As spring turns to summer, Midwest bass anglers often turn to grass.
That's aquatic vegetation, mind you. No mowing necessary. No toking allowed. Just the kind of grass that creates good habitat for healthy fish populations.
Good aquatic vegetation makes for a healthy lake. It creates dissolved oxygen, provides edges for fish to follow and offers cover for ambush, all while filling the food chain with essential microorganisms, insects, fry, baitfish and invertebrates.
To a bass, a healthy grass bed is an oasis with shade, comfort and fine dining. In the Midwest, late spring generally sees bass in pre-spawn, spawn or post-spawn patterns, often in or near prime vegetation. Obviously, if you live in Missouri, your bass are likely in a different stage of the spawn than if you live in Michigan or Minnesota. However, the attractiveness of rich aquatic vegetation is a constant.
Native vegetation tends to flourish in the natural lakes of the upper Midwest, but rivers and reservoirs also have their share. Where aquatic grass grows thick, particularly invasive species like Eurasian milfoil, it can cause irritation and consternation and provoke eradication efforts that cross the boundaries of good management sense.
The lure-grabbing, prop-wrapping characteristics of bass grass, which ranges from friendly cabbage (potamogeton) to sometimes problematic milfoil, can be annoying. They become more forgivable, however, when you employ lures that effectively enable you to fish them.
Thankfully, topwater lures start tempting bass in a big way about the time that vegetation begins its spring growth spurt. That's when I turn to two of my favorite techniques: froggin' and doggin'.
Hollow-bodied frogs are an angler's best friend and a bass' worst enemy in those vegetation-choked areas where few other bait styles work at all. Toss a frog into the thickest mess and—if your lure hasn't taken a twirl around a hanging branch—it's ready to be worked through the jungle.
The typical faux-frog design features a soft and supple plastic frog body cradled in a dual hook with skirted legs. I prefer frog bodies that shield the hook points yet collapse easily enough on a hookset to expose the points so they can penetrate the bass' mouth.
Bass staking out shallow-water bedding areas around reeds and other emergent vegetation can be suckers for a faux frog dropped in their lair and left there to tease.
Don't just work the flats and pockets. Often, bass will lay in the hollows under the roots of reeds or other emergent vegetation. I've had much success fishing the frog right up against a reed bank. Lily pads can be superb frogging areas, too.
In the natural lakes of the upper Midwest, female bass might retreat to grass flats after the spawn or take respite under a thick mat. Look for something unique in the mat, such as a stump or sunken tree, or a transition in grass type or bottom content. Don't overlook small patches, either.
"Some guys like to throw frogs over huge mats of grass, but I'm more of a target fisherman," says MLF pro Dean Rojas, widely regarded as the dean of frog fishing. "I'm looking for ambush points, whether it's wild rice fields, hydrilla, grass mats, or lily pads."In river systems, Rojas pays close attention to current and where it deposits debris.
"Floating grass gets balled up, creating a canopy, and that is usually where bass are sitting," Rojas say". "The frog is perfect for that. And if you can find an area where grass is pushed to duck weed and has access to deep water, it's perfect for a [Spro] Bronzeye Frog."
Bassmaster Elite angler Brandon Card prefers a mix of matted vegetation with duckweed, a floating aquatic plant. He proved his point one day in early June last year on southern Wisconsin's popular Lake Delavan.
"Duck weed is real thin, and you can walk a frog through it," Card said as he released one of a number of frog-fooled fish topping 18 inches. "Yet it is thick enough to provide the fish with a canopy—cover over their heads."
Vast fields of promising lily pads or matted vegetation often intimidate anglers who wonder where to begin the hunt. Even in acres of prime habitat, bass are likely to be concentrated in key areas such as pockets, points and edges.
MLF pro Jason Christie's approach is to cover water quickly and vary his retrieve until he locates his fish.
"I like to work a frog faster than most people," says Christie, whose frog of choice is the Booyah Pad Crasher. "To me, the key is covering water. If I get into an area I believe has a lot of fish, I will slow down."
Watch a frog move across a mat. Observe its quick lunges and sudden starts, how it checks out the jungle then takes off again. Note the speed you are working the bait when a fish hits it. Give the fish a variety of looks. Speed it up. Slow it down. Make it look alive.
Tackle matchups are critical in frog fishing, and you'll only become frustrated if you come to the water unprepared. Use a rod with plenty of backbone, yet with some tip action. Add a high-speed reel so you can pick up slack line quickly before setting the hook.
