Tackling Suspended Bass
March 30, 2016
Somewhere, Major Mitch is floating in a tin can far above the world. The surrounding lake is blue and there's nothing he can do. Except watch the instruments, work the trolling motor, and set hooks.
Apologies to David Bowie and his "Space Oddity," but the "world" in this case is structure and the tin can is a boat. Bass expert Mitch Looper of Arkansas is on board, floating in space. He checks in once in awhile, reminding me why he's "out there." In-Fisherman published my article, "Tubes In Space" in 2009. Looper read it and launched, reached escape velocity, and left the banks behind.
"Fishing in space puts suspended bass in the boat faster than anything I've found," Looper says, "not only largemouths, but also smallies and spots. Stripers and hybrids, crappies and walleyes—any predator may powder a softbait wafting about in the middle of nowhere. Even catfish. They don't have to be feeding, but they have to be looking to feed and be suspended.
Looper, who primarily fishes reservoirs in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas, is right. Fishing in space in Minnesota sometimes produces more walleyes than bass, even when bass are the target; pike and big panfish, too. Like the truth, all fish are "out there" at some point—away from the bank, away from structure, sometimes over depths of 100 feet or more. Such fish are the least pressured in every system you fish, whether it's a prairie lake, a Great Lake, or a massive southern reservoir. Unlike trolling with conventional "spreads," trolling devices aren't needed. Holders come in handy at times, but most of the time it's best to keep the rod and reel in hand. The best lures for this technique were designed for casting and once bass are found, casting can take over.
Space in Time
Fishing "in space" means getting a softbait way back there—about 1.5 to 2 cast lengths—and pulling it with the trolling motor at .5 to 1.5 mph. Some call it strolling, but that's close enough to trolling to turn people off. Bass fishermen want to cast and cast. But a tube in space is a wonderful thing because it suspends a little. It hovers like Buzz Aldrin "walking" in zero G. It spirals on the drop like a stunned shad. Tentacles wave seductively. No wonder bass of all kinds want to crush and kill every tube they spot.
But Looper prefers grubs. "I use tubes at times," he says. "I've had luck with all styles of softbait, but grubs are best. I favor Kalin's 5-inch Grub. The 4-inch YUM Walleye grub works, but mostly in winter. From May on, I like a fatter 4- to 5-inch grub "If bass seem to be roaming, it's because their food is moving. Suspended bass are dynamic, always following baitfish. The best way to find and catch them is to keep moving. Fishing in space became invaluable because nothing works better for finding and catching suspended bass."
When warm-water fish suspend, the best way to catch them is to keep your lure in the water. "I don't like fishing in crowds," Looper says. "Crowds never happen when you fish this way. Most people focus on the bank, on cover, and on structure. Fish in space get left alone unless they start busting the surface. The first thing I do is find big schools of baitfish, primarily shad. Brook silversides are thin baitfish that also suspend in some reservoirs. When schooling bass push shad or silversides up on top and baitfish are jumping out of the water, you're going to have company. Boats show up out of nowhere. That makes trolling difficult. I prefer to see bass rise to feed, then drop back down, without pushing baitfish all the way to the surface. If people don't see surface activity, they generally leave suspended bass alone.
"After largemouths spawn, they may hang around on flats for a time, but eventually they separate into primary behavior patterns. I can always find some suspending, but some are always over deep structure. And you can always find a percentage on the banks that never go deep, or so it seems. The percentage of any bass population that follows each pattern depends on the mix of species, the location and overall depth of the lake, and the profile of baitfish populations there.
"Large hybrid or striper populations can undo the suspending bass program to a large extent. Stripers and hybrids are aggressive and move baitfish faster than bass. If that's not what you're after, fishing in space won't pan out. In lakes that don't have linesides, bass fill that niche."
All else being equal, you never know what you might catch. "Largemouths, spots, and smallmouths all suspend in the middle of nowhere," Looper says. "In summer or winter you might find all three species suspended 5 to 20 feet down over 30 to 150 feet of water. During those two seasons, in most lakes the fish you see suspended on sonar are bass. I think some of the biggest fish are at least partly pelagic."
Looper finds big schools of baitfish with sonar, then starts looking for isolated schools in the same general vicinity. "Broken-up schools tell you bass are feeding right now," he says. "Spaghetti-like marks on the screen imply that bass are running through the shad. The depth of those marks provides clues as to how fast to move and how heavy the jig should be."
"I cast as far as I can with the trolling motor on, let out a little line and start pulling, mostly in a straight line. Making S-curves works when you don't know what depth to fish or you haven't found feeding bass. When I isolate schools in a 20-acre area, I stroll through them. If they spread across a larger area, I weave around more. It makes the lure rise and fall, which is a good thing in search mode, or when bass need to be triggered by the bait speeding up slightly or slowing down. But steady, constant depth and action seems to work best most of the time."
