Most anglers from beginning to professional desire to hook a lunker, yet the average size bass caught in North America is said to be two pounds. The reason for that low weight might be because smaller immature bass are more likely to expose themselves to anglers and are less wary of artificial lures. Whether a lake is renowned for producing trophy bass or not, it’s apparent that day to day customary fishing habits are not the key to unlocking trophy potentials. Anglers need to think “out of the box”, trying techniques not commonly presented to large bass, which will include techniques many of us are not fond of. Fishing the shoreline can produce some trophy bass, but that’s where a majority of us begin and end a fishing day because that’s what we’ve always done or that’s where we’ve caught bass before.
We know lunkers visit the shallow water habitats all year long for brief feeding opportunities, especially for the spring spawn, a time when inexperienced anglers are most likely to catch the fish of a lifetime. But it is also known mature bass tend to increase their preference for deeper water where they are safer from predators, which includes us. It isn’t that they go to the deepest bottom of a lake, where some post-spawn bass do travel for a few weeks to recuperate from the rigors of spawning. But buy late spring they begin working their way up the water column to old water homes they’ve used year to year.
One of the most likely destinations by mid summer is a topographical transition zone in the lake that allows them access to deep water, a variety of slopes between deep water channels and shallow flats, complete with ledges, rock piles, stumps on slopes, submerged trees, humps, long points with a variety of slopes and drainage cuts, and other features that provide ambush spots and safe havens not penetrated by many anglers. All that needs to fall within typical fluctuations of the one or more thermoclines that set up in many lakes. A thermocline is a band of water created between deeper colder water generally depleted of oxygen, and the well mixed oxygen rich upper water layer. For now all you need to consider is finding a thermocline using sonar, and determine where top of it intersects bottom out from the shoreline, or where it meets a mid lake hump or ridge. Bass adjust their depth to live between the thermocline and the lake surface, rarely below the top of the layer. That layer often reaches bottom at 20 to 40 feet of depth a distance out from shoreline. The prime fishing zone will be between shoreline and the thermocline depth on any given day, which changes quickly just from effects of prevailing winds, shallower down wind, deeper up wind.
The thermocline usually appears on a sonar screen as a gray band if the sensitivity is set high enough, around 90% in water deeper than 30 feet, 60% otherwise. Make adjustments that work better on your brand of sonar. Set the “gray line” at 75% on color screens, or 55% for monochrome screens. Turn the “Fish ID” feature off if you have it, and learn to identify a fish arch. The “Surface Clutter” feature needs to be set at minimum or turned off, and the chart speed should start out at maximum. There are differences between brands, so don’t hesitate to experiment. If you foul up the display, use the “Factory Reset” feature to start over.
Once you know the depth to the top of the thermocline, focus on interesting topography that falls above that depth, usually around the mouth of a creek, main and secondary points, humps near and between islands, and junctions of channels. Once over an interesting area, zoom in to the water column zone that is holding fish to eliminate display of unproductive water, improving details of structure and cover, making it easier to pick out fish arches. Keep in mind you will see full fingernail clipping shaped arches in the center of the transducer cone, and partial arches farther out around the edge of the sonic cone. If you are watching the bottom, in general the view covers 10 feet of diameter for every 30 feet of depth. A fish passing through the cone 10 feet below you will only appear across a 3 foot wide detection zone. If the boat is stationary, any fish movement up or down will be displayed as lines instead of arches. The line for a fish rising to inspect your lure commotion will appear as a line growing along the right side of the screen from a lower depth to shallower at an angle from lower left to upper right (around 45 degrees) depending on its swimming speed. Multiple lines can indicate a school of fish rising. That’s an exciting revelation, the time to have a lure on its way down, or thrashing on the surface near the boat.
The next step is to determine how bass move to feed. If they are sticking to bottom, select a lure or rig that will get down to them. That might require a 1 ounce jig, a heavy spoon, or two ounce spinner bait. It’s critical to get the lure of choice to where bass are suspending or feeding. If you see those lines on screen, the fish are feeding above bottom, calling for a mid depth crank bait, smaller spinnerbait, smaller spoon, or whatever your favorite lure might be that can swim the feeding depths. If there is potential for the fish to come to the surface to feed, maybe a shallow water lure such as a jerk bait, jointed minnow, fluke, or popper will interest the fish. Your choice of lure type often falls well below the importance of getting an easy meal down in front of the bass.
Immature bass are much more likely to feed in schools and will chase schools of shad more readily than mature bass. The mature bass will often stay deeper, following schools of smaller bass above them, settling for sinking injured shad falling out of the baitfish schools. But the mature bass won’t often travel more than a few hundred yards from their preferred holding area. They have learned to exist on occasional passing of baitfish coming too close to their ambush zone, often a stump or ledge, boulder or clump of isolated vegetation. Passing up the vigorous catching of schooling bass can be a tough decision, but that’s a consideration to take once a limit is boated. Getting a limit as soon as possible in competitive fishing is vital. Once there, go for the deeper, hidden bass that often show up on the sonar screen. Put markers out over suspected fish that appear to be ignoring the frantic feeding above them. Back off and cast a Carolina rig to pass by that fish, repeating the presentation several times. It might take 20 casts to irritate a mature bass into striking. Alternate using a jig or jig & pig heavy enough to stay in the strike zone. Use a deep diving crank bait to bump the stump the bass is guarding. Bump that stump with a “slow rolled” spinnerbait.
The Fall season is here, which disturbs the above scenario. Baitfish schools tend to migrate to shallow water above the favorite habitat of mature bass. They are forced to begin following the baitfish forage the way immature bass have existed all summer, but not mostly out in open water. The baitfish often move into creek coves, with all size classes of bass either following, or waiting upstream in ambush.
Find the forage to find the fish, looking in the most likely areas described above. The mature bass will easily be found in the least accessible places along creek coves, around submerged tree tops and brush piles, in ledges in outside creek bends, around large stumps along the original creek channel. The immature bass are much more easily found and caught with easy casts to open water. Ignore the easy fishing, explore the toughest casting targets.
Last weekend on October 29 a BFL regional tournament winner weighed in 15 bass over three days for a little over 50 pounds. The top six finalists reportedly used a one to one and a quarter ounce jig fished over nearly impenetrable hydrilla beds in shallow water where few anglers attempt to fish. The usual lures at best slide over the vegetation, producing no strikes. The heavy jig got through into a few feet of water to the larger bass below where they are not frequently disturbed. Other anglers fished the usual outside edges, taking smaller fish. Some local anglers learned that through the summer, catching bass giving bragging rights to the few. Most would scoff at the notion of using a heavy jig in shallow water. Be open minded and try the unthinkable.