A Month-by-Month Guide to Midwest Finesse for Bass
January 11, 2012
Beginning around 2001 a cadre of northeastern Kansas bass anglers launched a renaissance of the finesse fishing tactics that the late Chuck Woods of Kansas City devised in the 1950s and '60s. These anglers reside and primarily fish along a 60-mile-wide exurban corridor that parallels the Interstate 70 from Kansas City to Topeka. I am one of these anglers.
Around 2008 anglers from the Carolinas to Arizona and Rio Grande to the Lake of the Woods got wind of this renaissance. Many of them, such as Mike Poe of Siler City, North Carolina, and Ron Care of El Paso, Texas, contacted us.
Initially, anglers wanted to know if we thought this tactic, which we call Midwest finesse, would work in their part of the world. We told them that it worked for us in waterways as divergent as several highland reservoirs in the Ozarks, natural lakes of Minnesota and many flatland reservoirs on the southern plains.
Now we have an e-mail service that allows anglers to communicate about how they employ Midwest finesse in their waterways. As time has gone by, a number of anglers, from environs as different as Pennsylvania and New Mexico, have reported to us that Midwest finesse tactics catch bass in their waterways. Several say it's the most prolific method for catching bass that they have ever used.
As we begin the second decade of this century, anglers are still seeking detailed information about our tackle and how we used it.
Anglers also have petitioned us to compile a monthly synopsis of how and where we catch bass in the flatland lakes we regularly fish in northeasternKansas.
Those petitions are the genesis of this article, which details a month by month description of how we used our finesse tactics to catch bass. It's based on a finesse diary that I have compiled since 2004 while fishing with Dick Bessey of Lawrence, Kansas, Steve Desch of Topeka, Kansas, Bob Gum of Kansas City, Kansas, Rick Hebenstreit of Shawnee, Kansas, Clyde Holscher of Topeka, Casey Kidder of Topeka, Rodney Hatridge of Shawnee and Pok-Chi Lau of Lawrence.
Description of our reservoirs.
We primarily fish 13 public reservoirs. The largest contains 11,600 surface acres, and the smallest has only 55 surface acres. All are situated in urban, suburban or exurban areas. Two have power plants on them, and the warm water flowing out of these plants allow us to have open water to ply during winter's harshest spells. Angler predation is extensive on most of all our reservoirs.
Aquatic vegetation graces eight of the reservoirs; the most prevalent vegetation is American water willow. The other plants are American pondweed, bushy pondweed, coontail, curly-leaf pondweed and milfoil.
The bass forage upon brook silversides, gizzard shad, invertebrates and sunfishes. Most of our lure presentations are focused upon replicating invertebrates.
Water clarity is relatively stained throughout the year. Planktonic algae blooms and sediment from rains frequently stain the water. Chemical pollution also affects our waterways. The clearest water typically occurs in the winter.
Largemouth bass abide in all of them; smallmouth bass reside in seven; spotted bass live in one. Our catch rates have fluctuated from year to year at each of these reservoirs — especially at the biggest ones. One year four reservoirs will be extremely productive, and then the next year four different reservoirs will be the most productive. In 2008, the largemouthbass virus hit two of the reservoirs. It's suspected that it will spread to the other lakes.
Despite the virus and significant angling pressure, finesse anglers catch and release a lot of bass from these waters. For instance, a pair of us -- and occasionally it was a threesome -- caught 17,983 bass in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. During this 48 month span, we fished 493 times for a total of about 1,972 hours, which equals 36.3 bass per outing and 9.1 bass per hour.
Equipment and presentation
Most of us use six-foot, medium-action spinning rods fitted with medium-sized spinning reels, but a few of us use rods as short as 5 1/2 feet and as long as seven feet. Our reels are spooled with 10-pound-test braid and a five-foot piece of 8-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. The leader is attached to the braid with a Seaguar knot. To the leader, we affix a jig with an improved clinch knot.
We employ three sizes of Gopher Mushroom Head Jigs: 1/32-ounce with a No. 6 hook, 1/16-ounce with a No. 4 hook and 3/32-ounce with a No.2 hook. The heads of the jigs are usually red. Some are unpainted and a few are either black or chartreuse.
To the jigs, we affix the following soft-plastic lures: YUM two-inch Wooly Beavertail, YUM three-inch Dinger, YUM four-inch and three-inch Muy Grub, Gene Larew three-inch Baby Hoodaddy, Gene Larew 3 ½-inch Long John Minnow, Strike King 2 ½-inch Zero, Strike King four-inch Finesse Worm, Strike King Bitsy Tube, 2 ½-inch generic tube, Z-Man three-inch Rain MinnowZ, Z-Man 2 ½--inch ZinkerZ, Z-Man four-inch Finesse WormZ, and Z-Man four-inch Finesse ShadZ. On our rigs, the five-inch Zero and ZinkerZ are cut half, which makes them 2 ½ inches long. YUM has stop manufacturing and merchandising the three finesse baits we use; thus our supply of their baits has dwindled to just a few packages. Thanks to the insights and suggestions of Drew Reese of Rantoul, Kansas, who was one of the first practitioners of Midwest finesse tactics back in the 1960s, we began using Zoom Bait Company's four-inch Mini Lizard rather than a four-inch Finesse WormZ and small creaturebaits, such as Baby Hoodaddy and Wooly Beavertail, during the spawning season of 2011, and it paid such handsome dividends that it will be part of finesse repertoire during the spawn for years to come.
The Zero and ZinkerZ are the same baits; Z-Man Fishing Products manufactures both of them. The Strike King four-inch Finesse Worm and Z-Man four-inch Finesse WormZ are the same baits, and Z-Man makes both of them. At time we cut an inch off of the head of these worms.
