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How to Become a Big Bass Detective

Catching more and bigger fish often requires dissecting on-the-water evidence in real time.

How to Become a Big Bass Detective

Be a super sleuth. The best bass anglers are those who turn on-the-water clues into more fish in the boat. (Shutterstock image)

A few years ago, I was pre-fishing a couple of small lakes with my tournament partner in preparation for a local bass club event. Neither of us had ever fished either lake. There were no marinas on them to promote the fishing. The remote lakes had received little acclaim and were far from major highways. They had a combined total of about 3,000 surface acres, which is a substantial amount of water to thoroughly cover in 4 or 5 hours. My partner and I reasoned we needed to do some on-the-water investigation to locate prime bass spots.

The first lake had an irregular, grass-lined shore. It was connected to the second lake, which was deep, circular and lined with bulrushes. Upon close inspection, I noticed the height of the rushes varied at different points around the perimeter of the second lake. Motoring around with eyes on our sonar unit, we noticed a slightly deeper drop at the edge to the taller rushes. We then noticed fish moving about within those plant beds and bumping into the stalks. It seemed like an ideal place to start our practice session.

Largemouth Bass in Weeds
The growth and relative health of aquatic vegetation speaks volumes about the quality of the water it inhabits. (Photo by Scott Bernarde)

Two hours later, my partner and I had caught and released 10 fat, aggressive bass and shook off several more as we tried to avoid hooking the fish. On one cast I set the hook lightly and ended up battling an 8-pounder all the way to the boat.

As I was about to drop it back over the side and watch it swim off, something in its mouth caught my eye. A couple of tiny feelers from a crayfish projected out of its throat—interesting and revealing evidence. I didn't know if the crayfish was one of many forage species in its stomach or just the last morsel to become part of its meal plan. I released the fish hoping it would be just as hungry a week later.


After a few more casts, my partner and I each caught another fat bass. With their bulging bellies, it was easy to see that these 12-inch-long largemouths were stuffed, yet they continued to strike our lures. When a fat 2-pounder came up bleeding from a deep hookset, I asked my partner if he would like it to eat. I suggested we fillet it at the ramp and check out its stomach contents. When we examined its bloated stomach, we found 18 tiny, light-brown crayfish. The bass’ preference for the inch-and-a-half crawdads was irrefutable. Needless to say, we stocked up on replica lures, and the following weekend we won the tournament with a big limit.


VEGETATION COMPARISONS

When scouting for bass, the astute angler makes observations, and one of the most important things to investigate is habitat. On our tourney lakes, we found most shallow to mid-depth areas had adjacent stands of trees and vegetation communities.

It is always wise to compare the height and color of the same type of tree on different shorelines or on the same flat. Taller and/or darker green trees (those getting adequate sunlight) usually suggest a more fertile area and abundant bass. Many anglers in that tournament fished the shorter rushes and failed to locate many bass.

My partner and I confirmed that the taller plants held the most and biggest fish. Those rushes were growing in more fertile soil, which attracted the entire food chain, from algae and minnows to crayfish and sportfish.

While one of the keys to success is noticing the height of the vegetation relative to other similar communities on the same body of water, color is also a factor. If a group of plants is dark green, that generally indicates the plants are growing in soil that offers a good amount of nutrients. Lighter green vegetation is often in need of more nutrients.




On some lakes the color variation really stands out. Dense, dark-green plants may grow on one side of a lake in an area that often receives heavy runoff through a watershed with abundant fertilizer. Plants on the other side of the lake in a rocky area with low nutrients may be light green and sparse. One lake near my house offers such a significant difference. The bass are always more abundant in the areas with a high nutrient base and dark-green plants.

WATER QUALITY AND BOTTOM COMPOSITION

Some plants do well in soil that is a mixture of clay, sand, peat and dirt. It may be fertile soil; however, the depth, geologic composition and surrounding emergent cover and trees may enhance or limit the productivity of such waters. The muddier the water column, the less inviting it may be for bass. Water with high quantities of suspended particles and reduced visibility generally offers less productive fishing than tannin-stained waters. Often, the muddy bottom in swampy areas produces a weed bloom that can "suck" the oxygen from the adjacent water.

Sandy soil is normally the best bottom composition for the most attractive bass habitat in lakes with adequate nutrients, as bass usually have a broader selection of forage and habitat. Any investigation of the water should identify water clarity, sediment (both on the bottom and in the water column) and the soil type.

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Bulrushes may prosper in the sandy soil on one side of the lake, while only undesirable aquatic weeds can be found along the opposite shoreline. For example, bulrushes usually grow in deeper, sand-based waters and attract more bass than cattails growing in shallow, muddy areas. Sediment in the water column is usually minimal and the water clarity is typically optimal around plant communities growing on a clean sand or marl bottom.

WIND, CURRENT, DEPTH

Your on-the-water analysis should also identify predominant winds, any subsequent current movement caused by those winds or by an inflow of a tributary and other environmental factors.

Waters with muddy soil, while potentially high in nutrients, may be easily affected by a strong wind with no nearby natural wind block. Predominant winds also often push the algae that forage fish—such as shad and shiners—feed on to the windward side of the lake. As the plankton becomes denser, schools of forage grow larger and the bass move into that specific area more frequently to feed.

Most anglers realize that high banks usually indicate relatively deeper water and flat banks with minimal gradient denote adjacent shallow waters. Heavy aquatic vegetation growth that ends abruptly may mean a quick drop in depth—and a very productive edge to locate active bass. A less dense plant community that gradually "sinks" below the surface could denote a minimally tapered, shallow bank having less attraction to feeding bass. Next time out, pay attention to the clues and analyze them. It just might help you catch more and bigger bass.

KEY HABITAT CLUES

Pay close attention to trees and topography to find more fish.

Trees offer a tremendous amount of information to the alert angler. The species, height and location where they are growing offer clues to their surroundings. Here are some things to look for next time you’re on the water.

  • 1. Cypress trees tend to grow in low, predominantly wet areas. Low areas are typically shallow with slowly tapering bottoms.
  • 2. Pine tree-lined banks are usually on higher ground, denoting deeper channels adjacent to their root system. Low, marshy areas seldom sustain large trees or provide quick drop-offs.
  • 3. Large trees (like oaks) growing along a bank are usually a good indication of stable water conditions. Firmer bottoms and sharper drops can be expected.
  • 4. Swampy shorelines have water levels that often fluctuate and do not allow most types of large trees to thrive. Sparse brush or small trees in such areas rarely hold as many bass as denser stands of trees will.
  • 5. The tops of trees along the shoreline with broken limbs may reveal submerged brush below that is not visible to the casual observer. Look for "notched" banks (where a tree's roots once were) along moving waters. This most likely indicates the presence of a submerged "laydown" due to erosion or storms.

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