Nothing undermines the modern professional bass angler's confidence like the idea of pursuing weed-loving, cover-hunting, dock-dwelling, timber-hugging black bass out in open water. Take seasoned bass anglers away from the structure or shoreline cover their bass fishing education has been built around, and they are likely to feel as empty as the water they haul.
Suspended bass are a challenge and, largely, a mystery to the bass fishing world. Few pros claim to be experts on the subject and still fewer claim to catch them consistently on the Tournament Trail.
"No question. These are the hardest fish to catch," says Mike Iaconelli, Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year and a veritable model of consistency in 2006. Not that Ike hasn't had success with suspended bass, mind you. His first national tournament victory — the 1999 Federation National — came courtesy of these open water vagabonds. "I won on suspended bass that were postspawn," he recalls.
Mark Menendez credits his catch of suspended bass on jerkbaits for jumpstarting his career.
Still, aside from the occasional run-in with "schoolies" in open water, the majority of these encounters find neither angler nor hovering bass far from the points, trees, rock humps, dropoffs, weedlines or other elements illustrated in the textbooks of structure fishing.
But even as the evidence mounts that bass spend quality time hovering over deep open water, few anglers target the moveable feast of suspended bass. With the exception of north-country natural lakes where tournament anglers have begun to zero in on suspended smallmouth with growing success, suspended bass in most waters remain largely untapped. Most pros will stay with structure-oriented bass during a tough bite rather than take the chance on blanking on open water bass.
But as tools and techniques continue to evolve, anglers are venturing into this final frontier of bass fishing more seriously.
Stephen Headrick, Dale Hollow bass expert and owner of Punisher Lures in Celina, Tenn., credits a good portion of his reputation as "smallmouth guru" to his ability to take suspended winter bass on his pet technique, the float-and-fly, and has refined jerkbait and spinnerbait presentations for suspended bass. Still, he thinks he and other bass anglers have blazed only dirt trails into the frontier so far and the best is yet to come.
"I firmly believe that the guy who can consistently catch suspended fish will be the most dangerous bass angler on the planet," he says.
Modern technology, ranging from sophisticated sonar units to underwater cameras and telemetric tracking systems, has helped validate the fact that bass suspend — and suspend often. Smallmouth and spotted bass, in particular, will make suspension a way of life.
"I have seen a lot of suspended bass, smallmouth mostly, that are truly suspended — away from structure," relates Cory Schmidt, marketing coordinator for Nature Vision in Brainerd, Minn. In northern waters, Schmidt has watched through Aqua-Vu underwater vision systems as smallmouth followed trolled crankbaits over open lake basins for hundreds of yards without striking.
Smallies are most apt to suspend for extended periods in lakes with an abundance of smelt, ciscoes and alewives, Schmidt notes. Where schools of shad roam over open water, spots and largemouth, as well as smallies, will tail them. Recently, he viewed California largemouth suspended off rocks in Diamond Valley Reservoir.
WHY THEY ROAM
Bass suspend for four fundamental reasons:
1. Oxygen requirements. An inadequate concentration of dissolved oxygen at a given depth will compel bass to seek out areas and water levels better suited to their needs.
2. Temperature preference. The "Big Three" bass species adapt to a wide range of water temperatures but will seek out comfort zones when other biological needs are met.
3.Food. The simplest and most easily understood condition of bass suspension is under schools of pelagic (open water) baitfish.
4. Recovery. Bass may suspend after the rigors of spawning as well as after other physical trauma due to stress or a radical change in weather or water conditions.
Yet sometimes bass seem to suspend for none of these reasons.
"I'm not so sure anymore that suspending bass are completely relating to baitfish," says Nature Vision's Schmidt, leaving the door open to further inquiry. "I think they often are traveling between two points in open water."
Telemetric tracking by biologist Mark Ridgway and others have noted major smallmouth migrations between spawning areas and summer homes on lakes situated along the Canadian Shield. The Bassmasters television teams also tracked largemouth bass with embedded transmitters during long moves across open water during 2006 tournaments.
Jim Hanley, a former BASS pro and active Lake Erie smallmouth guide operating out of Buffalo, N.Y., regularly hooked 30 to 40 suspended bass per outing until bottom-hugging gobies became the lake's primary forage for smallmouth. Now suspended bass may comprise only 10 fish in a day's catch, he estimates.
Fellow Lake Erie expert Tim Braun notes that Erie smallies still suspend in fall and periodically throughout the summer, though less than they used to. "When the lake is flat, fish will roam," says Braun. "Sometimes we find roaming fish 10 feet down in 40 feet of water."
"Honestly, bass suspend year-round," believes Iaconelli. "Winter, spring, summer and fall. The real peak times are summer and fall. The period they suspend least is spring, when they are driven by the urge to spawn. But even then they will suspend off the first break near the spawning grounds. Prespawn bass do that a lot. Postspawn bass do the same thing. They like to suspend while they recuperate from the rigors of the spawn."
Since oxygen, temperature and forage are the primary variables influencing the location of suspended bass, the "catch" is to figure out why the bass are suspending.
"The first order on suspended bass is finding their mood and their strike zone," says Mark Davis, pro angler and director of public relations and advertising for Shakespeare Fishing Tackle, Columbia, S.C. Davis relies heavily on his electronics to locate clouds of baitfish, suspended bass, or, during summer, the thermocline (the layer of rapidly declining water temperatures and diminishing oxygen supply that sets up as lakes stratify).
"When you find a definite thermocline, treat that layer like the bottom. The fish always will come up to that part of the water column," says Davis. A finely tuned sonar screen will reveal the thermocline as a faint, dark cloudy band. "If they're following herring or shad, you look for baitfish on your graph... I know a guide on Lake Cumberland who searches only for baitfish."
