Tournament bass fishing; to be good, you have to be versatile. Knowing which lure to throw where, when to use each lure and how to present it in a specific set of conditions is what separates the professional anglers from those that want to be professional anglers. The easiest way to learn these skills is first, to change your mind set about baits. We buy baits because they look good, or they might make a great noise, or because the last Bass Master Classic was won on it. While these are great ways to fill a tackle box, this alone doesn’t put bass in the livewell.
The first thing you have to do is change your mind set. Bass fishing lures are tools. Many will say, “Duh”. However, if you really start thinking about it, you can eliminate using the wrong tool and start catching more bass with the correct tool, just like with anything else from building a house to working in the garden. Before we can pick the right tool for the job, we have to decide what the job is. In building a house, it might be building the concrete slab (you’ll need a mixer), or laying the frame work (you’ll need a hammer). When working in the garden, the job may be cleaning leaves (you’ll need a rake), or planting new flowers (you’ll need a shovel). In bass fishing, picking the right tools is no different; you have to determine the job first. This means we have to determine the seasonal pattern, what cover or structure the bass might be using, and what our current conditions are. Obviously this can get very complex, but if you take the time to break it down you might be surprised how quickly you can get off to a good start.
The first thing you’ll need to do in determining which tool is best for the job, is to determine lake composition. Are you fishing a natural lake full of vegetation, a river with timber, or a Midwest lake that is baron of cover, but has an abundance of structure such as creek channels and ledges. Each presents a different set of tools. In the extreme, you know right off the bat that fishing a Midwest rock filled lake will not require the tools to punch baits through matted vegetation. However, you will need crank baits, top water baits, spinnerbaits, soft plastic presentations, maybe a jigging or flutter spoon; the list can of tools can still be endless.
So we’re fishing a Midwest lake, and we know it’s baron of cover (wood and grass). Now we need to determine the seasonal pattern. For this example lets go with a tough season and use winter. Obviously in the middle of winter we can cut out the topwater presentations, and probably most shallow water options. In the winter, the Midwest will present water temperatures in the 40’s. Depending on previous weather patterns, it could be low or high 40’s. Using a winter pattern, water temperatures in this range on a Midwest lake, we can be fairly sure that most bass will be ten feet or deeper on main lake structure. Problem is, they could also be as deep as forty feet. This variance in depth expands our tools.
Next, we need to try and determine where the bass are. Using electronics, scan points, drop offs, sloping banks, ledges, and bluffs. Typically the majority of the bass in the lake will be using one of these types of structure. That’s not to say you can’t find bass on all these structures, but that the majority will be using the same type. Again with your electronics, watch for bait fish and the possibility of cover to help congregate bass. Abnormalities will also congregate bass. Examples would be a sharp bend in a creek, a large boulder on a point, or a faster drop along a stretch of bank.
If you don’t have electronics to help in the search, you can use the previous weather patterns to help. If you’ve been having a warming trend, you can expect the majority of bass to be on things that slope. This would be long tapering points or banks that slope at a 45 degree angle. This kind of slope offers bass the ability to move shallow as the weather continues to warm, but offer the safety of deep water not too far away should a major front move in. If it’s been cold for a while and temperatures are falling, look for sharper drops like bluffs or ledges that fall into the creek channels. The steeper the better when the water temperature is at its coldest. These steeper drops allow bass to move vertically, shallower to feed, and sink back to depths for comfort.
Okay we’re dialed into a Midwest lake, that is in a warming trend ( I picked that so it would be easier to catch bass) with water temperatures in the upper 40’s. We have also discovered that bass are using sloping structures. So we have our job, now what tools do we need to catch bass.
In this type of situation, I will try to find bass on points, versus the sloping banks. You could cover miles of sloping banks and never come across a congregation of bass; however, with a sloping point you can cover a variety of depth ranges quickly to help you determine more of the pattern. Also, points give you an object to cast at. After using your electronics, you’ll have an idea of which direction the point is laid out, where the shallow side is, and the deep drop if there is one. If you don’t have electronics, you’ll have to use the land above water to give you some guidance. If you can see a long sloping point coming into the water, you can expect that the same thing is happening beneath the water’s surface. Determining if there is going to be a deep drop is more difficult. However, if you select points at the mouths of creeks or small arms, you can use heavier baits and cast trying to find the original creek channel.
My first thought for tools is going to be jerkbaits, crankbaits and football jigs. I’ll have a spoon and shakey head ready in the waiting though. Of all my skills, these five baits allow me to cover different depths at different speeds with different presentations and sizes. I’ll break it down. Disclaimer: Before all the pro’s out there reading this say I’m way off base, these are my choices that have been effective for me. Someone like Aaron Martens is surely going to say a drop shot is a much better choice than a shakey head, and so on.
Because we are in a warming trend, I’m going to expect some bass to have moved up to the first drop from shallow water, or to a location on points that give them the ability to ambush prey as it swims by. This could be a couple of well placed boulders, to a simple up cropping on the sandy point created from wave action when the lake was low. Jerkbaits allow me to cover these shallower depths pretty quickly. If the warming trend has been over 3 days, I will cast to the point at various angles trying to land my bait in less than 5 feet of water and work it back to the boat covering as deep as 15 feet. Water clarity will play a big role in this. The clearer the water the deeper the bass will be, even in warming water. Two tricks here; first, is to have the confidence that the presented conditions tell us bass will be active and shallow, and second, is to find the cadence that will trigger the bass to strike. The longer the warming trend and the warmer the water, the faster you can work your jerkbaits. If you’re just getting started in a warming trend, you’ll have to let your jerkbait sit longer during pauses. Sticking with the jerkbaits can be difficult, but once all the components are put together correctly it can be very rewarding.
