Go Small To Get Big Bass

Go Small To Get Big Bass

Two Nebraska fishing pros share their tips on how to target small water for bigsuccess. (April 2010)

Nebraska offers strong bass-fishing opportunities from April to May with the potential for consistent patterns occurring all through the open-water season. There is also the real potential to catch largemouths of 6 pounds or more on public water. When looking at a highway map, the state doesn't appear to have that much water. Looks can be deceiving. Hidden across the state are numerous public fishing lakes that offer big-time opportunities for anglers who love wrestling with bass -- bass big enough to fit your fist inside their mouth.

You don't need to hit large water to find large bass or large amounts of bass.
Photo by Jason Mitchell.

Nebraska has several large reservoirs (1,000 acres plus) that offer fishing opportunities for species including largemouth bass, catfish, walleyes, wipers and even striped bass. While these large, well-known fisheries are capable of producing respectable largemouths, many anglers looking to find largemouth bass specifically, often target the smaller reservoirs (less than a 1,000 acres) or numerous sandpit lakes that are usually less than 300 acres. The reason is that the population densities of largemouths (on many of the smaller lakes) are much higher with the opportunity ever present to catch big fish. Many of the dedicated bass anglers will target small water to avoid the wipers, walleyes and other species, instead focusing on water where they can expect to catch high numbers of largemouths.

The sandpit lakes are scattered throughout the state of Nebraska with many good lakes right near Omaha. Some of these metro-area lakes include Prairie View Lake, Zorinsky Lake and Wehrspann Lake. There is also a series of sandpit lakes located next to Interstate 80, which crosses Nebraska. These lakes were built during the construction of the interstate and most are now open to public fishing. The Fremont area also has over 20 sandpit lakes that are open to the public. Many of these sandpit lakes have nice boat ramps and handicapped accessible docks.

A good resource I found online is nebraskabass.com which is the Web site for the Nebraska B.A.S.S. Federation. This Web site has the majority of the public bass lakes listed with downloadable maps and other pertinent information, including size restrictions, boat motor restrictions and fishing hours. Because of the size of many of these lakes, very few major bass-fishing tournaments are held, but don't let the lack of size or notoriety fool you.

Acre per acre, these small sandpit lakes are very productive and rival most good bass fishing found throughout the region. Because of the ample bass-fishing opportunities, there are several bass clubs and great bass anglers located within the state of Nebraska.

Two anglers who fish these small jewels frequently and know bass fishing well are Patrick Hoesing and Mike Platt who are fishing managers for Scheels All Sports, located in Omaha, Nebraska. These two anglers have a good pulse on what techniques, patterns and presentations are most effective because when they aren't selling fishing equipment, they love using it to catch bass.

According to Hoesing, anglers do well early in the season by focusing on finding warmer water. "Usually, this means fishing the north shores. Stable weather before a front is often the best for targeting shallow fish relating to the bank. After a severe front, we might find fish suspending over deeper water off the break of the shoreline and obviously these fish are harder to locate," explains Hoesing.

"Many of the reservoirs have stands of flooded timber or sharp-breaking ledges next to the shoreline that can be good locations to key on, while some of the sandpits have docks or some submerged or fallen timber that can provide good cover. The more the lake gets fished, the harder you have to work to get baits way under docks or way back into flooded timber by skipping, and while some of these sandpits do not get much pressure and some do, even the water that does get fished a lot is still often very productive," adds Hoesing.

Some of these small sandpit lakes do see a lot of recreational boat traffic and these lakes tend to have much less weed growth. Some of the lakes don't have much traffic or a motor size restriction that reduces boat wakes and these lakes generally have much more weed growth. "The fishing can be good on lakes that do have weeds, but the fishing can also be really good on lakes that don't get much weed growth, but one thing to remember is that the patterns might be different," adds Mike Platt. "Generally, the older, more mature sandpit lakes have more fallen cottonwood trees that provide some cover as well, so each lake will have specific patterns that all relate to the cover (or lack of cover) available in the lake," continues Platt.

Tactics that produce consistent results early in the season are often methodical and slow. Both anglers agree that early in the season before the water warms up to 65 degrees, jig-and-pig combinations dominate. "This is what we see most of the anglers buying and using during this time, and we see a lot of success with this presentation ourselves. What works really well is to use a lighter jig, say a 1/4-ounce jig with really big pork like the No. 10 Big Daddy Uncle Josh Pork Rind.

This combination of big pork and small jig falls really slow through the water and that is crucial early on. Sometimes, it feels like just a bluegill is pecking the bait and when you set the hook you have a 6-pound bass on the other end," relates Hoesing. A big mistake some anglers make is fishing too heavy or fast. "The added bulk on the jig is important to slow everything down, as there are many days where you just can't fish too slow, and that is hard for some anglers to do.

Just get in that mindset that you need to work baits slower, spend more time in spots and just slow the whole day down. Running and gunning, impatiently hitting spots with a fast retrieve, fast presentation is probably one of the worst things you could do to catch these fish from just my experience."

"Another really hot early-season presentation is using suspending stick baits," adds Platt. "The Luck Craft Pointer Minnow is really hot, but we also see a lot of guys buying Rapala X Raps, Rapala Husky Jerks and a new lure from Salmo called the Sting. The key to using these suspending baits is to really give these lures excruciatingly long pauses during the retrieve. The old joke was to crank on the reel handle a few times and stop -- stopping long enough to drink a Coke. That is how long the stops have to be, but this is really effective," stresses Platt.

