Welcome to the first installment of "Mike Long Wants You to Catch the Biggest Bass of Your Life." This will be a 10-part series in which Mike will set out the basic framework of his trophy bass fishing methods. Think of it as the "big picture" or "the view from 30,000 feet," if you've been to too many business planning meetings lately.
Right up front, you should know that Mike didn't choose the title for this series without a lot of thought and consideration. Bass fishing experts — and especially trophy bass experts — aren't exactly known for being forthcoming ... and that includes Mike Long. For several decades he kept his lunker cards close to the vest lest someone else learn in a few minutes what had taken him years to grasp. When you're chasing the world record largemouth, that sort of secrecy is expected and even respected, but that was a different time and a different Mike Long.
Today, at 47, he's embarking on a new era of his "bass fishing journey." Instead of merely being an angler and trophy hunter, he's ready to be a teacher and a mentor. He now gets as much out of watching new and novice anglers succeed as he once did out of catching giant bass himself.
So that's what's in it for Mike — the satisfaction of teaching and paying it forward. What's in it for the rest of us is the chance to catch the biggest bass of our lives.
The right water
"I want to start with water selection because it's so basic to catching a big fish of any kind," Long says. "Quite simply, you can't catch what's not there. If there are no trophy bass in a body of water, you can't catch one there even if you do everything else right. On the flip side of that, if you're on a great body of water and do almost everything wrong, you at least have a chance to catch a giant."
For Long, choosing the right water for trophy bass fishing is a three step analysis involving (1) structural value, (2) forage and (3) history. They're all important, but he doesn't use them in equal parts.
"The term 'structural value' is one I use as shorthand for several factors, including the physical makeup of the lake, the structure and cover options and the water quality," Long explains.
"The basic blueprint of the lake or river system tells me several important things about its ability to produce big bass whether it's in California or Maine, Florida or Washington, and it doesn't matter if we're talking about largemouths, smallmouths or spotted bass. The initial assessments I make when considering structural value are critical for all bass species everywhere. You just have to adjust them to your region and the species you're targeting."
The first and most obvious structural value factor Long considers is size. Is the lake a sprawling reservoir like Toledo Bend, a gigantic natural lake like Okeechobee or maybe a small municipal reservoir like those scattered around his Southern California home?
"Generally speaking, bigger is better," Long says, "but there are exceptions. Small waters can be devastated by sudden water quality issues, drawdowns and other things that might not impact a larger body of water. On the other hand, big lakes typically get a lot of fishing and boating pressure and are seldom managed for quality trophy bass fishing.
"I caught my largest bass — 'Dottie' at 20 pounds, 12 ounces — from a 70-acre reservoir, but that's probably getting to the small end of the water body spectrum. Bigger is typically better."
Another structural value factor is the availability of bass sanctuaries. Whether the lake is natural or man-made, big or small, bass need to have refuge from adverse weather and water conditions. This entails two important options — deep water and shallow cover. Both offer sanctuary to bass at different stages of their development.
"For young bass at the fry stage and for the first year or two, dense shallow cover is critical to their ability to avoid being eaten by birds, snakes and even other bass. It's also important to forage like panfish and crawfish," Long says. "If your water doesn't have plenty of dense shallow cover, that's a strike against it. It makes it tougher for it to produce trophy bass."
Deep water is the refuge of adult — and trophy — bass. Sure, some of them will retreat to shallow cover, but it's best if deep water is available, too. It also provides territory for shad and other pelagic forage.
"Deep is relative," explains Long. "In some parts of the country, 60 feet is deep but in places like most Florida lakes you don't have any water that's even half that deep. If you can identify the depth of the shallow feeding grounds on a body of water, estimate that you'll need some water at least twice that deep to provide a sanctuary for the bass."
If a body of water has sufficient size as well as deep and shallow sanctuaries, the next thing to look for is balance in the ecosystem. A lake with good trophy potential is going to be "healthy." It's going to have biological diversity. There will be a variety of forage types available to the bass, whether it's shad and crawfish or panfish and catfish or trout and frogs.
"There's a hierarchy of bass forage that I consider whenever I'm assessing a lake's trophy potential and even when I'm preparing to fish it on any given day," Long says. "No lake has all of these forage types, but almost every one will have several options, and the more options they have and the higher on the list the forage ranks, the better the chances it will produce giant bass."
At the top of Long's forage hierarchy — think of a literal bass food pyramid here — is the rainbow trout, ubiquitous in many California bass waters but relatively rare elsewhere. Next on the list is the golden shiner. Here's the list in full, though your waters may offer other menu items:
1. Rainbow trout
2. Golden shiners
4. Panfish (bluegill, crappie, etc.) and perch
6. Shad (threadfin, gizzard, etc.)
7. Catfish and bullheads
9. Terrestrials (frogs, ducks and other birds, mice and rats, lizards and snakes)
Long is quick to note that these forage species are often seasonal — especially trout, crawfish and terrestrials — and their availability and desirability will shift and cycle through the seasons. This affects not only the bass' feeding habits and growth, but also Long's bait selection and presentation methods.
"The rankings are based on several factors," he explains, "but some of the biggest are protein content, ease of capture and ease of digestion. A stocker trout is pretty easy for a big bass to catch, it's full of protein and it practically melts in the bass' mouth. A panfish has quite a bit of protein, too, but it's tougher to catch and harder to break down in the digestive process. A steady supply of the right food is essential to trophy bass production."
When Long was just getting started on his trophy bass quest, he listened to a lot of other sources when evaluating a water's trophy potential. It filled in where he lacked experience and provided a starting point when he had none. Over the years, though, he's trained himself to assess water and put the puzzle together on his own.
"I used to follow the bread crumbs," he says. "Photos in magazines and newspapers, lake reports, stories from other fishermen — all that stuff would send me off in a million different directions, chasing fish that often didn't even exist. Ultimately, I decided I was better off doing it on my own, trusting my own instincts and going against the grain. A lot of what you hear and see from other sources is bad information that will only take you off the right path.
"I like the challenge of figuring things out on my own. I need to be in 'the zone' to fish at my best, and that's just not possible for me if I'm relying on outside information."
But what about the neophyte trophy hunter who lacks Long's experience?
"State fisheries agencies and even the internet can be great sources for finding out the age and size of a body of water as well as the species found there," Long acknowledges. "Beyond that, you're better off to rely on your own research and observations in assessing a water's chance to produce trophies.
"Remember that everyone has an agenda that may be different from yours. Marina owners and guides are always going to say the fishing's great. Biologists want it to look like they're management efforts are working. Other anglers are likely to lie about their success to appear better than they are or to throw you off track. Do your own due diligence. In time, you'll learn to trust yourself."
Next: The Right Attitude.