Legendary Largemouth: Bass Structure Fishing
September 27, 2013
The Random House Dictionary defines "ledge" as "any relatively narrow, projecting part" or "a more or less flat shelf of rock." To savvy offshore bass anglers, it has a bit broader meaning. "I call it ledge fishing anytime I'm working main-lake offshore structure alongside a submerged river channel," says Kevin VanDam, the Michigan-based pro who's shown his ability to decipher such waters across the river-run reservoirs of the Mid-South.
"The depth and degree of the drops vary with reservoir type," he says, "from lowland impoundments to highland reservoirs. In some highland lakes, the main channel can be too deep, but feeder creek channels can hold a lot of bass. In many reservoirs, bass relate to these types of areas from shortly after the spawn ends until the Prespawn Period begins the following spring."
In the early days of reservoir bass fishing, these types of spots went untouched. It wasn't until Buck Perry promoted his spoonplugging tactics for bass structure fishing offshore and Lowrance Electronics offered its first fishing sonars that anglers began to explore these areas. In the 1960s, guides and early tournament anglers like Glenn Andrews, Virgil Ward, and Jim Rogers explored waters with Carl Lowrance's "Little Green Box." Introduced in 1959, they didn't come into common usage for several years.
Advances in ledge fishing have remarkably followed developments in the fishing electronics industry. Lowrance introduced the first units to combine sonar with Loran-C, the predecessor to GPS, perhaps unfamiliar to today's young readers. GPS upped the ante and side-imaging opened up a new world to offshore anglers, increasing efficiency many-fold.
Today, top anglers like Bassmaster Elite pros VanDam and Ott DeFoe of Tennessee are excited to go to the next level with 360-degree imaging from Humminbird. This technology was introduced a year ago, enabling anglers to view the aquatic terrain surrounding the boat. The original model mounted to the transom, with the rotating transducer extending about three feet below the surface. The other day, I caught a sneak peak of the latest version, Bow 360, in the back of DeFoe's truck, a unit that mounts around the trolling motor shaft for underwater viewing ahead of the boat from the bow position. The moving transducer allows you to follow schools of baitfish and individual bass as they hold or move along structure. He was eager to download the software and get on the water with it.
"If I'm fancasting a flat," DeFoe says, "I can look in every direction; see a stump or other target 40 or 50 feet away and fire a cast direct to it. It allows me to see and follow a ledge as it lays out in front of the boat, and do so without driving over it. For bass fishing, the stern-mount units from last year have become obsolete." That's sad news for anglers who spent nearly $2,000 last year for those units, but that's the story these days in the fast-developing electronics industry. VanDam also is eager to get water time with his unit. He has two Humminbird 1198s mounted on the bow and one will be devoted to 360-degree imaging, the other to down-imaging or mapping.
DeFoe notes that ledges need not be dramatic to hold schools of bass. "In lowland situations, such as on the upper (northern) stretches of Kentucky Lake, I often hold the boat in about 12 feet and fish the drop from 7 to 10 feet. Many of these spots don't show up on paper maps, and sometimes not on electronic ones, either. You have to look and fish, look and fish.
"Sometimes, though, you find bass on a spot, but they won't bite. Timing is important in this type of fishing. At times, fish seem to become more active at a particular time of day, which may involve a change in light levels. At other times, current is most important. I find that some current is good; more is better; but too much can be overkill."
When studying an impoundment, consider the effects of both the upstream and downstream dams on the amount and timing of current. The Tennessee River, for example, is now composed of a long string of impoundments, from its source at Cherokee Lake on the South Holston River and Douglas Lake on the French Broad, downstream to the Kentucky Dam tailrace that enters the Ohio River. On the upstream end of a pool, current flowing from the upstream dam often sets up good feeding opportunities, even if the downstream dam is not releasing water. But in downstream sectors, the lower dam exerts most influence on the amount of current there. "Largemouth bass are incredibly sensitive to current," VanDam says. "They instinctively find sweet spots where it's lessened, where they can hold to attack shad schools."
Kentucky Lake ace Sam Lashlee adds that the best ledges aren't just depth changes but have bottom features as well. "Some of the best ones on the Tennessee River are mussel beds that provide a hard substrate that attracts baitfish. Stretches of gravel also are good, where the dominant substrate is sand and silt."
Grass Versus Ledge Lakes
Since the late 1970s, Tennessee River impoundments have periodically featured massive beds of submerged aquatic vegetation, primarily Eurasian milfoil and hydrilla. When plant blooms occur, Lashlee notes that the bass population may split, with some fish lingering along weededges or under thick mats and others along offshore ledges. His family has lived along the Tennessee River since his great-great grandfather was awarded a large tract of land there for his military service in the Revolutionary War. He's familiar with the many changes in Kentucky Lake since its impoundment in 1945.
"When the main-river grassbeds grow, shad move into them and bass follow," Lashlee says. "But you always have a large segment of the population offshore, holding along ledges. Of course there's a seasonal aspect to that. The vegetation tends to max out in fall, then dwindle as winter approaches. That puts most of the big adult bass offshore in lakes like Guntersville and Kentucky and the upper Tennessee River waters, Chickamauga and Nickajack, that have few major creeks. That's when the ledge bite is red hot, and umbrella rigs are hard to beat."
