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Largemouth Bass

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Double-digit largemouth bass
Mr. McClean caught this beautiful 10 pound largemouth on a drop-shotted soft plastic- from shore!

Like virtually all fish, the seasons have a dramatic effect on how largemouth bass behave and where they live. In addition, there are differences between bass behavior in colder northern lakes and warmer southern lakes. Water clarity also makes a big difference. It is important to remember that bass do not like to migrate very far, so as water levels rise or drop and seasons change, bass will move to the nearest available good quality cover or structure under the circumstances. It is also important to remember that when bass hide in weeds, they are more likely to be found near the edge that faces open water where baitfish schools pass by. Finally, it is important to remember that bass are unpredictable wild animals, so an angler should be familiar with a variety of equipment and techniques, and always be ready to try something different until the fish start biting.

PRE-SPAWN (Early Spring)- Many people consider the pre-spawn period the absolute best time to fish for largemouth bass. There are even people who will only fish for bass at this time of year. After a winter of holding in deep water with a slow metabolism, bass get hungry as the water warms. Their metabolisms are faster now and they need to feed heavily to prepare for spawning. Food is more plentiful and both the prey and the bass are much more active. The bass start to move toward shallow-water spawning areas. The part of the lake with the most daylight exposure (often the Northeast corner) is usually the first place for both the water and the fishing action to heat up. Bass will be easiest to find in the warmest water with good cover nearby. Good cover includes stumps, logs, brush and the few weed patches that are starting to re-grow, especially if they are near good spawning areas. Often the water is more comfortable for the bass in the shallows near the surface and when that is true, some bass will be found suspending there. The lakes that receive trout plants at this time of year will see big bass heavily feeding on the stocked trout, especially on trout that have been injured, stunned or badly disoriented during the stocking process. This is a good time to try trout-like plugs or soft baits, fished erratically. Pro angler Bill Siemental even catches bass by letting a Castaic Soft Bait Trout float motionless on the surface. Anglers who aren't fishing tout-stocked waters may want to use small lures in the spring, since most of the baitfish are freshly spawned.

SPAWN (Mid- to Late Spring)- Bass move into shallow water to make their beds. They're looking for areas that have a dirt bottom where they can fan their tails to make spawning beds. The best spawning beds are in areas that receive a lot of warming sun to incubate the eggs, but are sheltered from rough water. Many anglers focus exclusively on coves at this time of year, but they may be ignoring other geography or structure that creates a break from wind or waves. Grass pockets, flats made of gravel and clay, and coves that form deep "V's" but have lots of shallow water are some of the prime spawning areas, if they receive enough light to warm the water. The big female bass are on the beds only until they spawn. Smaller male bass build the nest and protect it before, during and after the spawn until the fry have hatched and are ready to venture out on their own. Both the males and the females are very territorial while on the nest, attacking anything that is seen as a threat to the eggs or the fry. This makes for an extremely narrow strike zone, as the bass will not wander from the nest to attack food, they will only attack to defend the nest. However, if a lure passes over the nest, bass will often chase it long distances. Some anglers do terrible damage to bass populations by dragging lures through the nest and across the eggs at this time of year. It is important to keep the bait above the bottom, by retrieving at the right speed to keep the lure off the bottom, using a suspending lure or by suspending a jig or other lure below a float or floating lure to fish the spawn, so that the nests are not disturbed. This is also the most important time of year to practice catch-and-release, making sure the bass are released at or very near their nests so they can return to protecting their eggs and/or fry from predators like bluegill and crayfish.

POST-SPAWN (Late Spring to Early Summer)- After the spawn, bass are hungry again. The spawning/bedding instinct is over and the bass return to schooling behavior for summer feeding patterns. These schools often suspend in 15 to 20 feet of water, but many bass continue relating to structure such as coves, points, drop-offs or creek mouths. For some reason, bass can be surprisingly picky when the post-spawn period is just beginning. Anglers trying to "match the hatch" should remember that most baitfish are only small to medium size at this time of year. However, power techniques using big, fast baits may get a reaction bite from bass that aren't cooperating.

SUMMER- With the water at its warmest, the largemouth bass's metabolism has reached its peak and they are often very hungry. The best fishing will be in areas where the most food is available, especially if there is good cover nearby for bass schools to ambush their prey. At this time of year on many lakes, the main bass food is shad or other minnows (now medium-sized), especially since most lakes don't receive summer trout plants. The water is often too warm for bass to hold there all day, so they often hold in cooler water (deeper water, shaded water or water near a feeder creek), then move up slopes or ledges or out into the sunlight to feed. It's a good time to focus on areas that have a lot of structure just outside bays and coves. Look for areas where bass can move out of cooler water, especially water that has shadows, into warm water to ambush baitfish schools. If the bass don't seem to be feeding on baitfish, don't forget to try other forage patterns, like crawdads or waterdogs near rocky structure, especially in or near cooler or shaded water where bass can hold.

