May 11, 2015
Most anglers launch their boat, idle away from shore, then hit the throttle to get the boat on plane before they begin thinking about where to start fishing. Bass-ackwards, in my opinion.
A game plan I follow religiously is to take a moment at the boat landing to observe. Of course, I'm careful not to slow up anyone wanting to launch or leave the lake, but more often than not I have plenty of time along at the boat landing to look into the water and observe.
Ideally, I'll spot panfish and minnows moving about in the shallows, as well as frogs along the bank, bug life on lily pads, and anything else that enables me to "read" the water. Because boat landings often have sand/gravel bottoms, it's also a good area to spot bedded largemouths or smallmouths.
Certainly this is easier with relatively clear water, but I can still learn a thing or two if water clarity allows me to see down only 6 inches or a foot. I almost always have one rod rigged with a Berkley Power Worm, so if I can't see down in the water, I'll simply drop a rigged Power Worm beside the dock supports and feel for telltale "tap, tap, tap, tap" panfish strikes. Occasion I'll actually catch a bass--bonus.
Leaving The Landing
My next move is to lower my trolling motor and slowly begin cruising the shallows. Again, I'm trying to read the water and looking for evidence of forage and/or bass. In order to locate bass and build a pattern, eliminating possibility (eliminating water) is one of the best tips I can give anyone. One of the most effective ways is to start shallow (especially on moderate to clear lakes) and look for life.
Granted, with today's fishfinders, temp gauges and smartphone apps you can learn just about anything regarding what a specific species should be doing given the current conditions, but fish--bass included--don't always read the script.
With the aid of topnotch polarized glasses (copper or amber lenses are my favorite) and a baseball cap helping cut the glare, I can learn a lot about a lake in little time. After I'm satisfied I know what's happening in the shallows, say 6 feet and less, I steer the boat a bit deeper and begin moving toward the deep weed edge. Depending on water clarity, I might spot cruising panfish or bass, but at a minimum I'll get a good handle on the amount of weed growth on the flats.
Finally, I'll use my electronics to decipher the deep weedline. Sometimes I'll spot fish, but generally I'm looking to gauge the thickness and type of weeds in the depths, as well as pinpoint the exact depth where weed growth ends.
Everything I've described so far takes me 5-15 minutes. The outboard is still waiting to be started, and I haven't made a single cast. But I've learned a lot, so I'll take this info and make my best guess as to whether bass are on the banks, on the flats, or set up along the deep weedline.
Rigged for Success
Anyone who has spent time on the water with me knows I believe much more in "location, location, location" than "presentation, presentation, presentation", but that said, I do think some items help put the odds in my favor. I won't turn this short article into an infomercial, but it might be helpful to some anglers to know about two tools that I believe are keys to my success.
Weedless Wedge trolling motor prop. I bought my bow-mount trolling motor in March 1994; it's a 24-volt Minn Kota 524 with 48 pounds of thrust, and it pulls my 16.5-foot Skeeter with no trouble through the nastiest weeds Mother Nature can grow. Once during the past 20-plus years I broke the prop; it clipped the tip of a submerged metal fence post. If my 524 ever quits, I'll probably buy a 24-volt 70-pound-thrust Maxxum, which has the Weedless Wedge 2 prop. For slowly cruising the shallows and reading the water, a quiet and dependable trolling motor is a must.*Weedless Wedge trolling motor prop.
*Action Optics polarized sunglasses. Depending on your target species and home waters, bass could be pre-spawn, spawn or post-spawn. No doubt a high percentage of the fish will be shallow. This time when you hit the landing, use your first 5-10 minutes wisely--and let the "eye test" set you up for a fantastic day of fishing.
If I could produce the receipt that showed when I bought my favorite shades, you'd think I was weird and/or disturbed, so I won't dig for it. But suffice it to say these amber-lens glasses have been guiding me to largemouths and smallmouths since sometime in the late 1990s. I know you're asking yourself: How can someone avoid losing or breaking sunglasses for 15-plus years? The only answer I can give is I love them and can't imagine fishing without them.
From Clear Lake in the north to Perris Lake hundreds of miles to the south, California is blessed with the finest trophy largemouth fishing in the world. A 22-pound behemoth was reported from Spring Lake in 2008 — one of many in the 20-pound range taken since California began importing Florida bass a few decades ago. 'California is the number one trophy state for bass exceeding 15 pounds, ' says David Swendseid — bass pro and tackle rep from the Golden State. 'A lot of the best lakes right now are being kept quiet. People aren't talking, but Southern California lakes in general and the San Diego lakes specifically are producing massive fish. Even private waters are turning out behemoth bass and great numbers. The California Delta is phenomenal for numbers. We're catching fifty bass from 3- to 12-pounds per day there. And we're getting back to big swimbaits — specifically the new, 5- to 12-inch 'S-stroke' and glide baits which are new out of Japan. ' Other venues of note include Diamond Valley Lake, Castaic Lake, Bullard's Bar Reservoir, Casitas Lake, and Shasta Lake. 'The Delta and Clear Lake have established recent B.A.S.S. records for biggest bass (14.6 pounds) and biggest bag (in the neighborhood of 122 pounds), ' Swendseid said.
