For many of the anglers practicing in the 200-boat national tournament on Falcon Reservoir, the lake had been playing tough. After all, it was early January, the mornings were cold, and water was pouring out through the dam at 150,000 cubic yards a second; you could watch the lake drop.
But when Alton Jones, who wasn't in the tournament, caught his fifth bass over 5 pounds, he beached his Skeeter and started eating an early lunch. It didn't look like he was doing anything different in his fishing, but in truth, he was doing everything different.
"The bass have simply changed their attitude, and I've changed with them," he explained matter-of-factly, checking his 65-pound braided line and putting on a fresh Yum Doozee, a 6-inch tube the bass had been hammering.
"When conditions change, as they do with the fast falling water here, bass often become much less aggressive. The mistake many fishermen make is believing those fish become inactive, too, but I don't think they do."
"I believe that in many instances they're still moving and they're still feeding, too. The difference is, they don't want an aggressive lure that moves a lot of water and makes a lot of commotion. Instead, with their attitude change, they want a lure that doesn't move as much water, a presentation that's more subtle."
This isn't really revolutionary thinking for experienced fishermen, but the adjustment this veteran tournament pro makes for this type of bass behavior is certainly worth noting.
While many anglers immediately downsize their lures and line and begin finesse fishing techniques such as drop shotting and split shotting, Jones stays with big lures and heavy lines. His change is specifically to soft plastic baits that glide and move through the water much more gently and naturally.
"The difference between subtle lures and aggressive lures is that subtle lures have a more natural movement in the water," Jones continues. "When a baitfish swims through the water, it does not have a lot of flutter and flapping action unless it's being chased. It glides very smoothly through the water, so that's the type of action I want to duplicate, and I can with certain large soft plastic baits."
While Jones likes both the Yum Doozee tube and Dinger stickworm, other large plastic lures that also have a subtle action include the Yamamoto Senko, and even Zoom's famous Trick Worm. By contrast, neither creature baits nor straight-tail worms are good choices because they either have too much action or you have to give them action, and that's not the presentation you want.
Some anglers prefer to use larger profile jigs for this technique rather than the plastics Jones likes. The jig presentation is not limited to flipping by any means; in fact, slowly swimming and crawling the jig along the bottom is often a better way to fish it, but because it isn't weedless like a soft plastic lure, snagging can be a problem.
Much of a jig's success in this presentation actually depends on the trailer you use. What you want is flotation and bulk; again, what you don't want is action. Thus, trailers like Strike King's Denny Brauer Chunk and Yum's Craw Bug can work well, but conversely, Yum's Craw Pappy has too much action.
Hard baits do not work with this presentation because they cannot be retrieved slowly and still maintain any real action.
"There's a whole different look to subtle types of lures," Jones points out. "I can't tell you how many times I've pulled into an area and changed to a lure like this and started getting bites after it seemed like the fish had totally shut down."
If bass are not moving far to strike a lure, Jones does not believe you automatically have to fish tighter to cover or to specific dropoffs to get strikes. With these larger lures, he feels you actually have more options than most anglers realize.
"I think some bass are ambush feeders in that they do hide in a bush and wait for prey to come to them," he says. "At the same time, however, I think other bass can be described as flush feeders that swim from bush to bush to chase out prey that are hiding.
"Either way, what my presentation does is try to bring a feeding strike, not a reaction strike, which is why the subtle, natural movement of the lure is critical."
Jones' concept is all about presentation. First comes a very gentle, nonsplashing entry into the water. It's not always pitching or flipping into the heart of a flooded bush or treetop, either; many times he will cast beyond a specific target and slowly swim it back, to present a natural crawling/swimming appearance near the bottom.
"Secondly, and this is the most important part of the presentation," he emphasizes, "is letting your lure fall on a slack line. You want the lure to show its own subtle, built-in action immediately, and if your line controls the lure's fall, you simply will not get as many bites."
Once the lure is on the bottom, Jones often lets it lie motionless (deadsticking) for several seconds before gently raising his rod tip and either letting the lure fall again or starting to swim it back.
"One of the retrieves I may use to swim the lure back is a slow but continuous rise and fall presentation to take advantage of the lure's natural action," he continues. "Remember, if your lure lands anywhere near a bass, it's aware of it and I think it's watching it, if not actually following it.
"Again, this is where a subtle, natural action is at its best because the lure looks like an easy meal to the bass, and the large size is not intimidating."
Is line size an issue when bass have an attitude like this? What about sinker weight? What causes fish to start acting like this, anyway?
"I certainly don't have all the answers," smiles Jones. "All I know is what I've proved to myself over and over again. Will you catch bass under these conditions if you downsize everything and use a pure finesse presentation?
"Of course you will, but will you get them to the boat, especially a big fish? Certainly not all of them, and here at Falcon where most of the fishing is in heavy brush, you probably won't get any of them in.
"Remember, also, that you do not normally catch a lot of big bass on small finesse lures. You'll catch some, but the majority of your fish will be smaller."
For Jones, line size depends on the cover and environment he's fishing. At Falcon, he stayed with 65-pound braid with a 30-pound fluorocarbon leader, but on a deeper, more open lake like Hartwell where he won the 2008 Bassmaster Classic, he used straight 17-pound fluorocarbon because he wasn't as concerned with wrenching bass out of cover.
In choosing sinker weight, if he uses one at all, Jones lets water depth, wind and the fish themselves tell him what to use. In water less than 10 feet deep he prefers a light 1/8- or 3/16-ounce sinker because it doesn't impede the lure's action. In deeper water, or if wind is preventing him from casting well, he'll usually opt for a heavier weight and just concentrate harder on working the lure more slowly when it gets to the bottom. At the same time, if most of his bites come as the lure is falling, he'll certainly stay with a light sinker.
"In big bass fisheries like here at Falcon, at Clear Lake or at Guntersville, I'm always thinking of larger lures," he says. "Very seldom are tournaments on those types of lakes actually won with small lures, even when bass do have this change of attitude and become less aggressive."
Jones can list several factors that frequently cause bass to change attitudes, each of which most bass fishermen have experienced more than once. They include cold fronts, particularly the second day; fast falling water; and heavy fishing pressure, such as toward the end of a multiday tournament.
Bass attitudes can change quickly, too. Early mornings and late afternoons are favorite times for feeding, but during midday they may become less aggressive. A sudden influx of off-colored or muddy water will definitely slow them, too.
"The surest way to recognize when bass have changed is when you stop getting strikes in an area where you had been getting hits, or in an area you firmly believe holds bass," he explains. "Don't automatically assume you're not on fish or the fish have moved. Just change to a more subtle lure and presentation."
Although this big lure/subtle presentation method works well practically anywhere and anytime the water temperature is above 50 degrees, Jones will admit it doesn't usually work well in midwinter when water is in the 40s. It is particularly effective during the summer months when bass seem to be less aggressive almost all the time.
"I always look at the first couple of bass I catch to see if I can identify any remnants of what they're eating," adds Jones. "If I find larger shad or crawfish, and most of the time that's exactly what I find, then I definitely want to use a larger lure to trigger their interest."
As Jones proved so well that day on Falcon, when bass change their attitudes, triggering their interest need not be as difficult as many anglers make it out to be. It doesn't have to be about downsizing, either. Instead, it may be just a matter of staying with a larger lure but changing how you show it to the fish.