Bass Beyond Edges
July 12, 2012
Biologists call bass opportunistic predators, meaning they may at times eat almost any sort of living thing small enough to cram into their capacious maws. Smallmouths eat peamouth in the Columbia River, crawfish in Rainy Lake, alewives in Dale Hollow, smelt in Lake Oahe, yellow perch in Mille Lacs, and bluegills in Lake Hubert. Largemouths ingest snakes in a Florida lake, mice in Connecticut, frogs in Minnesota, gizzard shad in Georgia, lake chubsuckers in Nebraska, and on. You get the idea.
One common thread to the diet of largemouths, smallmouths, and the five other species of black bass is that they take advantage of edges to capture prey. Due to their maneuverable and versatile body shape, black bass can hold motionless at the edge of a deep weedbed, or patrol a transition from sand to an underwater rock formation, turning on a dime or backing up for a better look at a critter crawling on the bottom. Edges come in many forms and nearly all attract and hold bass at one season or another.
On clear natural lakes of the Northeast and Northcentral regions, as well as in Florida, many species of aquatic plants offer prime bass habitat. With expansion of vegetation in southern and central reservoirs, the importance of weededge bass fishing has grown apace.
Weededges form for several reasons. First, as bottom depth increases, less sunlight penetrates into deep water. Bottom-hugging plants can no longer grow while long-stemmed species like milfoil, hydrilla, coontail, pondweeds, and cabomba strive to grow closer to the surface in deeper water. At some point, though, the water becomes too deep and weedgrowth ends, forming the deep weededge, a high percentage area for bass in summer and fall.
On the flipside, vegetation often stops growing on the shallow side of the weedbed, forming an inside edge or corridor of open water between the bank and the thick vegetation. This may be due to wave action in the shallows, water level fluctuations that eliminate grass during fall and winter low-water periods, or changes in bottom content. In many lakes, the nearshore zone contains mixed sand and gravel that isn't conducive to most aquatic plants that prefer organic material with a mix of silt and sand.
Many clear lakes are ringed with vegetation. Where to look for bass? While a weedbed creates an edge, a secondary edge adds to a spot's potential. Look for breaks in the weedline, pockets and inside turns, and also points where the vegetation grows out along an underwater extension. Weededges along offshore humps also are prime summer habitat for largemouth and smallmouth bass. Open pockets within weedbeds sometimes occur where a deeper hole or hard bottom breaks up an otherwise uniform terrain. The surrounding weededges are bass magnets.
Bass lurk along the edges, scouting for passing pods of bluegills or schools of shiners that pass overhead. From their relative concealment, bass lunge into the open area to seize prey. They also form small groups and actively search for prey along weededges. They swim and stop, peering into pockets, hoping to flush crawfish or bottom-hugging preyfish like bullheads or yellow perch into making a run for it. All bass may gain a meal from this group feeding strategy.
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Edges also occur within a weedbed, so become familiar with species or categories of vegetation where you fish. A vast cabbage-covered flat may contain colonies of coontail. These clumps of denser plants often concentrate bass. The same situation occurs when patches of wild rice, bulrushes, or dollar bonnets grow within a vast bed of water lilies. Blindly fishing the whole bed may provide slow action, but focusing on the edge-within-an-edge can yield incredible catches.
Topnotch reservoir anglers naturally seek edges when they're looking for bass. Because reservoirs usually are dammed rivers, one key edge is the old river channel itself. The turns it makes offer holding and feeding habitat for black bass. Fish instinctively hold where chances of encountering prey are higher, and such channel edges offer them the opportunity to regularly attack schools of shad that pass through open water, grazing on plankton.
In many reservoirs, several major feeders flow into the impoundment. These junctions create more edges. The many small tributaries feeding those waters further break up the aquatic landscape and provide habitat for bass. As is the case in vegetation, edges that occur within these edge areas further increase the likelihood of encountering a large group of bass.
Look for features like a stump row along the former creek bank that provides a spot to hold next to. Largemouths, in particular, hold alongside vertical objects, anything different. Throw two apples and a banana into a fish tank and the bass will sit by the banana.