The Zero and ZinkerZ become more productive as they age and the salt is leached from their bodies. The aging process, however, necessitates the usage of either a 1/16- or 3/32-ounce Gopher jig; a well-aged Zero or ZinkerZ will float a 1/32-ounce Gopher.
Midwest finesse anglers have deduced that wielding a soft-plastic lure affixed to a jig is more effective than employing a split-shot rig or slip-sinker rig, and until this day, nothing has surpassed the effectiveness of the jig. Therefore, all of our soft-plastic lures are adorned with a jig.
Our most fruitful soft-plastic colors have been green pumpkin, Junebug, peanut butter and jelly, purple haze, and white. On occasions, we wield a black neon tube and black neon Finesse WormZ, and the same baits in black and blue.
In the winter, a few of us occasionally use a 1/32-ounce and 1/16-ounce jig with a chrome head, silver-tinseled body and silver marabou tail. We also use a black one and a brownish or olive one.
Some of us occasionally use a Lucky Craft, Megabass or Smithwick jerkbait in the winter -- especially when the wind roars.
We retrieve the jig combos five different ways: shake, swim and glide; hop and bounce; drag and deadstick; drag and shake, and straight swim. We rarely probe water deeper than 12 feet and prefer depths of one to eight feet — even in the dead of winter and heat of the summer. On every outing, we test all five retrieves. We have found short casts allow us to execute our retrieves more effectively than long casts do. Our retrieves are normally slower and subtler during cold-water times than in warm-water times.
This is our most trying and coldest month of the year. During many Januaries, Ole Man Winter ices over our cold-water lakes, relegating us to fishing the power-plant lakes. The winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11 were unseasonably cold, icy, snowy and windy, and it dramatically proscribed our fishing. Therefore, we fished only twice in January of 2010 and twice in January of 2011. But January of 2006 was temperate, and we fished 15 times.
If our cold-water lakes are ice free, we prefer to fish the ones that range in size from 140 to 400 acres and are endowed with several significant coves.
Each winter outing commences at 11 p.m. and ends at 3 a.m.
When our cold-water lakes are virtually ice free, the surface temperature ranges from 37 to 40 degrees. Many anglers think that wintertime largemouth bass abide in deep water, but we catch the bulk of our cold-water bass in five to eight feet of water situated about one-third to two-thirds of the way inside coves. Some of the best locales in these coves are enhanced with submerged aquatic vegetation.
At lakes that are devoid of submerged vegetation, we regularly catch bass in five to 12 feet of water at locales adorned with rocks and boulders, as well as a creek channel and brush pile nearby. Such spots are often better if they are embellished with patches of American water willows, where the outside edges of the water willows are in three to four feet of water. The water willow is an emergent plant, and its stems are brown and leafless in the winter. Although rocky lairs laced with water willows, a nearby brush pile and a channel edge situated inside coves have normally been our most productive spots, we have found a few similar lairs on the main bodies of our lakes that have yielded some wintertime bass.
From our experiences, cold-water largemouth bass are often congregated. For instance, we were able to catch as many as 33 largemouth bass from a rather confined area in a short period of time on Jan. 18, 2006, by using a 1/32-ounce red jig dressed with a four-inch Finesse Worm and a two-inch Wooly Beavertail.
The most prolific retrieve is a snail-paced shake-swim-and-glide motif. If there is vegetation, we like to drape our line and lure over a piece of vegetation and then we subtly twitch the rod.
Normally, we make a habit of not fishing a lake more than once a week. But the weather in January often forces us to fish the lakes closest to home, and therefore, we have to fish a couple of the lakes several times a week. By fishing these lakes frequently, we have discovered that we will catch largemouth bass on the south side of a cove one day, and then two days later, we will catch them on the north side and none on the south. This leads us to assume that wintertime bass tend to roam, moving around and across 15 acres or more of water within the confines of a cove.
At times there have been thin sheets of ice floating around the lairs where we caught bass. But once the ice covers about 30 percent of the lake, our fishing becomes extremely difficult. We suspect that the bulk of the bass have moved and reside under the ice, which covers the backs of all the coves. It's interesting to note that we usually find a significant number of bass in the backs of some of the coves -- especially in the coves that are bedecked vegetation such as curly-leaf pondweed -- as soon as the ice disappears. The depth of the water in the back of these coves is less than 10 feet.
Paralleling the erroneous notion that wintertime bass reside in deep water, there is the mistaken idea that most bass in the power-plant lakes gravitate to the warm water. We have, however, caught many wintertime largemouth and smallmouth bass in the cold-water regions of our power-plant lakes. In fact, there are days when the cold-water lairs are more fruitful than the warm-water ones. On these waters, we primarily ply riprap areas, where we catch largemouth bass using either a three-inch Rain MinnowZ on a 1/32-ounce jig or a 2 ½--inch ZinkerZ on a 1/16-ounce jig when the water is as cold as 38 degrees. The largemouth bass are often caught close to the shoreline in two to eight feet of water. We catch smallmouth on a silver marabou jig, but we fail to catch them when the surface temperature drops below 41 degrees. (We suspect that our smallmouth bass suspend and become a bit pelagic in the dead of the winter, but there are no telemetry surveys to validate this notion). The smallmouth are regularly caught along the steepest sections of the riprap in eight to 12 feet of water, and from these sections, we have caught as many as 25 smallmouth bass in four hours when the surface temperature was 44 degrees.
Across the years, we have thought about using a float-and-fly motif with the silver jig for these smallmouth, but we haven't done it. Instead we cast the jig towards the riprap shoreline. When it hits the water, it is allowed to fall vertically to the bottom. When it is about 12 inches from the bottom, we start to slowly rotate the reel handle, allowing the jig to swim and glide above the riprap and occasionally ricochet off one of the boulders.