FALL- As the days grow shorter, the water gets cooler. Even though this slows down the largemouth's metabolism, the fish still need to feed heavily to fatten up for the winter. The baitfish have reached their largest size of the year, but the summer feeding has dramatically cut down their numbers. This is a good time to use larger lures or baits. Bass are also forced out of some of their holding spots, because the weeds are beginning to die off, so they can be concentrated in or around the remaining weeds, where more food is available. As in the summer, bass often like to suspend along steep slopes where they can quickly move to shallow water to feed. Many bass focus more on crayfish, because baitfish are harder to find. These bass will be found on or near rock piles, where crayfish hide. Many western lakes begin receiving trout plants again at this time of year, which creates an ideal opportunity for big bass to bulk up for the winter.

During the fall in colder areas, such as the north, a phenomenon known as the "turnover" occurs. Colder weather cools the surface water until it is colder than the deep water. Since colder water is heavier than warmer water, this causes a mixing that eliminates the layers of colder and warmer water throughout the lake. Decaying leaves and other debris from the lake bottom gets stirred up throughout the lake, causing it to be very murky. This temporarily disorients fish and makes fishing more difficult. Many anglers make the mistake of abandoning fishing for the rest of the season when the turnover occurs. The disorientation, which only lasts a few days, only causes bass to stay put in their favorite hiding places. Bass still need to bulk up for the winter and the fishing pressure and boating activity is almost zero. An angler who is willing to work hard to figure out a pattern, usually by fishing finesse lures very slowly or heavy "power" lures (big jigs, crankbaits or spinnerbaits) very fast, may experience some of the best uninterrupted fishing of the year.

WINTER- In warmer climates, such as the southern United States, bass can become very sluggish in the winter. They still feed and may remain in fall holding patterns or hole up in deep water, but their metabolisms are slow and they don't get hungry very often. The surprise is that in colder climates, like the northern United States, both bass and baitfish seem to get used to the colder water temperatures and stay more active through most of the winter. The bass usually hold near deep structure, suspend at whatever level the water feels comfortable to them, or school up near ledges or drop-offs. Vertical structure, such as dam walls, bridge pilings, drop-offs, boulders and trees, may be more important than at any other time of year. Tree stumps and the few remaining weed line edges can also be important holding areas. When the sun, rain or warm fronts warm the shallows, baitfish will often move into shallow water and a diligent angler may find bass cruising those warm, shallow areas, feeding fairly actively. In deep western reservoirs, many anglers switch exclusively to live crayfish or crayfish imitations, fished very slowly, for the winter, except during trout plants.

WATER CLARITY- Water can become clear or murky at any time of year, due to changes in wind, current, suspended mud or debris, or other environmental factors. Unlike smallmouth bass, largemouths prefer murky water. They'll feed more actively and farther from cover, using their strong sense of smell and their ability to sense movement and vibration with their lateral lines. This makes chemical bass attractants; lures that vibrate, rattle or spin; and lures that push a lot of water more important. (See the Equipment Tips page for a homemade bass and trout attractant recipe).

In clear water, largemouths are more wary because they feel exposed to predators, including humans. They can get a better look at lures and fishing lines. They also hold tighter to structure, where natural bait is more likely to be found. Many anglers feel that it is very important to match the size and natural color of the available food sources and use finesse-type presentations in clear water. However, there is a growing school of anglers who switch to "power" presentations with big lures that are retrieved very fast to get a reaction from bass in clear water.

EQUIPMENT, LURES and TECHNIQUES- Largemouths can be caught on baitcasting gear, spinning gear and fly fishing gear, using live bait, any of an enormous variety of lures, and a surprisingly large variety of flies.

LIVE BAIT- Bass will eat almost anything, including small bass. Those large, vacuum-like mouths were designed to allow them to slurp up prey from small insects to 12-inch rainbow trout. Trout are not legal for live bait in most states. But many states allow the use of shad, mudsuckers, minnows, crawdads, waterdogs (larval tiger salamanders), frogs, worms, and insects like grasshoppers. A smaller group of states has also allowed the use of small bluegill or perch. These baits can be rigged and presented in almost any manner imaginable, from fly-lined (a hook with no weight) to more complex three-way swivel rigs with special weights. The most popular way to rig crawdads and waterdogs is with a sliding weight above a swivel, with a leader attached to the hook. A crawdad would then be hooked through the tail and worked slowly but continuously along the bottom so it can't wedge itself into a hiding spot, but looks natural. A water dog would normally be hooked through the lower jaw and out near the nostrils. Live worms are often also rigged with a weight, swivel and leader, though many are hooked and presented like a soft-plastic worm, which is addressed below. One trick for live worms is to purchase a worm blower (a tiny plastic bottle with a hollow needle on top) to inflate the worms so they float just above the bottom.

