thoroughly. At times, deeper water is most productive and you will need to search for good spots with contour maps and sonar/GPS units. This can take some practice, but the more you do it, the better you will become at finding deep fish. Remember that bass and many other fish like to operate along edges. The deeper edge of a weedbed can be good. In reservoirs or rivers without vegetation, check the edges of creek channels, as well as the edges of manmade cover such as marinas, bridges, wing dams, and riprap banks.
Select lures that run into the deeper zones along these edges. Try casting parallel to these edges, or else retrieve sinking lures from the edge out toward deeper water. Just like fishing shallow, keep trying areas and lure options until the action starts. Then keep working similar areas.
So that’s how to catch largemouth bass. Bass fishing is fun and totally addicting. Once you catch a few fish, you will want to fish more, learn more, and catch more. One fun way to get started is by joining a bass club. These exist in every town across the country and in Canada where good bass waters can be found. They invite members young and old, experienced and novice, to join in club activities and tournaments where you can learn many new techniques from avid anglers. They enthusiasm is contagious. Have fun!
- “To me, Florida is the big-bass hatchery of the world, whether they go to Texas or California,” says legendary pro Larry Nixon. “Lakes here have some deep water, lots of grass, great spawning habitat, and the best fishing is in the heart of summer when nobody knows about it and nobody’s there.” Okeechobee is back. Not news, but along with Lake Seminole, the Harris Chain, Lake Tarpon, the Everglades, the Kissimmee Chain, and several others—Florida can’t be bypassed when naming the top 10 states for bass. “On Okeechobee, that early-morning Zara Spook bite is nothing shy of awesome,” Nixon said. “Anglers overlook the St. John’s River, too. If you know how to fish tidewater, the St John’s is awesome. The Harris Chain has always been solid, and the Toho-Kissimmee Chain is way up there on my list of favorites for numbers of big fish.”