Think Shallow for Big Bass
April 07, 2015
Bass presentations represent the intersection of personal angler preference and bass location. While bass can be found deeper than 6 or 8 feet in many lakes and reservoirs during much of the year, shallow fishing is a more visual deal, with casting accuracy and power often required, along with skill in boat control to set up the best angles of approach.
In shallow situations, key characteristics include depth change and current. Both factors tend to position bass around cover where they feed most effectively. But that cover also serves as a sign to anglers that says, "Bass here." Even a minor change in depth—half a foot in some cases—can attract a concentration of bass around an isolated piece of cover or a small section of a weedbed. And when fishing shallow cover on a river or area of a reservoir, sections with moderate current passing through or adjacent to them are likely to concentrate more bass than those with no flow.
In spring as vegetation begins to grow, inside weedlines form early as pondweed sprouts along sandy shorelines, attracting bass that move shallow to spawn. And later, sunfish also spawn along these edges, and largemouth typically lurk nearby to pick off inattentive breeders. Curly-leaf pondweed begins its annual growth cycle below the ice, so it is often the first type of vegetation in shallow bays. As with other types, edges, holes, and pockets are key areas, as they provide spots for bass to ambush small fish that also move into this vegetation.
Once they've shifted shallow, objects such as boat docks, laydowns, and stumps also offer excellent cover for bass to spawn around, as they make it easier for fish to defend their nests. These same structures can again become hot in fall, as abundant vegetation thins. Another classic bass location is beds of lily pads, which grow densely in bays where shallow, dark bottoms provide prime conditions. Bass both spawn and feed around these areas. And prime beds, with dense cover and access to deeper water, may hold fish all summer long.
During summer, the main form of shallow cover is vegetation. Lily pads can continue to hold bass, along with abundant bluegills, small bullheads, frogs, dragonflies, and other prey. Experts feel that bass often move into and out of these pad fields, so if a bed doesn't produce one day, don't scratch it off your list of potential hot spots. On another day, bass may be present or else those that wouldn't bite previously can turn on due to weather, prey abundance, time of day, or unknown factors. Various pondweed species bloom early and provide good mid-depth habitat (4 to 8 feet) that's easy to fish, as the plants typically grow several feet apart.
Northern and Eurasian milfoil gradually thicken and grow deeper as summer progresses, joined by coontail, and, in southern waters, hydrilla. On flats, northern and Eurasian milfoil often form clumps that can range from just a few feet across to half an acre or more. While the outside edges beckon, big bass frequently bury deep inside the thick plots. It takes determination and many careful pitches to find a group of bass buried inside expansive beds of thick vegetation. But typically, if you catch one, more will be nearby, often within a few feet of the other fish.
When I start looking shallow for bass, I generally start with horizontal baits or what some anglers call "reaction lures." In this category, I include swim jigs, buzzbaits, chatterbaits, and spinnerbaits. These lures cover water while generally getting at least a few bass to strike. Often you can locate key areas quickly with this approach. While some anglers spurn fast fishing, "running and gunning," is a main MO for many top anglers, such as 2013 and 2014 FLW Angler of the Year, Andy Morgan.
"Covering water is like being a good running back, you need to keep your legs moving and keep moving forward," Morgan says. "Not only should you focus on key pieces of cover, but sometimes bass hold in stretches of shoreline between what looks like the best cover, such as weedy flats between boat docks. If you ignore the less appealing-looking water, you often miss a lot of fish."
When the cover is emergent or sparse vegetation or laydowns, I usually start with a swim jig or buzzbait. These lures can be fished quickly and don't hang up easily. In mornings or evenings, a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce buzzbait can be the ticket for big bass. I fish buzzbaits with a clacker on the wire frame, which increases sound production that often seems to attract more big bass. Morgan also looks for castability in buzzbaits, which are notorious for soaring or flipping in the air. "I add a Zoom Twin Tail Grub along with a trailer hook," he says. "That helps stabilize it for longer and more precise casts, which mean more time in the strike zone."
Later in the day or along the edges of dense vegetation, I rely on a 1/4-ounce RC Tackle Swim Jig, which works well in vegetation of differing densities. If it's matted, I cast it over the top the mat, work it along, then let it fall off the edge into a pocket or off the edge into open water. Strikes often occurs at this point, as bass often hold near the edge to feed opportunistically.
The swim jig's versatility is due in part to the different trailers you can rig on it. For example, bass are feeding on baitfish, I use a white jig with a small swimbait rigged on the back of it, like the Zoom Swimmin' Super Fluke Jr. When crawfish or bluegills seem to be the main forage, I use a black/blue or brown jig, with a small crawfish trailer or double-tail grub.
