All of us have been party to the classic angling paradox. Two anglers are fishing from the same boat using the same lure. One hooks fish after fish after fish. The other can’t buy a bite.
Some might say that angler number one was simply lucky. But in reality, the successful angler probably knew more about properly retrieving the lure.
Retrieving is what we do with a lure after we cast it, the way we work that molded bit of plastic, wood or metal to deceive fish into believing it’s something edible – a wounded baitfish, a scurrying crawdad, a kicking frog or whatever seems appropriate at the time.
Simply reeling is not enough. We must present the lure in a particular fashion – fast, slow, twitching, jerking, popping, gurgling, creeping, racing, jumping, sitting – that gets the attention of Mr. Bass.
Tips from a Pro
I’ve never met an avid bass angler who can explain the intricacies of using different retrieves better than my friend Mitch Looper of Dayton, Arkansas. A former bass guide and Bomber bass pro, Looper says you may choose the right retrieve by first determining whether largemouths are active or inactive.
“When the fish are active, such as when a big weather front is upon you, or when lots of bass in the same area are competing, I find that a very fast retrieve attracts more and bigger bass,” he says. “When big predators like bass are active, the rest of the food chain knows it, and forage animals will try to get away fast, which is something that triggers an active bass to eat. I try to mimic this behavior by moving the lure fast like a baitfish making a quick getaway. Often, I try to make the lure accelerate and rise in the water column at the same time, the same as a baitfish might do.
“When bass are not so active, which is most of the time, the retrieve that gets me the most bites, and the biggest bites, is slow,” Looper continues. “With a slow retrieve, the pauses and twitches seem more important, but the basic overall slowness of the retrieve is what keeps the bass’s interest long enough to get a bite.”
Anglers often associate bass activity, or inactivity, with water temperature. Many think that cold water makes bass lethargic and slow-moving. Consequently, lures should be slow-moving as well. In warmer water, it’s believed that faster retrieves may be best because bass are more likely to be actively feeding. This is not necessarily the case, though.
“In my experience,” says Looper, “water temperature has little to do with activity level and how fast you can move your lure and still get strikes. For example, two winters ago, I was fishing with my dad on a small lake where the water temperature was below 50 degrees. The weather conditions made us believe the fish were active, and I caught lots of good bass from 3 to 6 pounds using a ¼-ounce spinnerbait with ½ ounce of weight added to the hook shank so I could reel it faster and still keep it under the surface. I was cranking it as fast as I could, but I couldn’t reel it fast enough to keep bass from eating it. At the same lake, many years ago, I caught a 6-pound largemouth in 42-degree water by swimming a jig very fast. That fish exploded on the jig like it was springtime.”
On an August bassing trip, fishing a lake with a surface water temperature of 93 degrees, a fast retrieve also proved useful to Looper.
“The bass in this lake were relating to a drop-off, and I caught them using a ⅜-ounce (Cotton Cordell) C.C. Spoon,” he says. “I cast as far as I could, let the spoon settle to the bottom, then I would crank and jerk the bait 10 to 15 feet at a time, as fast as I could. Then I’d let the lure settle and repeat. All my strikes came just as I stopped the bait to let it settle, and sometimes I would get two or three strikes in just a few seconds. This told me I had the whole school after my bait, and the speed is what triggered them to chase it. I caught about 100 fish in 3 ½ hours that day.”
Water Clarity, Night Fishing and More
The rule about “active bass, fast retrieve” may change under certain conditions. Water color, for example, can dictate a new pace.
“There are times the fish are active, but the water is murky or muddy, which is not conducive to fast retrieves,” Looper states. “At night, similar conditions exist. Fast is usually not best when the sun goes down. Under these conditions, short bursts of speed coupled with pauses seem to be the ticket.”
When are slow retrieves the best? Looper says a very slow presentation typically produces more bass just prior to and after the spring spawn.
“I find very slow retrieves work best when big bass first come up shallow in late winter and early spring,” he notes. “When they hit the shallow water at that time, the big ones split up and don’t seem to be hunting in schools. This is when an ultra slow-rolled Bomber spinnerbait or a Booyah jig with a YUM chunk helps me catch my biggest bass of the year.”
In this situation, a single retrieve for Looper may span five minutes or more as he works the lure through heavy cover most anglers pass by.
“I especially like to fish beaver houses this time of year,” he reports. “I make a cast to the shallowest part of the hut, let the lure settle, then S-L-O-W-L-Y work it over the first limb and let it settle again. I let it sit, then slowly work it over the next limb.
“Sometimes I’ll pull the lure up to a limb but not pull it over. I let it fall, bring it back up to the same limb, then let it fall again, over and over, if I think it’s a good spot. Then I’ll cast about one or two feet from where my last cast landed and repeat the whole procedure. It may take me half an hour to work a beaver hut or similar cover this way, but I have often caught two to four big bass from one beaver hut this way, and these have included numerous 9-pound-plus largemouths. Log jams, cedar thickets and other areas with thick cover get the same slow treatment when the big bass first move shallow.”
Looper believes a slower retrieve works during this period because fewer fish are in the shallows and there’s less competitive feeding activity. These big bass are spooky, as well, “and the more times your lure hits the water on the cast, the more likely you are to spook the bass,” he says. “That’s why I like to soak my lure as long as possible in this situation. Just a little later, the whole situation changes, and there’s a need for speed because there’s more competition from other fish, especially when a front is rolling through. But slow is usually best when bass first move shallow.”
These are just a few of the bass-catching retrieves in Looper’s multi-faceted repertoire. But even this abridged accounting should be enough to convince you that Looper is usually the man in the paradox who’s catching fish after fish after fish.
“To learn the right retrieves, you need to have knowledge of the probable activity level of the bass,” says Looper. “And that only comes with experience. When you’ve gained that experience, however, you’ll be able to use the right retrieve for the right situation. That’s one of the main keys to bassing success.”