June 30, 2013
Ever have a bass engulf a lure the second it touches the surface? It's a remarkable scene, and I've had fish perform this feat on several occasions. Clear water is part of the equation. Some observers feel bass can spy an object flying through the air, and indeed, they frequently leap from the water in pursuit of dragonflies buzzing several inches above the surface. Others feel, in contrast, that bass track the shadow of a lure during the cast, watching it race across the bottom, and move to intercept as it lands. In either case, it's a remarkable feat, but only one of the ways bass find and strike lures. Clear water makes the game more interesting. We can observe bass and they keep an eye on us, particularly if they feel they have reason to fear. Clear water also enlarges the strike window of bass, increasing the importance of sight in feeding, relative to sound, smell, and vibration. Thus it also enlarges the array of lures that work to catch them. Their world, mere inches in murky water, is magnified many times, out to 30, 40, even 50 feet in prime conditions.
We recognize the effectiveness of suspending jerkbaits for luring inactive bass, typically in coldwater situations. They see the lure and approach, then are fooled by its barely alive twitching. Hanging in their face, a bait's hard to pass up.
Suspension also is the basis of the float'n fly, with the float bringing buoyancy, and subtle action imparted by lightly shaking the rod or merely winding it slowly. A version of the float-n-fly continues to fool bass during early summer and is particularly effective on postspawn fish lingering around shallow cover but not feeding actively.
We catch lots of incidental bass when fishing for crappies then. Increasing line and hook size a bit improves the landing percentage with big fish. A 2-inch tube, hair jig, or wacky worm is all you need, buoyed by a fixed float such as the Adjust-A-Bubble from Rainbow Plastics, a long-time favorite of the In-Fisherman staff. Of course, this rig is outstanding for smallmouth and spotted bass in other types of habitat. There's something about a bait hanging in mid-water that begs to be eaten.
Bill Siemantel, California bass expert, lure designer, and theoretician, is quick to point out that a drop-shot rig is the mirror image of a float rig, hanging a set distance above bottom, but anchored by a weight instead of being buoyed by a bobber. "It's important to break down the water column," he says. "Determine where the bite is — top, middle, or bottom. Then you can apply tools that work best in that zone."
He has another trick for suspending a Senko, a notoriously effective lure for finicky fish. "Sixty-five-pound braid floats a Senko," he says. "Tie on a fluorocarbon leader that's as long as the depth you want to fish. It falls that distance, then basically hangs there. Find a deep fallen tree? Suspend that Senko by it and see what happens."
Unfortunately for anglers, there's no magic formula on how to work a particular lure in a situation to get fish to bite. Weather conditions affect the temperament of fish in ways we still don't understand. But you better believe their effects can be huge.
It's important to have a set of presentations that range from slow, subtle, and natural (like a minnow finning along smoothly) to erratic and frantic (like a sickly trout in its death throes). Select a starting point on this continuum and branch out.
At the subtle end of the spectrum lies the I-Motion method and similar approaches. The I-Motion concept was developed by Japanese anglers, including pros Yamaki Kazuto and Ty Ono, and ace lure designer, Seiji Kato. The system tries to mimic the non-panicked steady swimming of a minnow. I've found it versatile, depthwise, adaptable to a top, middle, or bottom approach.
"I-Motion was intended to tempt bass that aren't in a feeding mood, whether due to weather, biological factors, or fishing pressure," says Jackall Lures pro staffer David Swendseid, of Oregon. "The bait should appear unthreatened but nonetheless vulnerable. A slow steady retrieve is key, with no exaggerated motion.
"Ono, president of Jackall, worked with Kato on a hardbait and a softbait lure style for I-Motion. Jackall's Seiraminnow 80S resembles a small jerkbait, but is far from it. Look closely and you see its open mouth. As it's moved, water flows into the mouth and out a pair of gill slits. The intent is to imitate the underwater vortex created by a normal swimming minnow. The material on the rear treble hook is designed to increase stability to enhance the illusion."
Indeed, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has often spoken of the role that underwater "fingerprints" left by passing fish, play in tricking predators into biting an artificial lure. His observations on the importance of vibration in eliciting a strike were reinforced by the findings of Stephen Spotte, described in his book, Bluegills — Biology and Behavior.
