June 30, 2016
By Patrick Meitin
Sometimes if you want to catch the biggest summertime bass you'll need to think deep.
As real summer progress and warm-water temperatures escalate from the near "ideals" of springtime conditions (upper 50s to lower 60s) things often change in a hurry on the bass-fishing front. This often leaves beginning bass fishermen scratching their heads, wondering where all the big fish have disappeared to.
When summer bass fishing is on the agenda, start shallow early then progressively move deeper.
Whether targeting large- or smallmouth bass your tactics must suddenly change if you're to consistently stay in the kind of action making spring so productive, especially where trophy are concerned.
I might even contend that spring angling isn't really so much better than summer -- the spring spawn set well aside -- it's just bass are more readily available during cooler months. Bass hang out in shallower water that's so much more easily deciphered and worked.
Long days under a hot sun soon raise surface temperatures, sometimes into the mid 80's, shutting down topwater action on all but the coolest early mornings. Shallow coves and flats so productive just a month ago suddenly empty of life as bass seek shelter in deeper waters. If you want to catch trophy bass, you need to follow suit.
Summer bass fishing is where all that expensive bass-fishing gear begins to pay off -- the fish-finding electronics most of us own but seldom put to the real test and those ultra-sensitive bass rods costing triple-digit dollars. This is the season that really separates the hotshots from the wannabes. Takes can be subtle even from the biggest fish; all that extra line out placing a premium on concentration, feel and lightning reflexes.
"We caught a hundred bass today," says the puzzled angler, "but not one weighing more than a pound." How many times have you heard this said, or even uttered such yourself?
Catching lots of dinks in waters normally holding decent fish is one of the first signals that you should abandon springtime techniques and adopt summer ploys. I was hit between the eyes with this one on a world-class smallmouth lake I fish regularly, via a guy who regularly catches some of the biggest bass in that lake (including a past state record). It proved yet another one of those "Why didn't I see this earlier?" moments.
Put simply, smaller bass have a higher tolerance for warmer waters than bigger bass, as their systems require less oxygen to function (quick biology lesson: cooler waters naturally hold more dissolved oxygen than warmer waters). Because of this, smaller bass automatically hang higher in the water column than trophies. Keep fishing like you have all spring and you're presenting lures and baits to nothing but those little guys. If you want to get down to the hawgs well below you must quickly bypass a gauntlet of hungry, shallow-water piddlers.
The easiest way to accomplish this is by providing higher and smaller fish with minimum opportunity to grab your bait or lure. I do this largely by fishing ridiculously-weighted plastic and jigs. I'll warn you right up front; when taking the deepwater plunge prepare to lose a lot of terminal tackle in the process. Adding enough weight to plunge quickly past dinkers will ultimately drive cheapskates and fumble-fingered anglers to distraction.
In the beginning, before you develop a better feel for the process and what your bait is doing down there, you're going to hang up regularly. You'll lose a lot of tackle; sometimes several casts in a row. You'll be re-rigging often, each time tying three knots, minimum.
Simple jigs offer the fastest rigging option, the style really dependent on structure type and budget. On gravelly, sandy or muddy bottoms where logs, stumps or flooded timber structure provides the most likely holding spots, I like Road Runner spinner-bladed, Northland Thumper or Spider Slider-style jigs (just as examples), as they provide more fish attraction when snagging isn't as likely.
When summer bass fishing, the most serious problems arrive with waters composed largely of rock bottoms, where even fancy jigs like Northland's Rock-It Jig and wire or "paintbrush"-equipped weedless jigs; while less prone to snagging in general, still have a proclivity for wedging between rocks and in boulder cracks.
This is especially true when bottom-bouncing with 3/8- to 1/2-ounce weights preferred for the fastest plunge rates. Under worst-case scenarios (lots of broken rock with endless V-wedging points), I simply opt for the cheapest bulk leadhead jigs I can find (or make my own from discarded wheel weights). I adorn them with 4- to 7-inch curly-tail grubs, rubber "creatures" with lots of skirts and wiggly legs, or crayfish imitations.
Another savvy approach to the heavy-tackle dilemma is a bottom-bouncing rig, a technique borrowed from salmon and steelhead fishermen. The basic setup includes a three-way swivel tied to the main line, a Texas-rigged plastic riding on a foot and a half of, say, 8- to 12-pound test, a 3/8- to 1/2-ounce weight riding on 4 feet of lighter line (4- or 6-pound test).
This not only allows the plastic to bounce near the bottom actively and seductively but, should your weight wedge in a rocky crack, it's easily broken away with minimal tackle loss. Building "slinky" weights (three to six lead shot or steel bearings pushed into a length of hollow parachute cord, heat-sealed at the ends, a line-eye poked through with a hot finish nail), also reduces hang-ups, the slick line slipping more readily through cracks and crevasses.
