It was a classic example of "Ya shoulda been here yesterday," and it made a pretty good argument for staying home today.
What had been a week of balmy February weather on Florida's Harris Chain had turned downright nasty overnight. Gone were the mid-70 temperatures and hazy gray skies that had sent bass flocking to the shallows. Instead, Jim Bitter and this writer were greeted with a painfully brilliant blue sky, a cutting 20 mph north wind, and the kind of air temperature that answers the question visitors frequently ask regarding why Florida anglers own snowmobile suits.
There are a number of terms anglers use to describe a day like this, with "In The Dumper" being as good as any, and more printable than most.
Bitter, however, wasn't overly concerned. And after a mercifully short ride from the ramp, he turned in to a canal and announced the day's game plan.
"Tie on a Rat-L-Trap and burn it by every piece of cover you can," he instructed. "Keep the speed quick, get the lure tight to brushtops, dock pilings and laydown logs, and hit each piece of cover from as many angles as you can. We may not catch as many fish as we would have yesterday, but we'll catch fish."
For those who accept as gospel the theory that sluggish bass require finesse techniques, Bitter was advocating what amounted to piscatorial blasphemy. But, it worked.
In fact, it worked pretty well. And by the end of the day, we'd corralled enough bass to convince this writer that conventional wisdom may not always be correct, and that speed has more uses than just getting from one fishing spot to another.
"This canal was loaded with bass yesterday, and this front didn't move them out today," Bitter explained. "What it did was move them tight to any kind of hard cover they could find. It also turned them off. They aren't going to chase a bait. But if you zip one quickly by their noses at the right angle, they'll hit it out of pure reflex. It's just a matter of speed, and that's an aspect of lure presentation that often gets overlooked."
The speed factor
Like many nondefinitive terms, "speed" is a relative one. It will mean something different to an angler bumping a plastic worm over the bottom than it will to one frothing a buzzbait on top.
For many experienced anglers, however, the term "speed" is fairly easy to describe — it's a retrieve pace fast enough to bring the lure by the bass in such a short period of time that the fish must either react to it instantly, or let it pass.
"A high speed retrieve can trigger a reaction strike from many bass," says Florida pro Bernie Schultz. "They are top-level predators that don't have much to fear, and they are innately curious — and even bullies. If you ever watch them in a tank with other fish, you'll see that they are constantly messing with the smaller fish. They nip them, butt them and just act like a schoolyard bully. It's their nature. They are geared to respond to smaller creatures in their environment in the same way a cat will swat at a string dangled in front of its face or a dog will chase a ball.
"When you burn a lure by a bass at the right angle, you can often get it to react. Since it doesn't have hands, the only real way it can react is to take it into the mouth. It might not be in a feeding mode at the time, but if I can get a hook into its mouth, I don't care what mood it's in. Speed can get you the reaction strike."
While speed can often be the deciding factor in dealing with bass in a negative mood, it's certainly not the only time burning a bait will pay off.
Sometimes even highly active fish require a little extra kick in the tail to get them to open their mouths, and Schultz remembers one very unusual example.
"I was fishing a BASSMASTER Invitational on the Potomac River a few years back," he recounts, "and I was on a solid buzzbait pattern. During practice and on the first day of competition, the fish were aggressive; as long as my Hildebrandt buzzbait was up and moving, they would blast it.
That all changed on the second day, when all the fish would do was come up and 'explode' behind the bait without ever touching it.
"It was really frustrating, and I couldn't figure out why they had changed."
He tried everything: slower retrieves, smaller lures, different colors, different blades — all the tactics we accept as truisms. But nothing made a difference. It was obvious the bass were showing an interest in Schultz' buzzbait, but they wouldn't connect with it.
"I probably would have stayed frustrated all day if I hadn't gotten lucky," he reports. "On one particular cast, a big bass blew up behind the bait and missed it, so I burned the bait back to the boat to make another cast to him. The bait never got there. Five feet from the boat, that fish 'toilet-flushed' it, and I had him. He also took that bait deep.
"That was the proverbial light bulb going off above my head. The only variable I hadn't tried was increased speed, and that's what was needed. So I spent the next two days burning that Headbanger buzzbait across the grass just as fast as I could reel it — far faster than we would ever fish it — and I never missed another fish. Once I figured that out, it was also like I was fishing new water on every cast. I could go behind another angler who was fishing the same basic bait, but at a slower pace, and catch fish with that fast retrieve.
"I still have no idea why those fish changed so quickly, but I've become much more aware of the speed factor since then, and I have seen it happen with other baits as well. Sometimes it can even change hourly, and it is definitely something I watch for now."
When speed can rule
Although speed is often the antidote for finicky bass behavior, there are times and situations in which burning a bait can be the best way to start.
