Changing Gears for Trophy Bass

You can't catch trophy bass where they don't exist. Furthermore, "trophy" is relative to the waters under discussion. For example, growing up in New Mexico but spending most summer vacations with Florida relatives exposed me to two entirely different worlds of largemouth fishing. In New Mexico, with its transplanted northern-strain bass, 5-pounders were absolute behemoths. In Florida, fishing with my cousins, such bass hardly elicited comment.

Of course, big-fish genetics amount to nothing in waters lacking regulations or a pervading mindset encouraging a catch-and-release ethic. And size is directly tied to age. In today's more popular big bass waters, age comes only through letting them live to be caught again. This creates another obstacle in your trophy bass quest -- the so-called educated fish. I've always found it amusing to attribute intellectual powers to creatures owning pea-sized brains. The bass caught many times won't quit eating, but he might shun that otherworldly thing made of chartreuse and purple skirting and whirling propellers that punished him before.

I think another factor directly influencing the capture of trophy bass is they simply feed less often. When a bass reaches the top of the food chain -- the 5-pound bass in those New Mexico waters I grew up on, and bass weighing double that in Florida -- they subsist on larger prey. They're no longer -- generally, at least -- surviving on small leopard frogs, baby crayfish and minnows, but swallowing 12-inch stocker trout, pan-sized sunfish, ducklings or adult bullfrogs. Big fish may fail to bite not because they're necessarily habituated, but because they're simply full.

Trophy bass require patience -- and sometimes taking the path less traveled.

GO LONG

The generally-accepted approach to anything outdoor-related is to get away from the masses. And there's a lot to this. It's logical to go the the most popular spots since those spots became popular for a reason. It's equally rational to assume that the best spots require some distance to get to. In actuality, though, that isn't always the case.

Now I wouldn't call this an etched-in-stone rule, but I've caught some of my biggest bass within sight of launch sites and marinas. I caught my biggest Texas bass ever, for instance, while waiting for a friend to park the truck and trailer, playing with a new lure to analyze its action. A monster bass came right off the end of the boat ramp and inhaled it. It's a stunt I've repeated many times. Either no one ever bothers fishing so obvious a place, or all those fish released after organized tournaments (right off the side of the marina) fail to disperse, but there they are.

There's also the fact no one likes poling through hundreds of yards of tangled weed and lily pads to fish occasional patches of water, or casting to places where snagging a lure every third cast is par. Nor do we like heading somewhere requiring a long walk through briars or smiting heat to reach. If it's tough to reach and frustrating to fish, rest assured it hasn't received the pressure of more enjoyable fishing spots. Hard-to-reach spots might be accessed only through sweat equity (like a Texas spring hole requiring a 5-mile bushwhack but regularly yielding 7- and 8-pound largemouth) or weedy/tangled waters fished with something less prone to snagging (like topwater). This isn't necessarily an approach, but an outlook on what else is possible.

TAKE THEIR TEMPERATURE

Even the warm-water largemouth can prove temperature sensitive. This runs to both ends of the spectrum. Like Goldilocks, trophy bass seek water that's just right -- not too cold in early spring, no too hot as summer advances. In most bass lakes, this means about 55 to 72 degrees F.

Understanding this helps you narrow prospects according to season. During early spring, shallow coves and bays hold actively-feeding fish because the sun's rays penetrate more easily, dark bottom absorbing warmth and in turn warming the water. And don't neglect how inlets affect water temperature, both warming and cooling, according to their source. One Texas lake a friend and I used to fish often, for instance, supplied water for a monstrous power plant. The water released from that plant was 20 to 25 degrees warmer than the surrounding lake. While this outlet was obviously a poor summer spot, during early spring and late fall it was full of hungry bass, some of them hawgs.

More often summer largemouth anglers will be hunting cooling waters or thermoclines, sometimes created by river inlets arriving from higher altitudes, or by deep springs, but more likely simply by depth. The surface temperature supplied by your fishfinder doesn't accurately reflect temperatures found in deeper channels or at various strata lines along steep drop-offs. Sinking a heavy thermometer to various depths gives you a better starting point on where to fish and which lures are best to help you get there.

One often-overlooked source of hot-weather hotspots are topographic maps of areas flooded by relatively new water projects. Studying U.S. Geographical topo maps can reveal spring holes located at the bottom of a lake or reservoir; springs creating cool spots that concentrate bass during the hottest months.

These deep-water lays can be difficult to reach, in so much as your bait (I find grub/crayfish-equipped jigs and plastic best for deep water) must bypass a gauntlet of smaller fish to get to bigger fish below. In these cases I simply use more weight, plunging plastic down past greedy youngsters more quickly. This also leads to more snags and more lost tackle, but with time you'll develop a touch that helps jig tackle off snags -- and more efficiently pick up deep-water takes.

