September 26, 2022
Over the years, fisheries biologists have studied bass diets to help manage populations and produce good fishing. Abundant prey is obviously important to healthy populations. Results show what avid anglers have learned: Fish dominate bass diets, particularly in reservoirs where shad are present and in small waters loaded with sunfish. In many parts of the United States and Canada, various species of crawfish also are important. But largemouth bass don't stop there. Their name is highly appropriate, since they’re known to consume a wide variety of prey–whatever lives or falls into the water and fits in that massive maw.
One common summertime sight is watching bass leap out of shallow, weedy cover to intercept dragonflies that buzz overhead and occasionally dip down to the surface. They usually miss as the insects flit off, but they score often enough to encourage them to make acrobatic leaps. This action is especially hot when dragonflies are mating in early summer. Bass often seem to select flies that are paired up. While most bug chasers are small, I've watched some in the 3-pound class in hot pursuit.
At times I've been able to tempt them to hit a weedless bait or wacky worm around lily pads where they chase dragonflies. But bass are picky in this situation, focused on the search image of these big, buzzing bugs. Their ability to aim and time the jump from under water to catch an insect in the air is amazing when you consider the issue of refraction, which distorts vision between water and air.
Bass also feed on large insect larvae that live on the bottom. The best known is the hellgrammite, a larval dobsonfly that grows to 3 to 4 inches long. They thrive in creeks and tributary streams, so hellgrammites are more important as smallmouth prey, but stream-dwelling largemouths and other black bass species savor them. Cicadas are large-winged insects that emerge after prolonged development in the ground or trees. Species are known for the frequency of their hatching, i.e., 17-year cicadas (or locusts). When they hatch, they do so in vast numbers that birds, animals and fish can’t ignore. They represent a meaty bite, and their clumsy flying makes them easy prey.
To offer natural-looking lures, several companies have produced insect imitations. Megabass offers the Grand Siglett, a realistic bug bait that's 2 3/4 inches long and weighing 1/4 ounce. Its hinged wings fold back for easy casting but flip outward when the retrieve starts, giving it a gurgling, wobbling action. Plus, it has a rattle chamber to imitate the incessant buzzing that cicadas make on summer days.
To match the dragonfly hatch, River2Sea offers the 2 3/4-inch Dragonfly Popper, a topwater with a paddle-like bill on the bottom to keep it on top and produce a shuffling action. Lunkerhunt's Dragonfly is a recent entry to the category, constructed of a tough, buoyant material that can be Texas-rigged. It can float a 4/0 offset-shank hook and comes in six colors to match the dozens of species in the U.S. It casts easily on a spinning rod with 20-pound-test braided line, which helps pull bass out of weedy shallows.
Lunkerhunt also offers the Yappa Bug, a waterbug lookalike with a Jitterbug-style lip that makes it waddle slowly across the surface. It weighs 3/4 ounce to allow long casts and is equipped with a double hook that rides below the abdomen, similar to a hollow-body frog.
Anglers recognize that frogs can be a favorite bass forage, as the fish and amphibians coexist in warm, swampy waters across the country. Diet studies show several frog species to be occasional prey, in both their larval tadpole stage and as adults. Bass eagerly gobble tadpoles of various species, but spit out bullfrog young, as they have an unpleasant taste. In addition, many species of adult toads are mildly toxic to fish, as they are to birds and mammals, and they're rarely found in bass stomachs.
In recent years, frog imitations have flooded the market, with new species appearing all the time. Most are hollow and made of a rubbery plastic that floats, supporting a double hook that tucks under the belly to avoid snagging thick grass where these lures work best. Snag Proof Frogs and Scum Frogs were early examples of this group that remain popular. Solid, soft-plastic frog baits with paddle legs are often called toads, after the popular Zoom's Horny Toad. They can be Texas-rigged to avoid snagging grass and cast easily on baitcasting gear. Unlike hollow-bodies, they work best when retrieved at a medium to fast clip to cover water and locate lunkers in thick slop.
Salamanders also are fair game, from aquatic ones like the newt to large amphibious species called mudpuppies, which can reach a foot in length. Hale-Stanley Lures recently added the Sidetrac Mud Puppy, a 6-inch, thick-bodied stick worm with an "Action Maker" tab at the head that can make the lure run to the right or the left, depending on how it's rigged.
For decades, anglers have relied on "lizards" for their Carolina rigs, as these salamander imitations have a flat belly to drift along naturally when rigged on a long leader. Most of the many salamander species are vulnerable to attack in their aquatic larval stage.
Best known is the "water dog," the gilled larval form of tiger salamander. In lab tests, researchers found that water dogs are a favored prey of largemouth bass. They were popular as a live bait for lunker bass in the 1990s. In recent years, however, bans on bait transfers among states limited their availability.