Once summer hits its peak and the vegetation has formed a dense mat over shallow flats, a hollow bodied frog becomes a top option. Even on heavy baitcasting tackle, frogs cast far to cover a lot of water. Yet they also can be skipped beneath overhanging trees and under docks. With the double hook tucked up along the body, they rarely hang up.
Recent popularity of frog fishing means there are lots of brands to choose from. When approaching this sort of cover, I rig several types of frogs. For working the edges of the mat or in open pockets within it, I use a popping frog, like the Snag Proof Ish's Poppin' Phattie. If the mat is solid and the strikes are coming from the interior, I use a bulky frog to get bass's attention, like the Bobby's Perfect Frog from Snag Proof. For colors, I keep it simple with three options: white, black, and brown.
While frog fishing is basically simple, the gear an angler uses makes a dramatic difference in whether you land a big bass or come home with a fish story. Braided line is imperative when fishing frogs as it doesn't stretch and slices through vegetation. I use 65-pound Seaguar Smackdown, spooled on a high-speed reel. A fast reel allows me to pick up slack quickly when a bass hits. Rod selection is important, too. A long rod (between 7 feet 2 inches and 8 feet) with heavy power and slower action and a soft tip helps hook fish solidly and haul them through the thick cover. A soft tip aids casting and helps give the frog a side-to-side, walk-the-dog action.
Once I've covered the territory and defined a few key areas, I often slow my presentation and dissect the cover by flipping a jig, Texas-rigged softbait, or shaky-head jig. I have a jig and Texas rig on deck at all times. The jig works well in pockets and along edges. When I need to punch the bait through a mat of vegetation, I typically go with the Texas-rigged soft plastic.
If bites are hard to come by, I rely on a shaky-head jig from 1/8- to 1/4-ounce, usually 3/16-ounce. These heads are versatile and match a wide array of softbaits. I typically go with a Zoom Finesse Worm, which slips through cover easily. To bulk my presentation I rig a Zoom Z-Hog Jr.
To my Texas-rig I add a bobber stop to keep the weight pegged in front of the hook, which helps it slide through the mat. I favor tungsten weights from 1/4-ounce (for fishing sparse vegetation, bulrushes, or laydowns) up to 1-ounce for punching through heavy mats. I use a Lazer TroKar TK130 Flippin' Hook, which has a plastic keeper barb near the hook eye. This keeps the softbait in place and reduces re-rigging time.
For punching through the thickest mats, I recommend a streamlined lure without too many appendages. Options include the Zoom Z-Hog or Super Speed Craw, Berkley Havoc Pit Boss, Missile Baits D-Bomb, and Big Bite Baits Fightin' Frog. I experiment with about six colors until I find the preferred one for the day. No angler should be without black/blue and green pumpkin choices.
In brush, riprap, or docks, I flip a jig. I agree with the old adage that the bass you catch on a jig are in general larger than those on a Texas-rig, so if you're looking for a big bite, tie on a jig. Morgan, who's known for his skill at fishing boat docks, uses a 1/2-ounce War Eagle Jig with a Zoom Super Chunk Jr. "It's a bait I have confidence in, not only for catching bass, but I know I can put it in places other anglers can't," he says.
One common debate among flippers is whether to use braided line or fluorocarbon. Around vegetation, I use braid. Otherwise I go with fluorocarbon for its low stretch and abrasion resistance. Moreover, it slides over and around woodcover instead of digging into it as braid can do. Seaguar's 20-pound Tatsu is my current favorite.
No type of fishing is as demanding of precise boat control as fishing shallow cover. You must not blow onto the cover you're fishing or you'll never get a bite. Use the trolling motor expeditiously to hold back and remain quiet. When you get near a key target, a shallow-water anchor, like the Minn Kota Talon, is a huge advantage, particularly if it's windy. I get close to my target, drop my Talons, let the scene settle, and focus on making precise flips to the cover.
A long rod helps you make longer flips, get a solid hook-set, and then get a big bass away from the heavy cover quickly and into the boat. I've found micro-guide rods enhance an angler's feel of lures and light bites as the many tiny guides keep line close to the blank. For flippin', I favor the Wright & McGill Tessera Series 7-foot 6-inch Heavy Cover Rod.
Largemouth bass seem physically designed to live, feed, and reproduce in the warm shallow waters that occur from Maine and Minnesota to Florida, and west to Washington. This spring, gear up, read the cover, and enjoy the most exciting sort of fishing available in freshwater.
*Glenn Walker, Savage, Minnesota, is a veteran tournament angler, freelance writer, and vice-president of Provident Marketing Group. Learn more at glennwalkerfishing.com.