August 05, 2016
Call it a home invasion of the piscatorial kind—the residents are likely to fight back. Bass anglers call it "punching," while bass often find it annoying. Therein lies the opportunity.
Designed to bring a lure into the thickest, most inaccessible spots, punching is a brute force assault that succeeds with a combination of mass and gravity. Largemouth bass, hidden from hordes of anglers, can be revealed and caught.
Sure, pitching jigs or Texas-riggged plastics into holes in cover reaches a few entrenched fish, and pulling weedless frogs across weed patches tempts others into showing themselves. But punching seems to elicit reaction strikes by taking a bait where few others go, reaching bass inaccessible with any other technique.
Right Place, Right Time
To reach potential paydirt, California bass pro Ish Monroe says he punches into anything from laydowns to lily pads. Most commonly, though, it's about driving a bait through matted vegetation. Hydrilla, milfoil, pennywort, filamentous algae, water hyacinth, and any number of weedy conglomerations clog the surface and create shady caverns that attract bass.
"Punching is effective for two big reasons," says Potomac River guide Capt. Steve Chaconas. "One, this habitat holds fish. Two, few fishermen go near it. Most anglers are intimidated by expanses of thick mats and are satisfied to pick off smaller bass along the edges. Bigger fish reside deeper in the mat. Moreover, a good mat holds fish just about every day."
Most aquatic vegetation is seasonal, but fertile waters like the California Delta and weedy southern waters typically offer accumulations of grass year-round. This type of cover is most attractive during summer and winter, though bass activity and positioning can vary seasonally.
"In summer, heavy vegetation grows to the surface to form a thick blanket," says Louisiana pro Sam Swett. "These mats provide shade, slightly cooler water, and oxygen, which attract bass in warm shallow water. In winter, matted vegetation absorbs heat from the sun and warms water."
In tidal environments like the Potomac, southeastern Louisiana, and the Cal Delta, the daily ebb and flow influences fish positioning. Check tide charts to keep you in the right areas for different stages. Incoming water increases depth, often scattering bass throughout matted cover. Conversely, outgoing tides compress the area and fish move to the outer edges and deeper holes.
Throughout the Cal Delta, San Jose angler Chris Zaldain knows the wisdom of punching the right areas at the right time, so he's fond of mats where grassy perimeters offer low-tide staging areas. "I follow the tide up to the mats," Zaldain says. "At low tide, I hold the boat over 10 to 20 feet of water and flip outside grasslines. Once the tide comes up, I punch anything with a canopy overhead and current nearby."
Go Heavy or Go Home
A Texas rig on steroids—that's essentially your punch bait. The most notable element is an oversized slipsinker, usually 1 to 2½ ounces. That sounds extreme, but this bite can be all about fall rate. The faster a lure penetrates the salad and zips past a bass' nose, the more likely you'll trigger a strike. Most punchers prefer tungsten weights, as their higher density yields smaller profiles that ram through more easily.
When bass are aggressive, ribbontail worms draw plenty of fire, but most of the time, punchers use large profile creature baits like Zoom's Brush Hawg and Berkley's Power Hawg, Sweet Beavers, or crawfish imitators such as Berkley's Chigger Craw or the Lake Fork Craw Tube. Straight-shank, wide-gap hooks in the 3/0 to 5/0 range provide the highest hook-up percentage, in the eyes of most expert, particularly when snelled.
Barbs on the shank of hooks like the Lazer TroKar Flippin' Hook, or those that come with a pointy section of heat-shrink tubing to create a barb, including Reaction Innovations' BMF and Paycheck Baits' Punch Hook, keep a softbait in place. Hooks with completely closed eyes prevent braided line from slipping into a gap where it can slide off or break from abrasion.
To eliminate the frustration of constantly clearing weeds from his rig, California pro Stephen "Bub" Tosh Jr. invented the Punch Skirt, a ring of hand-tied fibers set in a durable bead, which slides onto the line between hook and weight. This accessory shields a bait from tearing as it enters and exits the grass, while its flaring skirt adds action, color, and bulk.
