October 07, 2015
By Jim Gronaw
Many of the biggest largemouth bass taken each year, nationwide, come from small public and private lakes. Yet many of today's tournament-oriented anglers won't bother with a lake of just 300 acres, let along setting foot on a 2-acre farm pond.
Regulations that limit horsepower or allow only electric motors drop angler activity significantly. Throw in unimproved launch facilities and visits decline even more. But big bass are where you find them, and many of us are driving past some of the biggest bass of our lives on the way to work.
I've been blessed to live in the fertile farmland region of central Maryland's Piedmont area. Throughout this region, farmers, nurseries, parklands, and wildlife preservation buffers are endowed with small lakes and ponds used for fire protection, irrigation, and recreation. There are hundreds of small lakes within a 75-mile radius of my home. And throughout the Mid-Atlantic area, there are thousands.
That's a lot of fishing opportunities with potential for bass in the 5- to 8-pound range. When 13-year old Colton Lambert caught the current Maryland record largemouth from a farm pond in southern Maryland on July 31, 2013, it solidified the "big fish-little pond" concept. His 26-inch fish weighed 11 pounds 6 ounces and beat the previous mark by four ounces, another pond fish caught in the late 1980s.
Forget the run and gun and weigh-in stresses. If you want a shot at overlooked lunkers, the small-lake game is the best hand to play in many areas of the country.
Finding Good Water
Locating small lakes has never been a problem for me, even long before we had computers and the Internet. As a high school boy in a rural setting, I'd ride my bike anywhere and ask permission to fish private waters or else seek lesser-known public options. It was the late 1960s and bass fishing was poised to surge into the angling world as the most popular form of fishing. My school bus drove the backroads between Baltimore and Frederick, Maryland, and I'd take note of ponds we passed, especially when the leaves came off the trees in fall.
Those early efforts turned up a few prime waters. Most held bass, but only a small portion had the fish I was looking for—5-pounders. Today, with the Internet, Google Earth, and up-to-date fishing reports, it's easier to find small waters near home. It takes time, effort, and proper timing to take advantage of these opportunities, however. In a lifetime of fishing such small waters, I've fished 114 small bodies of water, most less than 10 acres. On average, only one out of three produces big bass. When looking for pigs in puddles, I keep these factors in mind:
Limited Access or Horsepower: Relatively few modern anglers risk launching their fancy boats where roads and ramps are in poor shape. If gas engines are banned, pressure is further reduced. Big bass grow abundant and easier to catch where fishing pressure is light or non-existent.
Multi-Use Park Lakes: County or municipally owned parks often have small lakes for recreational activities. They may be popular for hiking, picnics, or swimming. Fishing often is limited to casual shore anglers. But I know many that house overlooked lunkers. Boat rentals sometimes are an option as some of these lakes and reservoirs can cover 100 or more acres.
Community Lakes Stocked with Trout: In many areas of the Mid-Atlantic region, spring stockings of 9- to 12-inch rainbow trout fuel a population of big largemouths that feast on the hatchery fish. Although intended to satisfy the cabin-fever crowd during March and April, the stockings can trigger a strong big-bass bite. It's not a California exclusive.
Private Waters: Most of the better ponds and lakes I've found were through the time-honored tradition of seeking permission, first-hand or through friends. I know the bummed feeling of a turn-down from a landowner. But understand that you're a stranger and he has every right to refuse fishing privileges. Most waters I fish are owned by people I've been friends with for years, even decades. It takes time to nurture friendships and gain trust.
Club or Permit Lakes: I have access to several small lakes owned by hunting and fishing clubs that offer outstanding fishing to members and guests. I've also secured permits for a number of small waters under the jurisdiction of land management companies. These are free for the asking.
There are other factors to consider when seeking the big girl next door. Don't be discouraged by obstructions like washed out farm roads, overgrown shorelines, aquatic vegetation, or free roaming cattle. They're all forgotten when you put the grip on a 24-inch largemouth.
The winter of 2013-14 was the coldest in many decades in the Mid-Atlantic region. Where ice rarely forms, we had 10 to 12 inches. Yet they thawed by mid-March. A three-day warm spell of 50°F days and southerly winds pushed fish shallow. Most local anglers weren't thinking about fishing yet but we used a tactic I'll call "thermal banking" to cash in on this cold-water bite.
Thermal banking occurs when warmer surface water is blown to one end of a lake or pond where it stacks up and creates an area that's several degrees warmer than the rest. Often, the northwest to northeast sections of a pond experience this phenomenon due to the prevailing southerly winds. Shallow, sun warmed bays or coves, no matter how they're positioned, heat up several degrees and draw bass as well.
When the water reaches 44°F, you have a chance at big bass. For many years we used in-line spinners such as Mepps #5 Aglias or a Blue Fox Vibrax, retrieving them slowly through warm shallows. But the past two seasons we've had great success with rattlebaits like the 1/4-ounce Rat-L-Trap or Cordell Super Spot. Even with water in the mid-40°F range, bass run them down when retrieved at a pretty swift clip. The idea of a fast-moving bait in cold water goes against my past assumptions for spring largemouths, yet the pattern has worked consistently.