The basis of the fast-plunging ploys discussed above are viable in a wide variety of bass waters, from steeply-sloped stump fields, to submerged mid-lake humps and "islands" in bigger reservoirs and lakes, to plunging cliff faces and flooded river channels. But it's especially deadly on sudden drop-offs and ledges, which you want to be fishing when summer bass fishing.
This type of structure is most common on man-made reservoirs created by flooding steep-walled river valleys or canyons where it's common to encounter points and even cliff edges where holding your boat a comfortable cast from shore means sitting atop 50 to 90 feet of water.
I love these setups for big fish. The astute angler can often determine a preferred holding depth for a particular day or week by working heavily-weighted baits or deep-diving plugs down these faces and noting at what depth (or distance from shore) big fish are picked up. The idea's to stairstep/bounce baits along faces or descending ledges of such structure, tempting bass hanging beneath submerged overhangs, stumps, rockpiles and such.
Jig and bottom-bouncing plastics is a safe approach here, to be sure, but I've also had good luck using floating/diving plugs led by a sliding sinker stopped by a swivel above the plug. I add a 3/8- to 1/2-ounce slider, black swivel, 1-2 feet of fluorocarbon leader and then a plug imitating something common to the water in question; shad, baitfish, yellow perch, baby trout or bass, crayfish, etc.
I use the actual weight to feel my way along the ledge face, the plug floating free of most snags as it wiggles ever deeper. It becomes more of a jigging approach than straight chucking and reeling. Larger spinnerbaits can also prove effective using this "jigging" technique. With experience you'll learn to better "feel" your way down these steep faces without losing too much tackle.
As general water temperatures rise, smart bass anglers seek flooded river channels, especially on older lakes and ponds with generally shallower, less-cluttered bottoms. Just like air, cooler water sinks and warmer raises.
During the hottest months of summer old river or creek channels represent the coolest ribbons of water available. In some cases, they might even experience some small amount of water flow-through, which also increases oxygen content eroded by raising temperatures.
Depth-finding electronics or spot-on U.S. Geological Survey maps -- or a combination of both -- are great ways to discover these treasure troves of summertime bass. Look for bends, ledges and flooded-timber benches bass naturally gravitate to for ambush cover and security.
Live bait fishing seems to have lost its shine for modern bass fishermen, but should not be overlooked when summer bass fishing.
Since some of these spots can get into the 50- to 75-foot realm -- deeper than most of us are used to fishing bass -- vertical jigging or live-bait "balloon lining" are often easy answers. If you've been plunging for bigger bass you're already ahead of the game. Using electronics to locate concentrations of fish and sending baits straight down and into bass lairs can be very effective.
Live bait fishing seems to have lost its shine for modern bass fishermen. Admittedly, bait shops, casting nets or traps, bait tanks and impaling wiggling creatures might seem a bit old fashioned but it's still deadly effective.
Balloon-lining adds a twist to a pretty straightforward ploy. Start with a hook (preferably barbless) at the business end, a couple feet of leader, swivel stop and sliding barrel weight. I hook baitfish and waterdogs through the lips, crayfish through the back of the hard shell.
The balloon comes in after sending your bait down to the proper depth (determined with fishfinder), counting strips (reel to first guide loop, normally about 2 feet) or using a line-counter. Deepwater bass are typically looking up, so try to hang bait a foot or two above obvious structure.
After setting bait, quickly inflate and tie off a fist-sized toy balloon, tying it to the line with an overhand knot to act as a "strike indicator." This allows bait to swim away to where fish below are less likely to be disturbed by the boat's presence, and allows you to see the most subtle takes. The bass will come up for the bait as surely as a baby will reach out to grab a piece of candy.
After the fish is hooked, the baloon slides before the tip-top or bursts to come easily through the guides.
In other areas, cool-water pockets are found by locating spring holes. These are especially common in man-made reservoirs where topography was buried beneath raising waters, or lakes and larger ponds laying beneath mountain or rim country.
Precipitation collected on higher ground percolates through cooling earth and emerges from rocky structure or creekbeds far below.
Summer bass fishing means finding shade and the coolest spots on any given body of water.
These cool spots are sometimes located via topographical maps, but just as often require more snooping. Start by studying terrain and how it might affect natural water flow, and then send an actual stream thermometer (available where fly-fishing gear is sold) down on a fishing line in trail-and-error fashion seeking cool spots. Spring holes most often appear on wide, sloping lake floors with lots of rock structure, or feeder creekbeds or valleys.
You may find that you've already discovered a spring hole and didn't even know it — those spots that are consistently and inexplicably good for a handful of fish for no apparent reason. These isolated cool spots can concentrate fish like crazy during warm summer months.
Admittedly, fishing down deep isn't exactly what fishing's about for most bass heads. There's just something indescribably awesome about witnessing an aggressive spring bass explode on a topwater bait. Sight-fishing to shallow-water spring bass might be considered the epitome of the sport.
But when temperatures begin to swelter and bass seek shadowy depths, going deep is where it's at -- if you really want to continue catching bass. Which most of us do -- even if it ain't as pretty as springtime action.