Stange: "Once a fish sees something interesting, it swims steadily toward the offering, gets behind it, and tracks it. Once the lure or baitfish is in a zone about 1 to 2 feet in front of the fish, vision isn't important anymore. At this point, the lateral line kicks in and the fish almost goes on autopilot, relying on that sense to make the final judgment about whether or not to eat the thing."
Kato and Ono found that neutral bass were fooled into biting by the Seiraminnow's subtle vibration spectrum. They and other pros have used it to make great catches when standard approaches fare poorly.
They also devised a softbait for a similar look and feel, the I-Shad. With a wide head, it tapers to a subtle tail that splits at its tip. "The path of water moving along the body creates enough turbidity to cause minute vibrations in the tail," Swendseid explains. "We've done slow-motion photography and you can detect this high-speed vibration, almost like the beating of a hummingbird's wings, virtually invisible to the eye, but powerful in its effect."
To match the I-Shad, Kato designed Jackall's Nose Jig Head, an oval head of tungsten that's built to add no vibration to a retrieve. Again, the key to catching fish is a slow steady retrieve. "It takes even accomplished anglers a while to master the retrieve," Swendseid says. "In the beginning, total concentration is essential. After a time, muscle memory takes over and it can become automatic." Swendseid recommends that beginners pick a calm day and rather shallow water for their initial I-Motion fishing.
"Make a long cast with spinning tackle and count the lure down," he instructs. "Lower the rod tip close to the surface or just below it to dampen any shaking action. Then reel slowly and steadily; barely crawl it along. You can fish it in mid-water or toward bottom; it's very effective on suspended bass.
"You sense strikes as the rod loads. No hook-set is needed. Experimentation with line has shown that thin braid is ideal for casting distance, increased sensitivity, and easy hooksets. But a long fluorocarbon leader of Seaguar Tatsu 4- or 6-pound line enhances lure action. I've found 20 to 25 feet ideal, so as the fish nears the boat, the knot's already on the spool, reducing break-offs from big fish near the boat."
In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde has experimented widely with retrieves in his finesse fishing in midwestern impoundments. He typically uses a Gopher Mushroom Head Jig with a Z-Man ZinkerZ cut in half, or else a grub, ShadZ, MinnowZ, or WormZ. Using spinning tackle and heads from 1/32- to 3/32-ounce, he and his fishing partners work with a series of retrieves — Swim and Glide, Drag and Deadstick, Shin Shake, Drag and Shake, Hop and Bounce, and Straight Swim. Their quest to catch 101 bass in a 4-hour day is sometimes achieved. They typically tangle with at least half that number, catch rates over 10 bass per hour. For in-depth description of their tactics and catches, check Kehde's blog on the In-Fisherman website, in-fisherman.com.
At the active end of the presentation spectrum, an array of standard tactics may work at a given time: topwater popping and walking, to swimjigs or rattlebaits in the mid-zone, to deep divers, spoons, or football jigs for a bottom approach. Many anglers continue to be intimidated by "deep" water, say over 20 feet. If you want to put 20 feet in perspective, gaze from your boat's bow to the outboard.
Our on-water observations as well as scientific investigations of bass feeding show that preyfish are hard to catch. Bass frequently miss their target and prey elude them. For this reason, stomach contents studies typically find most bass with nothing in their gut.
Bass and other predators instinctively know they can maximize feeding efficiency by using barriers to hinder the escape of prey. The lake bottom barrier is impassable to larger vertebrates, so bass tend to pin prey against bottom or chase it toward bottom, forcing a change of direction.
Their tendency to feed this way contributes to the versatility of the jig and Texas-rigged softbait, and to the effectiveness of banging bottom with a crankbait. Resulting puffs of silt suggest vulnerable prey is near. A free-swimming crank may draw strikes, but in most situations you catch more bass by banging bottom or running just above it, a vulnerable position for a baitfish.
Jigworms, Carolina rigs, and shaky-head setups convey a similar message. In some situations, shaking a lure or letting it lie still for seconds at a time furthers the illusion of vulnerability, as Kehde and his friends have shown. Try to make the bass believe it is accomplishing its feeding objectives. Reassure the fish that the prey is easy to catch and worth the effort.
At times, though, erratic bottom-oriented motions work better. Piddling a bait along can encourage bass to barely peck at it, or to inspect it too closely. In clear water, wary fish readily reject what we consider subtle, lifelike presentations. They know better.
In contrast, a violently ripped bait sometimes summons a far stronger reaction from bass. Without getting a good look at the potential prey, they take off in swift pursuit to capture it. They reserve the right to reject the object if it's not tasty.