Looper adjusts speeds from .5 to 1.5 mph until he hits a nerve. "It's a walleye technique and a crappie technique, but it works for bass. Sometimes different species want the same thing. But you often do better by changing jigs, speed, depth, or all three. I use speed and weight to control depth, pulling 1/8- to 3/8-ounce ballheads or darter heads most of the time. Where I'm likely to hook a 5-pound bass, I use Gamakatsu jigs because their hooks are stronger."
When the bites keep coming in an area bounded by waypoints, Looper tries casting. "I keep the line semi-taught as it drops, counting down to the strike zone somewhere between 5 and 20 feet," he says. "Then I point the rod tip down and reel slowly. Most days, steady works better than snapping, twitching, or jigging. Bass can be caught casting, but on most days we catch them better by pulling slowly with the trolling motor."
On his best days in space, Looper puts over 100 bass and dozens of other fish in the boat. "One day I found a big pod of largemouths in a 20-acre area, suspended over 50 feet but scattered from 5 to 20 feet down," he says. "Below that depth we caught channel cats and big crappies. But between 5 and 20 feet down we caught over 100 bass, with 7 or 8 over 5 pounds—all on crappie jigs. Another time I went out in spring with Lawrence Taylor from PRADCO. It was 41°F for a high with a 30-mph wind. Bass were down about 20 feet. I hooked a 4.5-pound bass on my first cast and he hooked a 5-pounder on his. We went on to hook a pile of suspended fish that day—mostly casting.
"I've had a lot of days like that, fishing jigs or softbaits in space. Typically fish hold over 50-foot depths in summer and winter. Those are bookend seasons with similar patterns of behavior by bass in midsouth and southern reservoirs."
Fishing through the ice, anglers watch their jigs and observe how fish respond to them with flashers and graphs. In cold water, Looper approaches suspending bass by fishing directly beneath the transducer of his sonar. "We call it video-game fishing," he laughs. "Drop a marabou jig straight down on a short, light rod with 4-pound line and you can watch where and how suspended bass respond to color, size, and action."
Then he proceeds to stroll. "Most softbaits hold the presentation up a little higher," Looper says. "Chenille and marabou don't provide as much bulk, suspension, or resistance and need a little more speed to stay up. But watch a marabou jig in the water next to the boat at 1 mph. It looks amazingly lifelike."
In cold water, Looper often relies on marabou crappie jigs. "A marabou jig is an overlooked bait for suspended bass," he says, "particularly from fall through spring. During the Postspawn Period in May, bass are moving onto structure. In the morning, they school and scatter over mid-depth flats. As water warms toward noon, those schools begin to coalesce on drop-offs and points next to creek channels. Some of these points on flats are 500 feet from the creek channel. The fish are coming off the shallow spawning flats and tend to hold on points on the edge of the flats. There you catch them with a tube or a jigging spoon popped off bottom and allowed to drop back down on slack line. By late May or early June, suspending patterns kick into high gear."
Up north, hair jigs like Paul Jensen's Bou Baby and Bunny Worm make great surrogates when softbaits fail to entice strikes, probably due to the more sinuous, subtle, independent movements that bunny strips offer. In addition to grubs, we walk cigar worms such as the Senko and YUM Dinger, finesse worms, 4-inch lizards, ring worms, swimbaits, and more through space to catch suspended bass. My jig weights start at 1/16 ounce, and we sometimes use a bare offset-shank hook or Owner TwistLock with no weight. Or simply nose-hook baits with a #4 to #2 Gamakatsu Baitholder hook. The difference between northern and southern patterns probably stems from the fact that surface waters and the layers down to 20 feet remain cooler up north, keeping open-water species like shad, ciscoes, and smelt closer to the surface.
"I use clear Silver Thread XCalibur 8-pound mono on a spinning reel," Looper says. "The line going straight down to the jig tells me where it is in the water and what it's doing. My rod is a 6.5- to 7-foot medium-heavy power. I like a shorter rod when the wind's blowing and a longer one on calmer days. A short rod lets me hold the line closer to the water. When casting or pulling crappie jigs, I use longer, lighter rods that keep the bow out of the line. I troll or cast jigs and grubs with 8-pound clear Silver Thread."
Looper uses 1/8- to 1/4-ounce heads about 80 percent of the time. "The deepest water you need to fish is 20 feet," he says. "At .5 mph, you're down maybe 15 feet with a 1/4-ounce jig. A 1/8-ounce jig stays within 8 feet of the surface at 1.5 mph. The action is better with a 1/8-ounce head, but the action on a 1/4-ounce jig is a lot better than with a 3/8-ounce jig. When fishing a grub in space, I want it to have swimbait action, where the body gets the head moving back-and-forth. You get more of a sinuous, swimming action with lighter heads. When I troll a 1/4-ouncer I'm usually targeting depths of 14 feet or deeper. Adjust the length of line behind the boat to get it deeper; or shorten it to run a 1/8-ounce jig shallower. Typically, the jig is back 60 to 100 feet, but it can be back farther. I vary it until bass show interest."
Ground control to Major Mitch. Bass in space 2 fathoms down over 12 fathoms. Strap yourself in. Take those protein pills. Godspeed.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler who enjoys testing novel techniques and new waters.