"There's a hierarchy of bass forage that I consider whenever I'm assessing a lake's trophy potential and even when I'm preparing to fish it on any given day," Long says. "No lake has all of these forage types, but almost every one will have several options, and the more options they have and the higher on the list the forage ranks, the better the chances it will produce giant bass."
At the top of Long's forage hierarchy — think of a literal bass food pyramid here — is the rainbow trout, ubiquitous in many California bass waters but relatively rare elsewhere. Next on the list is the golden shiner. Here's the list in full, though your waters may offer other menu items:
1. Rainbow trout
2. Golden shiners
4. Panfish (bluegill, crappie, etc.) and perch
6. Shad (threadfin, gizzard, etc.)
7. Catfish and bullheads
9. Terrestrials (frogs, ducks and other birds, mice and rats, lizards and snakes)
Long is quick to note that these forage species are often seasonal — especially trout, crawfish and terrestrials — and their availability and desirability will shift and cycle through the seasons. This affects not only the bass' feeding habits and growth, but also Long's bait selection and presentation methods.
"The rankings are based on several factors," he explains, "but some of the biggest are protein content, ease of capture and ease of digestion. A stocker trout is pretty easy for a big bass to catch, it's full of protein and it practically melts in the bass' mouth. A panfish has quite a bit of protein, too, but it's tougher to catch and harder to break down in the digestive process. A steady supply of the right food is essential to trophy bass production."
When Long was just getting started on his trophy bass quest, he listened to a lot of other sources when evaluating a water's trophy potential. It filled in where he lacked experience and provided a starting point when he had none. Over the years, though, he's trained himself to assess water and put the puzzle together on his own.
"I used to follow the bread crumbs," he says. "Photos in magazines and newspapers, lake reports, stories from other fishermen — all that stuff would send me off in a million different directions, chasing fish that often didn't even exist. Ultimately, I decided I was better off doing it on my own, trusting my own instincts and going against the grain. A lot of what you hear and see from other sources is bad information that will only take you off the right path.
"I like the challenge of figuring things out on my own. I need to be in 'the zone' to fish at my best, and that's just not possible for me if I'm relying on outside information."
But what about the neophyte trophy hunter who lacks Long's experience?
"State fisheries agencies and even the internet can be great sources for finding out the age and size of a body of water as well as the species found there," Long acknowledges. "Beyond that, you're better off to rely on your own research and observations in assessing a water's chance to produce trophies.
"Remember that everyone has an agenda that may be different from yours. Marina owners and guides are always going to say the fishing's great. Biologists want it to look like they're management efforts are working. Other anglers are likely to lie about their success to appear better than they are or to throw you off track. Do your own due diligence. In time, you'll learn to trust yourself."
Next: The Right Attitude.