No one is ever going to confuse a largemouth bass with a "yard dog," but they do share one common trait — whenever they are not actively engaged in something, they love to snuggle up under a solid roof.
That's why you'll find yard dogs under porches and pickups, and you'll find bass nestled under cover matted on the surface. And both can get downright "snappish" when something invades their sanctuary.
This isn't news to Southern anglers, who long ago learned that a flipping rod can often be the most valuable stick in the box, and that 1-ounce bullet sinkers aren't just for Carolina rigging. But, as many anglers have also discovered, it's not just a "Southern thing."
"I won a big tournament on Saranac Lake in upstate New York, flipping through a solid mat of cover," says BASS pro Pete Thliveros, "and I wasn't the only one on that pattern. There were plenty of bass holding under mats during that event."
BASS pro Bernie Schultz concurs.
"I've won tournaments in Canada fishing surface mats," he says, "and I've also caught bass in Japan and Mexico doing the same thing. Anywhere you find a solid surface mat of cover, largemouth bass will use it. Florida-strain largemouth are notorious for that trait, but northern bass also do it a lot, and I've even caught spotted bass under mats.
"I don't think bass swim the lake looking for this kind of cover," he continues. "But anytime they find floating surface cover, at least some bass are likely to hang around it for a while, and on some lakes, a significant number of bass will live under that stuff for much of the year."
Keying on cover
Anything that forms a light-blocking barrier on the surface is a "roof" that bass will use. Indeed, even a collection of floating leaves, sticks, foam or even man-made debris (commonly referred to as "junk" or "flotsam") has been known to yield bass on occasion.
Savvy anglers wouldn't pass up such a target of opportunity without at least a few cursory presentations. However, when looking to establish a "mat" pattern, most concentrate on green, living vegetation — either floating plants or those rooted aquatics that will grow to the surface, crown out and form their own mat.
"Hyacinths are a great cover for bass, anywhere you find them," notes Schultz. "They provide unbroken shade, and their submerged roots are a major environment for forage that bass or baitfish eat. Bass can have a roof and a buffet at the same time. Any bass will use a hyacinth mat if it is available. I found a patch of hyacinths on Lake Biwa in Japan, and I caught bass from under them."
Duckweed is another common floating plant that will form solid fish-holding mats and frequently draws the attention of experienced anglers. One form of floating cover that is often ignored, however, is a mud tussock.
"Mud tussocks," Schultz explains, "are actually floating islands of uprooted emergent vegetation, like lily pads or reeds. Sometimes wind and wave action will just peel a section off the bottom and turn it into a floating mat.
They are common on a lot of Florida lakes, but I've seen them in Canada, upstate New York and on Lake St. Clair in Michigan. If any of that vegetation is still green, sometimes it will continue to live for quite a while — it provides the same forage-holding environment as hyacinths, and it is definitely worth fishing."
Rooted vegetation (coontail, hydrilla, milfoil, peppergrass and several types of lily pads) will also form dense surface mats. In some cases, when they reach their peak annual growth and crown out on the surface, what used to be a lake can suddenly resemble a well-maintained golf course. Some anglers view this as an impenetrable mass of plant life and opt to simply nibble around the edges. That can be a mistake.
"Hydrilla and milfoil will grow in distinct stages," Schultz says, "and the individual stalks can form a dense mass. But once it reaches the surface and crowns out, it reduces light penetration under the mat, and those stalks start to thin, leaving open caverns under them. It may look thick on top, but underneath there is a surprising amount of open water — and bass love it."
With these two plants, the mat doesn't always have to reach the surface to become prime cover.
"You'll find areas where milfoil or hydrilla has almost crowned out and has actually made a mat," Schultz continues, "but it just hasn't come to the surface yet. I know guys on Texas lakes, like Rayburn or Toledo Bend, who are finding fish in 20 feet of water by flipping hydrilla mats that are still 3 or 4 feet below the surface, and I've done the same thing on other lakes in various parts of the country. As long as there is a roof, it doesn't make any difference to the bass whether it is on the surface or not. To them, a roof is a roof."
And it is a habitat they will use under a far wider range of conditions than some would suppose.
"It's logical to think that this is a real good midsummer cover for bass," says Thliveros, "and it is. The water temperature under a surface mat can be 6 to 8 degrees cooler than surrounding open waters, and bass will take advantage of that whether they are in 2 feet of water or 20 feet. But bass also have a tendency to hold tightly to objects in colder, adverse conditions, and they will definitely use it during unsettled weather. I really like matted cover during the prespawn through early postspawn period, and again in the fall on Northern lakes."
"Another misconception," Schultz notes, "is that this is just a midday pattern. I haven't found that to be the case. I've fished tournaments where I had a mat bite in a specific spot, got there before the sun had cleared the trees, and was catching fish on the first presentations. When bass get under mats, you can pull them out on the first cast of the day or the last. They can be there all day long."
Finding the sweet spot
Locating the best concentrations of bass in matted cover isn't much different than finding them in open water. Anglers have to fish the mats to eliminate or establish a certain pattern. How quickly that can be accomplished depends upon the amount of surface mats one has to sort through.
"I love it when I go into an area that holds bass and find isolated areas of matted cover in there," says Thliveros. "I may work any cover I find between the mats, but I'll definitely take the time to work the mats. I know that bigger fish often take the best spots, and these are premier spots.
They're easy to find. Even if I am not on a flipping pattern, I'll get a rod ready and work every one I come to. They can often produce your best fish."
Isolated mats can pay off any time of the year, but they can be gold mines during the spawn.
