Joe Everett's version of March Madness has nothing to do with college basketball. This big bass fanatic, a resident of Mission Viejo, California, has set sights on sight fishing for bass, the world-record largemouth bass. His quest involves fishing nearby Lake Mission Viejo daily during the two-month Spawn Period that begins in late February and lasts into early May.
He's not a professional angler or guide. His family depends on his labors building surfboards at PureGlass Surfboard Manufacturing in Costa Mesa. During the spawn, he gets home from work in the early hours of the morning, grabs a bite and a couple hours of sleep, then heads to the lake. He fishes until the last possible minute, then drives to work. Like I said, madness.
Taking vacation is not an option since spring also brings the surf season. A few miles away lies Huntington Beach, of "Surf City" fame in Jan and Dean's 1963 classic. So he goes non-stop for two months. He does not visit other big bass lakes. And once the last female has departed the beds, he doesn't visit Mission Viejo until the next spring.
When asked why he doesn't fish any of the other known producers of giant bass, his reply is simple. "This lake offers my best shot at a world record. It's produced fish close to 20 pounds and I've fished for one much larger than that. I've been fishing here 20 years and know how it functions, and it's close to home." Nuff said. He has an ideal location for studying and catching huge bass. The bass he pursues are as "educated" as any in the land and his techniques can benefit bed fishermen everywhere.
Everett is an "in-your-face" kind of guy, and that's the way he approaches bed-fishing. A bit rough around the edges, he's a family guy and regularly checks in with his kids and wife from the lake, cradling the phone in his shoulder while eyeballing the depths.
Though a few big bass are caught on drop-shot rigs at Mission Viejo, and, when conditions are favorable, on swimbaits, the odds are long. Moreover, Everett is a sight fisherman, as well as a trophy deer hunter. He says the two are similar. "In pursuit of big bucks and giant bass, you need an understanding of the nature and behavior of your quarry," he notes. "Then, the more you know the surrounding terrain, the better your chances. You should visualize where the critters are coming from and where they may move to. Both seasons focus on the species' mating time. With both trophy deer and bass, genetics are important, too. Finally, top-notch equipment you're completely familiar with puts the odds in your favor."
One primary difference is that big deer end up over the mantel and in the freezer, while bass go back to spawn and fight again. Among his many giant catches is "Knott Head," whom he first encountered as a mere 14-pounder in March 2005. "She was just another nice teener, but had an odd growth on her head," he recalls. "I didn't think much about it until I caught her in March of 2007 and she was just over 16 pounds. Then I named her Knott Head.
"Fast-forward to March 21, 2010 and I was chasing 'Tire Giant', a fish I estimate at well over 22 pounds. I fished her for 3½ days until I gave up and rolled down the bank about 400 yards and saw Knott Head on a concrete block under a dock.
"As always, she was aggressive and bit on the second cast. She was now up to 17 pounds." Knott Head didn't show in 2011, but Everett hopes to find her up this spring, with another pound or two on her frame. Like Dottie, the giant from Lake Dixon that was caught at least 3 times by at least 3 anglers, the last times accidentally snagged at a weight of 25.10 pounds, she showed only in spring when she was catchable by skilled, persistent anglers. After surpassing world-record size, Dottie perished of old age and washed ashore almost four years ago.
By the time I met Everett on April 3 of last year, he was dragging a bit from a month of 21-hour days. But the second we launched his boat, he was completely focused on the job at hand, finding and catching a "supertanker," a bass in the upper teens in weight, in the Cal lingo. He'd already boated 22 bass over 10 pounds that season, including a 15½-pounder, and lost two far larger, one in the 20-pound range.
Timing is Everything
My visit came about half way through the spawn. Everett first fished there on February 28th and nailed the season's first 10-pounder on March 4, when he boated two 10s and an 11-pounder. A cold snap dispatched the bass into the depths, but warming waters brought them back soon after.
The climate of Orange County is mild, and water temperatures rise gradually in spring, one factor for the protracted bass spawn. A similar situation occurs on Lake Fork, Texas, and other prime spring sight-fishing destinations of the Southeast, when spawners are up for three months or more some years. In Florida, sight-fishing specialists find bedders from Christmas past April Fool's Day. In Minnesota, by contrast, largemouths often spawn over a span of two weeks or less on a particular body of water.
Timing is critical in many other ways. "The big ones are like ghosts, they generally don't linger on the beds," he says. "While she may be up for three to four days, it's important to be there as soon as she gets into a defensive mode. And once she lays her eggs, she's gone." This behavior contrasts somewhat with bass in other waters, where females appear to take a role in guarding eggs, in concert with the male.
On a small lake like Mission Viejo, with water clarity to 20 feet, other anglers play a role. "You've got to try to hit a hot fish first," Everett emphasizes. "Anglers watch and will move in to try her as soon as you leave. Ideally, you have several fish located and can time your approach to match the mood of the fish and to avoid fishing pressure." In his quest for ideal timing, Everett is aided by his boat, the fastest on the lake where outboards are banned, with a Motor Guide 109-pound thrust trolling motor on the bow and a two Minn Kota 55-pounders on the stern. This season, he upgrades to a 10-hp Torqeedo electric outboard.