Smallmouth bass favor larger objects like boulders, but more likely than largemouths will roam several feet out from a large cover object. They also tend to move offshore and suspend, or hold along vertical walls and bluff banks. Spotted bass, too, relate more generally to objects on structure and wander about base areas more widely than largemouths. Still, edge areas often comprise their home base.
Creek channels are easy to detect with sonar, but some underwater edges are harder to find. Look for changes in bottom type, rock slides into a gravelly creek bottom or patches of clean sand surrounded by soft sediment. Fine-tuning sonar can help indicate these spots.
Five of the seven species of black bass are "river bass" that originally flourished in flowing water. And all species frequently occur in creeks and rivers. But though black bass occupy current, they avoid fast flows that are more amenable to trout, suckers, walleyes, and other more cylindrically shaped fishes.
The nature of bass dictates that they occupy the lower reaches of rivers or hold in areas where still water meets the river channel -- oxbows, backwater lakes, and side channels. Largemouth bass, in particular, may spend much of the year in backwater areas.
Smallmouths spawn in slack water but remain in current for much of the rest of the year. But smallmouths seek edges where current is broken by shoreline cover, boulders, riffles, river bends, and manmade dikes, docks, bridges, and wing dams.
Smallmouths and other river bass seem instinctively capable of finding the seam where fast water meets slack water. Here they can hold close to current while using little energy to maintain their position. As baitfish move past, smallmouths can shoot out and nab one. And when current dislodges invertebrates or disorients a surface swimmer, it tumbles or washes past the bass' holding spot to provide an easy meal.
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Less obvious than physical edges are environmental edges like water temperature. Yet all fish are keenly sensitive to their surrounding medium and follow temperature gradients to find the best conditions for feeding, digesting, and resting. In winter, bass often move to areas that offer warmer water. Springs and tributary creeks bring in warmer water while power plants and industrial cooling ponds often bring steamy water into a river or impoundment.
Bass use their innate thermometers to occupy water that allows more active feeding but isn't so hot that it over-revs their metabolism. Excessive water temperature can quickly sap energy, making it difficult for a fish to consume enough food to remain healthy.
WATER COLOR EDGES
Black bass rely on vision for much of their feeding and generally thrive in water that's at least moderately clear. If a reservoir or river becomes muddy due to rain, feeding slows considerably. At times, murky water entering an impoundment will create a water-color edge, often called a mudline.
The mudline moves slowly downstream, creating a sharp edge where murky water adjoins clear water. The advancing murk pushes baitfish ahead of it, and this throng of prey attracts bass, wipers, stripers, and other fish to the feast. Predators lurk in the mixing water and readily attack baitfish. Bass seem to move down with the mudline as it drifts toward the lower end of the reservoir where it may dissipate, or color the whole lake.
Bass, however, aren't particular about water quality as are trout, shad, or walleyes, but they move where conditions are tolerable, avoiding water of poor quality. Key considerations are oxygen and pH.
Black bass favor water with a dissolved oxygen content of 6 parts per million or more and generally avoid water with less than 3 parts per million. Such water can occur toward the bottom of a pond, lake, or small impoundment that carries a considerable organic load. Decomposition in the bottom water lowers oxygen, and bass must move shallow. An oxygen meter will define such edges.
Deoxygenated water can also flow from a overly fertile tributary, such as one draining a heavily farmed watershed or one with hog farms. In densely vegetated areas, oxygen levels in the weeds can be low after a night of respiration and no photosynthesis. Low oxygen pushes bass to the edge at dawn. As photosynthesis commences, oxygen levels rise, and bass may reenter the mats of grass.
The pH level isn't often an important consideration, since few waters with bass have a pH reading lower than 6, although some Florida lakes are more acidic than that. A pH level lower than 5.5 may be harmful to bass. Where algae is dense, however, alkalinity can rise above the suitable level in hot sunny summer weather. Bass will avoid water with pH greater than 9.5. A pH meter reveals these breaks. Bass in water of poor quality often are inactive and uncatchable.