A bass fishing angler, prefishing for a tournament, will fish a favorite brush pile and catch a solid five pound bass. That angler releases his catch, thinking, I wish I would have caught you Saturday in the tournament. How many times have you heard your buddy say, “Boy I screwed up today, I caught a big fish. I knew I should have left that area alone.” This is all too common in the tournament bass fishing world. So how do you check an area without damaging it’s potential for tournament day?
Electronics have come a long way in the last few years. With the introduction of side imagining, you can really get a quality look at what’s under the water’s surface. Seeing brush piles, rock piles, ledges, and humps are as simple as idling around the lake. With some practice, seeing fish around this cover and structure becomes fairly easy. However, are these fish bass, are they quality bass, tournament winning bass. Only one way to know for sure and that is to catch one.
Prefishing not only involves finding bass, but you are also trying to find what they want to eat. Part of prefishing is finding a productive pattern to catch them during your tournament. Most of us hit the water with the intensions of catching a couple bass to help build confidence and solidify a pattern for our upcoming tournament. Once you have caught a bass, odds are that particular fish isn’t going to be catchable in the tournament. If your tournament is in the next day or two, you can definitely forget it. If you catch a quality bass, they don’t get big by being dumb, you’re chances of hooking it again are really slim.
If you hang around bass tournament circles and weigh ins you will hear the phrase, “I shook off several in practice”. Shaking bass is a great way to get an idea of what size and kind they are without putting a hook in them. It will take some practice and there are times when a bass will have a different plan; however, once you master this technique you’ll find that you put more fish in the boat on tournament day.
For starters, bending hook points or removing hooks will obviously help prevent you from hooking bass when they strike. This, however, can get costly when using jigs or spinnerbaits, because once you’ve altered the hook it’s not repairable. Some anglers will put packing foam, or shrink wrap on the hooks to cover the point of a jig or spinnerbait. Doing this allows you to cut off the protection device for tournament day, and still have a productive bait.
For crank baits and top-water baits, covering the hook just isn’t going to work, it can severely alter the way the bait works in the water. In this situation, it’s best to have a set of hooks that have the points cut off or smoothly filed. The hook is part of the bait. Manufacturers design these baits to produce certain wobbles or vibrations that incorporate the hook. In order to achieve the proper action, you have to have the hooks in place. So for prefishing, put on the dulled hooks, and come tournament time replace them with sharp hooks.
For soft plastics, tie on a bait keeper; like those used on buzz frog type hooks. Now you can attach a soft plastic to your line that will not have a hook at all. A word of caution here, doing this with a senko or fluke will present a bait that is very light weight compared to one with a hook in it. So I recommend you add a finishing nail to the bait to simulate the actual weight you might be using for the tournament. You don’t want to develop a pattern on a bait that you can’t simulate in the tournament.
Now that you have your hooks covered, and there is no way you could catch a bass; this is when you’ll have the strikes of a life time. However, hold faith that this fish will still be there come tournament day. The first thing you need to learn is what kind of strikes are actually bass. This is much easier said than done. We have all been fishing with the angler that sets the hook on everything, bream, crappie, even the occasional feeding stick. The mood of a bass has a lot to do with how it’s going to strike a bait. With that said, each day on the water can present a different strike, sometimes it will be aggressive, sometimes they will just carry a bait. You’ll have to try and pull a couple to the surface to verify they are bass. With some experience, you learn different species and how they strike most often, constant rapping will be a bream. But what about the solid thump, I’ve experienced big crappie and war mouth doing this. Most fish in freshwater can be pulled to the surface. So after a strike slowly wind and lift your rod to see if you can find out what it is.
To help determine what kind of strike the bass are presenting, and to help determine the quality of bass you’ve found, it’s time to learn to pull a bass to the top. According to Randall Tharp, “Don’t set the hook, simply keep steady pressure on them, and reel slowly.” Many times this will bring the fish to the surface, and you’ll get a look at them before they spook from seeing you or the boat. I have found it easier to pull them to the surface in thick cover. If your bait is over a limb or vegetation, it’s easier to get a bass all the way to the surface before it spooks. With the slow reel sometimes you can get a feel for how heavy the fish is, but it’s not a guarantee. Many times a bass will swim with you and it’s difficult to gauge the size. The two hardest parts to accomplishing a pull are, not setting the hook and making sure not to hook the fish should it spook before letting go of the bait.
Once you have identified a bass it’s time to shake him or her. This is done by giving the bass a little slack and shaking your bait. I have found that one or two quick and light pops of the rod tip is usually enough to get them to let go. If that doesn’t work, you can feed them line and hope that eventually they let go. With aggressive bass, you run the risk of them swallowing the bait, so I recommend you slowly apply more pressure and pop your rod tip until they do let go. Usually the slow and steady increase in pressure is going to be enough to alert the bass that something is not right and will blow the bait out. If you haven’t guarded your hooks, this is one of the places you run the risk of hooking that fish. When a bass gets close to the boat, it will spook. When it takes off be ready to let line out in case the bass hasn’t let go of the bait. If you don’t let line out, the bass is going to hook its self on unprotected hooks.
Deep water patterns are almost impossible to tell the quality of a bass. A strike from these deeper fish can range from solid thumps to simply a mushy feeling on the end of your line. In these situations, I do go ahead and catch one or two. Usually when I have a deep-water pattern going there will be plenty of fish available and hooking one or two is not going to damage the area. If it does, then it’s not really the deep water spot that is going to win a tournament for you anyway.
Randall Tharp describes his first day of the 2011 Bassmaster Classic, “In practice I had found several fish on brush tops willing to eat a jig. I shook them all off after seeing them. First morning of the classic tournament I went to the five spots and caught each of them. I had a solid limit quickly. If you don’t put a hook to them, they will go right back to their cover.”
It has taken me many years to get good at shaking fish off. For me, the hardest part is to switch from hook set mode, to shake mode, and back to hook set mode. First, it’s natural and you can’t help it, you’re going to set the hook. Once you beat that, it can be fun to see how close you can get them to the boat, it’s a whole new challenge in its self. Another problem that was hard to overcome was after several days of prefishing, I am so pumped and so ready to smoke a few fish, I set the hook to hard. This can cause to quick of a hook set, or when you do connect, ripping holes in their mouth that allows the hook to fall out. Just like with any other aspect of fishing, it takes a lot of practice to be good at shaking fish off.
Like I said when I opened this article, if you practice shaking fish off, you will without a doubt receive the biggest and strongest strikes of your life. That’s just mother nature being mother nature!