"It's important to be there as soon as they lock on. Choosing which fish to try when is critical because your best chance for a hook-up is on the first cast. Every cast after that, she's winning the battle and you're losing. You also must learn when to rest a fish and when to return."
Everett brought this lesson to life one morning as he spotted a "teener" on a deep bed, 20 feet or more below the surface. Mid-morning light permitted a dim view but he got a good estimate of her size, given the depth of the water. I watched as he fished her for 15 minutes, but she showed little interest in the jig. A small male repeatedly bumped and chased her and toyed with the lure.
He decided to move to a nearby cove where another teener had set up on a bed the day before. But that fish was skittish, disappearing for minutes at a time, and we returned to the first fish 20 minutes later. The change in her attitude was remarkable, as she nosed down on the jig as he nudged it across the bed toward her, despite the pesky male's efforts to grab it away.
After five or six well-placed pitches, she slurped the lure and he fired back, sticking her. Her huge white mouth opened and she thrashed back and forth in the depths. But the action was over fast as the line broke. With a violent head shake, she freed the jig from her jaw and it sank onto the nest.
We duly rued the loss, but I encouraged him to rest her and come back later, as he'd instructed me earlier. The day before, he hooked an 8-pounder that jumped and threw the hook. Returning a short while later, he quickly hooked and landed her.
So we returned half an hour later and she hadn't learned a lesson. She aggressively approached the jig and pork, ignoring an identical lure lying motionless in the bed. On his fourth cast, he stuck her again. This time the line held and the giant was soon in the net. We shot photos, weighed her at 15 pounds, then slid her back.
Timing is critical in the hook-set, too. Spawning bass aren't feeding Their strike is a defensive reaction to a nest intruder or simply a reaction to something encroaching their personal space. You must be lightning-fast. "You can watch a lure disappear in her mouth, and think she's eaten it," he says, "but it's tumbling inside that huge mouth. She can spit it in a fraction of a second."
In a few cases, bass finally slurped the jig and turned to move off, allowing a good set. Everett emphasizes that each bass may behave differently and you need to assess their likes and dislikes. Optimal vision is important and Everett relies on his Wiley X Zak glasses with blue-chrome gray lenses.
Timing is important in getting sufficient light on the bed to observe fish. By fishing every day, Everett has an advantage in knowing locations of beds that are active or showing signs of spawning soon to come. At high noon, a large bed in shallow water is too obvious and beckons every angler on the lake. Instead, Everett times his efforts to be in place as soon as visibility is sufficient to let him focus on the activity below, especially when a supertanker is present .
In addition, while most big bass appeared rather oblivious to our presence, they were aware of our actions. After I'd fished for a 10-pounder on a bed in 14 feet of water on and off for four hours, a light breeze riffled the surface. On my second pitch, she bit and I caught her, suggesting that reduced visibility caused her to drop her guard.
Getting a lunker to bite demands more than persistence. Over 20 years of sight-fishing at Mission Viejo, Everett has devised a system.
Boat Control: One presentation key is his custom boat. Measuring no more than 10 feet in length, the modified glass-bottom boat is highly maneuverable, as well as fast. He spins on a dime when he spots a dark shape ghosting from the depths or a hint of movement over a deep sand flat. "I never anchor," he says. "You have to shift position nearly constantly in some cases, to place baits precisely in front of the female and move them toward her, not away." He's adamant that the female should feel threatened by the lure's approach.
"If a lure moves across the bed, but away from the female, she thinks she's accomplishing her goals. Many fish turn 360 degrees around the bed, so you have to approach from all angles. The boat's got to move to keep the lure coming toward her."
Lure Selection: Over the years, he's fished all sorts of lures and caught bedding bass with them—Cordell Spots, swimbaits, tubes, crappie jigs, and crankbaits. But the jig has become his lure of choice.
It's a custom 1/4-ounce Pro-Line Football Jig without a weedguard (for sure hook-sets), backed with a Red Spot or Green Spot Uncle Josh #900 Spring Lizard or #10 "Big Daddy" Pork Frog, a 5½-inch white Lake Fork Live Magic Shad, or a wide-body white craw made by Hiroshima Custom Baits. Jigs are mostly white, with strands of blue, green, or red tied in linear fashion to simulate a bloodline, and a few long strands of mylar. The skirt's adorned with a rattle to add another sensory element to the presentation.
A football head rolls forward readily so he can make it dance slowly toward the fish by popping the rod. The hook stands upward and the supple pork chunk or plastic flaps. "One time, I lost a 16-pounder on a jig, then came back with a white Magic Shad and 'Boom,' she ate it right away," he says. "That made me a believer. It's a 5 ½-inch lure and I nose-hook it for maximum action. It's a big target and is perceived as a big threat."
His jigs are full-skirted for extra action as well. Long mylar strands represent one more bullet in his gun. "They grab sunlight and add a bit of flash, another subtle nuance that can give you an edge." These features also inspire Everett. When he pitches his jig into a bed he feels confident the bass will eat it.
