July 07, 2016
By Steve Quinn
To be successful, predators have to stalk their prey with patience and skill. These attributes have been custom-built for each fish species by the pressures of natural selection that shape their form, function, and behavior. For a fish, success means capturing meals that bring abundant energy that fosters growth and the opportunity for successful spawns when the time comes.
As one of the most successful and adaptable freshwater predators, largemouth bass exhibit these skills in spades. Underwater observations of bass in various environments reveal their diverse feeding strategies, though often the digital film must be watched in slow motion to see the many tricky moves that bass use when feeding.
Bass have found success in waters ranging from deep desert impoundments where a boulder or ball of tumbleweed represents cover to featureless manmade ponds and canals. They can thrive in open water, feeding on pelagic baitfish for a good part of the year. But they're most successful in waters where biologists tell us that the species evolved over the millennia — warm, slow-moving waters with vegetation.
Bass in Grass
The many types of aquatic vegetation offer various advantages to prey and predators. The stalks, vines, and leaves that form part of this cover offer vantage points where bass can hold unseen, waiting for an unwary preyfish or invertebrate to come close enough — close enough for the largemouth to use its most exemplary feature to suction prey from inches away or to lunge with jaws agape.
Edges of vegetation, where plant stalks meet more open water, allow bass to patrol alone or in small groups, probing and poking along, alert for slight movements that indicate vulnerable prey. Groups of bass sometimes work in unison, driving schools of baitfish against a weedwall, where the group splits and predators pick off unfortunate individuals.
Because of the diversity of underwater plant life, it's useful to identify at least most common forms, if not every species. Before I joined In-Fisherman in 1988, one of my jobs as a fishery biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was to identify all sorts of aquatic plants. While the agency did some plant surveys and mapping, most IDs were for pond owners who wanted to rid their private waters of "weeds" or "moss." Along with plant ID, I was trained in categories of herbicides and what would be effective on different sorts of vegetation. Though I warned pond owners of the potential for fish-kills if conditions were not right or application directions not followed precisely, they often hired licensed chemical applicators to do the job rather than do it themselves.
Here in Minnesota, I encounter species not found in south Georgia, though many ubiquitous species exist nearly nationwide: white and yellow water lilies, Eurasian milfoil, coontail, pondweeds, water shield (dollar bonnets), bladderwort, and more. Many species cannot tolerate the extreme cold of northern climes, while others require wintry conditions to properly seed and grow, such as curlyleaf pondweed and northern milfoil.
Floating plants provide overhead cover, which largemouths instinctively gravitate to. Water lilies, American lotus, pennywort, or others form surface cover that's perennial. The shade they provide helps bass approach prey undetected. Water hyacinths, a semitropical exotic, float and form rafts that move with the wind, at times covering acres of water. Bass favor that cover, too, but because the rafts are so dense, bass generally hold within 5 or 10 feet of the edge, where dark meets light. Water lilies, in contrast, grow more irregularly, with many open pockets in the midst of the bed, encouraging bass to prowl throughout.
Submergent plants grow from the bottom up through the water column toward the sun, their source of energy. Like terrestrial plants, they have tall stalks that branch out and thicken as they approach the surface, growing abundant leaves to collect sunlight and to photosynthesize and grow and reproduce. Depending on water clarity and thus light penetration, as well as species, stalks may range a foot or less to more than 15 feet tall. One common plant type, and a key species for bass location is coontail, a plant that both roots in the bottom and occurs as free-floating masses. It's common on all continents except Antarctica.
Unbeknownst to most anglers, plants conduct constant warfare among themselves, fighting for space to root, grow, and reproduce. They seek ways to crowd out or choke competitors, even using chemicals to retard the growth of others. It's often at the neutral zones between plant species that bass find prime feeding grounds. The open lanes are ideal for prowling or lying in wait. Of course these openings also occur at changes in bottom hardness, as plant species differ in their preferred bottom type, and larger gravel and rock prevent any growth, creating holes that are always key spots to fish.
Top, Middle, Bottom
In In-Fisherman, we've written about Bill Siemantel, the savvy California bass expert and lure designer who specializes in outwitting the largest of the large. When you talk to Siemantel, you quickly understand that he is one of the rare anglers who can put his mind into the nature of a bass and make educated guesses about where and how these rare lunkers feed in various situations.
