July 01, 2021
The bite from the 3-pound smallmouth bass was barely detectable, merely a stopping of the slow crawl I was imparting to the finesse-sized tube jig. The day would produce a couple dozen nice bass, both smallmouths and largemouths, and they all required the same painstakingly slow, bottom-scraping retrieve to get them to commit.
A week later, fishing the same clearwater reservoir, largemouth and smallmouth bass were crushing a hard-bodied suspending jerkbait twitched aggressively over the tops of emerging weed beds. Another memorable day, but one that required a totally different approach.
Sometimes bass are in a chasing mood, sometimes they are not. The circumstances that determine whether they are change not only on a daily basis but sometimes hourly. This is particularly evident during the early part of summer, when bass are transitioning from the recent spawning period and moving toward habitat that suits their current needs. Naturally, environmental conditions factor in, with bass tending to be more aggressive during stable weather and not so much following a significant cold front. Also, bass behavior in a natural lake can differ from that in a reservoir or river.
We all have our favorite ways of catching bass, ones based largely on what’s produced for us in the past. But it pays to go into each day with an open mind, letting the fish tell us what they want, rather than stubbornly sticking to a preferred approach when it’s not working.
With this in mind, let’s look at some tactics that work for when bass are up and at ’em or down in the dumps.
Since one must first find fish to catch fish, from an efficiency standpoint it’s a sound strategy to begin your day with faster presentations that rapidly cover the water—taking the bass’s pulse, you might say. This includes the use of jerkbaits, crankbaits, swimbaits and topwaters.
During the early part of the summer, when bass are likely shifting from spawning habitat to summer haunts, you’re more likely to experience the “here today, gone tomorrow” phenomenon. By mid-summer, bass will likely be set up in general areas where they will remain until fall approaches, comparatively reducing the search component a bit.
Both suspending hard jerkbaits and soft jerkbaits share the ability to not only cover water quickly but to inspire strikes from bass, the latter a result of the tantalizing stop-and-go way they are worked.
Consider a shallow, sand/gravel flat that extends from the shoreline out to the inside edge of a weedbed in 6 feet of water—a common scenario on natural lakes and clearwater reservoirs with stable levels. By holding the boat a cast’s distance from shore, you can work a jerkbait from the bank to the boat, combing the gravel flat for post-spawn bass still milling around the area. Also, by firing casts out from the boat you can work the zone between the tops of the weeds and the surface, covering another potential feeding area and a likely one when bass are feeding on weed-related forage like small sunfish.
It’s wise to employ both hard and soft jerkbaits, as each has unique attributes. The tailhook of a hard jerkbait tends to hook "nippers" that would be missed on a soft jerkbait. Also, hard baits suspend at a given level. Conversely, soft jerkbaits sink slowly, the rate determined by the size of the hook and any additional weight (such as with a keel-weighed swimbait hook). Therefore, one can present not only a horizontal look with a soft jerkbait by casting and retrieving it, but a vertical one as well. Soft jerkbaits also function better around emerging weeds.
It’s worth noting that a prop-style (e.g., Heddon Torpedo) or tail-rotating (e.g., Whopper Plopper) surface lure is another excellent option when working such extensive flats where fish can be scattered. And while they don’t cover the water as fast, popper-style topwaters like Rapala’s X-Rap Pop can elicit strikes from bass that ignore other options, an especially deadly tactic to use on post-spawn bass holding close to the bank.
Crankbaits are another great search bait option for bass, particularly on reservoirs featuring lots of shoreline wood cover like laydowns and stumps. It’s a scenario in which bass fishing enthusiast Roger Ramer relies heavily on square-bill cranks. Ramer, who chronicles many of his adventures on his YouTube channel “RGRTV,” fishes square-bills like Strike King’s KVD 1.5 from early to mid-summer.
Rather than shying away from the cover, Ramer fishes the squarebill over and through the woody stuff, trusting the cover-deflecting quality of the lure’s diving bill to minimize hang-ups. To efficiently cover the water, he holds his boat close to the bank and makes long casts parallel to shore, keeping the bait in the strike zone. Ramer recommends switching out the stock hooks with short-shank Gamakatsu Magic Eye treble hooks that further aid in working wood cover.
Soft swimbaits come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. For both lake and river fishing, I prefer ones in the 3 1/2- to
4 1/2-inch range, with ribbed bodies that give way to a boot tail.
A common situation for a soft swimbait is on a free-flowing river, where it can be worked through the base of a heavy riffle where bass, smallmouths most commonly, often hold to feed on baitfish. Swimbaits of this style can also be worked along the bottom for less aggressive bass, leading us to our next set of tactics.
