May 24, 2012
By James O. Fraioli
Largemouth bass inhale 8-inch trout and slurp melon-size balls of shad with ease, and many top anglers believe offering the same sort of colossal banquet is the best way to catch double-digit sized bass.
Eager to test that notion, I arrive at California's Lake Casitas, one of the top trophy bass lakes anywhere. My fishing partner is Los Angeles firefighter Bill Siemantel, an authority on big bass. Recently, Siemantel and his partner Mike Hart won the 2006 Western Outdoor News (WON) Bass Tournament on Casitas with a winning five-fish limit of 34.94 pounds, which broke the WON Bass all-time weight record. Siemantel's approach is simple: If you're looking for fish over 10 pounds, throw baits much bigger than the norm.
As we motor through the early morning fog that envelops Lake Casitas, Siemantel explains from the console of his 19-foot BassCat the phenomenon of big baits.
History of Big Baits
"In the early and mid-1980s, a handful of anglers, including me, were carving giant lures from pool cues and table legs, but they were designed to catch the giant stripers that inhabit many California reservoirs," Siemantel says. In reservoirs around the country, anglers were fishing other big baits for stripers—the J-Plug, Cordell Redfin, and heavy leadhead jigs with bucktail or vinyl skirts. When Siemantel began to troll his handcrafted lures for landlocked stripers, he made a discovery.
"I started catching huge largemouths. And I wasn't alone. We went back to our shops to craft lures better suited for bass. Big bass baits soon appeared, including Alan Cole's wooden jointed AC Plug, Worm King's 6- to 9-inch soft plastic swimbaits with external jighead, Optimum's 7-inch internally weighted swimbait, and Castaic's 9-inch wood trout bait."
But relatively few anglers were converted to the hulking artificials launched from salmon and ocean sticks. Recall that during the late 1980s and early 1990s, many bass anglers relied on small lures, considered "finesse baits." In California, finesse proponents such as Mike Jones, George Kramer, and Don Iovino considered petite lures the most consistent method of catching bass, particularly in tournaments.
It wasn't long before anglers fishing giant plugs began winning tournaments. Big-bait fishermen were becoming efficient at luring big fish and getting them to strike oversize lures. When Dana Rosen and Darin Tochihara caught a 6-fish limit weighing 63.26 pounds on April 30, 1994, with big wood plugs at an American Bass Association tournament on Lake Castaic, big baits finally hit the big time. By the mid 1990s, many anglers had made the switch to big artificials, and the number of giant bass caught rose accordingly.
Siemantel's devotion to big baits was solidified when he studied the behavior of big bass. "Bass are mean, vicious animals that may attack just about anything from a two-foot snake to a careless duck," Siemantel says, referring to bass as super-predators. "Anglers shouldn't let the size of a lure intimidate them, since bass have no fear of large baits.
"I compare it to walking into a room occupied by a vicious toy poodle. The dog may only be a foot long, but he'll try to rip your leg off because he has no concept of size. Bass are the same way." Siemantel's success with big baits led him to establish relationships with tackle companies eager to jump on the big-bait phenomenon, which continues today.
"Lure companies asked my opinion of various lure designs and wanted me to field-test prototypes," Siemantel says. "I've always advised them not to be intimidated by the enormous size of a bait, since bass are not intimidated by the size factor. But some have considered consumer acceptance and demand, as much or more than the effectiveness of a lure. I believe that the only thing preventing a bass from striking big lures is the unwillingness of anglers to use them."
Today, almost every western angler, particularly in tournaments, has a big bait in his tackle box. For some, it's all they use. For others, it's what they use if all else fails, or if they have caught a limit on small baits and need a kicker. But my experience with Siemantel convinced me that big baits are scarily effective if you know how to fish them.