Crankbaits allow you to cover water from the bank out to about 20 feet, anything more than 20 feet requires special presentation, and while effective they are difficult to master. I like crankbaits in the winter for two specific conditions. First, is a warming trend in water that has low visibility. This is a perfect storm for a squarebill digging in shallow rocks or along gravel banks. Two things will bring the bass shallower; the warming trend, and the dirty water. If I have water with 1-2 foot visibility, I love to cover ground on sloping banks with a squarebill or shallow running crankbait. My second crankbait condition is when I find bass schooled up on points. Once you find that sweet spot on a point, you can make repeated casts to the same spot and catch bass after bass. Depth will determine what size and type of crankbait you’ll need to get the job done.
If both of the reaction baits fail to put me on an effective pattern, it’s time to slow down. This is the worst situation for me as I’m an angler that doesn’t like to sit. Using a football jig, it’s time to pick apart various structures. Especially with the football jig, I like to have targets. Not targets in the sense of visible cover to cast at, but structures that I have found and can drag my football jig over and across. Points are easy to target. Using your electronics, scan the point looking for bass, irregular features, bait fish or anything that gives you a target. Either using buoy markers or land marks identify where you’ll want to position the boat and where you’ll want to cast to put your bait in the strike zone of the items or bass you’ve found. Remember to take into consideration that you want your jig to crawl into the strike zone. I’ve done much better by casting well past my target and dragging the jig into the area that I’m expecting to get a bite. It could be as simple as the bass are holding in 15 foot on top of the point. In this situation, position your boat in 20-25 feet of water and cast to 5-10 feet of water. The goal being to work the jig through the 15 foot range. Sometimes it’s more complex; bass are holding on the deep side of a larger boulder that is off to the creek channel side of the point. In this situation, I like to use land marks to help me identify where this boulder is and then move the boat around, staying well clear of it, and cast at different angles past the boulder and drag it to it, over it, and around it. Once I find how the bass react the best, I’ll repeat that presentation. With something like this, it could be that bass want the bait approaching from deep water to the shallow side, or vise versa. Sometimes it might be a parallel approach. It’s something you’ll have to play with. Always look for cover on structure when you have to go to a slow deep presentation. It’s been my experience, that if bass are in a negative mood, they will use cover if it’s available. Examples are boulders or brush piles, I’ve even caught bass off of sunken boats.
When I’ve got bass in twenty feet of water or more, I like to try and get a spoon bite going. Jigging or flutter spoons can cover a lot of deep water quickly. Casting spoons along sloping bank lines is an effective presentation to cover twenty five to thirty yard stretches at a time. Once you’ve found the depth that bass are holding, line up your boat and make long casts so that you can work your spoon back through that depth the entire retrieve. The retrieve is simple; let your spoon sink to the bottom, rip it up off the bottom and let it fall back on semi slack line. Be sure to watch the line closely. If it jumps or stops falling before you expect it to, set the hook. More than any other bait, the majority of strikes are going to come while the jigging or flutter spoon is falling. If bass are suspended, you can count your jigging or flutter spoon down to the correct depth and use the same retrieve without letting it fall all the way to the bottom. For suspended bass, you want your spoon to fall through the depth the bass are suspended at. Once beyond the suspending depth, rip it back up through that depth; then fall back through the productive depth.
If all else fails, it’s time to slow way down; I’ll break out the shakey head rod. Using the lightest shakey head that I can get away with, I’ll present four or six inch worms to bass I’ve found on my electronics. This is a presentation that you need to be able to pinpoint the bass’s location. It would take weeks to cover bank lines simply probing with a shakey head. Using electronics, I’ll find what depth the bass are holding, and like when fishing a football jig, I’ll look for some type of cover that will congregate the bass. Simply casting to barren points and drop offs does work, but it is very time consuming. If you can find some cover for the bass to orientate to or congregate around, you’ll cut down non-productive casts significantly. Just like the name implies, cast your shakey head to likely spots, let it fall to the bottom, and then try and shake it in place. What makes this presentation effective is making it move or vibrate without covering ground. You want to imitate a dying bait fish that is simply quivering in place. A bass sees this as the most optimum meal, very little expended effort for some gain (nourishment). When the bite is so tough that I have to go to a shakey head, bass are normally in a very negative feeding mode and are not going to spend much energy, so the easier a meal looks to catch, the more attractive it is to bass.
All of this is just one scenario or breakdown of thousands that you’ll run across with bass fishing. The object of this article is to start thinking about baits as tools and not baits or even bait fish. The lures we buy are tools; which tools we use should be determined by the job we have in front of us. The type of lake, the seasonal pattern, and the current conditions decide the job, now as anglers we have to decide what tools are best for the job we’ve been given. For many anglers, the hardest part is figuring out exactly what the job is.
Keep an eye out for my blog for other specifics about tools, which tools to use in various water conditions, or bass activity levels. I’ll be coving more ideas and thoughts in the “Get the Net” blog.
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