March 21, 2022
When largemouth bass are prolifically spawning in clear water, just about anyone with eyeballs can find their beds.
That leads to one problem: Everyone can find their beds. The biggest fish will be caught early, and the rest will be provoked and pestered until they become uncatchable. That makes it imperative to be able to find the spawning fish that others won’t look for or can’t find.
For Texas pro Keith Combs, that often means looking not just in more out-of-the-way places, but also just deeper. If most of the beds are in 2 to 3 feet, he’ll try to make out the ones in 5 or 6 feet, and it’s not out of the question for him to go much, much deeper than that.
“When I was guiding at Lake Amistad, we’d catch fish off of beds as deep as 25 feet,” he recalled. “You had to drop a lure vertically on them. Often, we’d take a 1-ounce bait to make sure it got there. The good news is that they’re usually extremely easy to catch. A lot of times they’d eat it as soon as it hit the bottom, but you still had to make sure that it got into the strike zone.”
Not all fisheries have the Caribbean clear water of the big border lake, but Combs said that he consistently tries to push the outer limits to ensure that he’s chasing less pressured and less spooky largemouths.
“At Lake Travis (in Central Texas), I’ve seen quite a few in 10 to 12 feet of water. You fish more conventionally for them than you would in 25 feet of water but they’re still usually easy to catch.”
In a tournament situation, deeper bedding fish do present some problems, however. The first is that the deeper and murkier the water, the less likely you are to see the fish itself.
“Most of the time you just see the bed, a big white spot,” Combs said. The second issue is that it’s harder to tell the size of the fish. You may need a 3-pounder to cull and end up wasting a lot of time on a recalcitrant 2 1/2-pounder. Finally, it’s hard to gauge the mood of the fish, and whether it’s close to biting, or even whether it has engulfed your lure at all. “It’s more of a feel thing than anything,” he added. When your line swims off, set the hook, although you probably run a greater than normal risk of foul hooking the fish and therefore needing to release it.
Combs likes to start off by throwing an upsized dropshot, usually with a 1/2-ounce weight and a Strike King Shim-E-Stick, into the beds. That gives him the advantage of a vertical fall and the ability to keep the lure shimmying while remaining in place for an extended period of time. It also gives him the beefed-up tackle to move a big fish should he encounter a huge spawning female. He likes a 7-foot, 2-inch heavy-action Shimano Expride rod paired with a Shimano Metanium baitcasting reel spooled with 15-pound test Seaugar fluorocarbon.
If he is likely to see the fish grab the lure, he’ll often use a white Strike King Rage Craw or Rage Bug, but if he’s unlikely to see the crime go down, “the Shim-E-Stik is my go-to, usually in green pumpkin or black and blue.”
What about when the water is dingy, but you’re certain that the fish have to be bedding? Combs still chases those deeper bedding fish.
“On a lake like Guntersville in Alabama, you can’t even come close to seeing beds in 5 or 6 feet of water, but you can see a stump. A lot of times I’ll catch one off of a piece of cover like that in practices and then I’ll go back during the tournament and catch a pair. I know those fish were spawning.”
That led him to the conclusion that on many of America’s best fisheries – particularly those that fluctuate or get a ton of fishing pressure—a great many bass spawn deeper than we can conceive of seeing them. Accordingly, he’ll “bed fish blind.”
“If you can’t see a bed or see a fish, pick a bait you can fish slowly,” he explained. “Sometimes they’ll bite a short-leader Carolina Rig, which is great because you can keep it on the bottom. They’ll also eat jerkbaits, or a floating worm or a swimbait. If you can’t see a bed, can’t see a fish, pick a bait you can fish slowly.”
He added that spotted bass and smallmouths tend to be more aggressive and have a wider strike zone, so when fishing for them it’s possible to fish a little bit faster, but with largemouths the best bet is to keep it slow.
There are tools that make bed fishing for hard-to-see fish a bit easier. One of the most low-tech is a squirt gun or Super Soaker filled with water and a touch of non-polluting soap. If pollen on the surface is limiting your vision, one squirt will usually clear it away.
Another option is a “Flogger,” also known as a bathyscope, a cone-shaped looking device that allows an angler to put his or her viewing pane below the surface of the water to watch a fish’s behavior. “A lot of my friends in Michigan use one,” Combs said. “And on Amistad, way back in the day, people made homemade ones. You can see a lot more. It lets you size up the fish and the mood of the fish.”
It works best in team tournaments or two-angler situations, where one can watch the fish and direct the angler manipulating the lure.
Finally, today’s high-end sonar units, with side-imaging, down-imaging and forward-facing capabilities, allow anglers to see some deeper bedding fish and analyze their behavior in real time.
Ultimately, though, Combs believes that a lot more of the fish that we catch in the springtime at all depths are spawning rather than doing other things. “We chalk a lot of them up as pre-spawners, but they’re just on deeper beds,” he said. If you fish for them as if you can see them, you’ll likely produce bigger catches.