Sorry, Woody. The best part of New York is outside the city. (Way outside.) 'People don't realize how great the bass fishing is in the Finger Lakes and smaller lakes that have excellent populations of largemouths and smallmouths both, ' says multi-species guide, Frank Campbell. 'The diversity of lakes, from the mountains to the flats, is awesome. New York's stream smallmouth fishing is spectacular in the Mohawk River, the Niagara, and dozens of smaller streams that are completely under the radar from a tourism standpoint. That diversity extends to tactics. Anything you like to do to catch bass, we do it here at some point. ' Lake Erie's eastern basin offers some of the finest smallmouth fishing on earth. The opportunites on Lake Ontario are only slightly less spectacular. Lake Oneida and Lake Champlain belong on anybody's top-100 list of North American bass lakes, and over 200 other lakes grace the Empire State, and most have fair to spectacular bass fishing. The porcine smallmouths of the St. Lawrence Seaway seal the deal. New York belongs on this list.
Chris Beeksma guides for smallmouths and other species around Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior. Quality regs (only one smallmouth over 22 inches can be kept) transformed that fishery into one of America's finest. Beeksma sends us photos of 6 pounders way too often. 'We may not have the number of largemouth lakes that Minnesota has, but Wisconsin does have a lot, ' Beeksma said. 'Finding a 7-pound largemouth isn't that difficult, and numbers are great. ' Wisconsin also has Green Bay on Lake Michigan, where an 8.4-pound smallmouth was weighed in at the 2013 Sturgeon Bay Open this year. Smallmouth fishing is nothing shy of stupendous all around Door County on Lake Michigan. Rivers like the Flambeau, the Fox, the Menominee, and the Wisconsin are everywhere in the Dairy State, and most harbor scads of pig smallmouths. The St. Croix River, which forms part of the border with Minnesota, is not only a blue-ribbon smallie hotspot, it's one of the most beautiful streams in America. Below its confluence with the Mississippi, Pools 3 and 4 comprise yet another bassy paradise that the Cheeseheads share with Vikings fans.
'To me, Florida is the big-bass hatchery of the world, whether they go to Texas or California, ' says legendary pro Larry Nixon. 'Lakes here have some deep water, lots of grass, great spawning habitat, and the best fishing is in the heart of summer when nobody knows about it and nobody's there. ' Okeechobee is back. Not news, but along with Lake Seminole, the Harris Chain, Lake Tarpon, the Everglades, the Kissimmee Chain, and several others — Florida can't be bypassed when naming the top 10 states for bass. 'On Okeechobee, that early-morning Zara Spook bite is nothing shy of awesome, ' Nixon said. 'Anglers overlook the St. John's River, too. If you know how to fish tidewater, the St John's is awesome. The Harris Chain has always been solid, and the Toho-Kissimmee Chain is way up there on my list of favorites for numbers of big fish. '
'Texas would be my target if the goal was to catch a 10-pound bass, ' says Nixon. 'Odds are much better in Texas than Florida for a 10 right now because of Falcon, Sam Rayburn Reservoir, and Toledo Bend. And, even though you may have a better shot at a 15 in California, the odds of catching a 10 are probably lower than in Texas. ' The waters Nixon mentions and Lake Fork are legendary, having been consistent producers of giant bass for decades. Nobody of right mind would dispute the awesome capacity of these lakes to generate massive populations of largemouth bass, and it's been going on since the impoundments were created. Lake Amistad, O.H. Ivie Reservoir, Choke Canyon Lake, and several others are 'must include ' candidates for any list of America's blue-ribbon largemouth lakes.
