May 16, 2023
By David A. Brown
Punches were thrown and after the dust settled, Ken Mah was victorious. Sounds like a street fight but we’re actually talking about Mah’s winning technique at the inaugural Western Bass Shootout on the California Delta.
The mid-April event highlighted the Golden State’s famed central valley drainage system, which comprises a mix of major rivers, sloughs, flooded farming tracts and lots of matted vegetation. Linking to San Francisco Bay, the Delta feels daily tidal influence and, while this ebb and flow can present a confounding complication, Mah simplifies the punching technique with a handful of easily replicable wisdom points.
Stay in the Zone
Do fish move throughout the tide cycle? Sure they do, but Mah suggests a big picture approach. Rather than overwhelming your mind with a thousand calculations, picture a depth zone in which a big fish can remain comfortable at all tide stages, and you’ll keep yourself in the game regardless of water level.
“I believe the majority of the winning fish on a shallow tidal fishery are going to live anywhere from 3 to 7 feet of water,” Mah said. “In most tidal fisheries, the tide can drop 1 1/2 to 4 feet. So, if I start in that 3 to 7 on an incoming tide, I’m going to be on the deeper part of that 7. But if it drops 4 feet, there’s still going to be (at least) 3 feet of water under that mat or topped-out grass area.”
Offering a relatable allusion, he said a person in their 40s likely has a better grasp on what they need for comfort/survival than someone half their age. That said, you can bet that the bigger bass—the real day makers—are going to stake out spots where the protective cover and sustainable depth remain consistent.
“I’m not often going to flip a mat that, on high tide, has 4 feet of water beneath it, but when the tide goes out, there’s 1 to 0 ,” he said. “A big fish is not going to consistently tolerate that.”
Noting how the tide lifts and drops shallow vegetation, he points out the compaction factor. Consider a popup shelter on a sunny day: Shade attracts people, but if someone starts lowering the top, you may find yourself crouching, maybe hunched over in an uncomfortable posture.
You still appreciate the shade, but you’re not liking the tight quarters. And while you may have been willing to eat a hot dog or enjoy a snow cone with that shelter at full height, when it’s bumping your head and cramping your posture, snacking is less likely.
Also consider that, while edges might play when moving water cranks up the food delivery, it’s not always the right position, especially for the bigger fish. Mah avoids this outer zone for mats in deeper water.
“Once you get into that 9- to 12-foot range, you don’t consistently catch big ones out there because it opens them up to predation,” he said. “If you have a 7- to 8-pound fish sitting at the end of a mat over 12 feet of water, there are several predators that can hurt him—from sea lions on the California Delta, to otters, to big stripers (to alligators in the Southern U.S.).”
Break It Down
Looking at a topped-out grass bed or a hyacinth mat that may stretch 50 yards or more, understand that you don’t have to punch every inch of cover. A motivated fish will swim a few feet to grab something that gets their attention, but putting your bait in logical spots greatly enhances your chances.
The obvious things are irregularities, like points, cuts, and anywhere a grass mixture comes together. Typically offering strategic feeding positions, these places become prime real estate during peak tidal flow, so hit those high-percentage spots when the fish are most likely to be feeding.
The Right Rig
The concept of the punch rig is straightforward brutality—a heavy weight drives a beaver style bait through the dense cover. Within that premise, he makes a couple of key points.
Punch skirt: Cover density is the key determinant in whether or not Mah uses this accessory. If a super thick mat puts too much drag on the skirt and impedes the bait’s fall, he’ll lose the skirt. If he can get a skirted bait through the cover, he points out two key benefits.
“I’m a huge advocate of using scent, so the punch skirt holds the scent,” he said. “The other thing I like about a skirt is that there are times when the fish aren’t eating the punch bait on the drop and you have to let it hit the bottom and hop it or work it a little, that skirt will flare.
“Or, when it’s sitting, that skirt’s movement is imparting action on the bait without you actually moving the bait. The other thing is that a punch skirt allows me to get the color match that I want.”
Weight Size: There’s no denying the wisdom of increasing weight size with mat thickness. However, he warns against going too big solely for the purpose of triggering bites. Sometimes, a less intrusive approach is the best way to tempt reluctant fish during slow tidal periods.
“A lighter weight will slow your whole movement down because you’re not getting in as easily,” he said. “A mistake anglers make is that when the fish aren’t biting, they want to bomb a 1 1/2- to 1 3/4-ounce weight in there. They’re just going through the motions and the fish are not in that mood.
“It’s not always that lighter is better; you have to read that day and how the fish are reacting to your bait.”