Scott Rook vividly remembers one bass he encountered during a Bassmaster Top 150 tournament in Georgia a few years ago.
The Arkansas pro was catching numerous largemouth that were locked on their beds in the backs of clear shallow bays on Lake Seminole. But the one bass he remembers most was a 3 ½-pounder that was simply moving along as if it were lost. The fish was on a straight track, swimming directly at Rook's boat, which was parked over about 5 feet of water.
"This bass was coming right at me as if it had no idea I was there. I dropped a finesse worm a few feet in front of it. It swam up to the lure, picked it up and kept on moving without stopping," he recalls. Rook put that bass in his livewell and ended up focusing on similar bass — those that were cruising across shallow flats. Many exhibited that same, senseless behavior, as if, he says, they were ambling through the water in a drunken stupor.
For a brief period in the late winter or early spring, warm days pull bass up into the shallows. They ease along the banks, searching out a prime place to fan out a depression and lay their eggs. During their search, the fish move across flats, either driving away invaders or, in some cases, actually eating them. They often seem to have no purpose in their movements, wandering aimlessly across those wide-open flats. Or, if they are preparing to move onto a bed, they swim with a little more purpose, staying in one general area, moving back and forth and chasing away anything that might present danger.
"It's a phenomenon I've had the good fortune to witness on many, many occasions," says Florida pro Bernie Schultz. "The bass are essentially staking out their territories, and they'll swim in a kind of linear pattern, back and forth. The bucks will often swim past every piece of cover in the area — I guess they're making sure there are no predators nearby, or that the area is suitable for spawning. Whatever they are doing, they can be real easy to catch."
If he's not on the pro circuit casting for bass, Schultz is likely to be on a flat somewhere off the coast of his home state, stalking tarpon, bonefish, redfish or whatever else happens to be cruising the shallows. That's why he's so good at targeting cruising bass. He's had plenty of experience spotting and catching a wide variety of fish moving across shallow, open water.
"I know some pros who will actually turn around and leave if they see a bass, because they figure if they can see the bass, it can see them, and it can't be caught. That's a big mistake," says Schultz. He should know. He's made a good living catching visible fish on clear waters throughout the country.
Catchable or not?
Not all cruising bass will turn on a lure and eat it, agree Rook and Schultz, but some largemouth certainly are susceptible to being caught. Neither pro can recall a specific type of behavior or one subtle clue that can give away a largemouth's willingness to take a bait. However, bass that have just moved up on a flat from deeper water tend to be the most aggressive. So do the ones that are swimming in fairly tight circles, or bass that appear to be guarding a territory.
"You never know which ones you can catch and which ones you can't," says Rook. "For as long as I've been fishing, I've never been able to look at a cruising bass and decide whether or not it'll eat a lure by watching the way it swims. It's pretty much the same with bedding bass. Some will grab your bait right away, and others you have to work on for 30 minutes or more. And some you can never catch — at least not on that day."
The bass that seem to be lost, wandering aimlessly or working their way down the shoreline with no destination in mind, tend to be the toughest to catch. And of course, bass that race off at the sound of a lure hitting water won't likely take the bait anytime soon. Many cruising bass that have been spooked will, however, move back to the shallows after you have left the area — particularly if they have already staked out a territory. Those fish are vulnerable, but it may take a better cast, a different lure or a simple stroke of fate an hour later to entice it to bite.
Schultz says the general size of a fish also can determine whether it will take a lure. He typically catches smaller fish — males between 1 and 3 pounds, and females up to 4 pounds — and adds that he's only caught one truly big bass that was cruising. It was a Florida bass that weighed about 8 pounds and ate a lizard resting on the bottom.
"I'm not sure why the bigger largemouth are tough to catch when they are up and cruising. It may have to do with the fact that they've been around longer and are simply wiser," figures Schultz.
Another example was when he was fishing a clear lake near his home with fellow Florida pro Shaw Grigsby. They encountered a huge fish — both estimated it to be somewhere around 15 pounds — cruising through air-clear water. Despite their combined expertise and determination, neither pro could convince the huge bass to bite.
The trick to catching cruising bass, say the pros, is to put your lure right in the path of the fish and a good distance ahead of it. Above all, you don't want to splat your bait down on top of the fish. A subtle presentation that makes the smallest amount of commotion tends to work best, but both experts have watched bass race up to a lure that hit the surface like a brick. You simply never know what will spook a cruising bass and what will actually garner its attention. It's best to play it safe, however: Never let the bass hear the splash of the lure.
Although Schultz tends to catch most cruising bass after the lure has settled to the bottom, Rook likes to cast his bait far enough ahead of the bass so that fish and lure meet while the lure is still sinking. It may seem like you need a degree in physics to calculate exactly where the fish and lure will collide, but Rook says it's not that difficult.