Two words: Lake Guntersville. Catches are phenomenal right now and it's on the bucket list (pun intended) of every angler who really understands bass fishing in America. 'Alabama's a great bassin' state and certainly belongs on any top 10 list, ' says bass pro and TV host Shaw Grigsby. 'Alabama probably has the best spotted bass fishing in the country on the Coosa and Alabama Rivers. In Guntersville you've got massive largemouths, and trophy smallmouths on Pickwick, Wilson, and Wheeler. ' Pro angler and bass guide Brent Crow claims you can catch a 10-largemouth, a 6-pound smallmouth, and a 5-pound spot all within an hour drive. 'You could do it in the same day, if you get lucky, ' Crow laughed. 'It might be the only place in the country where you could do that. Smith Lake in central-western is another great spotted-bass resource. Logan Martin and Lay Lake on the Coosa River are about 50-50 for largemouths and spots with awesome trophy potential. For my money, bass-fishing heaven is right here in Alabama. '
Georgia, home of George Perry's famous world-record largemouth (22 pounds, 4 ounces), is the spiritual Mecca of the bassin' world. It has to share some world-class waters, like Lake Eufala with Alabama, and Clark's Hill with South Carolina. But it has Lake Lanier all to itself. Lanier, like Jackson Lake, was a spectacular largemouth fishery for many years but is now dominated by spotted bass. 'Spots are really taking off in Georgia, ' says former resident and In-Fisherman Editor Steve Quinn. 'And they're getting bigger. Lanier is producing unbelievable numbers of 5-pound spots. ' Huge spots are more common than ever on Lanier and Jackson right now, while historic West Point Lake continues to produce great fishing for largemouths. Bartlett's Ferry (aka Lake Harding) is a small but prolific lake that produces great topwater bites almost year 'round. Bassin' rivers are everywhere in Georgia and are completely overlooked. Pressure is minimal and you can find five different species of black bass in rivers like the Chathootchee, Tennessee, Yellow, South, and Coosa. Lake Oconee, Lake Sinclair, and Lake Hartwell round out a list of prime bass attractions that cement Georgia squarely on this top-10 map.
Surrounded by Great Lakes, Michigan is an obvious angling paradise, but few folks from other states realize how magnificent the bass fishing really is. The Wolverine state borders Lake Erie, arguably the finest smallmouth water on earth. Michigan shares Lake St. Clair with Ontario — a world-class stage for equal numbers of 4- to 6-pound smallmouths and largemouths. Grand Traverse Bay, Saginaw Bay, Big Bay de Noc, Little Bay de Noc, the Portage Chain, the Sylvania Tract, Elk Lake, Torch Lake, the Beaver Island archipelago, Lake Charlevoix and 11,000 other inland lakes with bass populations might be enough to lift Michigan to the top of this list. But wait: Michigan has spectacular river fishing for smallmouths in the Grand, Muskegon, AuSable, Menominee, Tequamenon, St. Clair, and many other streams. The bayous on the lower Grand bristle with porcine bucketmouths. (No wonder VanDam's so good. He couldn't fling a dead cat back home without hitting a bass.)
Minnesota has world-class smallmouth fishing in the Mississippi River, Mille Lacs, the St. Croix River, and several other waters. A 4 pounder lifts no eyebrows here, and catching multiple 5-pound bronzebacks in a day is common for good anglers. Smallies over 7 pounds are caught every year — sometimes an 8. And Minnesota lays claim to over 13,000 natural lakes — more than any other state. Most harbor impressive populations of native largemouths, smallmouths, or both. Since Minnesota is primarily a walleye state, bass remain relatively under pressured — even though popularity of bass fishing continues to rise. Minnesota isn't the place to find trophy largies over 10 pounds, but it's a place where catching over 100 per day, with several over 5 pounds, just might be easier than anywhere else. Lake Minnetonka, nestled into the urban outskirts of Minneapolis, is a national treasure. But it's the smallmouth fishing that sets Minnesota apart. For size and numbers right now, only Great Lakes fisheries surpass the Gopher state.
In Them Ol' Brown Fish, Billy Westmoreland details how he caught more 10-pound smallmouths in Dale Hollow than, well, the remainder of the human race across the rest of the planet. If Georgia is the spiritual Mecca of largemouth fishing, certainly the Volunteer State maintains that distinction for smallmouth anglers. Center Hill, Pickwick, Wilson, and Old Hickory certainly stir up the echoes of a halcyon past, yet all probably retain the potential to produce a world-record fish. Like Georgia and New York, streams and creeks get overlooked for smallmouths in Tennessee. 'I weighed a 10-pound, 3-ounce largemouth on Chickamauga this year, ' says FLW pro Wesley Strader. 'The Tennessee River has been on fire from one end of the state to the other. Chickamauga has been just nuts. The great thing about Tennessee is the diversity. We have lowland reservoirs full of grass, highland reservoirs like Center Hill dominated by rock — you can pick the kind of water you want to fish here. Largemouth fishing has never been as good as it is right now on Chickamauga, Kentucky Lake, or Douglas Lake. In fact, bass fishing is better now than at any point I can remember. '