Suspending lures are definitely a must-have item in the boat during this time, but another method Hoesing uses with great success is to slowly work jointed shallow-running crankbait

s back to the boat with the rod tip close to the water. "My go-to bait for this type of presentation is the Salmo Frisky with the shallow-diving bill," states Hoesing. "Just work the bait slow and steady so that the lure will dive down a couple of feet." As the water warms up into the 60s and even early 70s, we use the Frisky a lot and we also begin to use a lot of swimbaits.

One of the hottest swimbaits last year in Cornhusker Country was a swimbait made by Strike King called the Shadolicious. "What I like to do is use the larger swimbaits in the 6- to 7-inch range, and I pair these large bodies with a 9/0 Pradco Excaliber offset shank worm hook that is used for saltwater fishing. I than take a 1/16-ounce rubber core sinker, take the rubber core out and pinch the lead on to the shank of the hook. This is a deadly combination as it offers a big target and falls slow through the water." Other good bets include Northland Tackle's Rock R Minnow and Berkley's Hollow Belly Swim Shad along with the traditional Sluggo.

Both anglers stress the importance of matching line weight to lure size. "Generally, everybody is now using braided line, either Fireline or Power Pro. And the new line out that bass guys are using is Vicious Braid. Large baits work best with heavier line (20-pound-test), as the line won't bite into itself from the weight of the presentation. Another key aspect to this is that these big, slow-falling baits we use early in the season fall through the water more fluidly and slowly with the heavier line. Many anglers will use a 20-pound braid for fishing the larger baits or fishing slop and cover. For fishing suspended fish and open water, an option might be 10-pound braid.

"Another thing we often do with the plastics is insert a Woody's Insert Rattle for more noise, as this water is often stained or dirty," adds Platt. "This is probably another reason why firetiger is such a big color in this area. On many of the reservoirs, the forage is dominated by shad, unless we get a real hard winter. On both reservoirs and sandpit lakes, however, there are a lot of bluegills and some crappie these fish are keying on. We find at times where we are successful using whites, silvers, light-sided lures with dark backs particularly on the lakes with shad, but often firetiger or similar patterns dominate, and the combination of stained water and abundant bluegills might be the reason."

Traditionally, some time in April is generally a time of transition in the sense that the water begins to warm up and that is when the weed growth develops. "As we see the weeds develop, we really see a run on spinnerbaits at the store. Slow-rolling spinnerbaits over the tops of emerging weeds is definitely one of the top presentations once that weed growth takes off. When that water warms up to about 75 degrees or warmer, we start to sell a lot of Scum Frogs and buzzbaits just because weeds have grown to the point on many lakes where you have to fish the top or pockets in the weeds. Come mid to late summer, we have a great topwater bite, but that is another article," adds Hoesing.

"These sandpit lakes in particular are just so numerous and they really are a lot of fun to fish for bass," states Hoesing. "One thing to remember is that these lakes are small and bass anglers by nature are very secretive. They are always looking for a secret lake that nobody knows about, some off-the-wall pattern that nobody has discovered, some secret lure that nobody else has, that is just the nature of many really good bass anglers, so keep that in mind when you are fishing. It is not uncommon for somebody to catch a really nice bass especially from public water and lie about where it was caught because they want to keep their honeyhole a secret."

So what that means is that some of the best and most rewarding opportunities come from some exploration. "What amazes me is that even the well-known sandpit lakes right in the metro of Omaha are very productive despite the fishing pressure. These lakes are still really good and many of them have a protective slot size limit to retain the larger bass, but what we enjoy doing is spending the time to find off-the-wall spots or spots that for whatever reason don't get much attention from anglers. These diamonds in the rough take some work to find as we explore some lakes that have a lot of stunted bass, and of course, some lakes go through natural cycles where they are unproductive for a few years and than one year they produce really big fish," explains Hoesing.

Some lakes with reputations for few bass or small bass have to be checked from time to time because the tables can turn dramatically over the years. On the flip side, some lakes that were notorious for producing large bass last year could possibly change from the increased fishing pressure as word gets out.

"Some of these lakes are also surprisingly small and not well known, off the beaten path and than the other side of the coin is all of the private lakes that are also around," adds Platt. On the private lakes, you need to either be the landowner or know the right person, and obviously, a small private lake with really big bass is not going have an open invitation for anybody off the street. That is not to say that the private lakes are not impossible to fish with the right connections. Many anglers in Nebraska have the right connections to fish private water that offers tremendous opportunity.

There is a certain allure to fishing a private pond and obviously, some of these privately managed lakes produce some enormous bass, but both Platt and Hoesing stress that you don't have to access private water to catch really big bass. "We both fish the public water a lot and we both agree that these public waters produce really big bass, we have caught them and we have seen them, so don't be intimidated if you don't have access to private water. Nebraska has really good bass fishing on publicly managed water," stresses Platt.

"We were talking earlier about how secretive bass anglers can be, Patrick and I are on the other side of the business in the sense that we sell fishing tackle and fishing equipment, so we are more open with our own information," explains Platt. "We respect our customers' secrets, but at the same time, we have to be open and honest as to what is working for us when we fish because it is important for our business not just to recruit new anglers but also for those anglers to be successful. That is probably one of the most rewarding aspects of our job -- watching anglers become more successful and helping with that process any way we can. I absolutely love selling a rod or lure to a person and having that person come back to me with a picture or story. That really makes my day and is the reason I am in this business."

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