Plus, if you misjudge the sink rate of the lure or the speed of the bass, don't worry.
In fact, Schultz likes his lure to be resting quietly in place well before the fish gets close to it.
"I do catch plenty of fish as the lure is sinking, but as long as you get it on the same line and at the same depth as the bass, you stand a real good chance of catching it," says Schultz. "Putting your lure on the same contour as the fish is perhaps more important than anything, because they often won't veer off course to take a lure. It's almost as if they are stuck on a certain route.
"I'll try to watch the bass for a few minutes and figure out where it's traveling. Then I can put my lure where I expect it to be, and just leave it there until the bass comes along," Schultz says.
Once their baits touch bottom, both Schultz and Rook say that the less they do with them, the better their odds of catching a bass moving up to it. One of the biggest mistakes Schultz sees his amateur partners make is moving the lure too much as a bass examines it. Schultz will allow his bait to sit motionless, and if a bass stops to examine it but still won't eat it, he will give it the slightest twitch. Move it too much, though, and the fish will often shoot for thick cover or deeper water.
"Even if it doesn't eat your lure on the first pass, you can sit there and work that bass for a long time, just like you would a bedding bass. I'll either stay in one area if the bass is cruising back and forth, or I'll try to shadow it and cast well out ahead of it as it's swimming," says Rook.
Schultz says the most effective method is to cast at an angle, so the lure appears to be moving away from the bass as it approaches. In other words, he wants to be in front of a bass that is working its way toward his boat.
That way, if the fish stops to study his lure, Schultz can twitch it just enough to make the lure look as if it is trying to get away. It's a good last-ditch tactic that has coaxed many questionable largemouth into a full commitment.
He also stresses the importance of a high-quality, low-visibility monofilament. Schultz has had great results with Rapala's Finesse line. It's limp, has little memory, and is visible above the water and virtually invisible below the surface. He favors 8- and 10-pound line for lighter lures and smaller fish, but he'll go up to 12- or even 14-pound test if the bass are in heavy cover or if he expects to cast to a real big largemouth.
Nothing can help you catch cruising bass better than having the ability to actually see them. And in order to see bass underwater, it's vital to have a good pair of polarized sunglasses. Both Rook and Schultz agree that amber is the best all-around lens color, but both pros carry several pairs of sunglasses with different colored lenses for various conditions.
"The best thing to do is try two or three different colors. There are many variables that affect your ability to see fish underwater, so one lens color might work better than another," says Rook. "I also like green lenses. Even yellow lenses can be good."
Schultz, who has fairly severe astigmatism, never hits the water without his prescription polarized sunglasses. He'll switch from amber to green lenses, but echoes Rook that various conditions, water color, light intensity and even physiological differences all play a role in lens choice.
"You also have to wear a hat to help reduce ambient light," he adds.
— David Hart
Soft and easy
A variety of lures will take cruising bass, but first and foremost, they have to be soft. Although Schultz says he's caught a few of these fish on floating Rapalas, soft plastic lizards, tubes, worms and jerkbaits are by far the best choices.
"You don't want to get locked into a specific bait or one particular color. It's just like trying to target bedding bass. They don't always want the same lure or the same color, and you have to experiment to figure out the right one for that day, or even that particular fish," says Rook. "If I can get more than one shot at a cruising bass, I'll try a few different things."
Schultz agrees, and says he'll keep several different lures tied on and won't hesitate to try them all. Although he knows of some anglers who like to target cruising bass with bright lures, such as bubblegum trick worms, he prefers more natural, muted shades. Green pumpkin, watermelon and smoke are all good choices, but he says the best color and lure varies with each bass. Brighter colors do allow anglers to see the lure better, and thus actually see subtle strikes, but the six time Bassmaster Classic qualifier says that with a little practice, watching a bass inhale a darker lure won't be that difficult. The only exception, he notes, is when he uses a Zoom Super Fluke, another great lure for cruising bass. Schultz prefers white soft jerkbaits.
"One of the absolute best baits for this situation is a Yamamoto Senko. You can cast them a mile, the sink rate is perfect for catching cruising bass in shallow water, and they have a great action that the fish just can't seem to resist. I'll keep one rod rigged with a wacky rigged Senko and another with a Texas rigged Senko with a light weight — usually 1/16 ounce. The Texas rigged Senko stays in one place for as long as I want to leave it there," he says. "There's no telling which one the fish might want, so I'll use them both throughout the day."
Rook favors a variety of soft plastics, as well. Mad Man Mad Shads, Mizmo tubes, Yamamoto Senkos, 5-inch grubs and Texas or Carolina rigged lizards are all part of his cruising bass arsenal.
"It's all about mood. Cruising bass may or may not be in the mood to eat, but if you can see them, there's a very good chance you can catch them," says Schultz. "It's one of the most exciting ways to catch bass, and I look forward to the season when they are up shallow and moving around."