We fished rattlebaits on 20-pound braid with a 24-inch leader of clear mono testing 15 or 20 pounds. Even in ice-out conditions, strikes came as solid thumps that stopped the bait. At other times, however, we'd merely note momentary slack in the line. That apparently occurs when a bass overtakes a lure from behind. We learned to quickly set the hook whenever this occurred. When the bite slowed, we'd go back to the in-line spinner option and slow down for lethargic fish.
Weather can be wildly variable during spring. We've had consistent success on big fish with strong south or west winds that push a lot of warm water shallow. Even if it's churned and muddy and as shallow as 18 inches, big bass can be aggressive and easy pickings. I've recently begun wading for pond bass from early spring through late summer. It's a great option where access for small craft isn't available.
Late Spring and Summer Patterns
As the water warms into the mid-50°F range, we switch gears and fish for shallow bass that are making initial moves toward spawning areas. At this time, scant vegetation allows you to fish finesse presentations if woodcover isn't dense. Bass can be extremely shallow and extremely skittish.
Spring rains often muddy the water enough so that you can approach prespawn giants. I've had great success with stickworms from the Stank X Bait Company, their 4.25- and 5.25-inch Stix and .40 Caliber Stix. They're durable so you can catch 8 or 10 bass per worm, and have a heavy garlic scent and great action in the water. Preferred colors are Bluegilla, Camo, and Baby Bass. We fish them weightless on 6- or 8-pound Berkley Trilene XL or Gamma Fluorocarbon on a 2/0 offset—shank Owner worm hook. We fish them on light spinning gear—6.5- or 7-foot medium-power rods with a fast action. Both wacky and Texas riggings take fish, but on most days the wacky setup gets the call.
Most bass anglers would shudder at the thought of using such light gear for bass that could go 5 to 8 pounds. But this is only an option if the water is devoid of woody obstructions. Once vegetation takes hold we abandon light line, switching to 20- or 30-pound braid to muscle fish through weedgrowth. But during the early prespawn gig, light line coaxes more bites. Smaller 4.25-inch Stix are ideal for the early bite, as even the 1-pounders take the entire bait in their mouths. So set the hook as soon as you see the line move. Make short accurate casts (15 to 40 feet) near emergent vegetation and your hookup ratio will be much better than if you make long casts.
As summer advances and aquatic vegetation flourishes, the stickworm continues to work well, fished weightless on braided line. For a changeup, fish baits like the Stanley Ribbit, Zoom Horny Toad, or Stank X Buzz Froggz. Rig them on a 4/0 offset worm hook and fish these baits with a steady retrieve that creates a buzzing disturbance on the surface. In matted surface vegetation, inch the frog slowly across floating weeds, which often brings thunderous surface strikes. Low-light conditions foster frog presentations well into the fall, with water temperatures down to the low-60°F range. In some situations, particularly in summer on clear lakes, night-fishing brings the best action. But know your surroundings before venturing out in the dark.
Stickworms also work over the slop, especially when reverse-rigged. Feed the tapered end of the worm up and over the offset on the hook, then bury the hook in the body of the worm. Rigged this way, stickworms glide over moss and algae beds. Bass seem to track them well from below, often blowing basketball-sized holes in the mat. On missed strikes, cast immediately back at the hole and more times than not you get a second chance.
The Fall Bite
Although much of my fall fishing is for panfish, I take the time to hit a few high-percentage bass ponds when conditions are right. One prime situation occurs when major low-pressure systems move toward the East Coast, preceding a tropical storm by as much as several days. With increased cloud cover, wind, and gradually falling temperatures and barometric pressure, small-lake largemouths tend to go on the chew. For the past three years, tropical events that have triggered sensational big-fish bites in my local waters. If you can get on the water 6 to 12 hours before the storm hits, you're likely to enjoy awesome action.
Three years ago in October when infamous Hurricane Sandy approached our region, I found 4- to 6-pound bass running down half-pound bluegills that I was catching on ultralight gear. I switched to medium-heavy spinning gear and 20-pound braid and immediately began hooking lunkers on live bluegills below a bobber with a 4/0 Owner Octopus Circle hook. I don't hesitate to use natural baits for bass. If golden shiners are present, as they are in some of my local lakes, they're a high-percentage bait for trophy fish.
When fall storms hit the East Coast, they tend to flood some previously dry zones and fill ponds that had suffered from low-water conditions during summer. With shoreline vegetation flooded, bass often move into the newly available cover and clobber sunfish and shiners. Even with water temperature in the 50°F range, bass relocate to such areas and take advantage of a late-season bounty. At this time, we go back to fishing the stick worms on heavy braid, often going toe-to-toe with big fish right at our feet as we wade along newly flooded brush. This also is a great time to work 1/4- to 1/2-ounce football jigs with hair and pork trailers. In fall, big shallow bass seem to prefer pork trailers over synthetics.
Small-lake bass fishing dates to the earliest times in our country. While often productive, it's not always easy. Small lakes often are the first to shut down once the foul weather and cold fronts roll through. Pressured bass in small waters become spooky and challenging. But pond fishing is often convenient, and my experience suggests it's the best way to waylay a lunker.
*Jim Gronaw, Westminster, Maryland, is an avid angler and small water researcher. He has contributed to In-Fisherman and our annual guides.