May 27, 2020
By Ken Duke
Editor’s Note: This story is featured in the West edition of the June-July issue of Game & Fish Magazine, now on sale. Get a great deal on an annual subscription
For generations, bass fishing has operated on a simple seasonal rule of thumb: Fish shallow in spring and fall; fish deep in summer and winter. As with any enduring rule of thumb, there’s some good, solid advice there. After all, biological demands and weather extremes will dictate a lot of behavior, so most bass are going to follow that axiom.
But there are a few problems with it, too—problems we can’t and shouldn’t ignore. For one, not all bass are shallow in the spring and fall, nor are they all deep in summer and winter; there are outliers in every season. Second, most of us are more proficient when fishing shallow. The deeper we fish, the greater our reliance on sophisticated electronics and the more hit-or-miss our approach becomes. Finally, just because most bass might be deep in summer ignores the fact that it’s a lot more fun to catch them shallow—and that fishing shallow in summer may give us our best shot at a real lunker.
Three of the most talented anglers in competitive bass fishing history agree that shallow is often better in summer. When the weather gets warm, they generally turn their backs to the depths and focus their attention on shallow water, usually employing one of three methods: fishing hollow-bodied frogs and rats, flipping and pitching, and buzzbaiting.
These three techniques not only give them a terrific shot at some big bass, but they’re considerably more exciting than dredging the depths.
No discussion of hollow-bodied frogs is complete without a nod to Dean Rojas. The Arizona pro has probably caught more frog bass, designed more frog gear and won more tournament money on a frog than anyone else in history.
“The heat of summer is a great time to fish a frog,” Rojas says. “I like to target shallow cover that creates shade near deep water.”
The frog master’s comment perfectly summarizes the summertime shallow-water approach. If you find good cover in the form of laydowns, boat docks or heavy vegetation—and it’s near deep water—you will have found an environment that will draw quality bass. Remove one of those key elements, and the area is likely bass-free.
Of course, “deep” is a relative term. On some waters, that could mean 10 feet. On others, it might be 20. Rojas notes that he likes deeper water on a reservoir than a river and that the clearer the water, the deeper “deep” needs to be.
For his favorite summertime frog pattern, Rojas opts for his signature SPRO Bronzeye Frog 65 in Putty Black, Killer Gill or a shad pattern. He fishes it on 80-pound-test Sunline FX2 Frogging & Flipping braid spooled onto a Duckett 360 Series casting reel (7.1:1 ratio) that’s paired with a 7-foot 1-inch Duckett Pro Series medium-heavy rod that Rojas designed specifically for frog fishing.
“A key to this pattern is putting the bait in the darkest, shadiest spots available,” he says. “Those are where the best bass are going to be, and they’re also where many anglers can’t make an effective presentation, so these spots are mostly untouched.”
Rojas is a wizard with a baitcasting combo and can put a lure in tight spots that most of us can only dream about. The key, of course, is practice. With quality equipment and a little practice, you, too, can get a lot better at hitting those tight spots that mostly go unfished. And the biggest step you can take is to learn to skip your lure.
Most anglers can skip a weightless worm under a boat dock with spinning gear, but being able to skip a hollow-bodied frog or buzzbait under the same dock with a baitcaster is a whole other ballgame. In the beginning, expect backlashes. As you get better, expect to improve your catch—dramatically.
“The topwater frog bite is often fantastic early and late, but it can be good all day long—even when the sun is out,” says Rojas. “Just focus on heavier cover during the middle of the day. That’s when most of my biggest bass hit.”
Speaking of heavy cover, there’s no better way to penetrate the densest stuff than with the flipping and pitching techniques, and there’s no greater authority than former Bassmaster Classic champion and Bassmaster Angler of the Year Denny Brauer.
Like Rojas, Brauer targets shade, but he adds an element that he believes can make all the difference in summer—current.
“When it’s hot, I like to fish the upper ends of reservoirs,” Brauer says. “I go up until I find some current. Also, a lot of creeks are spring-fed, and that water can be much cooler than the main lake.”
Brauer’s favorite shallow-water summertime pattern goes hand-in-glove with what Rojas likes to do. Brauer looks for cover that creates shade, and uses a hollow-bodied frog or soft plastic buzzbait as a search lure. They’re his tools to cover water. When he gets a bite or two, he grabs his flipping outfit and starts picking apart the cover.