Giant Tubes and Swimbaits
As we fish, Siemantel positions the boat in an open stretch of water off a narrow point. "Anyone can throw a big bait, but they won't catch bass unless they understand how a largemouth functions," he says. "Say, for example, Casitas has just been stocked with rainbows, which often is the case here. Anglers who hear this typically tie on a trout replica, thinking the trout bite is on. But they often fail to connect.
"It generally takes time for bass, which have been feeding on a particular food source such as shad or bluegill, to switch to a new food item, no matter how desirable. In this scenario, you should stick with baits that resemble the prey bass have been feeding on for previous weeks."
When he wants to imitate shad, Siemantel throws a Tiger Tube, a giant tube bait he developed for Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle, and which looks more like a halibut jig or something you'd troll for dorado or skipjack tuna. But Siemantel's tube technique is intended to create the illusion of a ball of shad darting and changing direction, which he achieves by retrieving slowly while jerking the lure repeatedly. The size of the Tiger Tube and its sudden directional changes trigger shad-feeding bass to strike. Siemantel notes that there isn't another lure on the market designed to emulate a ball of baitfish, explaining why a large tube can be so effective.
Once Siemantel feels the bass have switched to stocked trout and are no longer feeding on shad, he uses an 8-inch replica rainbow trout jointed in three sections, which he recently created for SPRO, called the BBZ-1. It's a hefty 5-ounce bait made of hard plastic. When asked if a tube can also be fished to mimic a trout, Siemantel nods. "If I paint a tube with trout colors and bring it in with a slow, steady retrieve, the tube, which is an illusion bait, can trick bass into thinking it's a delicious rainbow." Siemantel says, however, that it's easier to fish a more realistic trout bait like the BBZ-1 than reconfiguring a tube.
The BBZ-1, which can be fished as either a topwater, a slow-sinking, or a fast-sinking lure, not only looks like a rainbow but swims like one. Siemantel, who considers himself a hardcore weekend angler, chose to develop a lure that would be affordable. "I've seen big baits priced as high as $200 and $300. I never bought one because I'd be afraid to use it for fear of losing it." The BBZ-1, priced at around $30, is durable, stores well, and rarely foul-hooks, due to its hook placement.
Siemantel says color choice doesn't matter much, although the BBZ-1 comes in three different trout patterns. "Note that just about every fish from a crappie to a halibut has a white belly," Siemantel says. "When a bass is on the attack from below, it sees only a long, white abdomen, which can be anything from a small bass to a rainbow."
Swimbaits: Lures designed to resemble large baitfish. With different compositions and weighting methods, they can cover the top, middle and bottom of the water column, and work well when cast or trolled.
Tube Baits: Large, rubber-skirted, jig-like softbaits. Siemantel uses tube baits to mimic balls of baitfish, like shad. Tubes are effective for casting and can be used at the top, middle, or bottom of the water column.
Wood Plugs: Large surface baits that when retrieved create a large wake, attracting wary bass. Plugs often are fished on the surface, but can be rigged to pop off the bottom in deep water.
Note: When shopping for big baits, you find many styles, sizes, weights, and prices. Remember that the bigger the bait, the more surface area it has, so hook placement becomes more critical to landing big fish. Make sure a lure has hooks that won't imbed in the lure body when casting, or become hidden if a bass slams the lure from the side. There's nothing worse than seeing a giant bass smack your lure and getting all plastic with no hook. Other points to consider are the quality of craftsmanship, lure balance, and whether it swims naturally, a characteristic that must be tested in the field.
Testing his assumption that the lake's big bass are now feeding on stocked trout during our day on Casitas, Siemantel casts the big swimbait around key structures including main points, ridges, creek channels, submerged islands, and flats. To chuck the hefty lure, he uses an 8-foot Lamiglas XC 807 Big Bait Special that he designed. Attached to this power pole is a Shimano Calcutta 400 loaded with Maxima 25-pound mono.