"If I get into a spawning area and see a lot of bright beds, but no sow bass, I will definitely hunt those isolated patches of matted cover," Thliveros says. "Boat traffic or a sudden weather change may move the big females off the beds, but they won't normally leave the area unless the weather change is severe. They usually just slip under a nearby mat, and you can flip to them."
While isolated mats are easy to target, working extensive areas of matted cover can be time-consuming. Experienced anglers generally approach it in a methodical manner that concentrates on the "high-percentage" areas first.
"If I'm looking at acres of the stuff," Schultz explains, "my first consideration is the season. During the spawning cycle, bass are migrating shallow, so I would start on the inside, or shallow edge, of the mat. After the postspawn and throughout the summer and winter, I would be looking at the deep water edge of the mat, or the thicker interior areas.
"After that, I want to look for areas that are different from the rest. These might be distinct points or indentations, or areas where wind or current is moving baitfish to a particular section. One very productive situation is where emergent plants grow up through the mat; another is where mats have blown in around brushtops or standing timber. A mixed-cover situation, where vertical cover meets the horizontal mat, is a very high-percentage area."
If obvious differences are not visible on the surface, taking a look at the bottom can pay off.
"It's not uncommon for hydrilla and milfoil to just take over a large area and form what looks like a monoculture mat," says Thliveros. "But there are often bottom contours like breaklines, ditches, depressions, creek channels and other depth changes and structure under the stuff. If everything on top looks the same, bass will often hold on the differences in bottom contours.
"Sometimes you can locate these by looking at the density of the surface cover itself. A small area of thicker mats could indicate a submerged hump, while a thinner area surrounded by heavy mats might be a depression. If you have a well-defined line of matted cover with thinner stuff outside it, there's a good chance you'll find a depth change or slight breakline there. These differences may look subtle to us, but they aren't subtle to the bass."
Knocking on the door
In most cases, there are only two ways to get through the "roof" — by flipping or pitching. The latter, however, is not always the preferred option.
"If you have a clearly defined edge to the mat and fish are holding on that edge, then pitching to it can be effective," Thliveros states. "But if the bass are back inside, even just a couple of feet, I'd much rather flip. A lot of times, if you back off from a mat and pitch to the inside, a fish that hits will run to the edge and not only throw a lot of slack line into the hook set, but also get the line wrapped under the cover. By flipping instead of pitching, I'm working a longer rod with shorter line and have a more vertical angle to the fish. Both are real positives when it comes to getting a fish out of that stuff."
Thliveros favors a 7 ½-foot American Rodsmith heavy flipping rod and a Pinnacle MTH-10 reel loaded with 30-pound Stren Extra Strength monofilament. When it comes to bullet weights and lures, however, he's a bit more flexible.
"I want to use the least amount of weight that will penetrate the cover," he notes. "If I am on a flipping pattern, I will have two or three rods laid out with sinkers weighing from ½ to 1 ¼ ounces rigged with either a Zoom Cross Craw or an Allen Lures Fireclaw. The Zoom is a slender bait that slips through cover easily, and the Fireclaw is a compact but bulky bait that will easily carry the big Eagle Claw 4/0 HP hook I use. Some days they'll hit both, and some days they want just one of them.
"A major key is the drop speed of the lure, and that's why I'll rig several rods with different weights, so I can pick the best size for that mat. Bass seem to prefer a slower drop rate in cooler weather, and I'll use a lighter weight, even if I have to jiggle it around on top to get it down. In warmer weather they'll hit a faster drop, and I can use a heavier weight. The vast majority of your hits are going to come on the drop, and that holds true for any season. I want to fine-tune my sinker selection to get as many drops in the shortest period of time and at the proper fall rate."
One could say Thliveros' approach is to "knock softly and carry a big stick." That's often the best tactic when bass bury in the thick stuff and anglers have to dig 'em out.
Winning the weed wars
Anyone who has ever dropped a lure through a heavy surface mat, felt a solid take, set the hook and then discovered that it's a BIG fish, will have an immediate and thorough understanding of the term "mixed emotions."
Yeah … it's hooked! Unfortunately, that momentary elation will suddenly collide with the harsh reality that there's a whole wad of weeds between the angler and a lip lock.
It's enough to bring on palpitations in many, indecision in others, and a sense of impending doom in some. That's normal. But it doesn't have to be terminal.
"The biggest mistake anglers make when they stick a big fish in really thick cover is to try to overpower it," says Schultz. "You don't want to try to stop a fish from swimming, especially on a short line with heavy equipment.
That's a good way to break the line or pull out the hook. I never 'channel lock' my drag, even in the heaviest cover. That's an invitation to disaster."
Schultz (who favors a 7 ½-foot Shimano heavy flipping rod, Calcutta reel, 25-pound AN40 Silver Thread line, and wide gap Owner or Gamakatsu hooks when bassin' through the roof) is convinced that a little restraint goes a long way.
"A big fish is going to take line," he says, "and the angler has to be comfortable with that going in. But if you stick the fish well with a good hook and solid equipment, it doesn't matter. Just keep reasonable pressure on the fish, and initially try to get its head up. If you can do that, and the fish comes to the surface, a big bass will often fight its way out of the cover on its own."
If that doesn't happen and the fish finds a home in the weeds, Schultz doesn't mind. In fact, he likes it.
"If the fish buries up," he grins, "it's just like putting a hood on a falcon — they calm down and just lie there. All I have to do is go to the fish — sling enough weeds to find it — and it will be right there. The weeds are actually my friend in that situation — as long as I don't try to winch the fish through them."