Weed bass tend to gather in groups, but not as tightly as ledge fish. Shad location also influences bass. When shad school along grassy mats, that's where the action is. But if shad also are present along deeper river and creek channels, bass take up residence there as well. In the absence of vegetation, ledge patterns become almost universal from after the spawn until the Prespawn Period pulls fish shallow.
Lures for Ledges
Once prime spots are defined, whether by traditional sonar, marker buoys, and triangulation of shoreline objects, or today's latest electronic marvels, it's time to put bass in the boat. VanDam, who has worked with Strike King to develop several lines of baits, first picks up a crankbait. "Their efficiency and triggering ability are unparalleled," he says. While Strike King's 6XD has become a popular choice for offshore fishing, VanDam has had great success with the big 10XD since it was released late last fall. "From Lake Fork to Guntersville to Kentucky Lake, those big ledge bass eat a lot of adult gizzard shad," he says. "This 2½-ounce crank is sized right for them, and it easily reaches 25 feet on a cast. I fish it on a 7-foot 10-inch Quantum medium-heavy composite cranking rod. You have to increase line size. I don't use less than 14-pound-test, 17-pound fluorocarbon is generally best. It can reach 22 feet on 20-pound test."
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DeFoe also is a crankbait fan, relying on Rapala's DT 10, 14, 16, and 20 baits, depending on ledge depth. He finds that cranks tend to select for the biggest bass, though he admits his experience with umbrella rigs is limited, as the Bassmaster Elite series bans them.
"Anyone who spends a lot of time on ledges knows that as fishing pressure increases, fish get finicky and harder to trigger," he says. "You see them on side-imaging sonar and work to get the first bite. After one bass bites, a feeding flurry may ensue. In early summer, when bass first gather on ledges, they're easier to fire up. And you can take your time and work the school. But later in the season, you have to immediately cast back to the school. Drop the rod and fish into the boat and pick up another rod. Sort out the mess when they quit biting."
DeFoe has seen how color and sound can make a big difference. "I typically have 4 or 5 cranking rods on the deck when ledge fishing. You may catch a few on one color in a rattling bait, then they stop biting. But a silent bait often can get some more bites. And then you can switch colors and repeat the process. Sometimes you can go back to your original selection and catch more with it."
He recommends having one shad-color crank, one bright bait, say chartreuse-blue, and one in-between hue to maximize your crankbait bites. Several companies now offer silent and rattling versions of popular baits. And Bomber offers the Switchback Shad, with a rattle that can be turned off. But DeFoe's always ready with a football jig, a Berkley 5-inch Hollow Belly Swimbait on a 3/4-ounce head, and a Texas-rigged worm or Carolina rig if the crank bite dies. VanDam adds that sometimes a hefty spinnerbait like Strike King's Bottom Dweller, available up to 1¼-ounce, can turn the bite on when slow-rolled.
With his vast experience on the Tennessee River, Lashlee has found that changing baits can be important. And lately he's had great success with an umbrella rig, particularly from fall into early spring. But he notes that it sometimes works in warm water as well, and points to Casey Martin's dominating victory at Lake Chickamauga in Tennessee at the FLW Tour event this past June.
Martin employed a variety of rigs, including a Picasso Bait Ball Extreme, rigged with Gene Larew Sweet Swimmers and Zoom Swimmin' Super Flukes on the upper arms and 6-inch Strike King Shadalicious or Basstrix swimbaits below. He had 13 baits on the rig, but only the three larger ones on the bottom had hooks, in compliance with Tennessee regulations.
In that tournament, Martin worked two major ledge schools with two ends of the presentation spectrum, the outrageous umbrella rig and a single 6-inch Roboworm dangled on a drop-shot rig, which provided him with a day-3 catch over 23 pounds. He reported that on that day, bass refused to hit the umbrella rig. But on day-4 he reaped the benefits of its appeal to sack over 30 pounds, including the 8-pound 5-ounce lunker. Martin also changed the pace with a 3/4-ounce Omega Football Jig rigged with a Paca Craw and a Z-Man Chatterbait with a Castaic Jerky J Swimbait trailer.
"You have to read the position of the fish," Lashlee emphasizes. "When current is flowing fast, I tell my clients to 'count the pebbles' when fishing a football jig. But in slack water, bass often suspend high in the water column. My two best presentations in that situation are a big spoon like Strike King's 5½-inch Sexy Spoon or else a 3/4- or 1-ounce football jig. To fish the jig, I use a 7½-foot rod to do what we call 'stroking.' It's not just a sharp upward snap. You need to rip that rod way up over your shoulder so the jig jumps 6 or 8 feet off bottom." He matches this heavy gear and violent motion with 20-pound Vicious fluorocarbon with a leader of 25-pound test attached with a swivel.
"Bass almost always hit on the fall," he says. "You see the line jump. When that happens, reel up slack and keep reeling. Those sharp hooks start to penetrate right away. If you set hard, you often tear a hole in their jaw and they jump and come off. As a guide, this is one of the hardest things to teach clients."
Like VanDam, Lashlee is a new fan of the 10XD. "It's already won two tournaments on Kentucky Lake," he says. "Those 5- to 7-pounders eat it up. But you'd be surprised how many 2-pounders I catch on it as well."
Now's the time to scan your favorite reservoir, gazing to the far bank. Somewhere out there lurk schools of bass big enough to create an epic day on the water. Ledge fishing isn't always easy but it has the stuff of legends.