Given the fishing pressure on the fishbowl-like lake, he tries to stay at least a step or two ahead of other anglers. When others began using white jigs, he added streaks of green, red, or blue, for a more natural, as well as less familiar look. This season, he's added 3-D eyes, again trying to tap into the genetic response of fish. He'll be testing prototypes from the Big Bait Brotherhood and plans to experiment with more elaborate schemes of deception.
Tackle: He fishes the jig on a 7-foot 3-inch Phenix Ultra BMX Joe Everett Signature rod with extra-heavy power and fast action, with an Ardent XS1000 reel and 20-pound Maxima monofilament. He tried fluorocarbon, thinking its low visibility might be an advantage, but not so. "They're not line-shy; you can catch one with anchor rope.
"Bedding bass strike due to an innate defensive response. The problem is fluoro sinks and wraps around rocks and weeds. When I drop the jig in the bed, then back away to let the fish acclimate, I start to pick up the fluoro and it catches on bottom objects, foiling the stealthy presentation. Mono suspends in the water and doesn't catch on stuff."
Everett avoids braid as he wants some stretch. He sets the hook extremely fast and hard and fears something would give under the pressure—line guides, rod, or tissue in the bass' jaw. For the same reason, he sets the reel's drag to give a bit on the set.
Approaching a Bass: One of the key decisions in bed-fishing is selecting the right bass to fish. "She should be set up on the bed," he advises, "holding close despite the boat nearby. Bass typically show no reaction to the boat. Unfortunately, some fish show no reaction to the lure as well. In that case, it's best to leave that fish and check her later. The more she swims off to deep water, and the longer she stays away, the less likely she is to bite."
I had to get used to fishing deep beds. Given the fooling effects of light refraction, I continually pitched my jig short, landing on the near side of beds. It takes a while to alter perception to make better presentations to beds in water 10 to 20 feet deep.
"Don't let bass inspect the lure," Everett cautions. "Pitch or cast past the bed, then swim it toward the far side of the bed before letting it drop on the edge. Then tick, tick, tick the jig with subtle shakes; not the thunk, thunk of a typical jig retrieve. Keep it coming into her face. Force the issue. Then quickly get it out of sight. Keep her interested."
The big trailers he uses and the way he keeps the lure in motion give the presentation a lifelike and threatening quality that big bass respond to. He says, "Make the jig move without moving it,"meaning it should gyrate wildly without quickly exiting the bed.
Unlike some bed-fishing experts, he doesn't want to catch the male. "Although he can be a nuisance by pulling the jig away or pushing the female, his interest in the lure piques hers as well, keeping her in a defensive mood. If I catch him, I release him right away to return to the bed." Male bass here are amazingly small. They look tiny on the deep beds, and the ones we caught ranged from 10 to 12 inches, amazing contrast to their massive mates.
About Mission Viejo
This 120-acre artificial lake lies in a valley, surrounded by sloping hills adorned with the mansions of Orange County multimillionaires. It was constructed in 1974 and filled in 1978, built for fishing and boating, and undoubtedly to boost land values. Without feeder creeks, rainfall in the watershed fills it, though it's also connected to a water supply via huge pipes.
To benefit fishing, sandflats, offshore humps, points, coves, and rockpiles were constructed prior to flooding. Cement blocks and tires attract bass as well as the lake's huge bluegill and redear sunfish. Massive blue cats suspend below deep docks or hold in shadowy pipes during the day, foraging after dark.
The Mission Viejo Lake Association annually stocks around 40,000 pounds of 8- to 12-inch rainbow trout from late fall into spring. High-protein trout, raised on nutritious feed to enhance growth, in turn bulk the lake's bass to mammoth proportions. Using trout for bait, however, is strictly forbidden. In California, "soaking" trout may be the cardinal sin among the bass angling community. Indeed, when we came across a young man who seemed to be playing a hooked trout in a protracted manner, Everett warned him in no uncertain terms that this behavior isn't tolerated.
The lake record is 19 pounds 12 ounces, caught by George Coniglio in 2006. He lives along the shore of Mission Viejo and we crossed paths on several occasions. There's a more or less friendly rivalry among anglers who fish there regularly for giant bass. Over four days, we spotted two fish Everett estimated weighed over 20 pounds—one that cruised the lake's large marina where fishing is prohibited, the other suspended beneath a long dock, oblivious to all presentations.
Beyond regulations on motors, bait, and fishing location, boats must be quarantined for 30 days in drydock to ensure no exotic species can hitch a ride. Park officials affix locks to the trailer only they can remove. As a result, the lake is not troubled by hydrilla, hyacinths, Eurasian milfoil, zebra or quagga mussels, round gobies, and other invaders that plague waters from coast to coast.
Lake Mission Viejo has a strange beauty, at once artificial and natural. But the presence of so many huge bass makes it an extremely exciting place to fish. You regularly see the biggest bass of your life cruising by the boat. For two months, it captivates Joe Everett to the brink of madness, and I'm due for another dose myself.