February's fishing is quite similar to January. The surface temperature at our lakes can range from 38 to 48 degrees. We find the bass in the same locations that we found them the month before. On our best four-hour February outings we have caught as many as 59 largemouth bass, which included a six-pounder. On our best smallmouth outing, we have caught 31 in four hours. On average, however, we are able to catch only15 bass per outing, and some outings result in single digit catches.
On most February outings, a 1/32-ounce jig affixed to a 2 ½-inch Zero or ZinkerZ and Rain MinnowZ and presented with a subtle shake-swim-and-glide retrieve allures the bulk of the bass that we catch. At times a drag-and-deadstick motif allures a few bass.
The trick to January and February fishing is locating several congregations of bass in different coves of our lakes. Because the bass are so shallow in our reservoirs, sonars aren't effective. Thus, we rely on our lures to find them, and we have to make a lot of casts. Once we catch one, we normally catch more, and if they aren't overfished, they usually remain in that vicinity until they scatter in March.
To our dismay, after the ice disappeared on February 20, 2011, we failed to locate the whereabouts of the bass at two of our lakes and caught only 15 at another lake. Then on February 24, 2011, we had five inches of snow, and on February 27, 2011, several thunderstorms erupted, causing the ice-cold water in some of lakes to become muddy, which fouled the fishing even more. This was the first winter that we failed to find and catch a goodly number of bass immediately after the ice melted.
Spring is often imminent in early March, which is witnessed by the blooming of snowdrops, crocus, daffodils and forsythia. Shortly after the equinox, surface temperatures can climb as high as 55 degrees on a balmy afternoon. There are many inclement spells, however, when we find surface temperatures hovering at 39 degrees in early March.
Across the years, the logs of several veteran finesse anglers note that frequent and radical weather changes, such as those that regularly occur throughout March, often correspond to sorry fishing. In contrast, the best fishing often occurs when the weather changes are infrequent. In other words, stretches good bass fishing parallels consistently good weather conditions.
During some Marches, extremely heavy rains will occur, causing our cold-water reservoirs to become murky, which fouls our bass fishing. In fact, on March 1, 2011, we were confronted with murky and ice-cold water conditions at several of our reservoirs, and it fouled our fishing for more than three weeks.
What's more, the combination of howling winds and adverse weather conditions often keeps us at bay. For instance in March of 2010 we were afloat only seven times, and we caught only 56 bass. Yet in March of 2009, we fished 13 times and caught 346 bass.
During the gruesome winter of 2010-11, our best fishing in March occurred at power-plant lakes. We never caught more than 41 largemouth bass per outing, and on one outing caught only 17. One power-plant lake yielded several dozen handsome lunkers, including two five-pounders, one six-pounder and one eight-pounder that we caught on the 2 ½-inch Zero or ZinkerZ, Rain MinnowZ and Finesse ShadZ affixed to either a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jig.
There have been March outings when we caught 60 largemouth bass in four hours, using a green-pumpkin Zero on a 1/16-ounce jig and 53 smallmouth bass in four hours on a white Zero on a 1/32-ounce jig. Most of our smallmouth bass fishing in March occurs in the cold-water sections of a power-plant reservoir, where the surface temperature ranges from 43 to 53 degrees.
To deal with the winds of March, we often employ a drift sock, which allows the boat to move slowly with the wind. This tactic also minimizes the line bow that a harsh wind can create with our finesse presentations if we attempt to navigate into the wind.
As the wintertime congregations of bass begin to dissipate in March, the wind and drift sock allow us to quickly ply many acres of waters in search of the scattered bass. Power- fishing devotees, such as Rick Clunn, often assert that crankbaits and spinnerbaits are the best baits to use when the bass are scattered.Midwestfinesse devotees acknowledge that Clunn's crankbaits and spinnerbaits can cover more acres of water per hour than finesse tactics, but with the aid of a drift sock and the wind at our backs, our shallow-water finesse presentations allow us to probe many acres of water and to catch more bass per hour than a power angler can catch. However, we also acknowledge that the average size of the bass that a talented power angler catches is often bigger than ones we catch.
Throughout March, our most rewarding presentation is the shake, swim and glide, which we execute at a moderate pace.
In our lakes that contain submergent vegetation, we suspect that many of the bass leave the vegetation -- especially the massive plots of curly-leaf pondweed. These suspicions rest on the fact that we catch the bulk of the bass on rocky lairs as the water temperatures rise. Some bass, however, are also found milling around patches of American water willows that are growing on rocky terrains.
April's weather can be blissfully warm, pushing surface temperatures on a very rare day as high as 70 degrees. Yet, it can be excruciatingly cruel with an ice-cold wind howling and driving area thermometers to as low as 27 degrees, as it did on April 27, 2005.
Traditionally on April Fools' Day the surface temperature lingers around 47 degrees and often escalates to about 62 degrees at month's end.
The rock phenomenon that commenced in March continues in April as the growth of the curly-leaf pondweed accelerates. We catch bass along long stretches of main-lake rocky and riprap shorelines, as well as offshore rock-laden humps that top out at depths of three to seven feet. In late April, we catch pre-spawn and spawning smallmouth bass on these humps.
Even though the rock pattern is predominant, some bass are caught around patches of coontail and clusters of water willows.
The number of bass that we can catch during a four-hour April outing can be substantial. For instance, we caught 105 largemouth bass and two smallmouth bass on April 15, 2010, along main-lake rocky shorelines, using a 1/16-ounce red jig affixed to a Junebug 2 ½-inch Zero or ZinkerZ and a 1/32-ounce red jig affixed to Junebug four-inch Finesse WormZ. The most effective retrieve was a fairly rapid shake-swim-and-glide presentation. In April of 2010 we caught 544 largemouth bass and 151 smallmouth bass, which equaled 57..9 bass an outing and 14.4 bass an hour.
