The Bass Magic of Milfoil

Drop the term "EURASIAN MILFOIL" among a group of anglers, boaters and waterfront property owners and watch the feathers fly!

 Some will protect this grass like a firstborn child, while others will treat it like a colony of termites.

 Milfoil can polarize even anglers themselves — biologists, too.

 See enough milfoil lakes, and you will likely harbor mixed feelings, knowing its potential benefits yet understanding the real meaning of the phrase "too much of a good thing."

 Indeed, "too much" is the issue in a nutshell when it comes to milfoil. It can dominate shallow, fertile waters in as little as two years, clogging navigation paths and forming thick mats that prevent sunlight from reaching native vegetation. Yet it often boosts a lake's bass base big time!

 "Without exception, the best lakes in the country have milfoil, hydrilla, or some other aquatic vegetation that some folks won't like," says Alton Jones, an Elite Series angler who has notched impressive bass totals from milfoil-filled waters from the Deep South to the Great Lakes. "Vegetation allows a lake to support a lot more life."

 Curt Lytle, Bassmaster Classic runner-up in 2003, credits milfoil with adding heft to Potomac River bass near Washington, D.C., and beyond in the 1980s.

 Tim Lesmeister, Minneapolis-area tournament pro and angling "communicator" has fished famed Lake Minnetonka for 30 years. "But the bass fishing has gotten a lot better since the milfoil took hold in the 1980s."

"In the initial stages, Eurasian milfoil is good," says John Madsen, assistant professor of research and extension at Mississippi State University and an acknowledged authority on the invasive plant. "It attracts fish. They cruise the edges hunting for fish. But when it becomes a total monoculture, there's no place left to roam. Under it may be little vegetation. You end up with stunted forage fish and slower growing bass."

Eurasian milfoil — there's a native North American milfoil, too, that is much less prolific — grows thick and fast and, in some areas, nearly year-round. Its stalks rise and spread from a central core in tree-like fashion, forming a thick canopy at the surface.

"On a lake like Guntersville, milfoil only grows at certain depths, maybe 7 to 8 feet," explains Jones. "On Lake Champlain (New York), it's completely different. With clearer water, milfoil may grow as deep as 15 feet, even more."

In the best of all possible worlds, milfoil would attain an ever-pleasing not-too-much, not-too-little balance and stay that way. "But Eurasian milfoil doesn't like to stay at an intermediate level of cover," Madsen notes.

Unlocking the milfoil code begins with getting an edge.
"You're almost always looking for edges because fish like to travel along the weedline," says Jones. "Sometimes you're looking for an inside shallow edge. Other times it's deeper."

Milfoil tends to have a filtering and clarifying effect on the waters it takes root in. This makes hunting easier for sight feeders like bass, and ironically, helps other aquatic plants to thrive in deeper water.
Lake Minnetonka near Minneapolis is a case in point.

"A lot of us who have fished Minnetonka a lot are now seeing the demise of milfoil on main lake structures — an amazing turn of events," says Mark Fisher, national promotions director for Normark Corp. "Now coontail is growing in 26 feet of water. The milfoil helped clear up the lake. The bass are using the edges of the coontail, which roughly correspond in some areas to the edge created by the milfoil canopy."

In early season, Fisher finds schools of big females on sharp dropoffs with deep water access — preferably inside corners. These are prime areas for cold water crankin'.
"The fish are staging to spawn, and you will also find early spawners moving up," says Fisher. "I'm using a Rapala DT10 at this time. It's a classic pattern!"
Jones opts for a lipless crankbait for prespawn and early winter bass. His favorite is the XR50 Rattle Bait from Xcalibur.
"The Rattle Bait is one of the best coldwater lures you will ever use around milfoil," he says. "When the water temperature dips below 55 degrees, it is my favorite bait."
The key to presentation is keeping the bait in contact with the tops of the submerged milfoil stems. "We call it 'ticking,'" explains Jones. "If you're not feeling the milfoil, slow it down. If you are, speed it up. You should end up with a bait gliding over the grass."
When his bait hangs on a stem, Jones simply snaps the rod tip. "That will usually free the lure. And you often get your strikes then. That's the way to get a giant bass out of milfoil." With 2 to 4 feet of headroom between the milfoil and the surface, a variety of presentations work.
Shallow-running crankbaits can trigger action. "You want something that will go to the grass but not dig in," says Jones. "Position the boat on the edge of the grass and have your casts parallel the outside edge. I like the Bomber 4A. When it contacts the grass, it is very buoyant. Pause and it will come to the surface. It's dynamite in fall especially, but really anytime when you have an edge of grass 5 to 7 feet deep with grass 3 to 4 feet beneath the surface."
Fisher favors a rattling Fat Rap over the tops of milfoil. "It's a killer," he says.
But bass are vulnerable to deep crankin' near the base of milfoil, as well. When Normark was developing the Rapala DT series, Fisher spent a lot of time testing prototypes on the deep edges of Minnetonka milfoil. "The DT is phenomenal on edges," he says. "With 8-pound line, you can get a DT16 down to 18 or 19 feet."