In a perfect world, bass would always be active, consistently chasing down moving baits. But in the real world, anglers must often deal with less aggressive bass that have been put off by fishing pressure, unstable weather and, in some cases, excessive natural food supplies.
Bottom-oriented baits, or ones with laboriously slow sink rates, are often needed to trigger bass unwilling to respond to a faster horizontal presentation. This is a more common occurrence during the early summer when bass coming off the spawn are lethargic.
Finesse-size baits like small tube jigs, hair jigs and downsized skirted jig-and-craw combos often excel when fished proximate to known spawning areas. Bites tend to be subtle, like what you might experience during the late fall when water temperatures are on the cold side of 50. Targeting gravel-and-sand flats of reservoirs or lakes, I work finesse jigs with a slow action that falls between a straight drag and a 9 o’clock-to-11 o’clock jigging retrieve. You can’t cover the water quickly, but on the plus side, a section of bank that is productive often remains so for two or three weeks. Last summer, which featured a late spring, I caught bass from one of my favorite lakes along select banks until mid-June. When that bite died, it was a signal to begin hunting for bass offshore.
The edges of weedbeds—especially the inside edges on clear bodies of water—are often the first spots to collect bass that are moving off the bank. As mentioned above, these areas can first be worked with moving baits like jerkbaits and topwaters. If those fail, bass can often be duped by working an unweighted, sinking Senko-style stickbait along the weed edge. When fished without any additional weight, these baits slowly filter down along the weed growth. It’s an admittedly slow, patience-challenging presentation, but one that can trigger bites when other options don’t. It’s common to fish sinking stickbaits wacky-style, but I fare well simply rigging them Texas-style with a wide-gap worm hook. If windy, it’s a simple matter of clipping off the hook and threading on a light bullet weight for added feel.
A word of caution regarding sinking stickbaits: Since they are fished slowly, with a minimal amount of angler contact, they tend to hook bass more deeply than most other presentations. Do your best to feel for the unnatural weight that often telegraphs a take. When a bass is deeply hooked, grabbing the hook with forceps through the gill opening or clamping onto it with squeeze handle-style hook removers often allows for safe unhooking with minimal damage to the fish.
Texas-rigged soft-plastic profiles that suggest a crayfish provide another versatile option that can be worked along the bottom in the manner of finesse jigs mentioned earlier. They can also be fished along both inside and outside weed edges. And they provide a good option for pitching into shoreline wood to trigger a bass that passed on a crankbait bounced over its head.
As with all seasons, summertime bass fishing includes its particular set of challenges. But if you approach things with an open mind and a willingness to try a wide variety of techniques, you’ll eventually figure out the bite on any given day.
FAVORITE SUMMER BAITS
Go-to performers for warm-weather bass
- Rapala X-Rap: This hard-bodied suspending jerkbait produces a slashing, erratic action when fished aggressively. I like to play keep-away, working the bait with hard, semi-slack line snaps followed by a strike-provoking pause of three or four seconds.
- Zoom Super Fluke: So universally popular that most anglers refer to all soft jerkbaits as “flukes” regardless of the maker, the true Fluke has a lot going for it. The 5-inch Super Fluke has a perfect sink rate when fished on a 3/0 or 4/0 hook, comes in a multitude of colors, is value priced (you can go through a lot of them in a day) and is widely available.
- Z-Man Swimmin’ Trout Trick: Though designed as a saltwater bait, I’ve found the Swimmin’ Trout Trick to be the ideal soft swimbait for summer bass. This 3 1/2-inch ribbed swimbait, in Bad Shad or Redbone, dupes both lake- and river-dwelling bass. I rig it on a 1/4-ounce mushroom-style jighead, holding it in place with a dab of super glue.
- Z-Man TRD TubeZ: Not to offend those loyal to the classic Ned Rig that features a 3-inch worm, my experience favors the TRD TubeZ in this application. This 2 3/4-inch finesse tube offers a hint of action while maintaining the miniscule profile that makes this presentation so effective on less-aggressive bass. Typically, I fish it on a 1/8- or 3/16-ounce mushroom-head jig.
- Yamamoto Senko: Perhaps not the most exciting way to fish, but “dead-sticking” a Senko can produce when other methods fail. The extra-soft body adds to its action, and bass chew it up—literally. To avoid going through a ton of these pricey baits, slip your hook under an o-ring or tiny zip-tie at the midpoint when fishing it wacky-style.
- Zoom Ultra Vibe Speed Craw: There are a lot of great crawfish-profile baits, but what I like best about this one is the design of the claws, which kick in the water like mini swimbaits. This 3 1/2-inch bait excels when rigged Texas-style with a 2/0 worm hook and a bullet sinker appropriate for the depth fished.