Picture yourself pulling up to an unfamiliar lake in the middle of a hot, sweltering summer day. Despite the excitement that you had from reading about the massive bags of bass being caught from this lake, you are heartbroken to find that the lake is basically a floating carpet of matted vegetation. There is so much salad on the water you might be better served by bringing a truck load of ranch dressing than a boat full of fishing tackle! How could someone possibly catch a fish out of this stuff or even get a bait to the fish? The answer is knock’em out with the punch rig.
Pioneered in Florida’s weedy lakes, but applicable coast-to-coast, “punching” draws its name from the brutish action of driving a bait through a dense conglomeration of aquatic plants such as hyacinth, hydrilla, pennywort, milfoil as well as that slimy yellowish-green stuff. This vegetation either free floating, or anchored by narrow roots, creates spacious caverns of moderate temperatures and shady seclusion offer cozy bass digs below. Harboring baitfish and crawdads, while keeping the area well oxygenated, matted vegetation offers an almost perfect safe haven for largemouth bass.
The Set Up
As much as I try to shy away from “gimmick” fishing tackle, or tackle I think is expensive for no reason, a tungsten weight is a must for this approach. Tungsten is denser than lead, therefore smaller than a lead weight of equal size. You want a heavy yet small, compact weight that is able to push through the thick mats of vegetation. The size of the weight used is dictated by the thickness of the grass. As a general rule, the lightest weight I use is a ¾ ounce, with a 1 ounce being the most common.
The hook choice is also very important. First and foremost, you need a straight shank hook. This is going to ensure better hook sets. You’ll find that nearly every fish caught will be pinned in the top of the mouth. I prefer hooks that have a bait keeper. The bait is constantly dragging in and out of thick grass, without a bait keeper the bait will tend to fall down the hook. Lastly, a strong hook is a must, one that doesn’t bend under pressure. When setting the hook on a bass that is under a carpet of grass with a flipping stick and braid, a flimsy hook will bend and will cost you fish. I personally like the Trokar flipping hooks. They are very sharp, strong, and have a keeper on them.
Braided line, 50 pound test or stronger, and a heavy action flipping stick are a must. While a 7 foot rod will work, I recommend 7’6” as a minimum. I use a Denali Jadewood 7’11” Custom Flipping rod. A longer rod will help leveraging fish out of cover, and keep from wearing you out when pitching 1.5 ounce baits all day. Attach any free spooling high speed reel to complete the set up.
Some form of weight pegging system is very important. If the weight is not pegged to the bait, the sinker will separate from the bait on the mat and then the bait will never penetrate the cover. I use a simple bobber stop.
When choosing a soft plastic bait, consider the thickness of the grass and the mood of the bass. The thicker the grass, the smaller I like to go with the size of the bait. I personally like the Gambler BB Cricket. It’s barely 3 inches long and slips in and out of cover easily. If the grass isn’t too thick or if the fish are aggressive, I’ll use bulkier baits like sweet beavers.
What to Look For
My favorite part about punching mats is I don’t have to wake up early to have a good day. With this technique, the brighter and hotter the day the better the fishing will be. As the sun gets higher and temps climb, the bass push farther and farther under the mats. Thus, the best part of the day is the hottest part of the day. When I have these conditions, I look for the thickest mats that I can find with at least a foot of water beneath them. If I feel the fish are in an active mood, I fish fast moving baits like a hollow bodied frog over the top to eliminate unproductive mats. Once I start to get a few bites, whether from punching or on the frog, I pay attention to what the grass was like where I got the last bite. Other things to note are the depth and bottom composition. Some days nearly all the bites will come in one type of grass, a week later they might be in completely different types of vegetation.
No matter what type of cover I’m fishing, whether its docks, grass, stumps, etc., I first imagine where the fish would be if there were no cover. During summer months, this means points and deeper shorelines would be a good place to start. The same holds true when you add cover such as mats. Instead of just picking a random spot on a lake full of grass, you have immediately upped your odds of success by eliminating potentially fish-less areas.
When I’m actually fishing the mats, I look for irregularities in the mat itself. I punch a bait into anything that would make a good ambush spot, or provide more shade than the rest of the mat.
Type of Irregularities
Points: These are just little spots where the grass sticks out at least a foot from the main mat.
Cuts: This is spot in the mat that creates a small “cove”.
Thick Spots: These create just a little more shade than the rest of the mat. Even the spots that are no more than a square foot in size are not to be overlooked.
Wood Cover: Anytime there are stumps or laydowns in the mat, it’s a bonus. With the heavy weight punching through the mat, it works like a rattle when you knock it off the wood by hopping it around.
Adjoining Vegetation: Whenever there are two or more types of grasses in the mat, I’ve noticed it works one of two ways: 1. there will be random clumps of the “extra” grass mixed in; 2. it will be where another type of grass is growing and forcing the original grass out. In the second scenario, I find the bass use the transition from weed types much like bass will stage on a transition from pea gravel to chunk rock. It’s also important to note, a change in types of grass almost certainly means a change in bottom composition.
Lanes: These are lanes in the grass that are created from multiple sources (beavers, boats, etc.) and the bass often use them as highways to travel through mats.
Holes: Along with the obvious choice of flipping a bait into the hole, these are a dead giveaway that you are in a good area. Often a hole is made from a fish blowing through the mat in pursuit of a meal.
The Wind Up & The Pitch
When flipping/pitching an ounce or heavier bait, it can be a bit awkward. Experience has told us to be effective at flipping the bait needs to enter the water as quietly as possible, preferably without making a ripple. While this holds true in most flipping presentations, it is not necessarily the case when punching. Bass living in and under thick mats use sound (or more correctly, vibration) as one of their main sources to find prey. They can “feel” frogs move across the top of the mat just as they can “feel” when you punch through it. This is a good thing. To get a bait to punch through the carpet, it may be necessary to launch the bait high into the air and allow it to smack down through the canopy. This goes against logic as a shallow water fisherman but is the best way to get the bait through and even calls the fish to the bait.
For the retrieve, the standard lift and drop will work most of the time. Be sure to vary the aggressiveness of the hops. Since the weight is so heavy, a slow fall is nearly impossible. It’s important to understand that if you are getting bites by fishing it on the bottom, those fish are probably aggressive. There is no need to do slow, small hops.
If the fish are not aggressive, they will likely suspend higher in the water column and almost directly against the mat. When this happens, the bait moves by the fish too quickly. By hopping the bait around on the bottom, it is not in the strike zone. In this case, I will pull the bait up to the bottom of the mat and then shake it and bang it off of the bottom of the mat. This draws in any curious bass, plus it keeps my bait in the face of any fish there on the initial drop.
So the next time you are faced with a lake full of matted grass, give punching a try. You never know when your next personal best largemouth may be hiding under a jungle of grass.