On May Day surface temperatures range from 61 to 63 degrees, reaching a high of 75 degrees around Memorial Day.
Recently significant algae blooms have begun afflicting our reservoirs in May. They seem to be the byproduct of too much rain, as well as too much lawn and agricultural chemicals being washed into the reservoirs with the rains. On May 25, 2010, one of our lakes was so drastically affected that it looked as if thousands of gallons of chartreuse paint had been dumped into it; it was a sickening sight. Other lakes were stricken, too, and some fish kills occurred. The blooms also adversely affected our fishing.
Our best four-hour catch occurred May 4, 2007. On this outing, the wind failed to stir. The sun was bright as a new dime, and it warmed the surface temperature from 64 to 70 degrees. The water was clear enough to see several of the bass strike. Most of the bass were caught a third to two-thirds of the way inside three coves and in two to four feet of water. I was without a partner that day and I single-handedly caught 78 largemouth and four smallmouth while using 1/16-ounce red jig on a four-inch Finesse Worm that was presented with a shake-swim-and-glide retrieve.
In 2010, the weather often kept us at bay; therefore we were able to get afloat only 13 times. During those 52 hours, we caught 644 largemouth and smallmouth bass, and our best four-hour outing yielded only 61 largemouth bass.
Typically the three best lures in May have been a two-inch green-pumpkin Beavertail, 2 ½-inch Junebug Zero or ZinkerZ and four-inch Junebug Finesse Worm. Most days in May a 1/32-ounce jig is the best option, but there will be spells when a 1/16-ouncer becomes the most alluring -- especially with an aged Zero. That's why we constantly experiment with different jigs, soft-plastic lures and retrieves.
Between June 2 and June 10, as the surface temperatures climbs into the 70s, the curly-leaf pondweed disappears in our lakes As the water temperature reaches into the upper 70s and even low 80s, the curly-leaf pondweed is gradually replaced by patches of bushy pondweed, American pondweed, milfoil and coontail.
Heavy rains can erupt in early June, causing some of reservoirs to become extremely muddy, and at times, the clarity is reduced to three inches or less, which makes our bass fishing difficult. Some storms are windy and violent, generating winds of 30 to 50 mph, and after a violent storm runs its course, a cold front normally arrives, which seems to have an adverse effect on our fishing. On average, June is our rainiest month of the year. What's more, we are often cursed with algae blooms throughout the entire month
As the curly-leaf pondweed wilts and decays, dams, riprap jetties and causeways, and rock-laden humps that are devoid of and a goodly distance from the rotting pondweed attract significant numbers of largemouth bass in early June. Even at the reservoirs where curly-leaf pondweed doesn't grow, we catch the preponderance of the bass at those three types of rocky terrains. Then during the last week of June, rocky main-lake points also become productive.
In early June, we also accidentally catch significant numbers of channel catfish, sauger, saugeye and walleye around the rocky locales while we are finesse fishing for bass.
Our best four-hour June outing occurred on June 10, 2010, when we caught 102 largemouth bass using a 2 ½-inch Junebug Zero on a 1/16-ounce red jig and a four-inch Junebug Finesse Worm on a 1/16-ounce red jig. Our best June occurred in 2008, when we fished 18 times for a total of 72 hours and caught 610 largemouth and smallmouth bass.
For the past five Junes, the best lures have been a 2 ½-inch Zero or ZinkerZ, four-inch Finesse Worm , two-inch Wooly Beavertail, and 2 ½-inch tube.
During June, our largemouth bass begin to exhibit a habit of feeding on the bottom. When the bottom-feeding phenomenon occurs, the 3/32-ounce red Gopher becomes a necessary component of our jig-and-soft-plastic combos. Also, the hop-and-bounce, drag-and-deadstick and drag-and-shake retrieves are what allure the bottom feeding bass. But there will be spells, when the 1/16-ounce jig is more effective than the 3/32-ounce one.
Because we find that the inclinations or dispositions of the bass can quickly change in June, we have discovered that it is helpful to have three anglers in the boat with all three of them employing different jig sizes, different styles of soft-plastic lures and different types of retrieves.
Once summer arrives bad weather rarely plays a role in our fishing. In fact, the warmer it becomes, the better our fishing often becomes. Even many of the algae blooms wilt as the days and waters become hot. The summer winds are relatively mild mannered. That is not to say that we aren't pestered by a pesky wind, or that we don't occasionally fret about being waylaid by a tornado or flood. But for the most part, the weather conditions are stable and fairly predictable, as is our bass fishing. And we catch a lot more bass than we catch during the first half of the year. In fact, the last six months of the year are better than the first six.
Several of our lakes, especially the smallest and biggest ones, are extremely difficult wintertime venues, but in the heat of the summer, they are often our most fruitful.
In the midst of the boiling heat of a typicalKansas summer, we fish from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. One of the virtues of this schedule is that we are usually the only anglers afloat after 11:30 a.m., and when we are plying one our small reservoirs, the lack of midday pressure from other anglers makes fishing enjoyable and fruitful.
Even when the sun's rays are blow-torch hot, sending area thermometers as high as 101 degrees on July 17, 2007 and 111 degrees two days later, our fishing is considerably easier and more fruitful than it is on a typical 35-degree outing in February. In addition, it is relatively comfortable if an angler dresses so his entire body is covered with a wide-brim hat, sun mask, sun gloves, lightweight long-sleeved shirt and lightweight pants. This wardrobe keeps the sun off the skin, keeps the body relatively cool, stymies the fatigue factor sunburns generates, and eliminates the need to mess with sunscreens.