Siemantel favors monofilament because it doesn't float as much as braided line or burn on the rod tip and rapidly sink like fluorocarbon. He's found that fast-sinking lines are more likely to foul-hook a lure. Siemantel's stiff yet balanced tackle reminds me of what I use for salmon and steelhead, but I'm assured that this gear is exactly what one needs to fish big baits and to set the hook on huge bass.
As Siemantel makes his casts, he visualizes the lake's underwater topography to help him pinpoint spots where he believes big bass are holding. To better visualize what lies beneath, he studies the shoreline and imagines what the lake would look like without water. He also keeps a sharp eye out for isolated cover, such as rockpiles, sunken tires, brush, and boat docks.
The third element he figures into the equation is what key factors enhance the particular structure or cover. Are trout or baitfish jumping, or visible on sonar? Is the water calm, or is it windy? Is it sunny or overcast? Siemantel believes any angler can catch more big bass by understanding each aspect of structure, cover, and environmental effects, and by focusing on high-percentage areas.
"I'll make a cast right off that rocky point," Siemantel says from the bow, his right foot goosing the electric motor to guide us closer. He points to a particular spot offshore. "I caught a 15-pounder right there!" My heart thumps as I watch the BBZ-1 hurl through the air before kurplunking past the surface. I can only imagine what runs through a bass's mind when it meets one of these lumbering giants.
"Watch," Siemantel says, as he slows his retrieve, forcing the lure to swim lazily back to the boat. Suddenly, his rod bows as something slams the bait. Feeling the weight of a fish, he sets the hook—hard. The tip of his stout rod immediately bends like the St. Louis Arch, and he grins as we both glimpse a massive shadow below the boat.
"Big fish," Siemantel hollers as a strapping largemouth breaks the surface. I scramble for the net while he battles the bass, which looks easily over 10 pounds. It doesn't take long for him to demonstrate that fishing with the proper big bait on the right structure can yield amazing results. By the time the sun reaches high noon, he lands two more big fish on the BBZ-1, a 12- and a 14-pounder.
As I gaze around the lake, I see how important key structure and cover are. We're out in open water targeting underwater features while getting pounded by wind and chop, while other anglers are hugging protected shorelines, casting spinnerbaits and buzzbaits into the reeds.
"Anglers who try something different and don't become a slave to typical seasonal patterns often have an advantage and can outfish the competition," Siemantel says. For example, on a hot summer day, many anglers handicap themselves by believing that big bass only hit topwaters, or that deepwater jigging is the best tactic for winter. "Relying on such philosophies can yield long, unproductive days. Instead, anglers should keep an open mind and break down each spot by trying various baits until success is achieved."
How Big Bass Attack
"When retrieving big baits, you've got two types of strikes," Siemantel says. "The first is when more than one bass converges on your lure, which I call a Daisy Chain. Snapping your rod creates sudden directional changes. The group of bass becomes ultra-competitive, and the most aggressive fish commits."
The other type of strike, which he terms a Funnel Attack, occurs when a bass feels it's pushing your lure toward a structure or cover object, such as as steep shoreline or the side of your boat, to trap and eat it. In this scenario, a lone bass approaches the bait; when it feels the prey is cornered, a sudden change in the lure's direction, created by a quick jerk of the rod, mimics a cornered fish trying to flee and triggers a strike.
It's not long before Siemantel again demonstrates that your hookup ratio increases if you follow such advice. As he retrieves the trout lure, I can see a huge bass trailing it. This time, the bass won't commit and I start to think it will turn away. Siemantel suddenly jerks his rod and the bait makes an erratic directional change. With a thrust of its tail, the bass races in and seizes the lure from the side.
Moments later, we boat our fourth bass over 10 pounds, an 11-pounder, followed by an aggressive 8-pounder. I have witnessed an astounding 55-pound five-bass limit—all caught by Siemantel on his BBZ-1. He just smiles, tips his cap, and concludes by saying, "If only that WON Tournament was today!"
*James Fraioli of Solvang, California, is a freelance writer and photographer making his first contribution to In-Fisherman.