October 13, 2021
EDITOR’s NOTE: This article appeared in the July 2021 Issue of In-Fisherman. To have the magazine delivered to your door step each month, please subscribe here.
Ever since humans adopted pole-and-line tactics, they’ve been forced to wonder why fish bite some days and not others. In the last year or two, pro anglers have told me about locating bass on their sophisticated sonars (the ones I call “all seeing sonars” that can scan around the boat to depict fish chasing lures), but failing to elicit much reaction. More than a few have rued spending hours looking at fish, but hauling water.
The question, “What makes bass bite?” is an eternal one for anglers and lure designers. Some phrase it more personally: “How can I make ‘em bite?”
Anglers often try to make bass bite by eliciting what’s called a “reaction strike.” Anglers may even define lure selection in terms of triggering effect. “Reaction baits” include buzzbaits, jerkbaits, bladed jigs, and fast-moving topwaters like a Whopper Plopper or Zara Spook. You could add techniques like snapjigging to that list.
They feel confident that lures convince bass to bite by erratic movement or speed. Indeed, you can often observe fish in clear water responding to these presentations. I recently talked about the concept of reaction strikes with Ralph Manns of Texas, longtime In-Fisherman researcher and contributor of articles on bass science. “When anglers talk about a reaction strike, they’re really describing a feeding reaction,” Manns told me. “It’s not in their genetic makeup to get aggravated with a lure, unless they’re defending a spawning bed. They may display territorial behavior, but that’s solely when interacting with other fish.
“To strike effectively, bass often must react quickly to nearby prey,” he says. “In that situation, fast-moving or erratic lures may work best. But it’s still a feeding response. If the fish bites, the angler has succeeded in fooling it into mistakenly biting a fake. When weather conditions or prey abundance improve feeding opportunities, active lures score and results often are spectacular.”
But anglers often fail. It’s interesting to read details of successful techniques that propel anglers to tournament glory. But I always scan toward the bottom of the standings where you find many former champions reporting in with a few small bass over a multi-day event. This leads to the conclusion that while bass can be easy to catch, they also can be almost impossible to catch, even for skillful anglers.
Bass and other fish species instinctively know that life is tough. While we open the fridge for lunch, fish have no guarantee when or where their next meal is coming from. Bass and their prey are well balanced and most prey are hard to catch. Successful bass eat enough to grow, while prey species avoid being consumed often enough to grow, spawn, and reproduce.
“Experience teaches bass from an early age that prey often escape,” Manns says, “so bass may go days, even weeks, without a good meal. When biologists conduct diet studies, they flush out stomach contents to identify prey. Many studies report that about half of the bass caught by electrofishing have nothing in their gut.
“To survive, fish try to conserve energy. Activity burns energy (calories), so they rest most of the time and attack prey only when their chances of feeding success are good. They “know” they should avoid expending more energy chasing prey than it’s worth in calories. As a result, they’re inactive most of the time.”
Favorable feeding situations arise whenever bass are able to capture prey without spending more energy in the chase than they gain in the resulting meal. Environmental factors play a role in providing cover through the growth of vegetation that forms feeding edges and ambush spots; trees fall into the water with time. Wind, clouds, rain, or low light make hunting more successful.
In most waters, bass can’t afford to pass up a good feeding opportunity. When they refuse lures, it’s usually because they’re out of range or the fish has been made wary by a noisy approach or poorly selected tackle. Most bass are somewhat hungry, but in a non-feeding mode while conserving energy as they await the opportunity to feed when success is more likely.
Manns notes that bass are truly inactive when digesting a large meal. “Once digestion begins, fish send most of their blood to the stomach, routing only minimal amounts to the nervous system for defensive purposes or further feeding,” he says. “In this state, it’s physically difficult for them to feed, even if opportunity arises. But for otherwise inactive fish, the sudden appearance of apparently vulnerable prey—possibly stimulated by repeated casting—may elicit a strike. Anglers may call this a ‘reaction strike,’ but it’s motivated by the instinct to feed.”
Likewise, schooling bass are actively feeding and their group behavior improves the likelihood of success. But individual fish are competing with their brethren. Anglers sometimes report reaction strikes in response to fast-moving lures in that situation, but the fish are engaging in routine feeding activity and can be easily fooled at times.
One of Mann’s contributions to understanding of bass feeding behavior was his concept of “strike windows.” This term replaces the more vague term strike zone, though it could be construed similarly. The key to strike windows is their flexibility in size and shape according to the activity levels of the fish. This flexibility is demonstrated by Manns’ use of a balloon-like shape to depict the strike window.
“Each bass has an area to the front and slightly to each side within which it’s likely to make a successful attack,” Manns says. “A bass senses it can attack and catch prey within this window and it’s learned that healthy-looking prey fish outside the strike window usually escape, so they’re generally ignored.
“Size of the window varies with a bass’ activity state,” he adds. “Hunting bass have the largest windows and may chase and attack prey that are yards away. Neutral bass, in a less active state, might have a 1- to 2-foot window. The window for inactive fish can shrink to mere inches.
“Strike windows of active bass also change shape and dimension as fish move faster. When swimming fast, forward range increases, but ability to turn to the side is reduced. I estimate the range of a cruising bass in clear water at about 6 feet. It increases to 10 or more at full speed, while narrowing further.