One of his key concepts is "Top, Middle, Bottom," referring to the segment of the water column that he wants to place his lure to give bass the best opportunity to attack. He uses this concept to dissect the open waters of California's clear reservoirs, where big bass rule the depths and may pursue prey from distances of 40 feet or more.
But the same idea applies to bass position in vegetation, though it generally represents a more limited segment of the water column. Siemantel sometimes finds lunkers lurking off structural elements bordering 40 feet of water. The deepest beds of vegetation I've seen stood in almost 20 feet, on the edge of channels in Lake Seminole, a clear, shallow weedy reservoir on the border of Georgia and Florida.
Particularly in summer and winter, bass may hold up near the surface, beneath the canopy and sometimes more than 10 feet above bottom. They seek shade and also the many small fish and invertebrates that gather in the thick canopy. Young-of-year perch and bluegills often seek protection among the leaves, and crayfish climb the weedstalks, feeding on leaves. Finally, opportunistic bass may seize a larger creature that moves or lands on the mat — dragonflies, frogs, snakes, and birds are common prey.
Weedless frogs and spoons are top choices, though buzzbaits can score, too, especially where clumps of vegetation are interspersed with open water. At times, though, bass seem reluctant to bust through the mat to eat. Jigs or punch rigs can work, when kept in the upper part of the water column. Once you've determined that bass are riding high, punch the lure through, but stop its descent several feet below the surface. Then draw it upward until it's poking the underside of the mat. At times, yo-yoing a rig is the only way to draw bites, odd as it sounds.
Most often, bass seem to lurk near bottom, especially where water depth is less that 4 or 5 feet. This opens the door for mat punchin' — heavy-duty, hand-to-fin combat, especially where plants include gnarly alligatorweed, smartweed, or pennywort, or heavily matted milfoil and hydrilla. To get a bait through the canopy, hefty weights often are needed, typically 3/8- to 1/2-ounce for moderately dense canopies, up to 1½- or even 2-ounce weights for the thick stuff. Because of their density and smaller size, tungsten weights are best. Only where toothy pike are dense would I fish a lead one, since a single hefty tungsten weight costs more than $10. Heavy-action rods from 7½ to 8 feet match 50- to 80-pound 8-carrier braided lines.
In many situations, particularly in water less that 5 feet deep, bites typically come as soon as the rig hits bottom. The abrupt fall and puff of silt or sand seems to encourage fish to pounce, as the lure's pincers or appendages quiver. Sometimes, though, an added lift-drop or shake on the bottom summons fish that may be watching but wary. Especially when fish seem "off," limiting sinker size or jig weight often improves the bite. Use the lightest one that still punches through and pulls the rig down.
Bass can be especially spooky in the shallowest mats. Often it pays to use any breeze to propel you slowly along an edge or through a mat, since the whir and cavitation of a trolling motor more or less choked with grass puts them on edge, if it doesn't cause them to flee entirely. When dissecting prime spots, shallow-water anchors are worth their weight in gold, well almost. With the boat pinned in place, let the area settle before pitching baits into pockets or holes.
At times, bass hold somewhere between the surface canopy and bottom, where stalks thin somewhat, providing more space to swim and hunt. These bass are tougher to target, as a horizontal approach can be nearly impossible. When punching deeper mats with heavy weights, you often find that bass hit the rig on the way down. This can be hard to detect unless you watch the line carefully for the slightest tick or sideways movement. If you don't strike immediately, fish often spit the bait. Where stalks are sparser, however, spinnerbaits and chatterbaits often do the job, especially in breezy conditions. Wind-inducd current bends the stalks in one direction, making it easier for lures to run through without hanging.
If there are pockets among the plants, a carefully cast topwater can be deadly. And in early summer, weightless or lightly weighted lures, like a Slug-Go, Senko, or Berkley Gulp! Minnow tempt bites as they slowly flutter down among the plant stalks. Fish them on braided line, which slices through the plants. This is a fun bite and you often can catch a dozen bass in a 100-foot area, especially during the postspawn dispersal, when bass seek the best cover near spawning areas.
Particularly in summer, underwater plants and largemouth bass are almost synonymous — find one and you find the other. Understanding how bass manage their vantage points around vegetation gives you a huge advantage in knowing what to fish and where to cast to make them bite.