His favorite bait for this pattern is a Strike King Rage Magnum Menace Grub (black blue flake) Texas-rigged on a straight-shank hook behind a Strike King Tour Grade Tungsten Weight (½ - to 1 ½-ounce, depending on the density of the cover). He fishes it on 20- to 25-pound Seaguar Tatsu Fluorocarbon line (or 50-pound Seaguar Smackdown Braid, if the cover is extremely heavy) loaded onto a Team Lew’s Hyper Mag Speed Spool SLP casting reel (7.5:1) that’s mated to a 7-foot 6-inch Lew’s heavy-action Speed Stick rod.
“If I can’t find current or cooler water by going to the upper end, I’ll focus on main-lake areas that can ‘breathe’—places that are open to some occasional wind or other current,” Brauer says. “And wherever you’re fishing, pay close attention to the angle of the sun and where there’s shade. A lot of anglers will get so used to putting their lures on one side of cover or the other that they lose sight of the shade and stop fishing where the fish are actually holding.”
“When the water’s hot, bass’ metabolism is high and a buzzbait makes ’em bite!” says former FLW and Bassmaster Angler of the Year Greg Hackney.Hackney will often start throwing a buzzbait early on a summer morning and still be throwing it when it’s time to put the boat back on the trailer. He likes that it draws strikes from quality bass and that he can cover a lot of water with it.
For his summertime shallow-water bassing, Hackney focuses on areas that hold bluegill—either spawning bluegill on nests or post-spawn fish that are often found around boat docks and riprap or in shallow cover near deep water. He believes that resident bass in such areas are bluegill eaters rather than shad chasers, and that they’re often bigger than the fish you find chasing open-water bait.
Hackney’s buzzbait of choice is the Strike King Hack Attack Select 3/8-ounce Buzzbait, which features a Strike King Gurgle Toad body instead of the traditional skirt. When asked why he prefers the toad body to a skirt, his answer is characteristically straightforward.
“I like it because they eat it!” he says. “Bass will often nip at the skirt, but they eat the frog.”
To make sure he connects with most of his strikes, Hackney always attaches a Mustad trailer hook to his buzzbaits, and he maintains that a faster retrieve usually gets a higher percentage of hook-ups.
“You have to get dialed in on what the fish want at any given time,” he says. “But if you’re fishing a buzzbait slowly, I think you give them too good a look at the lure, and they nip at it instead of trying to engulf it. I’d describe my go-to retrieve as medium-fast.”
Hackney fishes his signature buzzbait on 20-pound-test fluorocarbon line spooled on a Team Lew’s Custom Pro Speed Spool SLP casting reel (8.3:1) mated to a Lew’s Hack Attack rod.
What does Hackney do differently than other anglers when fishing a buzzbait in summer?
“I’m throwing it when most anglers are not—when they’ve talked themselves out of it. And if I have some success early, I’ll stick with it all day.”
BACK UP YOUR TOPWATERS
Bass might have big mouths, but it’s shocking how often they’ll miss a lure—especially a topwater bait. That’s why our summertime shallow-water experts always have back-up baits at the ready.
Greg Hackney has has a trio of lures he’ll use after a buzzbait has revealed a good fish’s whereabouts, but failed to connect.
He’ll give the buzzer a rest and come back with a 6-inch Strike King Rage Cut-R Worm, a Strike King Hack Attack Heavy Cover Spinnerbait or a Strike King Hack Attack Heavy Cover Swim Jig and trailer. In every case he matches the color of his backup lure to the color of his buzzbait.
Dean Rojas misses a lot fewer frog bites than the rest of us for one simple reason: He’s trained himself to wait a couple seconds after the strike before he sets the hook. This is usually all the time a bass needs to get the bait fully in its mouth so the hooks can do their job. It’s one instance where razor-sharp reflexes can lead to missed fish.
For the occasional fish that misses the frog, Rojas is ready with the second part of his one-two punch. He rigs a 4-inch Big Bite Baits Dean Rojas Fighting Frog Texas-style behind a 3/8-ounce tungsten slip sinker and flips, pitches or casts the bait to any bass that misses his frog. It usually draws a strike before it can fall to the bottom.