It's sort of like Christopher Columbus in the 1490s trying to convince a skeptical crew that the world was not flat. That analogy comes to mind when discussing open water bass on Northern lakes with dyed-in-the-wool bank burners and bottom bumpers.
Take my dad — a senior angler who began serious bass fishing in the 1940s — for example.
Whenever I take him bass fishing these days, he wants to see cover to throw at: stumps, brush, weeds, rocks or something. Although he prefers being able to reach out and touch it, I have been able to convince him the bottom hugging stumps that show up on sonar are worth fishing, too.
But when winging baits in the center of the lake — some distance from either the shoreline or a stump-dotted underwater point simply because I say those funny blobs on the fishfinder screen are minnow schools — well, that is where Dad draws the line.
"Bass don't live out here," he says. Perhaps that was true in his younger days, when fisheries were less complex and uncontaminated by exotic introductions, but that is not the case today.
New age thinking
"While the bass-on-structure theory is widely accepted, the concept of bass in the middle of nowhere has been more difficult to bridge," states Dave Lefebre, a successful tournament angler and guide from Pennsylvania. "This is particularly true on many Northern waters, where certain species of pelagic baitfish were uncommon 20 or 30 years ago. Then again, perhaps open water schooling has always taken place on Northern waters, but was never noticed much by anglers who were content to fish the bank and the bottom structure."
However, Lefebre is never content to let any facet of bass fishing go unexplored. He points out that one important prerequisite for suspended bass is clear water, which enables better sight feeding. The open water schooling usually takes place from midsummer to early fall on waters in the Northeast, and it may involve either largemouth or smallmouth bass. By early October, when the water temperature begins to dip dramatically, those suspended bass go to ground again, so to speak.
Bob and Paul Hirosky, twin brothers also from Pennsylvania, are extreme competitors when it comes to bass fishing. Open water bass have played a key role for them in several summer tournaments. They know that if the right area is located, a few casts can fill out a limit quickly while other anglers scrounge for a few bites in shallow water.
"We view open water bass as three different groups," explains Paul Hirosky. "First, there are roaming bass, which are following moving schools of baitfish across the open water. These are generally referred to as 'schoolies' by anglers and are typically small fish.
"The second group is made up of resident bass that suspend off deep structure and wait for baitfish to move through the area. They establish ambush areas where they can trap the bait against the surface. These fish schools, or groups, are basically in a specific area all the time, but may move from structure to open water and back again.
"Finally, there are transient schools that move into an area for a while until they exhaust the bait, then move on. These fish, like the resident fish, are quality size bass that move up and down in the water column in relation to baitfish."
Bob Hirosky adds: "After observing these fish with an Aqua Vu underwater camera, we are convinced this third group — which in our experience are always smallmouth — are only temporary residents. They remain in a particular offshore area for a week or two, then disappear completely. Also, we often pick up a school at a new location that was not occupied a week ago."
Why are these bass found in open water? In a word, baitfish.
"These bass are relating to baitfish, including pelagic species like gizzard shad, alewife and emerald shiners," Bob says. "Obviously, if no prey were present, there would be no reason for bass to be there."
Nonnative shad and alewife have been introduced to many Northern waters in a number of ways, including clandestine stockings by anglers and accidental and deliberate plantings by state resource agencies.
Where to look
Lefebre rankles at the notion that bass are found randomly in the middle of nowhere. "Besides the presence of bait, there is usually a structural or current reason for that school to be there. It may not be very obvious, but if you spend enough time studying the situation, you should find some clues.
"It might be a long sloping point that terminates well offshore. It may be a finger extending from a hump or a slight bottom rise, such as a change in bottom composition. Perhaps it is a channel between two islands or a neck-down area between large weed flats. Yes, bass are suspended in the open, feeding on baitfish, but there is usually a nearby bottom configuration that they relate to in some manner — a home base, if you will."
Finding these open water schools is the most difficult step. Under the right weather condition (which he describes as a stable weather pattern with little or no wind, and sunny skies), Lefebre will spend a day watching for breaking fish.
"Seeing fish on the surface or gulls diving is the most positive way of identifying areas where these schools are working," explains Lefebre. "It's not hard to catch them when bass are on the surface after baitfish. But the trick is catching them on tournament day when they are less active. Once I have the general area identified, I'll run a circle pattern using my Zercom depthfinder to locate any inconspicuous structural key that the school may be relating to. This gives me a starting point next time I'm on the water to look for suspended baitfish."
The Hiroskys also depend on nature and the latest electronics to find open water bass.
"When the gulls don't disclose surface activity, we study the Lowrance X85 graph intently to locate pods of baitfish schools," explains Bob. "We do not have to see large marks, which indicate big fish. All we want to see are baitfish pods within 20 feet of the surface.
The actual bottom depth is not a concern to us — on some lakes, bass may be suspended over 30 feet, and on other lakes, it may be 130 feet."
