It may be the most overused term in the language of bass fishing: Strike zone.
And there is a good reason for this. This dimension of space defining the aggressiveness of bass is a significant consideration when it comes to making bass bite.
"The strike zone, man, that's super-duper important," former Bassmaster Angler of the Year Aaron Martens says. "I think about the strike zone all the time.
"How far a fish will travel to hit a bait is everything. If he's willing to move fast or has a big strike zone, you can fish a Senko-type bait. You know, there are times when you fish a jerkbait superfast or superslow—jerk it twice and let it sit for 10 seconds. That's all about understanding the strike zone."
"I think when you identify the size of the strike zone, you'll have your best chance to win the tournament," adds Gerald Swindle, another Angler of the Year. "I've been able to call my shot at some of my best tournaments. Not just say I'm going to be able to throw over there and catch one, but say I'm going to throw over there to that stump and he's going to be 3 feet to the left of it. That's when you're really dialed in and you're kind of one with what's going on that day."
The problem comes in attempting to define a fish's strike zone. In baseball, we basically understand that it is the imaginary box that runs from a batter's armpits to his knees and is the width of home plate (17 inches). In fishing, there are no fixed dimensions and its size can depend on a plethora of conditions.
"The strike zone is probably the most understudied thing in fishing by weekend anglers," emphasizes Tim Horton, still another AOY. "That's because there are so many different variables that go into it. And the strike zone can change at a moment's notice."
Among the variables that can influence the size of a bass' strike zone are water temperature and clarity, sky conditions, the fish's metabolism, wind, barometric pressure, current, fronts, cover, depth and fishing pressure, to name a few.
Swindle describes the perfect strike zone scenario: "Say I throw a cast of 60 feet and there's about 5 to 10 feet of that which I would perceive to be the strike zone — that's how far a bass will chase my lure. A lot of times it's generally right before it gets to the cover or right on the outside of the cover. Anything beyond that is just (inconsequential) water in the middle. That's ideal."
Keep in mind that the strike zone can vary in size not only day-to-day, but hour-to-hour as it is influenced by changing natural and man-made conditions.
Here is a look at the most pivotal factors influencing the size of the triggering territory:
Water temperature. Temperature and the bass' metabolism go hand-in-hand. In significantly cold or hot water, the activity level of a largemouth or smallmouth slows considerably. That translates into a small strike zone and requires anglers to make slower, more precise lure presentations.
Water clarity. This is arguably the condition that is most important in predicting the size and location of a strike zone. In general terms, the clearer the water, the larger this imaginary window; the more stained the water, the smaller. And that dictates lure choice.
"For example, a fish that lives in off-colored water is more of a lateral line feeding fish," explains Texan Gary Klein, a two-time Angler of the Year. "He depends on water displacement and noise to tune in on his prey. So we use lures that allow him to do that in off-colored water like spinnerbaits and crankbaits, and target-oriented techniques like flipping and pitching plastics and jigs with rattles in them.
"But fish in clear water are sight feeders, visual-feeding fish. The strike zone for them could be extended by using lures like topwaters, jerkbaits and spinnerbaits."
Horton points out that muddy conditions create the smallest strike zone of all. Where bass living in clear water might charge 30 feet or more to annihilate a lure, a fish in muddy water might require a jig dropped near its nose to trigger a strike.
Sky conditions. Bass are most likely to roam and chase a bait in overcast conditions; bright sun often pins them tight to cover. This is where shade can factor into their ambush range.
The sky conditions and pressure changes associated with passing cold fronts have the same limiting effects.
Wind. "When a breeze starts coming in, a bass' chance of catching baitfish is going to be increased," Horton theorizes. "They can ambush baitfish better when the forage is being pushed by the wind. And I think that excites bass, when they know the conditions are going to allow them to be more successful in eating."
Depth. When he launches his boat, Horton immediately attempts to determine the depth that most bass are utilizing on that day. Most often, that involves studying his depthfinder to find at what level he sees the most activity. The depth can be a good indicator of how large the strike zone is likely to be.
As a rule of thumb, the deeper the water, the larger the strike zone.
"That's because bass in deep water aren't as used to seeing lures as those in shallow water," Elite Series pro Marty Stone notes. "If that weren't the case, we'd never catch those fish because despite what people might think, we're not all that precise when it comes to fishing deep water."