SOFT PLASTICS- Soft plastics are reputed to be the most effective largemouth lures. They come in an astounding variety of shapes, sizes and colors with or without built-in scents. There are soft plastics that imitate worms, bugs, baitfish, crayfish, waterdogs, and rainbow trout to name a few. There are also new "freak baits" that don't imitate anything in particular, but they have wings, legs, feelers and other appendages that make them look alive and give them unusual action. Soft plastics can be rigged on an unweighted hook, directly on a jighead, finesse rigged, Texas rigged, Carolina rigged, drop-shotted or wacky rigged. For a finesse rig, one or more small split shot are attached to the line, usually at least a foot or two ahead of the hook, and the soft plastics used are usually small and have little or no action on their own. A Texas rig consists of a sliding sinker, usually bullet-shaped, that slides freely or is pegged just above the hook, which has the point buried in the body for a weedless effect. A Carolina rig uses a sliding sinker, usually followed by a bead to the protect the knot, then a swivel, two to six feet of leader, and a hook buried in a soft plastic worm, lizard, tube jig body, grub or other soft-plastic bait. Drop-shotting is a new technique that is gaining popularity. One to three hooks (depending on preferences and regulations) are tied directly to the line using Palomar knots, with extra line hanging down and tied to a weight. Weights used on drop-shot rigs include split shot, pegged sliding sinkers, and casting sinkers (also called bell sinkers or bass sinkers). A drop-shot rig is usually fished slowly with the line vertical or near vertical with occasional pauses and twitches. It allows constant contact with the bottom but keeps the bait off the bottom in the strike zone. When split shot or pegged sinkers are used, they just slip off the line if they hang up so the rest of the rig is usually not lost. Wacky-rigged worms are also gaining popularity either unweighted or as part of a drop-shot rig. Wacky rig means that the worm is hooked through the middle, with both ends dangling on opposite sides. A wacky worm falls slowly in the water column with little or no action. Then a small twitch makes both ends swing toward each other, like a drowning worm. The wacky method is particularly effective near submerged structure.

HARD PLASTICS- Hard plastic baits include topwater lures, crank baits, jerk baits, and lipless crank baits.

Topwater lures draw dramatic strikes, especially in the warmer months. This includes poppers and dog-walking baits like Zara Spooks and the Spit 'N' Image. Try working these baits fast, because they are generally intended for active bass. However, a slower retrieve also often works. Some pros like to work Zara Spooks and similar baits very slowly, pausing for long periods, then giving a slight twitch like a dying baitfish. There are other topwater lures designed for use in heavy weeds or lily pads, which are usually shaped like frogs or mice. Anglers who have had problems with their line tangling on the hooks of their topwater baits should try treating their line with fly floatant or candle wax for a few feet ahead of the lure. The line will then float in front of the lure and tangles will be virtually eliminated. The candle is cheaper, but it can melt easily in the sun, making a mess in your boat, tackle box or vest.

Crankbaits have become very specialized. They are available in sizes from about an inch to 15-inch trout imitating crankbaits. Many are rated to dive to specific depths. Some float, some sink and some suspend. Some have special lips and wings to help prevent snagging in timber. There are also lipless crankbaits that have more realistic baitfish profiles. Crankbaits get their action from a simple crank of the reel handle. As the reel pulls them in, they wobble back and forth. However, stop-and-start retrieves and varying the speed can also be keys to getting bites. For the best action, the line should be tied right to the crankbait's eye or split ring, not attached using a swivel or snap. Sometimes crankbaits need to be tuned by carefully bending the eye toward one side or the other until they run straight.

Jerkbaits are long and slender. They are usually fished using a jerk-reel-jerk-reel retrieve. Jerkbaits usually have a small lip that causes them to twitch and/or make short dives. The original jerkbaits were made of wood and floated. Now they are also available in suspending models. Floating models can often be used quite effectively as surface lures instead of a Zara Spook or popper. Soft-plastic jerk baits achieve a similar action to hard-plastic jerk baits, even though they don't usually have lips.

SPINNERBAITS AND BUZZBAITS- Spinnerbaits have a jig-like head with a skirt or soft plastic body and an arm that reaches up and then back with one or more spinner blade. There are Colorado blades (shaped like rounded eggs), Indiana blades (shaped like long eggs), and Willow leaf blades (shaped like a willow leaf or a very narrow football). By using different sizes and shapes of blades, a spinnerbait can be tuned to run very shallow or very deep. Many anglers only use spinnerbaits in shallow to mid-depth water, but more and more anglers are learning to "slow roll" spinnerbaits so they bump along the bottom.