Even though July is our hottest month of the year, it's not always sweltering. In fact, there are a number of July midday outings when area thermometers range from 76 to 84 degrees. Likewise the surface temperatures at our lakes can vary from 77 to 89 degrees.
Mother Nature can toss a monkey wrench into our finesse fishing on our big reservoirs by inundating us with too much rain. For instance in early July of 2007, she whacked us with three days of rain, causing one of our big reservoirs to rise eight feet. Many of our small reservoirs usually recover within a few days after they are whacked by a nasty spell of wet weather, but it often fouls the big lakes for weeks on end.
Inflows of chemically enriched water and cool nights spawn algal blooms in July, and when the blooms erupt, we have a difficult time catching bass until the sun is directly overhead. The effects of the algal blooms is another reason why we relish fishing during the midday hours.
If there is an abundant population of young gizzard shad, the four-inch Muy Grub affixed to a 3/32-ounce red jig becomes one of the dominant bait in July and for much of the summer and fall. Even though there aren't enough shad in several of our lakes for a significant shad pattern to develop, the grub usually works at these lakes, too. In 2010 and 2011, however, the grub bite materialized at only one of our lakes, and it was only a short-lived affair. The best grub retrieve is what we call the straight swim; sometimes we occasionally punctuated it with a pause and shake. The best grub locales are associated with flats bedecked with bushy pondweed or coontail. Shallow rock humps are another productive grub lair. The grub with the aid of a drift sock is also a dandy way to harness and use the wind, allowing us to quickly cover vast expanses of flats where bass forage upon pelagic schools of shad.
Besides the grub, a 2 ½-inch tube often bewitches goodly number of largemouth and smallmouth bass in July. Even when the grub failed to garner many bass in 2010, the tube was exceedingly effective -- especially when it was employed around rocky and riprap lairs, as well as the outside edges of American water willow patches. Traditionally, a drag-and-deadstick presentation of the tube yields the most dividends. In 2011, however, the tube was ineffective.
When the bass chase shad, the effectiveness of the four-inch worm usually wanes a touch. Yet we have experienced many July days when the a 4-inch Finesse Worm on a 1/32-ounce red jig inveigled the bulk of the bass; then there are other outings when a 2 ½-inch Zero or ZinkerZ affixed to a 1/16-ounce red jig allures most of the bass. Therefore, we always have a grub, worm, tube, Zero and ZinkerZ at the ready in July.
On average, we catch 31 bass an outing in July, and 69 is the most that we have caught in four hours. It needs to be noted, however, that that during the last week in July and the first week of August, I join our children and grandchildren for a family fishing vacation in Minnesota. Therefore our July and August catch-rate statistics are low. Moreover, while I am in Minnesota, the northeastern Kansas bass fishing usually becomes white hot; it's commonly much better than it is during the first three weeks in July, and a couple practitioners of Midwest finesse occasionally catch as many as 100 bass an outing.
By the way, the Midwest finesse lures and methods work well for our children and grandchildren in Minnesota's waters.
Across northeastern Kansas, the notion that the dog days of August aren't a fruitful time to be afloat in pursuit of largemouth and smallmouth bass is a piscatorial myth.
Midday temperatures can surpass 100 degrees, and the lakes' surface temperatures can hover in the high 80s. Despite the heat, August is one of our most bountiful months for catching a lot of bass during the midday hours. Many of the bass we catch are small, but we do occasionally tangle with some four- to six-pounders. For example, we fished 12 times in August of 2010 and caught an average of 49.7 bass on each of our four-hour midday trips, and on August 29, 2008, we caught 112 bass in four hours.
The wind is mild mannered in August, which makes fishing easier for us. It's the fourth rainiest month of the year, which puts a damper on some outings.
At our reservoirs that are endowed with bushy pondweed, American pondweed and coontail significant concentrations of bass assemble on and around patches of these aquatic weeds in August and into September.
The best patches of vegetation are often offshore ones. And on the best of outings, we have caught 50 largemouth bass from a 50 yard patch of offshore pondweed and coontail.
When we ply the pondweed and coontail, we place our boat on the outside edges of the patches, which is five to six feet deep, and we cast our lures 35 or more feet into the heart of the patches. Typically we employ either a four-inch YUM Muy Grub on 1/16- or 3/32-ounce red jig or a four-inch Finesse Worm on a 1/32-ounce red jig. We retrieve the worm with a shake, swim and glide. The grub is retrieved with the straight swim, and we often pause and shake it when it crosses the outside edge of the vegetation.
In 2010, our bass that abided along shorelines graced with water willows and rocks exhibited a preference for a Zero affixed to a 3/32-ounce jig that was presented with a drag-and-deadstick retrieve with a minimal shake. The hop and bounce was the second best presentation. We could allure a few bass with the shake, swim and glide, but the bulk of our strikes were garnered on the drag and deadstick or hop and bounce
Traditionally a white Zero or ZinkerZ becomes effective in late August, and it remains effective well into the fall. Yet the green-pumpkin and Junebug hues also bewitch a goodly number of bass at various lairs, venues and times. Thus, during a typical August outing, we usually test our entire palette of colors.
Until 2009, we normally spent about half of our outings from mid-September through late November chasing wipers and white bass.
The white bass reside in all of our large U.S. Army Corps of Engineer reservoirs. In the fall white bass spend a significant amount of time moseying along riprap areas, rocky points and certain stretches of rocky shorelines. At times these are the same haunts our black bass favor.
Like our black bass, white bass forage upon invertebrates and gizzard shad. When we pursue the white bass along riprap, rocky shorelines and points, we employ our Midwest finesse tactics and normally wield a 1/16-ounce marabou jig or a three-inch grub affixed to a 1/16-or 3/32-ounce jig. At times, we tangle with a respectable number of black bass. For instance, there have been some four-hour autumn outings when we have caught more than 100 white bass and two dozen largemouth bass.
