Diving For Bass Down Below
July 07, 2015
I clearly recall the fascination that accompanied the earliest underwater films made by Jacques Cousteau's team when they appeared in the late 1950s. They certainly fired up my interest and that of my brother, as we both pursued careers dealing with fish and fishing. Cousteau's films revealed fish and other underwater creatures living and feeding in their natural habitats. These pioneering efforts jump-started the popularity of scuba diving, which continues today.
Among those who became intrigued with the underwater world was Kim Stricker of Howell, Michigan, who became a certified diver in 1969 at age-17. He also fished the Bassmaster tournament trail for several years and he won the Michigan Top 100 at Lake St. Clair in 1994. His son Danny followed in his footsteps and was certified at age-13.
Inspired by Glen Lau's underwater filmwork in Florida, Kim produced several "Smallmouth Neighborhood" DVDs, which highlighted the world of the bass from beneath the surface, while also demonstrating fishing techniques. A great response to those films pushed the father-and-son team to film their cable TV program "Hook n' Look" in 2007. It's been a popular fixture on The Outdoor Channel ever since.
Angler Perceptions and Reality
"In filming these shows, I've been fascinated to see how the perceptions of many anglers about what's happening below the surface are far from the truth," Danny says. "First of all, in most situations, anglers are fishing around far more bass than they can imagine. I'm sure they'd be surprised to hear how many fish ignore their presentations." In the show's format, Kim typically fishes a particular situation with various lures, sometimes accompanied by a guest, while Danny observes and films from below. Their intercom system allows communication between the two realms.
They've had fellow Michigander Kevin VanDam on the show several times, and VanDam's been surprised by the experience. "One time, we fished a Michigan lake for smallmouth bass during spring," Kim recounts. "The bite was slow as we fished Strike King's KVD 1.5, which had just been released. After a few hours we'd gotten maybe 6 or 7 fish.
"VanDam and I felt that the fish hadn't moved up onto the shallow flats yet. But once Danny went underwater, he got Kevin's attention when he told him how many bass were down there." Danny found that he could locate Kevin's lure by watching the bass. "Under water, even so-called silent crankbaits produce a lot of sound. Bass are extremely aware of lures in their realm, whether the water is clear or not.
"As soon as Kevin's lure splashed down," he says, "all nearby bass turned to look at it, and they watched as it moved through the water. But they weren't in a mood to bite. They also watched the boat and followed me around. Smallies are curious and unafraid, and they're eager to feed on invertebrates I stir off the bottom with my fins."
VanDam, ever confident, found it hard to believe that so many fish refused to bite his offering. But with the headset on, Danny gave him a running account as he tried various tricks to make them bite. From his underwater perspective, Danny can readily determine what lure motions, such as stop-and-go, cover contact, or suspending action, trigger bass to strike. "I can read their body language," he says, "especially smallmouth bass, which rapidly change color, fin position, and posture as their moods change. At times, they even appear to get mad if I encroach on them. They turn bright, dart about, and ram right into me or the camera lens."
The Strickers emphasize how curious smallmouth bass are, typically in contrast to largemouths. Moreover, largemouths typically seek cover, while smallmouths often hold and travel in open areas, making observation much easier.
Some anglers and guides are convinced that trolling motor sounds and sonar echoes can spook bass. In their extensive underwater observations, the Strickers have not found evidence of that. "There's so much ambient sound under water," Danny says. "Bass seem to be accustomed to these sounds and ignore them. We've watched as the trolling motor is turned on and off, and fish show no reaction. Same with putting the outboard in gear. They're aware of sounds that may be related to feeding, such as a lure's splashdown. What spooks them the most is a shadow."
Spawning Bass Responses
Clear northern lakes offer great opportunities to observe spawning and the reaction of nesting fish to lures. "When Dad starts fishing for a bedding bass, I can usually tell within 3 or 4 casts whether it will bite. I can quickly tell if a lure change is needed, or a change in drop speed or lure movement.
"The stage of egg and fry development also affects how bass react to lures," he continues. "When eggs are in the nest, guarding males respond most aggressively to lures fished on the bottom. Once the tiny black fry hatch and begin moving upward, they're more likely to strike lures suspended above the bed. I can see their developmental stage when diving, and an Aqua-Vu camera shows it, too. But you can't see that from a boat, even in clear water."
How Bass Bite
An experience at the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence River in New York shed light on why suspended fish can be so hard to catch. "We found a school of largemouth bass suspended along a fast-dropping river ledge," Kim says, "holding about 25 feet down over 45 feet of water. The school traveled laterally along that ledge at that depth, apparently feeding on baitfish. But when they ascended or descended, they pointed straight up or straight down, following the wall with their bellies facing it.
"It was tough to get them to bite," he says, "as they would ignore a lure that fell below their level. I finally got a couple on a wacky-rigged Ocho. Danny suggested that once the lure dropped, I should sweep my rod upward, and let it fall again to their level. I started catching more, using an exaggerated sweep of 5 or 6 feet."
Mud Puffin': When we fish a jig, we visualize the skirted lure and trailer sitting on bottom, likely imitating a crawfish. We give it little shakes or pop it to enhance this imagery. But in some cases, this is far from accurate.
"We were fishing a natural lake in Michigan in early November and the water was in the low-50°F range," Kim says. "As I worked a jig along bottom, I'd occasionally get smashing strikes from big largemouth bass. I couldn't figure out why they were hitting so hard in cool water. And the odd thing was that they had algae in their mouths when I pulled them aboard." Below the surface, Danny found the answer.