There are also in-line spinnerbaits, like Mepps or Roostertails, that have a spinner blade attached to the front of a weighted body, with a hook (often skirted with rubber or feathers) at the back end. Traditionally considered a trout lure, larger models of in-line spinnerbaits are gaining popularity with bass anglers. These are primarily fished within a few feet below the surface when bass are chasing baitfish near the surface with either a steady retrieve or an occasional pause. However, some creative angler is sure to think of additional ways to effectively fish in-line spinnerbaits.

Buzzbaits are a lot like spinnerbaits, but they have enormous, almost prop-like blades that make a lot of splashing and noise at the water's surface. The noise often aggravates bass into striking. Buzzbaits are usually retrieved steadily right at the surface.

JIGS AND SPOONS- Jigs are hooks with a built-in weight. Soft plastic or pork trailers can be added. Some jigs come with skirts made of rubber, silicone, animal hair or feathers. Jigs come in many shapes and sizes and weedless or non-weedless models. Round jigheads run straight, wedged or cone-shaped jigheads dart erratically, vertically compressed jigheads (taller than they are wide) fall fast to run deep or be cranked at extremely fast speeds, horizontally compressed jigheads (wider than they are tall) fall slowly and/or wobble, football jigs (built like a sideways football) are good for dragging along the bottom without snagging in rocks, and jigheads with a downward sweeping lip will wobble and dig into the bottom like a deep-running crankbait. There are probably more different configurations possible with jigs than any other lure and certainly too many to list here. The real advantage with a jig is they are usually much cheaper than other lures, so anglers dont worry as much about losing one in a hard-to reach spot in thick cover. Many jig fishermen paint their own jigheads and add their own skirts, bucktail, marabou or other feathers, soft plastic trailers or pork trailers. One method that is gaining popularity in Western reservoirs is to use a football jig with a crayfish-shaped soft bait, which is dragged along the bottom, climbed up the sides of rocks and wiggled. In winter periods, many anglers like to downsize their baits and work them slowly, because the fish are less active. Some people like to use vertical jigs or spoons in the winter or whenever bass are inactive, like ice jigs, Hopkins spoons, or Kastmasters, which imitate the frantic vertical zips of feeding shad. (Since spoons are swum or deep-jigged in many of the same situations as jigs, and trailers are sometimes added to them, they are included in this category). Vertical jigs and jigging spoons are also useful anytime bass are schooling deep or relating to deep structure. Consider inserting a Hopkins spoon into a tube bait for a very versatile lure that can be deep-jigged or cast and retrieved.

FLIES- Flies traditionally used for largemouth bass include poppers, hair divers, leeches, hair mice, frog patterns, crawdad patterns, worm imitations and a wide variety of streamers. However, they will also hit damselfly and dragonfly imitations, large terrestrial patterns like grasshoppers and crickets, and baby bird patterns fished near overhanging or partially submerged trees. The real surprise is that bass will occasionally hit smaller fly, nymph and attractor patterns usually used for trout. New fly patterns for bass are being developed due to the increasing interest in fly-fishing for this species. There are even fly-fishing jerkbaits now, made of woven tubing or other materials, often with a clear plastic circle just ahead of the bait to give it an extremely erratic action. Non-fly anglers may want to try out the clear plastic circle trick with soft jerk baits.
SHORE FISHING: Many of the techniques listed on this page can be used from shore. There are a few exceptions where the technique requires the line to hang straight down, such as wacky rigging worms and drop shotting, but these techniques sometimes work from a dock or pier. The trick for using cast-and-retrieve techniques from shore is to move around a lot. Make fan casts from each spot you try (in other words, try casting at several different angles, from close to shore to straight out and over to the other side). Focus on structure, such as points, bends, drop-offs, weed edges, submerged bushes, boulders, logs, docks, bridges, piers, etc.

The more an angler knows and the wider variety of techniques an angler has mastered to fall back on, the more largemouth bass the angler will catch. Go get 'em. But please check out the scientific information and visit the sponsors below.

Largemouth Bass (micropterus salmoides) are the largest members of the Black Bass subdivision of the Sunfish Family (Centrarchidae). They will eat their little cousins, especially small bluegill. Like all sunfish, the male builds the nest and guards the eggs until they hatch. Largemouths generally have a more greenish coloration than the bronze-colored smallmouth bass, but the main distinction is the fact that the corner of the largemouth's jaw extends past its eye when the mouth is closed. The smallmouth's jaw does not extend past its eye.

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