Footloose for big bass

For many, the term "bass fishing" conjures pictures of a metalflaked bass boat flying across a giant reservoir, and anglers decked out in colorful tournament shirts putting limits of fish in the livewell. It's a compelling scene, but certainly not the only way to go bass fishing.

The black bass was a gamefish long before the advent of bass boats and graphite rods. When George Perry caught the 22-pound, 4-ounce world record largemouth in 1932, there weren't any depthfinders or trolling motors — not even fiberglass boats. Perry caught his behemoth from a small skiff, and many other huge bass have been hooked by bank-bound anglers.

Footloose bass fishing gets you into places where, for one reason or another, you can't launch a boat, including small lakes and ponds where anglers are restricted to bank fishing, or in waters lacking launch facilities. Many of these waters have awesome largemouth lurking in them — fish that get little or no pressure from other anglers. They are well worth checking out, even if you have to leave your boat at home.

You'll find other advantages to footloose bassing: On foot, you can get in a whole weekend of fishing for pennies. It's also a relaxing, low pressure way to fish. And most importantly, it works. Interestingly enough, it can work as well on large bodies of water as it does on small ones.

True, shore anglers on large reservoirs face some restrictions. It's impossible to reach isolated structure features like submerged humps and stream channels positioned more than a cast from the bank, for example. However, plenty of good options remain available along the bank. After all, that's where the majority of bass boat anglers spend most of the day.

At times, it's also where the majority of bass are. If you choose your shore fishing locales properly, you can fish both shallow waters, where bass are relating to such structures as docks and riprap, and deeper structure, as well.

A bank angler's best friend is a good topo map that shows him where he can get within casting range of deeper water at the times of the year when bass are deep, and where he can effectively fish the shallows when the bass are there.

Prominent structures in shallow water with deep water nearby have always been bass magnets. You can usually find a number of such places on any lake, and these are often accessible from the bank. When conditions are right, being on the bank is not a disadvantage; it might actually be a plus.

In recent years, Gil Rowe, an angler from Southern California, held the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world record for spotted bass (plus several line class records) with fish he caught on foot — right in front of other anglers fishing from boats. Rowe was very familiar with the lake he was fishing, and he timed his trips to take advantage of areas and structures that would produce giant spotted bass.

Dennis Ditmars of Escondido, Calif., presently holds a string of records for catching big largemouth bass. These fish were also caught from the bank — and with a fly rod! He walks the banks of several small reservoirs that have both Florida-strain largemouth and stocked trout in the winter. These waters don't allow private boats, so the bigger bass don't get pounded by an endless procession of bass boaters.

Several years ago, while researching a story on trophy bass in Southern California, I was told about a fellow who regularly caught big bass on several lakes. When I contacted the man and started asking him about his methods, I was surprised to discover that he didn't even own a boat; he preferred to prowl the banks of his favorite waters on foot.

Can you compete with the boating angler when it comes to catching bass? In a word, yes. This individual told me he went through a seven year stretch in which he averaged catching 50 to 100 big largemouth a year from the bank. Many were 10 pounds or heavier. His biggest bass caught from shore weighed 17 pounds, 6 ounces.

These examples illustrate that bank fishing can be as rewarding as any other approach to the sport — if you recognize its limitations and advantages. Equipment requirements are minimal. They have to be, since you can't easily tote a boatload of tackle on your back.

A small tackle pouch, creel or day-bag will hold more than enough tackle and gear. Instead of packing a dozen crankbaits, carry three or four. Cut your selection of soft plastics from hundreds to dozens. Mix in a selection of jigs, spinnerbaits and topwater lures that fit in a couple of smaller plastic boxes, and you're equipped for a day on the shore.

Instead of a half-dozen rods rigged with different lures, you have to rely on one or perhaps two rods while on foot. A medium weight, medium action spinning rod 6 ½ to 7 feet in length with a quality monofilament line of 8- to 12-pound test will suffice for most circumstances. The longer rod gives you good casting distance with lightweight lures.

A good backup rod for working the heaviest cover along the shore would be a baitcasting rod rigged with 12- to 20-pound-test line. With this, you can pitch or flip soft plastics and jigs into thick brush and blowdowns that hold big bass, and you'll have some assurance that you'll get your lure back. The baitcaster is also good for those occasions when you want to throw a big swim bait in small waters where big bass mingle with planted trout.

The footloose fisherman has another advantage over boaters — stealth. The boat that gives the angler mobility also creates a disturbance in the environment that bass — especially trophy class bass — notice. Smaller bass may not react that much, but larger (older, smarter) bass are wary creatures. Many trophy bass specialists who fish from boats resort to double anchoring their craft right on the shoreline to reduce the chance of spooking big fish.

Mike Long, whose 20-pound, 12-ounce giant graced the cover of Bassmaster in 2001, is an advocate of anchoring his small boat right on the shore. His idea is to prevent the boat from being the dominant feature bass see in the area. Bill Murphy, whose book, In Pursuit of Giant Bass, describes the technique as "making the boat part of the structure."

The shoreline angler has already achieved this degree of merging with the background. As long as you don't jump up and down, sending tremors through the bank and water, or wear bright colors, you can get within easy casting distance of bass without their noticing your presence. Standing on the bank, I've spotted big largemouth lurking on the edge of a distinctive bass bed; I was able to cast lures to them without their knowing I was there — until I set the hook.

Being on foot not only allows you to concentrate on the area you are fishing — it forces you to do so. Where the average boat angler may give an area two or three casts and then move on, the shore angler can't move quite so fast, so he usually is methodical, covering the area within casting range. I can't tell you how many times over the years I've had to cast 10 or 20 times into an area before getting a fish to bite. Not many people will stay in an area long enough to make that many casts unless they have to.

Along with being methodical in your coverage, chances are good you'll concentrate on one or two lures, rather than picking up a different rod every few casts. You'll probably discover quickly that soft plastics and jigs are easily the most effective lures. They don't make a lot of noise and scare bass in the shallows. Also, they retrieve from deep to shallow with fewer hang-ups than crankbaits.

A Carolina rig, which can be cast long distances, makes a great searching bait for the shore angler trying to find fish or cover in a large area. Spinnerbaits and crankbaits are good for scouring an area quickly, although suspending, deep diving crankbaits can be awkward when you're casting into deep water and retrieving through the shallows. A floating/diving model will be easier to handle from shore.

When you have lots of obvious shore structure, or are fishing docks or pilings, Texas rigging a worm is better for short-range work and pinpoint accuracy.

One real advantage of being on foot is that you are properly positioned to fish the bank side of weedbeds. It's amazing how many large bass you'll find on the sheltered side of a big weedline, especially in spring.

Finally, you gain peace and quiet by stepping out of the boat and onto shore. You'll enjoy the slower pace and simplicity of this brand of fishing. It's a laid-back way to fish, most of the time — until that bass of a lifetime latches on and tries to take away your rod and reel.