Braided line of 50- to 60-pound test is best to assure a good hookset. Dragging a hefty bass through a grass jungle with 10 pounds of vegetation hanging from your frog requires a line that is up to the task.
Maintain your composure when a fish hits the lure. The temptation will be to set the hook at the first sign of a bump or blow up. But if you wait until the frog disappears and you feel the fish's weight, you'll convert on far more strikes.
DOGGIN' WITH A WALKIN' BAIT
When bass move from the thick mats to open water bordering the grass, they are often on the move and hungry. That's when a walking bait becomes top dog.
Charlie Campbell was one of the pioneers of the "walking" technique. The magic he worked with the Heddon Zara Spook on Ozark lakes set the bass world on fire decades ago. Today, learning to "walk the dog" has become one of a bass fisherman's rites of passage.
A walking bait can draw bass from the depths and from surprising distances. The side-to-side thrusts of a Zara Spook mimic the struggles of a dying baitfish. Lure makers have added rattles to baits, too, to add to their drawing power.
"It's always good to have a bait that is really loud and can call the fish up," said Bill Lowen, Bassmaster Elite veteran from Indiana, as he extracted the treble hook of an Ima Japan Little Stik from a thick-bodied largemouth.
Strike King's KVD Sexy Dawg Hard Knock, an addition to the Sexy Dawg line, gets its deep resonance from a single ball in its chamber. Kevin VanDam has seen it draw fish from 20-foot depths in clear water.
"It's a good bait that pulls fish from a long ways," says VanDam, who steered the bait's development. "And it's a lot of fun to fish, too."
Many of today's walking baits are distinctive for their sound, profile and walking style. In addition to the tapered cylindrical designs modeled after the Zara Spook, there are elongated pencil poppers with cupped heads that spit as they walk and squat designs with a tight walking action.
Stay alert to the layout of grass beds. Polarized sunglasses can help you pick out grass patches, edges, pockets and open alleys—all key areas to tease bass with a walking bait.
VanDam prefers to walk his Sexy Dawg rapidly, forcing the fish to react and not allowing them to get "too good a look at it." He works the bait with a relentless rhythmic wrist action, with rod down and pointed toward his bait.
Vary your presentation until a fish reveals its preference for the day, then replicate the speed and cadence used to catch it. Pay attention to any detail in location or presentation that can help you piece together a pattern.
Walking the dog takes practice—and stamina—to sustain lure action. Execute short twitches of the rod on a slack line.
"That is a big key," Lowen says. "If you don't have that slack line, the bait is going to hop straight at you. If you keep slack in the line, the bait will walk left and right."
KVD advises fishing "dawg" baits with a medium-heavy Lew's rod, high-speed reel and 17-pound-test monofilament. He acknowledges that many pros prefer to use braid, but believes that the stretch in mono results in fewer lost fish and fewer tangles.
There aren't many styles of fishing that deliver the excitement of frogging and walking the dog. What's more, the methods work side-by-side, hand-in-hand.
"When you are fishing the edge of grass with topwater lures, always have a frog rod on deck," says Lowe. "You never know when they're going to come blowing up in the grass. Don't miss out on a golden opportunity."
Jason Christie is always ready to go to the mat with bass. That's particularly true when he finds bass in thick fields of pads or matted milfoil.
Bass can have trouble locating a hollow-bodied frog on the high side of a thick mat. Christie makes their search a bit easier by adding BBs to the belly of a Booyah Pad Crasher, his frog of choice.
Christie's frog arsenal consists of a variety of weighted frogs and BB-free Pad Crashers, alike. The thickness of the mat or mix of grass, duckweed and debris determines which frog he will use.
"If I'm mat fishing, I will have two frogs on my deck," Christie says. "One will have 25 BBs, and the other will have 12. If I'm fishing around thick mats, I go to the 25-BB frog. If I'm working the frog around wood or a dock, I will fish it empty, because I want it to stay up there."
Frogging in thick grass is all about getting it down below the mat's surface where the fish can see and reach it.
"If they don't know the frog is there, they aren't going to eat it," Christie says. "I may throw the same frog all day or go half and half. If the wind picks up and tightens the mat, I will go to the heavier frog. Little things like that can make your frog fishing just a little bit better and get you a few more bites."
The Pad Crasher is an affordably priced soft-bodied frog available in 12 colors ($6.79; booyahbaits.com). Chines on the belly facilitate the walking action. The Pad Crasher family includes a smaller Pad Crasher Jr., a Poppin' Pad Crasher and two versions of Toadrunner, a frog with a rotating tail. Arm yourself with light-colored varieties, dark varieties and conventional frog colors, and you'll be ready to frog.