"When the jig hit bottom, it buried completely in the soft muck outside the weedline," he says. "The lure often disappeared, or else all you'd see were the tips of the claws of the crawdad trailer. As Dad worked the bait, it created a silt trail that looked like smoke. Largemouths followed the trail, then would slam into the bottom to eat whatever was under the surface. They hit blindly and violently."
The Crayfish Burrito: One time the Strickers hosted Doug Minor of Strike King on a lake in northern Michigan. "It was early fall and typically smallmouths get on a big crayfish feed at that time," Kim says. "We each caught a 4-pounder but the bite turned off. It was an excellent spot and I wanted to stay and try some new techniques but Doug was eager to move on.
"Danny dove under to scope it out, since there usually are lots more bass around than most anglers believe. He found what he called a 'crayfish burrito,' a hollow log that was jam-packed with over 100 crawdads. Around it hovered what he described as a 'tornado' of smallmouths, all 3- and 4-pounders. They kept circling, waiting for a crayfish to emerge, but they craws were not playing that game. The bass were so intent on that log, they ignored our lures."
Goby Bites: On a trip to the Great Lakes, the Strickers had Ohio pro Charlie Hartley as a guest. Fishing for smallmouths with drop-shot rigs, they frequently had light bites that Hartley called goby bites, thinking they were nipping the worm. But Danny reported the bites were on the sinker. "Gobies sometimes bite a tube bait," he says, "but they never rise more than an inch or two above bottom. But they can sure pester a sinker."
I asked whether they often found gobies harassing male smallmouths on their nests, trying to eat eggs or fry. "That's uncommon," Kim says. "After a report from Ohio about its prevalence, we watched for this interaction, but in the waters we've visited, it's not a problem.
"The nest predation we do see, however, is bluegills swarming largemouth bass beds. They take a big toll wherever we've watched bedding largemouths. It may be nature's way of controlling numbers of young bass."
Especially on large bodies of water, water temperature varies considerably with depth and laterally as well. "One time we had a good bunch of smallmouth bass located 18 to 20 feet deep," Kim says." But that night the wind blew hard. The next morning all the fish were gone. When Danny jumped in, he almost jumped right out, as it was freezing. Wind had pushed a layer of cold water in and the bass evacuated."
"You could see a thick layer of algae suspended above the cold, dense bottom water," Danny reports. "Thermoclines act like a brick wall in lakes. Fish swim into them and immediately back up. At the thermocline, you see wavy lines, just like when you look at a highway on a hot day," he adds.
Relationship to Cover
"Smallmouth bass don't penetrate thick submergent vegetation," Danny says. "I see largemouths, pike, perch, and bluegills swim in and out of dense milfoil and coontail, but never smallmouths. They do, at times, suspend above it. And you sometimes find them among cabbage stalks and even under lily pads.
"When bass suspend above cover, they won't swim down to bite a bait. We see the same thing when smallmouths hold above sunken wooden pallettes and fish cribs. And the level they suspend at can change daily."
For bass anglers, "mat fishing" means working lures through the dense blankets of lily pads, submergent vegetation, and algae that form on shallow flats and coves. Getting lures through the mat requires heavy braided line, tungsten sinkers weighing up to two ounces, and narrow baits to punch through. Anglers visualize a mat as a solid substance.
But while it's hard to penetrate mats with lures, the Strickers report that light easily penetrates even the thickest carpet. "They're transparent," says Danny, "even messy stuff that's several inches thick. And light passes right through lily pads. You can see the complete profile of a weedless frog lure from below. Bass see it, track it, and strike it directly if they want to.
"Sometimes the mat is so thick that they can't bust through, at least on the first charge. They hit the bottom of the mat and knock the frog into the air like it was on a trampoline. The best thing to do in that case is to let it sit. Fish reposition and strike again if they're aggressive."
Bass Trails: Below the surface of emergent and submergent vegetation, largemouth bass follow slightly cleared passages that make their progress easier. "Baitfish, bream, and bass follow these routes, and their swimming through them helps keep them open," Kim says. "It reminds me of the deer trails we find in the woods." They make a high-percentage place to fish when you find them."
They also find that smallmouths have a sophisticated directional sense. "When they travel across the flats," Danny says, "smallies seem to have a set of signposts. Fish swim directly to a key feature such as a big boulder, then turn and head off in a different direction, toward another object. They follow these same paths year after year."
Knockin' and Dockin': Anglers who fish North Country lakes know pontoon boats parked by shallow docks are perhaps the best big-bass locations of all in summer. A good skip delivers a tube or jig 20 feet back beneath the hull, where lunkers lurk. Many anglers fear banging a jig off a pontoon or engine, fearing spooking the fish, as well as the wrath of the boat owner who may be observing the action from above.
"Bass seem to feel totally secure underneath docks and boats," Danny says. "You can bang around the boat, or even walk above them and they hold their position. When I swim underneath, they just turn and watch me.
"I've seen similar behavior in big spotted bass huddled beneath stumps in reservoirs. You can swim up and almost touch them and they don't move."
It's my belief that bass typically move beneath docks once the sun gets high. So as strategy, it's best to fish a set of docks after mid-morning. But other anglers believe that fish stay there all the time. I asked Kim for observations in that regard. He said he couldn't comment, as they typically don't dive until later in the day when light conditions are better for filming.
Fishing turns on the relationship of an angler and his prey, a game that keeps you guessing and wondering. Many questions constantly arise. Going below to spend time with the fishes is a great way to answer them. â–
*Kim and Danny Stricker, Howell, Michigan, are the father-son host team of the Hook'N Look television show.