By Don Wirth
A rockpile surrounded by 60-foot water was home to this 6-pound smallmouth.
I didn't have the heart to tell him about the two dozen bass I'd caught and released that day, fish ranging from 2 to 7 pounds.
Why does one angler fail while another succeeds? It might be easy to blame lack of success on poor equipment, but today's excellent boats, motors, electronics, tackle and lures make bass fishing an equal-opportunity endeavor.
A Realtor once told me the three rules of selecting a new home: location, location, location. These same rules increasingly apply to bass fishing. Today's anglers are well-versed in the latest fish-catching methods. But old habits are hard to break, and in bassin', the oldest habit of all is pounding the bank. Target-casting to stumps, lilypads and logs lining the shoreline is, to many, irresistible. The bank is a powerful magnet -- it's easy to see, easy to follow, and gives up just enough fish to draw you back again and again and again.
The scene repeats itself every weekend. Count the trailers at the launch ramp, then count the boats ringing the shoreline -- no doubt, this is where 99 percent of the pressure is applied. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine that in a short time, most of the fish haunting the banks will be caught. Those left lurking in the shallows will be highly educated (believe it, bass do learn not to strike!), perhaps uncatchable by conventional methods. Bank-beaters who haul water blame it on the weather at first, but eventually quit coming back.
My advice to the bank fisherman is simple: do a 180. On most lakes, the best bass fishing will be found over your shoulder, on offshore structure.
In the '60s, angling theoretician Buck Perry and tournament pioneer Bill Dance proved that bass may not be attracted to the shoreline nearly as much as bass fishermen. Their astounding catches from offshore ledges, ditches, humps and roadbeds helped make the phrase, "structure fishing" part of the basser's lexicon. Upon reading about the exploits of Buck and Bill, nearly every serious bass angler in the country marched out and bought a flasher and a set of marker buoys, then dutifully set out to probe the wide-open spaces of their local lakes.
Most gave up quickly, finding the offshore world amorphous. Locating
Move way, way off deep points, where big bass suspend.
I've got a thing about knowing why bass behave the way they do. The bass is a living creature, not a picture in a magazine. It does what it does for survival, not because it's trendy. In my 25 years covering the bass fishing scene, I've worked with the best anglers and fisheries scientists in the nation. Here's what they say about why bass live offshore. Read and reread this information. Once you understand it, you'll gain new confidence in your offshore angling endeavors.
Baitfish movement -- The No. 1 reason why bass move offshore is to follow the forage. We've learned too well that bass love to hang around cover; what hasn't sunken in is that these same bass are opportunistic predators and will gravitate to where their chances of feeding success are greatest. In many lakes and reservoirs, pelagic baitfish including threadfin shad, ciscoes, alewives and herring roam open water, often miles from shore, feeding on drifting plankton blooms, drawing hordes of bass off the banks in the process.
Fishing pressure -- Put thousands of angler man-hours against shoreline bass, and something's gotta give. On pressured lakes, many shallow fish move out of harm's way to offshore structure.
Changes in habitat -- The past 30 years saw the construction of a great many reservoirs nationwide. When newly inundated, these were replete with brush and logs in shallow water, providing prime bass habitat and awesome fishing for the bank-beater. But wood cover rots away over time; as it disappears, bass move offshore. Don't look for many new reservoirs to be built in this age of environmental awareness!
Oxygen depletion -- Especially in summer, oxygen diminishes in the shallows, and baitfish and their predators gravitate offshore where wind and water currents create higher dissolved oxygen levels.
Changes in forage base -- Sometimes there just isn't enough for bass to eat in the shallows. If shoreline weedbeds are sprayed, for example, the shiner and bluegill population may decline, and bass will concentrate their feeding efforts on more abundant prey species, many of which may live offshore.
Clearing water -- Many murky reservoirs undergo a gradual clearing as mud and silt settle. Concealment is a major component of predatorial success, and bass find it harder to hide in shallow, clear water than in shallow, murky water. As the water clears, bass move out to deeper cover, where they're less visible to their prey.
Cold fronts -- When there's little shallow cover, bass will move deeper following during a cold front, which may pull them far from the bank in a shallow lake.
Dropping lake levels -- When reservoirs undergo seasonal drawdowns, or when natural lakes lower during droughts, bass pull off the banks to offshore structures.
Structures to Fish
Bass won't be everywhere. These are the places to check:Channel structure -- In reservoirs, flooded creek and river channels provide a structural edge; increased oxygen and plenty of brush, timber and stumps for hiding. Plus, channels are superhighways used by migrating baitfish. High spots -- Call 'em humps, saddles or submerged islands -- to bass, they're havens from fishing pressure and great places to intercept baitfish schools. Points -- Easily the most obvious and therefore the most heavily fished offshore structures, points are nonetheless important holding and feeding stations for offshore bass. Submerged man-made structures -- Sunken roadbeds, ditches and house foundations draw hordes of bass, many of which spawn on these structures if they're sufficiently shallow. Isolated weedbeds -- Probably the best offshore structure in most natural lakes, and in some reservoirs. Often the biggest bass in the lake will hold in isolated clumps of grass far from the bank; lunker hunters know these small, scattered beds often produce better than large expanses of offshore grass. Reefs -- In natural lakes such as Erie, giant schools of bass often suspend over offshore reefs. Baitfish schools -- At times, bass don't relate to offshore structure at all, but rather to schools of bait. This phenomenon is prevalent in summer and winter, when large numbers of bass may suspend near schools of shad, alewives or ciscoes. Anglers often report bass mixed with stripers, hybrids, even walleyes, when this occurs.
