The year’s midpoint’s approaching, and bass are either in or moving toward their summer patterns. Understanding what the fish want helps you plan your big-bite strategy. Here’s the skinny from a quintet of Bassmaster Elite Series anglers with proven giant-finding prowess.
Current and cover: When Texas angler Lee Livesay finds this scenario on a stained river, he knows he’s knocking on the right doors. A big laydown on a main-river outside bend with current — money.
“The biggest fish in a stained water system like that are really hard to catch in the summer months, so I’m going to use some type of reaction bait on the thickest cover I can find,” Livesay said. “I’m going to throw a big squarebill in there instead of flipping it with a worm or a jig.”
Thoroughly picking apart the cover, he’ll hit every limb, low or high. Fish could be anywhere on the tree, depending on time of day, but experience tells Livesay to expect several suspenders.
“You could have a tree that’s 20 feet deep, but you’re catching them 2 feet under the surface,” he said. “In a river system, try to present your bait so you’re bringing it downcurrent.
“Those fish are going to position with their noses into the current 99.9 percent of the time. They’re waiting for the shad and bream to come through those treetops, so you want to sit downcurrent, cast upcurrent and cross those outside limbs.”
Armed with a 7-foot medium-heavy Halo rod and 17-pound Hi-Seas fluorocarbon, Livesay makes short, precise casts to all sections of a laydown. After covering those outside limbs on the upcurrent side, he’ll position parallel to the trunk and bump along that line before giving the downcurrent angles a look.
Livesay expects the fish to favor the tree’s perimeter during early mornings, late afternoons or cloudy conditions, while sunny times push them deeper into shady sections. In any case, he finds persistence particularly relevant.
“The biggest key is multiple casts to the same spot,” Livesay said. “I’ve been on the Red River and Arkansas River and I’ve literally made 25 casts to the same little bitty laydown, the same cast over and over, and on the 25th cast, BOOM — I catch one.
“In a Bassmaster Open on the Red River, I caught five fish off of a 3-foot laydown, but I probably made 150 casts to it. About every 30th cast, I’d catch one. I ended up catching a limit by making the same exact cast down the base of that tree.”
With temperatures on the rise and fish typically transitioning out of postspawn and into summer sulking, the 2019 DICK’S Sporting Goods Bassmaster Rookie of the Year knows that more is better. Specifically, he looks for the heaviest, nastiest grass he can find.
Nothing fancy here — it’s a straight-up, blue-collar punching deal in which Cook drives a Big Bite Baits YoMama through the dense cover behind a 1 1/2-ounce weight. Once the morning sun intensifies, the fish will pretty much tuck away for the day’s duration, so hitting as many of the right spots as possible gives him a good shot at running into something that’ll yank his rod
“You just go right to their house,” Cook said. “I like a thick, isolated patch of grass that’s kind of off by itself. You pretty much know that you’re not going to pull up there and catch [several fish] off of it, but you’ll pull up there and catch one big one.”
Cook’s particularly optimistic with blended cover. It could be a solid hydrilla bed with sporadic coontail patches or some other diversifying feature, but in most cases, the biggest fish will stake out something different within the sameness.
Considering that big fish tucked into heavy cover prefer one-bite meals over chasing little morsels, Cook gravitates to grassbeds bristling with bream. How can he tell? He listens.
“If you pull up to a mat and you don’t hear anything, you might get a bite out of it, but you aren’t going to catch ’em,” Cook said. “But if you pull up to a mat and you hear all that popping and smacking of bluegill eating bugs out of the mat, get ready.”
Throughout the California Delta, Zaldain knows that finding a giant bite in June will occur either on top or on the bottom, with not much in between. Shade is key, so the bottom part’s easy — during the day’s sunniest hours, he’ll drive a creature bait with a 1 1/2-ounce weight through the thickest mat he can find.
Using black/blue for murky water or watermelon red in clearer conditions, Zaldain lets the bait smash to the bottom to kick up sediment, hops it a couple of times and repeats. For topside action, Zaldain tempts the tanks with a black or white Megabass Big Gabot frog. For both presentations, he searches for particular areas for his highest concentration of opportunity.
“I’m looking for transitional areas from the slack-water, dead-end-type areas where they spawn to moving water,” Zaldain said. “The tidal water is always moving on the Delta, and as it gets warmer in June and July, those fish rely on it because it provides more oxygen, and that’s where they feed coming off the spawn.
