Although we sometimes like to compare bass fishing to other sports, the comparisons are often superficial at best. Certainly, the mental toughness, adaptability, perseverance and concentration of today's modern bass anglers closely parallels the qualities found in practitioners of other sports. As with other pursuits, a tournament victory or a day's success can often hinge on a seemingly insignificant observation or an even smaller mistake.
These similarities are shared traits because the participants all exhibit the same delightful range of human emotions, strengths and weaknesses. However, the point at which these sports comparisons veer off onto their own unique paths is within the playing field itself.
While other water sports can point to the difficulties in competing on an ever-changing tableau, most only deal with the surface portion. For bass fishermen, the challenges can run much deeper, both literally and figuratively.
More than anything else, bass fishing has the "X" factor: A living, instinctive organism that is clearly the master of its watery domain. Some might argue that the reasoning capacity of a bass is hardly a match for the brain power of the human animal. That is, of course, if you're playing by human rules.
Not only do bass play by their own set of rules, they have the option of changing them at will. Making the situation even more untenable, every bass is an individual and can rewrite the rulebook to a certain extent. In fact, those who do the most editing and actually go against the book grow the largest, live the longest and comprise the smallest percentage of any population.
So, when a bass fisherman approaches any type of water, it should always be with the thought that no rule is an absolute, and anything that can change, usually does. In many ways, it's the ultimate expression of Murphy's Law.
While pattern fishing (finding consistencies to bass behavior, then exploiting them) stands as the ideal method to make sense of any situation, it is by no means a given. This is particularly true in areas with heavy fishing pressure, boat traffic, changing water levels or other factors that can make patterns tougher to recognize and even more difficult to duplicate.
In recent years, it has become less likely for a tournament professional to win an event with a true pattern. There are just too many skilled anglers capable of finding fish concentrations, a fact that has made "running and gunning" from spot to spot something of a rarity. Instead, anglers have realized that by locating one or two key zones, and developing a pattern within these smaller pieces of real estate, they shift the advantage in their favor. By doing so, they spend less time running and more time fishing. And, they are less apt to be forced to share water.
In reality, pattern fishing is probably a better option for weekend fishermen, especially those anglers who spend a lot of time on the same body of water. Not only can they learn the subtle changes in fish positioning from day to day, but also the peculiarities of a given fishery that may go against the established guidelines.
Of course, the danger comes in getting too set in one's ways and too sure about how bass will react in certain situations. Commonly known as "localitis," this debilitating syndrome is precisely the reason touring professionals often beat locals on their home waters. Some might call it a case of overconfidence, but localitis is really the lack of an open mind. With more experience on a broader array of fishing waters, the professional learns to fish each day as it comes, while the local angler tends to rely on past history.
One of the most powerful influences on bass positioning and daily habits is current. Its effects are most pronounced in rivers and tidal water, where current is a significant part of the environment. For instance, in a river situation, the speed and strength of the current generally determines the depth at which the largest concentrations of bass will be found. If there is a rule of thumb here it would be: as the current slows, the depth increases proportionally. And, the speed of the current will affect how strongly bass will relate to eddies, slack water and other holding areas.
In tidal water, current serves as a triggering mechanism for the entire food chain. It not only positions bass in fairly predictable locations, but at very predictable times. With a tide chart in hand, bass fishermen know where and when water will be moving up and down a tidal river system. In some conditions, the best way to capitalize on this knowledge is to "ride the tide" — which means fishing key areas when the tide is right and then leapfrogging ahead of the moving water to fish other prime areas on the same tide.
However, just as pattern fishermen have discovered that running and gunning can be a difficult proposition in competitive situations, they have also seen the same problems with following the tides. Several key BASS world championship victories — including events held on tidal waters like the James River and the Louisiana Delta — have been accomplished by staying put in a productive zone and fishing "through the tide." This strategy is as much a test of the angler's skill as it is his confidence in the area being fished. Clearly, an angler who marries himself to a certain area must take advantage of things when the tides are right and survive the off-hours by producing a "bonus" fish or two.
When it comes to current, nature can create some interesting problems for bass fishermen. But the most frustrating of all is the man-made variety. In power-generating lakes, the decision to pull water is made by humans and therefore is completely unpredictable. Moreover, the stimulating effects of water movement in these artificial systems can produce a more intense feeding reaction from bass.
In many ways, the fish become conditioned to the prime feeding opportunities created by these man-made water movements, and fishermen must respond accordingly. When water is being pulled, fish generally relate to offshore structure, where they can easily ambush prey. Once the water stops flowing, bass move away from these zones and often suspend.
Like a tidal water angler who chooses to fish "through the tides," fishermen on power-generating lakes must learn how to survive between water movements. Since an angler may only have a two hour window of opportunity when water is being pulled, finding out how best to catch fish during the bulk of a fishing day is what separates the average angler from a good one.
Another key factor in any type of water is the variety and amount of cover. Like water clarity, assessing the cover situation comes from on-the-water observations. Although prior trips to a certain water can provide an excellent frame of reference, changes in water levels, grass spraying operations or any number of other circumstances can alter the type and amount of cover available to bass.
Even though bass relate in similar fashion to the same type of cover, each unknown water offers a new set of variables. At this point, a fisherman must factor in all the other elements previously mentioned — time of year, type of lake, water clarity and current — to further shrink the fishable zones.
Although personal preferences play heavily into an angler's choices about which cover to fish, many professionals look first to grass whenever it is present. Since grass areas have the capability of holding larger populations of bass and a complete menu of forage items, other types of cover sometimes become secondary. This, of course, is completely dependent on the prevailing conditions and should only be used as a point of reference in choosing a place to start fishing.