Old habits are hard to break, and in bassin', the oldest habit of all is pounding the bank.
What tools are required for offshore bassin'? And what tricks do experts use to efficiently locate and catch offshore bass?
"Just cruise the lake," veteran bass pro Jack Chancellor advises, "and watch your depthfinder while you're running." The Alabama pro has spent many a tournament practice day running and looking while his competition was fishing, a tactic that helped him win the '85 BASS Masters Classic. "I don't look for bass on my depthfinder; I look for structure. If the structure and bait are there, you'll find bass." Chancellor cautions against placing too much reliance on topo maps. "They're usually outdated. Lakes change over time, particularly those with good current flow. Sunken timber disappears, ditches silt in, contours soften. Only the depthfinder doesn't lie."
Chancellor's one-two punch for offshore bass is a Carolina-rigged worm and a jigging spoon. His "Do-Nothing" worm technique popularized Carolina rigging among America's bassers.
"The Carolina rig is a great bird-dog lure," Chancellor says. "You can fish it fast and cover a wide area, which is ideal when you're looking for bass on a big piece of offshore structure like a channel ledge. And unlike a crankbait, it'll follow bottom contours due to its heavy sinker. Offshore bass are often concentrated; once you find 'em with the Carolina rig, switch to the spoon. Vertical fishing is the fastest possible way to load the boat, a great tournament tactic."
A great big-fish tactic, too. I once watched Chancellor catch 9- and 6-pound largemouths on two consecutive drops of a spoon on a deep channel ledge in a Georgia impoundment.
Carolina rigs are also useful in natural lakes, but Tarpon Springs, Fla., guide Ray Van Horn gives 'em an unusual twist: "Instead of a traditional worm or lizard, I'll use a super-long plastic worm, sometimes 14 inches. At times, these are even better than live shiners for giant bass. I'll vary the leader length so the lure suspends just above the height of the grass."
Van Horn uses the wind to present the lure properly. "I'll cast and then just drift with the wind, dragging through isolated weed clumps. The sinker roots on the bottom, hangs up occasionally, and imparts an erratic action to the worm. It takes a long, powerful rod to set the hook when you get a pickup, 'cause you've usually got a lot of line out." Van Horn's biggest bass on a megaworm: a whopping 15 pounds.
Pickwick Lake, Ala., smallmouth guide Steve Hacker believes fishing offshore is the only way to go on a river-run impoundment. "Smallies relate to mounds, drop-offs and other offshore irregularities. Their position on the structure as well as their feeding activity will be directly tied to current flow." When no flow is present, bass will be deeper on the structure, and less likely to bite.
But when the turbines kick in, expect fast action, Hacker promises. "Baitfish will move, triggering a feed. Bass usually move shallower when generation starts. If they were holding 15 feet deep on the side of a mound, they might slide up to 8 feet when the water starts moving."
Hacker likes leadhead lures including bucktail jigs, grubs and Sassy Shads in current, and fishes 'em on light line. "Using heavy line is a big mistake when trying to probe offshore structure in current. It creates too much drag. Your lure has to sink quickly, or it'll be swept out of the fish zone. I routinely use 6- to 8-pound mono and have caught smallies approaching 8 pounds on it, as well as a 68-pound catfish. Stay away from the new high-tech braided lines; they tend to float and make it harder to get your bait where the action is."
Like most offshore experts, Steve keeps a set of marker buoys handy. "They're as much a part of my offshore fishing as my noontime sandwich," he says.
Brentwood, Tenn., angler Steve Bunning uses skills he learned trolling for salmon and steelhead while living in Chicago to catch largemouths, smallmouths and spotted bass in Tennessee lakes. "Trolling is the most efficient way to cover a lot of water," he believes.
In clear lakes, Bunning often finds bass suspended, relating loosely to channel drops, points, humps and baitfish schools -- sometimes deep enough to use downriggers or leadcore line. In murky lakes, bass are usually shallower, often holding around stumps on offshore bars, flats and points. In either case, "pulling crankbaits" is Steve's favorite approach. "In clear lakes, super-deep divers like Mann's 30+ and Storm's Magnum Wiggle Wart in reflective shad patterns produce best, while in murky waters, I'll hammer bottom with crawfish-imitators like Bomber's Model A in fire tiger, perch or natural craw colors."
Bunning has caught smallies and largemouths over 6 pounds while trolling offshore bass structure, plus a smorgasbord of muskies, walleyes, trout, even a 40-pound paddlefish. "No question, it's a big-fish technique," he's convinced. "The world record smallmouth was caught trolling."