 Buzzbaits and spinnerbaits are other obvious choices. Work the tops of the vegetation and the edges, and don't miss pockets. Jones swims plastic worms over milfoil tops and finds the presentation very effective. But conditions may favor other presentations, as well.
The Zell Pop, designed by pro Zell Rowland for chugging and popping, is often the bait du jour on the Alton Jones postspawn bass menu. He likens its action to shad working the surface. "It's always a good postspawn lure on good grass lakes," says Jones. "May is a good time. You can see the grass growing. You look for holes in the grass. They may be the size of a trash can lid or the size of a car. But the usual key is depths of 3 to 5 feet."

Matted milfoil has sent many a bass angler back to the docks in frustration. But the thick stuff can yield some of the best bass in the lake, if you can reach them. Skirted jigs, 1/2 to 1 ounce, may penetrate the carpet. And don't be afraid to muscle the bait through.
One of Fisher's favorite approaches is to flip a heavy jig through a milfoil mat.
"You have to concentrate," he says. "When the bait hits bottom and the line goes slack, lift it suddenly and let it spiral and tumble down. Just letting it settle isn't as effective. The bass want to see the bait trying to get away."
An alternative to a jig is a 7-inch worm Texas rigged behind a 5/8- to 3/4-ounce brass slip sinker. He places a glass bead behind the brass to draw attention to the bait.

"Let that big Texas rig hit bottom," he advises. "Start shaking it. Then hold still for 10 seconds. You'll be surprised at how many hits you will get!"

One of the most exciting ways to fish matted milfoil is with a plastic frog or mouse. Hollow-bodied frogs teased over a milfoil carpet can be addicting despite the numbers of missed fish.
Jones likes to work the new generation of frog baits among the milfoil. His favorite is a Yum Buzz Frog worked weightless with a 5/0 hook. "It's almost like a buzzbait," he says, emphasizing its effectiveness on big bass. "You can work it right through the matted slop. Most of the strikes come when you hit a hole. I fish the bait extremely fast. It's a reaction strike in an area where the fish is not expecting a fast bait."
John Heinz, a northern Illinois angler who once won a bass tournament while fishing from a canoe, uses a hollow frog as a "search bait" in shallow, matted milfoil. He relies on his remarkable skills with a skirted jig once he has located an active fish. "I just want to see something move. Once a bass breaks on a bait, he is catchable," he explains.
His approach requires exceptional pitching accuracy because many of the hits may come well away from the boat. "If the bass comes up on the frog, I hope it creates a hole."
If there are no holes in the mat, he will make them with hard blasts into the carpet.
When he finds a hole large enough to fit a jig through, he stays relatively light, using a 3/8- to 1/2-ounce bait. "Some guys go heavier and heavier, but I like to finesse it through the opening," he says. "A 1-inch hole is all you need. A heavier jig will pick up vegetation. I stay light and try to ease it over the top straight into the hole. Once it is in the hole, the fish wants it. It's just a matter of the way the bass is positioned. If he doesn't take it immediately, shake it, move it a little. Then try it again."

 He likens the action of a falling jig through the mat to that of a frog itself.
Watch a frog. When it skirts across the top, it creates a hole and burrows down into it," he says. "That bass is just hoping he comes through where he is!"