But four-time BASS winner Alton Jones adds, "It's always easier to figure out the strike zone in shallow water because it requires additional time just to get your bait down into the productive zone when the fish are deep.
But because the (deeper) strike zone is big, you can get away with throwing a crankbait or a Carolina rig — something you work pretty fast through the strike zone."
Fishing pressure. This is most often the reason that the size of the target zone dwindles throughout a tournament or over the course of a weekend on a heavily fished lake or reservoir.
"I see that a lot," Klein says. "For example, say there are 10 docks on a bay. The first day of practice when you move through those docks the fish are all set up on the outer pilings and they're pretty aggressive. You pitch a jig over and they come out and get it, which means their strike zone is kind of extended.
"But during a five-day event there might be 20 anglers that go through that same bay. And I find that more and more pressure in these areas will force these fish tighter and tighter and tighter underneath the docks. Or on the back side of the docks.
And they aren't nearly as aggressive. It's the pressure on the water that's dictating that."
In such situations, the bite doesn't disappear entirely; the strike zone just shrinks or relocates.
It's all about that precious territory, the golden area of a bass' vulnerability.
"When you fish as much as we do, you can tell the strike zone by the weather conditions and water temperature," Martens states. "And it may be more important than all these other factors combined."
Although many factors can influence the size of the strike zone, there are general conditions that contribute to the constriction and contraction of this feeding/attacking zone. Tough conditions (blue) include a combination of high overhead sun, little to no wind, little to no current, superclear or supermuddy water and extreme water temperatures. Average conditions (yellow) include a mild chop on the water, partly cloudy skies, falling or rising water temps and very shallow water. Ideal conditions (green) include a combination of steady wind, consistent current, overcast skies, no fishing pressure and moderate water temps.
Why Bass Strike
Over the years, all-time BASS winner Roland Martin has identified eight reasons why bass strike a lure.
1. Hunger. "I believe hunger is the No. 1 motivation for bass to strike a lure," he says. "I find that hunger strikes account for about 1/3 of all my strikes in a year's time. That's a very important portion of the bass I catch. About 35 percent of the time, strikes come in the early morning or late afternoon hours. Feeding bass are the easiest fish to catch. You can catch them on almost any lure in your tacklebox because, basically, all lures at one time or another will catch feeding bass."
2. Reflex action. "I would have to estimate that 25 to 30 percent of the bass I catch are reaction strikes. The reflex action of a bass is no different from the behavior of any predator, such as a cat pouncing on a mouse."
3. Anger. "I think the third most important reason why bass strike is out of anger. Sheer anger. Often, the first cast you make to a spot produces a reflex strike or a hunger strike. But if you keep casting to the same spot, you can sometimes actually aggravate a fish into striking your lure. It may take five or 10 casts to the same spot, but the persistence of a lure coming through its domain will trigger an anger strike more often than you might think."
4. Protective instinct. "When you talk about bass behavior, you can't leave out the bass' protective instinct during the spawning season as a major reason they will hit a lure in the springtime. For the short amount of time that these bass are guarding their beds, they will throw caution to the wind and nail anything that comes near their nest."
5. Curiosity. "I believe a relatively minor reason that bass strike is out of curiosity. It might only account for 2 or 3 percent of my strikes each year, but that small percentage is important in clear water situations. We've all seen bass in clear water come up and closely examine a topwater bait or soft plastic jerkbait. I believe it's curiosity that draws them to the lure in that situation."
6. Competition. "A stronger motivation for strikes, particularly in deep structure situations, is competition among bass that are all schooled up together. When they are congregated, a strike from one bass will ignite interest from the rest of the fish, creating a feeding frenzy. Occasionally, the competition will become so fierce that the fish will actually break the surface as a school."
7. Territorial instinct. "But a year-round reason that bass strike is strong territorial instinct, I believe. This is usually a trophy fish situation where a big bass will guard its territory the way a big bear does in the woods. When other bears come around, he chases them away."
8. Killer instinct. "Have you ever wondered why a tiny bass will attack and try to kill a giant lure like a Musky Jitterbug? The bass can't possibly eat it. All he is attempting to do is kill it."
Editor's Note: This is one of the last features Tim Tucker penned for Bassmaster before a tragic car accident took his life. In remembrance of Tim and his dedication to this sport and Bassmaster Magazine, we will run his final stories within the next several issues.