As fall wears on, however, we catch fewer black bass associated with the big concentrations of white bass along these rocky lairs. It is interesting to note when Guido Hibdon and I were young guides in the mid-1960s on the Gravois arm of the Lake of the Ozarks, we found a similar late-fall phenomenon with the black and white bass.
There are no telemetry studies to pinpoint the whereabouts of our black bass once the rocky areas become dominated by the white bass. Therefore, we don't know if the black bass vacate the areas or if the white bass are more aggressive and beat the black bass to our lures. We have determined, however, that it is best to pursue black bass at locales not inhabited with vast numbers of white bass.
In 2009, our white bass population waned substantially at the Corps of Engineer lakes in northeasternKansas, which finally provoked us in 2010 to focus solely of the black bass, and we primarily fished our small reservoirs. Now September has become our most fruitful black bass month of the year. For instance, we caught an average of 51.8 black bass on every four-hour outing in September of 2010, and throughout September of 2011, we caught 721 bass.
Typically, the surface temperature is 80 degrees on September 1. By September 15, the surface temperature hovers around 75 degrees, dropping to about 68 degrees at month's end. Variations occur, however, as it did during the unseasonably cool of the summer of 2009, when the when the surface temperature registered 73 degrees on the first of September.
As our lakes cool, algae blooms erupt. Some of our lakes are more dramatically affected than others. At times, these blooms adversely affect the bass fishing. What's more, we have noticed that when algae blooms occur our best catches transpire after 12:30 p.m., and sunny days or better than cloudy ones.
Some significant late-summer and early-fall cold fronts, which are often accompanied by brisk winds, impair our abilities to catch at least 51 black bass an outing. On the cold-front days, the high temperatures range from 60 degrees to 71 degrees. Normally the highs are range from 75 degrees to 80 degrees.
Our most productive lakes in September are blessed with massive points and flats that are graced with either coontail or bushy pondweed. From these patches of submergent vegetation, we have landed as many as 82 largemouth bass in four hours while wielding a four-inch Finesse Worm on a 1/32-ounce red jig, 2 ½-inch Zero or ZinkerZ on a 1/16-ounce red jig and a four-inch grub on a 3/32-ounce red jig.
At our weed-free lakes, we catch largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass on rocky humps and points, as well as riprap jetties, causeways and dams. A tube affixed to a 1/16- or 3/32-ounce jig has been one of our most profitable smallmouth options. We have found that dipping the tube into a container of Gulp! Alive! scent has elicited more strikes than tubes that haven't been immersed into the scent.
In September of 2010, the most effective retrieve was the drag and deadstick, and it worked best when our soft-plastic lure was affixed to a 3/32-ounce red jig.
On September 27 and 29, 2010, we began experimenting with Z-Man's Rain MinnowZ and a prototype of Z-Man's Finesse ShadZ. Besides those two new baits, our traditional ones, such as the four-inch Finesse WormZ, Zero and ZinkerZ, inveigled a significant number of bass in September.
Change is one of the predominant elements that influences our bass fishing in October.
The weather is unstable, ranging from a balmy Indian summer day to a miserably cold, windy and snowy one, and this trend extends into November. In addition, we can be waylaid by heavy rains, causing the water levels in some of our lakes to rise precipitously.
Water temperatures drop from about 68 degrees on October 1 to about 54 degrees on Halloween. As in September, algae blooms can be a major concern as the waters continue to cool. What's more, some of the submergent vegetation begins to wilt, and as it decays, we catch fewer bass around those patches of vegetation than we do when they are green and burgeoning. This wilt-and-decay scenario tends to make rocky lairs more fruitful than the weedy environs.
The bass fishing in northeastern Kansas during October it isn't as trying as it is at the some of the Ozark reservoirs, such as the Lake of the Ozarks. But our bass fishing isn't as easy as it commonly is in August and September, when the weather is stable and the aquatic vegetation is flourishing.
In October of 2010, we landed 642 bass or 42.8 bass per trip. On October 21, we landed 100 largemouth, which was the first time that we worked with the peanut-butter-and-jelly hued 2 ½--inch ZinkerZ, and for the rest of 2010, it was our most potent bait. The bulk of these 100 bass were associated with rocks rather than vegetation. This catch occurred when the surface temperature was 65 degrees, water was stained with a poignant algae bloom and the midday sun shone intensely. Since mid-August of 2010, we had been catching the preponderance of our bass along the bottom by utilizing the drag-and-deadstick retrieve, as well as the hop-and-bounce retrieve. But on this outing, the bass exhibited an overwhelming preference for the shake-swim-and-glide retrieve. As we executed this retrieve, the bass were engulfing our lures well off the bottom, and from this outing to the last one of 2010, it remained our most effective retrieve.
At times -- especially in October -- we have found that the color of our baits can be a critical factor. The effectiveness of a particular color, however, can vary from hour to hour, day to day, week to week, month to month and season to season. Nowadays, we primarily work with five hues: green pumpkin, Junebug, peanut butter and jelly, purple haze and white. Traditionally, white has been extremely effective in the fall. Yet from April of 2009 to October 21, 2010, the Junebug hue had been our best day-in, day-out color. Then virtually out of the blue, the peanut-butter-and-jelly combination became our most alluring color from October 21 to Dec. 28, 2010. During 2011 peanut butter and jelly wasn't as effective as it was in throughout the autumn of 2010; we also spent a lot more time in 2011 experimenting the 2 ½-inch purple-haze ZinkerZ, as well as the pumpkin/chartreuse-laminated ZinkerZ.