Usual baits for unusual use
Baits used for open water are no different than ones typically found in the tackleboxes of many bass anglers. The difference lies in the application of specific retrieves as well as tweaking certain baits to achieve a more desirable presentation.
"Sometimes we are able to bring suspended bass to the surface," notes Bob Hirosky. "After locating a baitfish school near the surface, we work a topwater bait, such as a Zara Spook or Spit'n Image, with an extremely aggressive retrieve, literally skittering it across the surface. In clear water, this will sometimes excite one bass to come up for a closer examination, and the movement of one bass toward the surface generally will attract more from the school."
In order to work a Spook rapidly across the surface, the Hiroskys tie their lines directly to the lure rather than use a snap or split ring. This creates a splashier, tighter action to the Spook as opposed to a wide-walking action.
"But don't waste a lot of time trying to call up bass," continues Paul. "Several quick casts will tell you whether it will work. Even when bass are busting on the surface, topwater lures may not be the best way to catch them. Bass slashing prey on the surface are often trying to stun baitfish. Only when injured baitfish drift below the surface will bass actually engulf the prey."
When bass appear to be only swatting at surface lures, the Hiroskys immediately go to a subsurface lure, such as a Super Fluke, Suspending Husky Jerk or a Rat-L-Trap. Controlling these baits in the 2- to 6-foot zone is critically important.
"The amount of visible activity on the surface is just a preview of the frenzied feeding storm happening a few feet under the surface," according to Bob.
When surface activity is absent but baitfish schools are suspended in the 10- to 20-foot range, the Hiroskys attempt to trigger strikes with a couple of other lures. One is a Norman DD22 crankbait in the Sunshine Shad pattern, which they quickly wind down to its running depth and then periodically pause during the retrieve. The other is a tailspinner that is counted down to the desired depth, then retrieved with alternating sweeps and momentary pauses.
For tailspinners, the Hiroskys favor the Fat Mike from Stanley. "Most tailspinners have a reputation of giving bass leverage to throw the hook," explains Paul. "However, the Fat Mike slides on the line, allowing the hook to ride free. This is particularly helpful in keeping bass from coming unbuttoned."
They further tweak the tailspinner by inserting it inside a clear tube and trimming the tails so they won't interfere with the rotating blade. According to the Hirosky brothers, bass will hold the tailspinner a little longer because of the addition of the soft feel of the body shell.
On being prepared
Lefebre's open water search-and-catch mission involves having several 7-foot rods spooled with 17-pound test and rigged with different lures.
"When fish are eating on the surface, I like to throw a spinnerbait because I can easily control the depth of lure by the speed of retrieve," acknowledges Lefebre. "I'll modify a Stanley spinnerbait to make it fish better for these circumstances.
"First, I scrape all the paint off the head so it is a dull gray. Then I select a clear sparkle or blue glimmer skirt for the body. Next, I thin out the strands so there is no fluff to the skirt body. And I exchange the larger blade for a single No. 4 willowleaf. Changing to a smaller blade and thinning the skirt enables me to cast this spinnerbait a longer distance."
If bass are on the surface, Lefebre cranks the spinnerbait so fast that it is just barely tracking in the water. If surface activity suddenly subsides, he immediately slows the spinnerbait to begin a pump-and-pause retrieve. Or he may change to a chrome-finish Rat-L-Trap or an extremely shallow running crankbait, such as the Mann's One Minus or Timber Tiger DC2. He ties a snap on his line to enable the quickest bait exchange.
A 3/4-ounce Silver Buddy is always rigged on another rod. Lefebre trades the stock split-hook for a Gamakatsu treble on a split ring. The compact blade actually allows him to reach surface activity at a greater distance than with the spinnerbait. By adjusting the speed of retrieve, he can go from ripping the blade bait on the surface to any intermediate depth simply by counting it down. "This is really a fantastic bait for windy conditions," notes Lefebre.
Lefebre had been less than satisfied with deep running crankbaits, due in part to resistance from the big lip. But he recently discovered that Worden's new Timber Tiger DC 13 and DC 16 run deep without the pull associated with many deep diving crankbaits. When using crankbaits for suspending bass, Lefebre insists on clear body baits to mimic baitfish.
"I go to the crankbait when the bass are not eating on the top but are suspended off structure near a deep water hump or extended point," notes Lefebre. "Just as a cover-bumping crankbait is great for locating bass in the shallows, a free swimming crankbait is effective at locating suspended bass in open water."
While Lefebre takes most of the middepth aggressive bass on crankbaits or blade baits, when bass get tight-lipped, he changes to a slow falling Fin-S-Fish or tube.
"This is much slower fishing that takes patience. It's not something I'll do to locate fish, but if I've caught several good fish from the area and they shut down, I'll break out one of these lures to drop through baitfish pods or through suspended bass."