SUPER-SIZE ME!

I remember the first time I brought Florida-sized plastic back to New Mexico following a summer vacation. I doubt I would even have tried those snaky 12-inch worms in New Mexico had I not become accustomed to handling them while in Florida, where they didn't look so ridiculous as when contrasted against standard fare half that length offered in New Mexico sporting goods outlets. As you've likely predicted, some of my biggest Land of Enchantment bass quickly fell to those monstrosities. I recall balling up traffic on the Roswell Country Club golf course after landing a 6 1/2-pound largemouth from a corner hole close to the 9th-hole green, the biggest bass anyone had ever seen taken from that lake.

This is an obvious approach -- feeding the housecat the mouse, the lion a gazelle. The only problem is the one arriving anytime you become hyper-focused on catching bigger bass at all -- you're simply going to catch fewer fish. Some see this as a plus, using bait big enough to exclude pesky little fish that "waste time," but making the "meal" doable and worthwhile for a lunker. This also means those average-but-entertaining bass that can keep things interesting are eliminated from the equation.

Size can also work toward the other end of the spectrum. Sometimes bigger isn't better. Sometimes the biggest bass come from surprisingly small baits. This occurred each spring from late April through early May in a couple desert Southwest lakes I fished in New Mexico and Arizona. These were days when I could fly-fish and bet the farm against any "hardware" man alive. The trick was a particular small, translucent streamer that imitated the fry of the threadfin shad, recently hatched and spread like popcorn across the lake. Bass big and small keyed on these tiny baits to the exclusion to all else during that brief period. I've seen a similar situation occur when small, softshell crayfish have recently hatched and are available in great profusion. It's a point worth filing away against a tough day on the water. "Small" can save the day, even when the bass at issue are not.

LIVE AT 5

Fishing live bait is deadly effective due to reasons too obvious to waste space on here. Yet, modern largemouth fishermen mostly shun bait as if it's somehow perverse. This is difficult to understand, as effectively plying live bait requires no less skill than, say, properly fishing plastic. Without a delicate touch the potential for snags is even greater, sending down a live critter likely to seek the first available cover and dive in. The savvy bait fishermen works bait just like plastic, to not only minimize snags, but also to keep bait visible and in the strike zone of the fish.

For the most part, live bait's best fished in deeper water, nearly vertically, sending a largish shad, waterdog, baby sunfish, frog, crayfish or shiner down to submerged reefs or flooded timber discovered via fish finder. This is standard operating procedure from a boat, but bank fishermen, or those operating in restricting cover, can also work bait just as you would plastic. I employ a classic "Texas rig," hooking shad-type baits through the lips and casting into pockets, beside sunken stumps, rock points and weedlines, crawling the bait back as slowly as I can force myself to without hanging up too frequently.

Another deadly technique, I borrowed from striper fishing. Balloon-lining's deadly effective in deeper cover, jungles of flooded timber and brush and deep-water riprap otherwise inviting non-stop snags with conventional approaches. Determine actual depth of the submerged cover itself, rigging up Texas-style and threading on the live bait of choice (I've experienced especially good results with live waterdogs). Strip off a corresponding length of line and tie a fist-sized balloon directly to the line, hanging bait just above cover beneath this "bobber." When fish are hooked the balloon can be reeled right into the tip-top without ill effect.

THE NIGHT LIFE

The average public bass water can prove a busy place in the times we live in, with jet skis and water-skiers and assorted other water babies noisily at play. With sunset, things calm considerably. By midnight you normally have even the most frantic public lake all to yourself. This is when many of the best bass come out of hiding and go on the prowl. It's also a time when exciting techniques such as topwater fishing can come into their own.

I've enjoyed most of my nighttime bass fishing from a canoe, a mode of operation that seems to fit these tranquil hours, allowing you to quietly slip into calm coves, and work weedlines and timber edges with minimal disturbance. There's also no worry of damaged lower units and the like while working essentially blind under the cloak of darkness.

I've fished black-dark nights with good success in places like upstate New York and remote Texas lakes, usually choosing topwater in these circumstances if only to provide an audible link to my lure and its progress. The age-old Jitterbug works as well today as it did decades ago. I've also enjoyed non-stop action on more civilized waters by sticking close to lighted docks, marinas and boat ramps, security lights nightly attracting hoards of baitfish, which in turn attract hungry bass. Big, flashy flies tossed from a heavyweight fly-rod or mirror-sided, shallow-running plugs and sparkle plastic have done the trick for me during these nocturnal outings. The only challenge here is placing baits and lures tight to shorelines or cover with accurate casts without casting into shoreline brush, working them slower than you might during daytime presentations.

In the end, catching trophy bass is all about persistence -- being on hand with something appealing when that hawg feels the urge to eat.

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