Jim Lindner of the Lindner's Angling Edge television series refers to baitfish masses as "living structure," and, like Davis, he adjusts his presentation to the zone defined by them.
Anglers often see fish on their graphs but work baits below the strike zone. "We've learned that a lot of fish on the sonar appear to be near the bottom but may be 4, 5, even 8 feet up," says Nature Vision's Schmidt. "Bass will come down at times —the cleaner the water, the more the tendency. But they are much more likely to come up for a bait. Because of the position of a bass' eyes, it often doesn't even know a lure is down there."
Bass that suspend due to temperature stratification or oxygen levels are seeking comfort.
"When you have bass suspending due to temperature stratification (thermocline) or oxygen level, you can have inactive to semi-active fish, whereas fish suspending under forage almost always are semi-active to active," explains Davis.
Identifying the depth of the thermocline narrows the band of fish-holding water. There's little point in bumping bottom or dragging open water at the 40-foot depth level when the thermocline is at 30 feet.
"The real peak times for suspended bass are summer and fall, without a doubt," says Ike.
"In summer, the water stratifies. The thermocline becomes very defined and bait will hold in or above that level. Bass will suspend near the thermocline, right there with the bait. In southern reservoirs, they may be in that 10- to 12-foot zone over 20 or 25 feet of water. On the West Coast, you may find them in 30 feet over 60. Some of those guys will tell you they even have caught them suspended in 60 over 100."
Water cools and mixes again in the fall as turnover nears. Though bass venture shallow to find bait, they often will suspend off points, shoals and other shallow locations. Once you figure out how to tap this resource, you will catch bass other anglers never try for.
10 OCCASIONS TO CASH IN ON SUSPENDED BASS
1. Lakes with open water forage. Bass can feed effectively on pelagic forage such as shad, herring, alewives, ciscoes, emerald shiners and, at times, many other species including young perch when water clarity permits.
2. Lakes without cover. Bass with little cover and weakly defined structure available oftentimes suspend.
3. Prespawn. Prior to the spawn, bass will move from deep water winter areas to stage off spawning grounds. "Often they will suspend off the first break near the spawning grounds," says Iaconelli.
Bass feeling the urge to merge may take a midday elevator ride. "On bright sunny days and in the absence of significant current, the fish will rise and suspend higher in the water column and soak in the rays," says Davis.
4. Postspawn recovery. Reservoir bass often will suspend in the same areas they used during the prespawn to recuperate from the rigors of the spawn. Smallmouth may mosey long distances across flats and expanses of open water.
5. Weather or water changes. Shallow water temperatures can drop quickly, and muddy runoff can alter habitat and prey location rapidly. "The day after a cold front is the one time fish suspend more than any other time," says Headrick.
6. Water fluctuation. Bass' survival depends on their ability to detect even subtle fluctuations in water levels. Fish that inhabit tidal areas or move into flooded areas in spring rely on this instinct daily. "A lot of bass suspension has to do with water level," says Iaconelli. "Not just on reservoirs, but in natural lakes, too." Bass are quick to suspend during falling water levels. But they will rise with water levels following a heavy rain, as well. "I can't tell you how many times I've seen this happen, especially in reservoirs," says Ike.
7. Cold weather. Winter is "hang time," particularly on deep, clear reservoirs where smallies and spotted bass suspend over or near river or creek channels close to steep rock banks. At this time, Headrick finds Dale Hollow's monster smallmouth eager victims to the float-and-fly technique.
8. Deep timber. Bass relate to timber in much the same way they do to vegetation — hovering over the top or suspending at some level in between at different times —over water that may be 30 to 100 feet deep.
9. Summer stratification. Baitfish and bass suspend above the thermocline after water has stratified in summer. Oxygen and temperature preferences are primary drivers at this time. Classic suspension takes place in open water off prime structure. Regard the thermocline itself as the bottom to narrow the fish-holding zone. Use of electronics is critical to locate the thermocline, baitfish and schools of bass themselves.
10. Heavily pressured lakes. In lakes that experience heavy boating and fishing pressure, bass may withdraw to open water.
IN THE ZONE
The belief that suspended bass are largely uncatchable is driven primarily by the difficulty of keeping baits in a small strike zone within a tall column of water. Finding a triggering mechanism when fishing open water also is tougher than it is fishing near structure or cover where baits bumping bottom or ripping free of vegetation will often elicit a strike.
Finding an effective retrieve is often the key to the game whether you are trying to trigger reaction bites with quick retrieves or subtle in-your-face bites from lethargic fish.
Change retrieval speed or direction to trigger reaction strikes with hard baits for semi-active bass or followers. Mark Fisher, national promotions director and field tester for Normark/Rapala, attributes a good portion of the success of the popular X-Rap to its penchant for making (up to) a 180 degree turn during a pause. The change in direction during both pause and jerk serve as triggering mechanisms.
Elite Series angler Mark Menendez regards the jerkbait as one of his most effective tools due to its ability to call bass from long distances. "A jerkbait has a magnetism about it, especially in cold water, that brings fish to the bait," he says.
For inactive bass, keep grubs, worms and swimming soft baits near baitfish or just above the suspended predators. Imparting only trembling motions to barely moving baits may be the ticket under the toughest finesse conditions. Neutral and even inactive bass will succumb to a pulsating bait that appears to be struggling in the bass' midst.
Bass are generally less aggressive when they are in the suspended state. But don't let that generality deter you. Schools of bass busting shad or other prey species hundreds of yards — even miles —from shore provide some of the fastest action in freshwater.