Our best ever October catch occurred on October 12, 2006, when we caught 109 largemouth bass by employing a four-inch worm with a red 1/16-ounce jig, a tube on a 1/16-ounce jig, and a 2 ½-inch Zero affixed to a 1/16-ounce red jig. We were buffeted by a major cold front; the low was 41 degrees; the high peaked at 59 degrees. The wind angled out of the northwest at 10 to 25 mph, which made us rely on a drift sock for boat control. The surface temperature was 66 degrees. All of the bass were caught along rocky shorelines in two to five feet of water with a shake-swim-glide retrieve. This was our initial outing with the Zero, and from that point forward, the Zero and its sister the ZinkerZ became our most effective baits. Before we crossed paths with the Zero and ZinkerZ, we used Gary Yamamoto's three-inch Senko and YUM's three-inch Dinger on 1/32- and 1/16-ounce jigs. The Senko and Dinger inveigled score of bass for us, but our bass fishing improved markedly when we began wielding the Zero and ZinkerZ.
In our eyes, the ElaZtech material that Z-Man Fishing Products uses to make the Zero and ZinkerZ, as well as the Rain MinowZ, Finesse WormZ and Finesse ShadZ, is why these baits are more effective than the traditional soft-plastic finesse baits.
It is interesting to note that as the Zero and ZinkerZ age from catching multitudes of bass, they become are more flexible than the Senko and Dinger, and in our eyes that flexibility seems to make them more alluring to our bass. As they age and become more flexible, they also readily absorb Gulp! Alive! nightcrawler scent and Pro-Cure's Nightcrawler Super Gel, which we have found to be another alluring attribute. On top of that, the Zero and ZinkerZ are extremely durable; in fact, we have caught more than 175 bass on the same Zero or ZinkerZ. Consequently, several devotees to Midwest finesse fishing often declare: "The older the Zero and ZinkerZ become the better they become." And for the past four years, the Zero and ZinkerZ have helped us surmount some of the difficulties that October's fickle weather creates.
Ordinarily the surface temperature at our lakes on November 1 is 56 degrees, dropping to about 50 degrees during the middle of the month, and hanging around 46 degrees at month's end.
Winter is in the offing. And spells of freezing rain, sleet and snow in November can make conditions insurmountable even for the most ardent bass anglers.
On average, we have about an inch of precipitation in November. The average temperature is 43 degrees, but it can be as cold as nine degrees and as warm as 84 degrees.
By mid-November our smallmouth bass fishing peters out; even at one of our warm-water, power-plant lakes, which is brimming with smallmouth bass, the smallmouth bass fishing is lackluster. But our largemouth bass fishing can be rather productive at most of our lakes.
For instance, we caught 625 largemouth bass in November of 2010, which corresponds to 48 bass an outing and 12 bass an hour. Our best outing occurred on November 1, 2010, when we landed 78 largemouth bass. The surface temperature was 56 degrees. The water was a tad stained. It was cloudy day, and area thermometers ranged from a low of 46 degrees to a high of 54 degrees. The bulk of these bass were caught on a peanut-butter-and-jelly 2 ½--inch ZinkerZ affixed to a red 1/16-ounce jig, which was retrieved with a shake-swim-and-glide motif around shoreline patches of American water willows. Our second best outing occurred on November 19, 2010, when we caught 76 largemouth bass. The water clarity was stained by an algae bloom. The surface temperature was 49 degrees. It was sunny. The low temperature was 33 degrees and the high was 58 degrees. The biggest bass weighed four pounds, 11 ounces, another dozen weighed more than three pounds. Some of the bass were caught on a mud flat in water as shallow as two feet in the back third of a large cove. The rest were caught along rocky shorelines inside coves that were embellished with sparse patches of American water willows and an occasional touch of coontail. A peanut-butter-and-jelly 2 ½--inch ZinkerZ on a red 1/16-ounce jig bewitched most of these bass, as did the shake-swim-retrieve.
During the past decade, our best outing occurred on November 14, 2008. It was a cloudy day, the wind howled from the northwest at 18 to 28 mph, and area thermometers never surpassed 48 degrees. The surface temperature was 52 degrees. The water clarity was almost crystalline for northeastern Kansas. To hide from the wind, we plied a western shoreline that was graced with nearly a mile of water willows, of which some of the outside edges sat in four to five feet of water. We also worked a northern shoreline that was adorned with many yards of water willows. In addition, we probed a partially submerged island at the north end of one of the coves; this island was still blessed some patches of healthy coontail and bushy pondweed. At these three areas, we employed a green-pumpkin Wooly Beavertail on a 1/16-ounce red jig and a four-inch green-pumpkin Finesse Worm on a 1/16-ounce red jig. We utilized the shake-swim-and-glide retrieve, as well as the bounce-and-hop one, and we caught 86 largemouth bass.
Even though November's weather can be problematic, it is considerably better, as is its bass fishing, than what normally unfolds during the next three months. In the weeks and months to come until the spring equinox, we frequently battle icy guides and reels, and at times we even have to break some of the ice with our boats in order to catch some bass.
If Ole Man Winter can be kept at bay, our December largemouth bass fishing can be surprisingly rewarding at several of our cold-water impoundments and at one of our power-plant reservoirs.
It even surprised and delighted Stacey King of Reeds Spring, Missouri. King is an accomplished and veteran professional angler on the Bassmaster, FLW and PAA circuits.
King joined me on December 9, 2010, at one of our small suburban reservoirs. His mission was to produce a feature about Midwest finesse tactics for the "Bass Pros" television show.
According to King, it often takes two days of fishing to make a 10-minute TV feature, but this time he finished it in 3 ½ hours of fishing and 2 ½ hours of additional video work at the lake.