"One of the most effective patterns for pre-spawn bass in Florida, or anywhere else fish are staging over shallow submerged grass or wood, is to burn a shallow running crankbait," said Bitter. "If the cover is mostly submerged grass, a lipless bait is usually best. If there is a lot of wood, then one of the shallow cranks, like the Mann's 1-Minus or Bomber Square A, might be more effective; they tend to bounce off wood better and hang less. This is such a consistently productive pattern, that if I pull into an area where I know the bass are bedding and I don't see any fish on the beds, I'll back off to the deeper, submerged grass and start burning a Trap."
Blade baits can also be deadly in this situation, especially in areas where grass precludes the use of treble-hook baits.
"There are a lot of lakes in Florida, and some other areas of the South, where you have extensive grass flats in 2 to 4 feet of water," Schultz adds. "They might be eelgrass, peppergrass, hydrilla or even combinations of these emergent plants. They may not offer a lot of obvious casting targets, but the fish will stack up on them or just wander around them randomly.
Running a spinnerbait or a Snagless Sally at a quick pace, just under the surface, will connect with a lot of these fish. I like to get the wind at my back, since wind tends to position fish to face into it, and fan cast quickly ahead of the boat as I drift over the grass. This brings the bait from behind most fish, flashes it quickly in their faces and then scoots away. It gives them no time to think about it. It's a great 'speed/reaction' pattern when fish are spawning on grass flats."
While speed can be key during the spawning period, it can also be fantastic in the fall.
"Anytime fish are on a heavy feed," Bitter notes, "a speed retrieve can be deadly. Those fish are as active as they are going to get, and the faster you cover water with a bait, the better your chances of running into them. One speed pattern that seems to invariably produce in the fall is working shad concentrations in creek channels in man-made lakes.
"Then, you'll often find shad schools up in little pockets in the backs of creeks," he says. "Some of the pockets may not be the size of your living room, but if a ball of shad is there, you can bet some bass are on them. If you burn a spinnerbait or crankbait right through the middle of that school, shad will part to let it pass. But when that bait comes out the other side, the bass will zero in on it."
While speed is a key factor in triggering a reaction strike, it is no guarantee of success by itself. It only comes into play if the lure passes the bass at the right angle. Since anglers seldom know how a bass is positioned on a piece of cover, making speed work often means multiple casts to the cover in order to find that angle.
"I was fishing a BASS Masters Classic on Chesapeake Bay," Schultz relates. "That place is just loaded with duck blinds, and I found one that was holding fish. I was able to make a pass around it and catch one or two fish, then they'd shut down. So, I'd go back at it from another angle and catch one or two more. Then I'd do it all over again. I spent an hour alternating between a Spot and a Bomber 2A, burning them both, banging them off the pilings and changing retrieve angles — and I caught fish the entire hour.
"I have no idea how many fish were still down there when I left," he says, "but I do know that I was following two other boats that had fished it without success. But they fished it rather quickly and moved on. A lot of times you have to really pound a piece of cover from a lot of different angles in order to make speed trigger strikes."
Persistence pays when it comes to making speed effective. But given the limited amount of time in the fishing day, knowing when to commit to that approach can be every bit as important as properly executing it. For Bitter, that decision is relatively easy.
"A lot of the speed factor has to do with your knowledge of the water," he has found. "When the fishing gets slow, a lot of anglers have a tendency to slow down their lure presentation. I don't think that's a bad idea if you're not sure that fish are in that area. But if I'm certain the bass are there and I can't get them to hit conventional retrieves, then that's my signal to step it up a notch. In that situation, speed really does kill."
Maximizing your RPMs
Any lure can be cranked quickly, but when pure speed is needed, most experts stick to lipless crankbaits, spinnerbaits and the newer breed of square-billed shallow crankbaits. There is an extensive selection on the market, and all can do the job. A little tweaking, however, can often make them even more effective.
"There's a limit to how fast you can retrieve a lot of spinnerbaits before they broach to the surface," said Bernie Schultz. "But you can significantly increase the retrieve speed by taking a rubber core sinker, removing the rubber, and clamping the sinker around the shank of the hook. Add a ½-ounce sinker to a 3/8-ounce bait, and you can really get some speed out of it while keeping it running true."
Crankbaits might benefit from replacing one of the hooks with a larger size treble. Some anglers prefer changing out the rear hook, while others opt for the front.
"Changing a hook doesn't alter the action," says Schultz, "because the lure is really hauling tail anyway. But that bigger hook gives you an edge when a bass slams a fast moving bait."
Careful tackle selection is also a wise move.
"Speed cranking can be fatiguing," noted Jim Bitter, "so I prefer a 5 ½-foot pistol grip casting rod because of its lighter weight. Add a reel with at least a 5.1 retrieve ratio, and you won't wear yourself out as much as you will with longer, heavier gear. And you really don't need a longer rod because you're normally making a lot of short, accurate casts anyway.