January 15, 2021
By Pete Robbins
Catching trophy largemouth bass is largely attributable to being in the right place at the right time, and there are few people in recent history who’ve had better timing than Bassmaster Elite Series pro Keith Combs. Prior to his pro career, he ditched a solid job in central Texas and headed to the border lakes of Amistad and Falcon while they were peaking. Over several years of guiding, particularly at Falcon, he said that 35- to 40-pound five-bass limits were the norm, and he witnessed 70 fish over 10 pounds come over the side of his Ranger boat.
Two of them were 14-pounders that he caught.
So yes, Keith Combs knows about big fish and good timing.
That’s lesson No. 1: You’ve gotta go where they live.
Combs currently lives just a long cast from Sam Rayburn, another Texas trophy factory that pumps out giants on the regular—as evidenced by a 40-pound winning weight in a recent BFL tournament. Perhaps more significant than the giants, those Texas fisheries are just chock-full of 3- to 8-pound bass, the types that leave you with raw thumbs and bruised guts from setting the hook. And that’s where the second rule comes in: A 1-pounder, a 6-pounder and a 12-pounder may genetically be the same, but they’re just different fish.
“I think that when they start getting into the 4- to 5-pound range they relate to different forage, and that changes everything,” Combs explained. It’s not just a matter of changing your lure profiles; it might also necessitate changing where you fish. “For example, on Falcon, the bigger bass eat a lot of tilapia. Those little bass are not eating them, they’re eating shad. So when the shad are out deep almost all of the fish you catch will be smaller. Meanwhile, the tilapia are up in 10 feet of water or less, and all the big ones are up there with them.”
Even if your local lake has perch, bluegill or crappie instead of tilapia, he expects that forage preference switch to still occur. Not that giants won’t eat shad and smaller minnows, too, but they know that the most bang for the buck comes with larger meals. They also get smarter, or at least more cautious, with age.
“They remember the close calls and being caught,” he said. That leads them to change their habits and habitat. The only time they’ll consistently be mixed in with the smaller, younger fish, is during the spawn when they all have their mind on something other than feeding.
In his years of guiding everyone from beginners to near-pros, he learned that anglers tend to get a case of the yips, (like buck fever) when they finally get that fish-of-a-lifetime on their line. It’s bad for everyone, enough to bring a grown man to his knees, but it’s particularly bad if you’ve never seen a double-digit before. When the bug eyes stare you in the face and the belly slaps back into the drink, that’s when mistakes get made.
“It starts with having different equipment,” Combs continued. “Line, hooks rods. But it’s more than that. It’s just so easy to get excited and forget to keep the line tight, or to not control the fish when it jumps. Guys will forget to give line, and then they’re shocked when it breaks.”
That sense of shock is also evident when fish strike right at the boat. If you’re not ready for the strike—or you don’t appreciate how big they are until you finally see the great whale surface—no amount of preparation can save you. Only a bit of good fortune can.
Combs is known as one of the best offshore tacticians in the world, and has won hundreds of thousands of dollars with a Strike King 6XD deep-diving crankbait. Indeed, that’s the lure that produced one of his 14-pounders, but if you’re headed out giant-hunting it’s not necessarily at the top of his list. You may be pleased to know that you don’t need some super-secret 12-inch swimbait or custom poured oversized creature bait, either. In fact, you likely have the right tools in your boat already. His top four, coast-to-coast, for just about any situation are the following:
-1/2- or 3/4-ounce flipping jig: “You need to have a jig. If you only gave me one lure, that would be it. I can do a lot with that bait.”
-1/2-ounce vibrating jig, like a Strike King Thunder Cricket.
-5- or 6-inch soft stick bait: “It’s not big, but it catches big fish, especially during the spawn.”
-Large (2.5 size) square bill crankbait: “I’ve caught lots of big fish deep, but I’ve caught just as many on a 2.5. That’ll produce really big fish in a lot of situations.”
And don’t forget to adjust your pace. During the spawn and in cold water, Combs prefers an ultra-slow approach, “Other than that I like everything a little bit faster than normal.”