“Bass of different sizes also have different abilities to turn and accelerate. And they have different learning experiences as they grow older. Prey species also affect the strike window as some are easier to catch and handle. Whether a preyfish is moving away from a bass, toward it, or across its viewpoint affects the size of the window and resulting feeding decision.”
One of my memorable revelations occurred as I sampled largemouth bass at several Georgia reservoirs. As a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), I learned the art of electrofishing as we collected bass for routine sampling and tagging studies. I recall pushing down the pedal (to activate our electrodes, sending voltage into the water) by a dock in a small creek of Lake Walter F. George (also known as Lake Eufaula). Out rolled six or seven massive bass, an immediate 25- to 30-pound tournament limit. I’d fished those waters and caught decent fish, but nothing like what we discovered.
That scenario was repeated around shoreline brush and many other obvious bass fishing targets on this and other waters we sampled. Our collecting found spots that were stacked with big fish, but guys fishing nearby weren’t having much success. And when I returned to the lake with my boat in tow, I was unable to muster comparable results.
I wasn’t alone. In the late 1980s, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Georgia DNR were petitioned by bass fishing groups and chambers of commerce to stock largemouths in Lake George. Catch rates were low. Anglers were going elsewhere and calling it “fished out.”
From our sampling, we knew that was far from the case, but did our best to refrain from belittling the fishing skills of locals. Finally, Alabama fishery workers brought members of the public along in the electrofishing boat. After few hours of sampling, demands for management action ceased. Why was catchability so low? Theories abounded; we still don’t know.
More recently, I’ve lowered my Aqua-Vu camera to reveal dozens of big smallmouth bass scattered out among rocks and sand in 22 to 23 feet of water. I excitedly pitched a drop-shot rig and waited for a bite that finally came. But it was a 13-inch largemouth. “Where did he come from I wondered,” as I dropped back and came up with a half-pound smallmouth. I lowered the camera to verify their presence, but I couldn’t buy a bite in almost two hours.
We also know that bass learn about lures through being caught or seeing others caught, and they become harder to catch. We’ve reported on the tests at Berkley’s Fish Lab where naive bass (never fished for) quickly learned to ignore hookless crankbaits towed around a huge pool. Recognition of the fakes remained when they were tested again after several weeks passed, as few strikes occurred. Presumably, biting something that gave no reward was enough to teach them to avoid lures.
Frequent In-Fisherman contributor Dr. Hal Schramm reports that a 2018 study at Mississippi State University, where he served as Leader of the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, shed further light on how fishing affects catchability. He and a team studied ponds stocked with bass and fished them, recording one angler hour per acre per week. The study covered two years and involved the catch of 1,156 bass. Some ponds were fished for 24 weeks in a row, while others were fished for two months, then left alone for two months, after which fishing resumed for an additional two months. Anglers systematically fished at different times of day from May to October and used 11 different types of lures.
Predictably, fishing success declined rapidly, though all bass were released, dropping from about seven bass an hour to just one. In ponds that went unfished for two months between regular fishing, catch rates returned to about 60 percent of the initial level, then quickly declined to a bass per hour. So most bass seemed to initially forget what they’d learned—to avoid lures, but catch rates quickly fell, suggesting that they wised up fast. The semi-wild conditions of the ponds contrasts with the stark surroundings of Berkley’s tank, suggesting that bass in truly natural conditions may also forget about fishing pressure when anglers are scarce.
Experiments on small lakes have revealed that individual largemouth bass vary considerably in their catchability, as determined by their likelihood of capture with artificial lures. The most detailed investigation was conducted by a team of researchers at the Illinois Natural History Survey, headed by Dr. Dave Philipp, published in the Transactions of the American Fisheries Society in 2009. It was the culmination of studies that started in the late 1970s.
They fished these waters and also electrofished, marking all bass. Fish that were caught four or more times by angling—highly vulnerable bass—were then stocked into empty ponds and allowed to spawn. Bass that were never caught or only once—low vulnerability fish—were placed in other ponds. After four years, mature fish were collected from each pond, tagged, and fished. These bass represented the offspring of highly catchable and low-catchability parents. They differed even more than their parents, as catch rates increased further in the high-vulnerability group and dropped for the less vulnerable one. This cycle was repeated a third time in the next generation, and results were similar. Offspring of tough-to-catch fish became even tougher to catch. The increase in catchability was less in the third generation, but still amounted to about a fish per three hours of fishing.
The authors noted that these results indicate that fisheries with high harvest levels have been selecting for more wary bass via the removal of more vulnerable fish. This undoubtedly was an important factor years ago in popular lakes and reservoirs before the catch-and-release ethic caught on in the 1980s. Today, with release rates well over 90 percent in most waters, and tournament survival at a similar level, genetic effects may be moot. But it provides answers when we wonder why many popular fisheries that contain lots of bass can present fishing so challenging that numbers of top pros can barely scratch out a few small keepers over several days.
The more we learn about the behavior of bass, the more we recognize the many differences among individuals. It’s generally true that in a particular lake a bass is a bass, but one bass may not behave at all like another.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame inductee Steve Quinn has been contributing to In-Fisherman publications on bass topics for over three decades