As voracious predators with expansive mouths, largemouths are known to occasionally eat birds. They're not common prey for obvious reason—their sharp eyes are always scanning for danger, and they can take off in an instant when perched on brush overhanging or in the water—but there's no denying the largemouth's fascination with birds. Many years ago in Massachusetts, I watched a red-winged blackbird appear to tease a big bass holding near its perch in a stand of cattails. The bird would swoop down and flutter just above the surface as the lunker rushed up to grab it. After flying to safety, it repeated the stunt several more times before the bass lost interest.
More commonly, largemouths eat rather helpless prey, such as fuzzy ducklings following their mothers across a bay, or fledgling birds that fall out of nearshore nests. Bassmaster pro Aaron Martens, who passed away in 2021, won the 2015 Bassmaster Elite tournament on Lake Havasu in Arizona in part by discovering a nest site for red-winged blackbirds. He was flipping a jig in a patch of tules, or reeds, when he saw many nests. Big bass were lurking nearby, and he caught several lunkers, including one that had feathers in its mouth. He even had to clean feathers out of his livewell after the event.
Several years ago, I was fishing a line of docks on a Minnesota lake and caught a largemouth close to 5 pounds that had a bill protruding from its esophagus. I first thought it was the snout of a small pike, but closer inspection revealed a duck. It wasn’t a fuzzy hatchling, but one that was several weeks old. Lure makers have responded with baits imitating bird prey. Persuader Lures of California has a set of wooden Baby Ducks colored like different species.
They bob enticingly on top or can be slowly retrieved across the shallows. Savage Gear, a company that’s specialized in imitating unusual prey, released its 3D Suicide Duck in 2016, when it won Best of Show in the Hard Bait category at the annual ICAST sportfishing trade show. This 6-inch topwater bait has a pair of feet that paddle on the retrieve, and its treble hooks are adorned with yellow duck feathers. SPRO offers its popular Bronzeye Frog in a Redwing Blackbird color, while one of River2Sea’s Whopper Plopper models is colored like a loon.
In his historic work, "Book of the Black Bass," published in 1881, Dr. James Henshall shared his observation of two largemouth bass simultaneously trying to eat a snake that was swimming across an Iowa creek. One grabbed the head and started to swallow it when a smaller bass seized the tail. They engaged in a tug-of-war for several minutes. There are more recent fishery research accounts of different species found in bass stomachs, including a 12-inch Texas bass that had eaten an 18-inch water snake.
"Bass Professor" Doug Hannon was a believer in the appeal of snakes to big bass, and he contributed to the design of Bill Norman's Snatrix worm. Hannon later sold a kit with big, black, snakelike worms with hooks and weights to rig them. A newer offering is the Sidetrac Cobra from Hale-Stanley Lures, an 8-inch stick worm with an “Action Maker” that can make the bait dive or rise to the surface, depending on how it's hooked.
Over the years, baby turtles have been found in bass guts, but lab investigations suggest that most were eaten after they died or were moribund from disease or cold water. Observations showed the little turtles would bite and scratch the mouths of bass that engulfed them, causing most to spit them out. Of course, big bass might immediately swallow the critters whole. Lunkerhunt offers the Prop Turtle, a 3 1/2-inch topwater hard bait with spinning feet that create a bubble trail to call fish out of cover. It's realistically colored and shaped, with a double hook and additional stinger hook to catch short strikers.
Mammals aren't likely bass prey. Adults of aquatic species like beavers, nutrias and muskrats are too large to be eaten. Newborns are vulnerable, but they remain deep within nests or burrows. Edible-size rodents like voles, mice and rats typically don't enter the water, but may wander near the edge or burrow along riverbanks. They obviously can lose their footing, as I've caught several bass that had eaten them; I could see the tail sticking of the bass' gullet, or it was puked up in the livewell.
Indiana fishery biologist Jeremy Price collected a 13 1/2-inch bass that had a distended belly. When he examined it, Price was startled to see the flat nose and big claws of an eastern mole. Though not common prey, small mammals represent a large, nutritious meal. Moreover, the instinct of a bass is to attack vulnerable creatures of any sort, especially those floundering on the surface.
Livetarget won an ICAST Best in Show Award in the Soft Bait category in 2011 for the Hollow Body Field Mouse, a weedless lure styled like a frog, but with a mousy shape and tail. Like a frog bait, it fishes over thick cover and invites attacks from below, where bass sometimes don’t even get a good look at their target. It’s available in three sizes and has been a popular addition to the lineup.
Lunkerhunt also has a weedless model, the Yappa Rat, with a Jitterbug-style lip to make it sashay across the surface. SPRO offers a series of SPRO Rats, which are jointed wake baits that produce a tantalizing swimming motion when retrieved. Designed by California big-bass expert Bill Siemantel and available in sizes from 5 to 10 inches, they catch bass from coast to coast.
While all these attempts at realism fall a bit short in imitating the actions and scents of wild creatures, the lesson is that bass typically aren’t too picky about what they try to eat. If a lure is in the right place, looks vulnerable and presents an opportunity for an easy meal, it very likely will get attacked by a hungry bass.