Gambler also offers the KO Hangover Skirt and Talon Lures has Rattlin' FlipSkirts. Industrious types like Cal Delta veteran Charlie Weyer fashion their own. He removes the rubber ring from a jig skirt, ties a few overhand knots around the center of the gathered fibers with 65-pound braid, slips his line through the center, then tightens the knots. Preferring a streamlined package, Zaldain foregoes a punch skirt, but he rigs a bead above his hook to protect his knot from the heavy tungsten weight.
Keep your punch weight in check with a rubber peg that slips into the forward hole of the sinker, pinching the line and preventing slippage. Tru-Tungsten's Smart Peg and the Peg-It from Top Brass Tackle are examples. A free-sliding weight creates a hole in vegetation, then continues falling while the lures catches in the grass above. A hefty sliding weight also may pop the fish's mouth open on the hook-set, leading to missed hook-ups.
Stephen Johnston, a tournament veteran who guides on Texas and Louisiana lakes, notes the common mistake of using weights that are too light. "When bass suspend under mats, some anglers select lighter weights, feeling they don't need to reach the bottom," he says. "It's critical, however, to get fast penetration. Once through the canopy, you can drop to the bottom or tease the lure along the underside of a grass mat, where bass sometimes feed on crayfish. "Go too light, and you have to wiggle the bait through the grass," Johnston adds. "Moreover, you don't achieve a fast fall. It's better to be too heavy than too light."
There's nothing subtle about punching, so select a heavy-action rod capable of yanking fish through a wad of weeds. Johnston uses a 7½-foot Power Tackle rod with plenty of backbone, but a measure of flexibility that helps convert more bites into catches. "You need a rod with flexibility in the tip so you don't pull a bait from the fish as you set," he says. "This rod also has enough parabolic bend that helps you pull the fish up through the mat." Matt Newman's new company, iRods, offers a model named the Bub Tosh Punching Rod, designed by Tosh expressly for mat punching.
Braided or fused line is ideal in most situations, and Swett spools his 30- to 60-pound Spiderwire on a top-quality reel with infinite anti-reverse and medium to high gear ratio. "Anti-reverse eliminates any play in the reel and allows greater sensitivity in detecting subtle bites. Higher gear ratios help take up slack quickly if the bass swims toward the boat."
When the bite's on, punching can deliver fast-and-furious action and lunker bass. It can become downright monotonous, however. It's easy to get distracted when you're going through the motions with no results. But bass tend to group in isolated areas, particularly in summer, so it's important to maintain focus or you'll miss opportunities.
"Anglers sometimes don't recognize bites," Swett notes. "They're waiting for that tap-tap-tap like you feel with a Texas rig, but punching is different. When guiding, I explain it like this: Suppose you're sitting at home and someone drops a French fry in front of you. All you do is reach out and grab it from where you sit and swallow it. That's what bass do—engulf the bait and settle back into their spot. Once you drop through the mat, any tension is probably a fish."
Braided line increases sensitivity so you detect the slightest twitch or bump. When the bite turns tough, however, some anglers switch to fluorocarbon. Former Bassmaster Classic champ Mike Iaconelli often counters a tough bite by switching to 25-pound fluorocarbon. He acknowledges the tradeoff between strength and stealth and takes his chances. "You're taking a chance of breaking off," he admits, "but if I can get 6 bites instead of 2, it's worth the risk."
Punching's potential for productivity often requires patience. As Chaconas points out, the grind factor is part of this game. "Mat fishing is mentally challenging," he says. "You have to thoroughly fish a mat, looking for key spots and punching it like a grid to find them. Boat control can be tough, as trolling motors don't like this stuff, even the biggest ones. But once a pattern begins to develop, it gets easier as you hit only key spots."
Weyer adds, "Some guys put their trolling motor on high and blow through an area. If they don't get bit, they move out and try something else. Instead, you have to slow down and methodically fish every piece of cover. If you don't, you're missing lots of bass."
Punching also is a good backup for frog fishing. The key is speed and stealth. "If a bass blows up but misses a frog, quickly pick up the punch rig and drop a bait into that spot," Swett recommends. "He'll often bite again." It's fin-to-toe combat fishing, and not for the faint of heart. To get shallow lunkers in the boat fast, go for a knockout punch.
David A. Brown, Tampa, Florida, is a freelance writer and photographer, and president of Tightline Communications. He has regularly contributed to Bass Guide.