Stroking a jig and ripping a rattlebait or spoon off bottom are effective in summer when bass occupy offshore structure. Their erratic lift-fall action attracts attention, and these methods remain little used in most waters, so bass are easily fooled by the motion. At times, though, you must experiment with the timing of the lift-fall, as it can make a big difference. Sometimes keeping bottom contact to a minimum is essential to get bit.
At the other end of the water column, the surface presents another barrier. From a lair in vegetation or wood, bass, with eyes perched atop the head, scan upward. Once the spawn is done, topwater lures are a key option and remain so through early fall.
Single fish and schools of bass lurk below groups of openwater baitfish, striking at opportune times. In clear water, bass may rise from deep water to feed on top, particularly if the prize is worthy. Siemantel feels that if the prey is worth the effort, bass go to surprising lengths to achieve it.
"I've pulled giants up from more than 20 feet, deadsticking a big floating swimbait on the surface," Siemantel says. "They're aware of what's going on above. Be patient, and you finally spot a dark shadow rising from the depths. Bass have more vertical capability than most of us give them credit for, especially in deep, clear waters."
Other barriers are ethereal, but can be just as important. Most anglers recognize that shade positions bass, one reason dock-fishing is so effective in summer.
"Fishing steep-sided California impoundments provides lessons on how important shade is," Siemantel says. "A tall mountain two miles from a lake can create a shadow that positions fish. They feed against the edge of that shadow, somehow realizing that the transition from light to dark gives them a visual advantage over prey. To work a shadow edge, hold the boat in shade, cast into the light and retrieve back toward the edge. When it gets close, hang on."
He adds that movement of the sun across the sky is predictable, creating shadows on one side of the lake early and on the other side toward evening. "I'm willing to bet that bass innately time the sun's passage and somehow plan to be set up on key spots when the passage of shadow gives them a feeding opportunity," he says. "Day length affects timing of the spawn. During summer, it affects their feeding time and location.
"If you can locate a key corner or funnel on structure, be sure to be there as the shadow crosses it. Bass holding there become active then, and other fish may move into the area as well. Consider how a shaded area is progressively squeezed against a cliff as the sun drops toward the horizon. The feeding zone is compressed and the action can get more and more explosive."
How right he is. I fondly recall several outstanding bites for big bass in exactly that zone. One time, Mark Fisher of Rapala and I were filming In-Fisherman Television on Lake Baccarac in Mexico. Each evening about an hour before dark, bass apparently pushed schools of small tilapia against a series of bluff walls. As the shaded area shrank to just a couple feet, they became most active.
To get bit, you had to place a long cast inches from the cliff and let the lure sit motionless for several seconds. We'd give the big Skitter Pop a couple twitches and it was as if someone dropped a boulder off the cliff. Water erupted, then the fish charged back into the depths before returning to the surface for a jump.
On that trip, fishing was rather difficult until that evening window of opportunity opened. It was lights out for 45 minutes or so, then the bite stopped as bass presumably moved elsewhere. But like Siemantel says, you could set your watch by it.
Mudlines are another key edge for summertime fishing, formed when wind or boat wakes push waves against soft banks. Silt is washed in and suspends in the water column, yielding clear water on one side, murk on the other. Bass feed along this barrier, holding at the edge where they're disguised to prey. In large impoundments, heavy rain in tributary rivers can produce massive mudlines that yield good fishing as they proceed downlake. But the growing murk behind it is predictably poor fishing water.
Current edges are key, too. That's why weekday reservoir fishing can be good, as power generation proceeds on schedule. Come the weekend, though, current often slacks as gates are shut. Without current positioning baitfish in a vulnerable position, bass feed less actively.
In these and other summer situations, it's up to the angler to determine whether the subtlety of a jigworm, the bold approach of a ripbait or spoon, or the patience of a deadstick approach carries the day. In summer, bass can be picky about feeding times. Days are long and prey typically abundant.
Fishing pressure seems to magnify environmental effects. On a hard-fished lake, bass that turn tentative due to a barometric rise or negative moon phase may be extremely difficult to catch. A small limit may take the tournament prize. On private waters, catch rates may be cut in half, but fishing remains good by most standards.
Once you dial in a productive approach, it often continues to work in similar water and weather conditions. But don't get too locked into any one tactic or lure as conditions can change with the onset of low-light conditions, lunar positions, or factors that escape our understanding.