As King and I fished, we found that the surface temperature ranged from 38 to 40 degrees; several acres of ice covered the south arm of the lake. The water was relatively clear, and some of its coontail patches were still green. A wind angled out of the south at about 10 mph. The sky was partly cloudy. The midday high temperature reached an enjoyable 51 degrees.
As the cameraman began recording King's initial endeavors, he elected to revive one our classical Midwest finesse baits: a 1/8-ounce bucktail jig adorned with a 101 Uncle Josh pork chunk. We hadn't wielded one for about eight years, and in short order, it yielded some substantial dividends. We also worked with a white Rain MinnowZ on a 1/32-ounce red jig and a peanut-butter-and-jelly 2 ½--inch ZinkerZ on a 1/16-ounce red jig. We employed a slow shake-swim-and-glide retrieve with all of these lures
By the time that we had executed our last casts, we had caught 38 largemouth bass, including two five pounders. All of them were extracted from the upper third of the lake in four to seven feet of water. A few were caught around patches of coontail along a shallow flat on the east side of the lake that was buffeted by the wind. Most were caught at a shallow flat point that was bespangled with some big boulders and coontail; it was sheltered from the wind, and a submerged creek channel meandered nearby.
King tried in vain to catch bass from several deeper and steeper sloping haunts. This failure surprised King. We told him that we don't catch deeper-water bass with our Midwest finesse tactics -- even in the dead of the winter. One reason for that is that our light jigs don't allow us to present our baits effectively to deep-water bass. We told him that we tried to vertically fish a drop shot a number of years ago, but we came to the conclusion that it is more of a power-fisherman's finesse tactic than a pure finesse method. Moreover, when we tested the drop-shot, it didn't yield enough bass for our tastes. Thus, it isn't part of our repertoire.
Two days after King left, winter arrived with a vengeance, and we didn't get afloat on our cold-water lakes again until February 22, 2011. But on Dec. 28, 2010, winter's grasp relented a touch, allowing us to venture to a power-plant lake, where we eked out 27 handsome and hefty largemouth bass by casting either a green-pumpkin Rain MinnowZ or green-pumpkin Finesse ShadZ on a 1/32-ounce chartreuse jig and employing a shake-swim-and-glide retrieve. During this outing, the surface temperature ranged from 37 to 53 degrees; some ice covered portions of the lake. A gentle wind angled out of the south. It was partly cloudy. The day's low temperature was 21 degrees; the high was 41 degrees. The bulk of the bass were caught in two to 10 feet of water along four bluffs and a submerged creek channel edge, where the surface temperature ranged from 43 to 53 degrees.
Because our weather turned so wintry shortly after King's departure, we were able to fish only 28 hours in December of 2010. During these outing, we caught 220 bass. Our most successful four-hour outing occurred on Dec, 3, 2010 at our smallest community reservoir, where we caught was 63 largemouth bass. The surface temperature was 43 degrees. We caught them on a white Finesse ShadZ and white Rain MinnowZ that were affixed to 1/32-ounce red jigs, while utilizing a shake-swim-and-glide retrieve along rocky shorelines.
In Decembers past, when Ole Man Winter failed to venture south of the 40th parallel for any protracted spells, we were able to fish throughout the entire month. For example, we fished 50 hours in 2005, about 70 hours in 2006.
The winter solstice of 2011 was an odd one. After nearly two days of rain, the water levels of some of our lakes rose a foot or two and became stained and even murky in spots. Before that rainy spell, a few of the lakes were partially covered with some thin sheets of ice. By year's end, however, our lakes were ice free. The algal blooms that plagued our lakes for many months in 2011 endured at several of the lakes throughout December. In the stained water conditions, the bass exhibited a preference for the drag-and-shake retrieve, and occasionally they wanted the time-consuming drag-and-deadstick motif. The wind blew often and hard, which kept us at bay for several days, but we did fish 11 times and caught 327 bass.
Before 2009, we used to spend a lot of hours subtly twitching and deadsticking jerkbaits. This tactic bewitched a higher percentage of bigger bass than we normally caught on a three-inch Yum Dinger, three-inch Yamamoto Senko, two-inch Yum Wooly Beavertail or a variety of four-inch finesse worms. But we caught considerably fewer bass on jerkbaits than we did with soft-plastic baits affixed to a small jig. Since most of our piscatorial joys arrive from tangling with a lot of bass rather than catching five or six big bass an outing, we rarely employ a jerkbait nowadays.
We have discovered that our December fishing is better when there are some patches of healthy coontail in four to seven feet of water, and our waters aren't stained with algae blooms. Historically, our five most effective December baits have been a 2 ½-inch Zero, two-inch Wooly Beavertail, 4 ½-inch Smithwick Suspending Rattlin' Rogue, four-inch Finesse Worm, and a silver 1/16-ounce marabou jig. But in the Decembers to come, we anticipate that the three-inch Rain MinnowZ, 2 ½--inch ZinkerZ and four-inch Finesse ShadZ will play a significant role in our December pursuits.
Weather averages in northeastern Kansas
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Proper care of the bass that we catch
Because finesse anglers catch many more bass than power anglers, it is important that we treat them gently — especially in the warm-water months.
We release most of the bass without lifting them out of the water, using one hand to hold the fish's lower lip, lifting only the mouth out of the water. Then we remove the hook with our other hand. One of the many virtues of the small jigs that we use is that they rarely damage the flesh. The barbs on our hooks are removed. When conditions are ideal, we occasionally weigh and photograph a picturesque bass, but across the entire calendar year this amounts to only a few fish. In 2010 and 2011, for example, we photographed only 73 of the 10,136 bass that we caught.
In order not to overly stress the bass, we rarely fish the same lake more than once every seven days.