“Most of the time, I’m punching hyacinth in little slack-water areas right next to main-channel current. That’s an excellent spot to find fish transitioning from their spawn to their summertime patterns.”
Zaldain knows his frog deal may be a one-bite deal, but it’s often the one he needs. It’s the same basic zone as the punch fish, but he’s threading the amphibian imposter into little tule pockets or corners, especially something with a sheet of duckweed offering a shady covering with the ideal density for chugging the Big Gabot’s concave face.
“This time of year, you’re always looking for shade next to current, so early morning hours and late afternoon hours are best for [open-water tactics], and then throughout the day, I target those mats [and duckweed] with the frog and the punch rig.
“I like a frog with a cupped face because it creates extra commotion on top of the mat and gets their attention faster and longer. That time of year, the water temperatures are rising and they bite good, so a medium to medium-fast retrieve is best for the frog.”
Elite Series veteran Matt Herren’s basing his giant strategy on two key factors: Clear water and big forage species are the driving points, for June finds most of the big fish in postspawn mode, chilling over long, tapering points and humps, where they keep watch for their next hefty belly-filler.
“That time of year, those big females are looking for one big meal,” Herren said. “Most of those highland reservoirs have a lot of big gizzard shad or big hickory shad and even bluegill. There’s something about an 8- to 12-inch glide bait they just can’t stand.”
Facing mostly clear water, Herren stresses stealth — minimum boat wakes, low trolling motor speed and long casts. Keeping it quiet, he’ll focus on varying his retrieve to attract attention but stand ready to execute the deal closer.
“Some of them, you don’t need to impart any action; they have a natural swim of their own,” Herren said. “But some of them work better with a reel-pause, reel-pause presentation to make the bait move left and right. Some work better with rod action; some I control with the reel. You have to get to know whichever bait you use and see how it performs.
“If I see one following a glide bait, one of the biggest things I’ve figured out is you can’t really kill the bait because it will just fall. You have to keep up the cadence, but do what I call a ‘trigger move,’ which is, change the cadence rapidly, reel the bait really hard three or four times. If the bait’s doing the same thing for 100 feet, they know it’s not real, but when the bait flees and tries to get away, they can’t stand it.”
Herren’s 7-11 heavy Kistler KLX rod and 20-pound fluorocarbon handle the bait heaving, while also giving him the muscle to set the hook at the end of a long cast. His best advice: Rely on steady, even pressure to sink those stout trebles.
“Set the hook on a tight line,” Herren said. “Let the fish get the bait, pull all the slack down and then pull back on a tight line. Don’t jerk because those glide baits are hard, so let that stiff rod and fluorocarbon do the work.”
Targeting postspawn smallmouth (mid- to late June), the two-time Elite Series winner will look for the first drops outside spawning bays where the shallow, grass-smattered flats transition into deeper, summertime, main-lake habitat. Working in about 10 to 15 feet, Hartman mimics the crawfish and gobies that stuff many smallmouth bellies by throwing the 1/2-ounce Lil’ Creeper finesse football-head jig he designed for Riot Baits.
“It’s very small and compact; we named it the Lil’ Creeper for how you can creep it through all the little rocks and it doesn’t get hung up very much,” Hartman said. “I’ll rig that with a Riot Baits Tantrum — a compact craw we made for that jig. I like peanut butter and jelly for the jig and green pumpkin for the trailer.
“The best presentation is slow and on the bottom; don’t let it leave the bottom. That’s when they eat it the best.”
Paralleling the drops, Hartman casts at a 45-degree angle, similar to how he’d work a riprap bank, until he determines the right depth zone. Once he dials in the fish’s preference, he can pattern them on subsequent drops.
Hartman suggests throwing this jig on 12-pound line spooled onto a reel of at least 6.4:1 gear ratio. His retrieve will never need the speed, but when a big smallie bites, he can’t afford to miss the opportunity.
“I like the high-speed reel just to pick up the line as quick as I can,” Hartman said. “It’s not a hook set; it’s more of a sweep set. You reel into them as fast as you can and then sweep into them. It’s more of a pressure set. That football jig has a smaller, thin-wire hook, so it seems like that sweep set sticks them a lot better.
“I’ve experimented with it a lot, and that big, hard hook set is not the way to go. That jig’s hook is so fine and sharp that it will rip the skin and you’ll lose fish or you’ll miss them.”
Originally published in Bassmaster Magazine 2020.