Thursday, June 12, 2014

Topwater Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass: Changing Light Advantages Predation



One day last August at 1:00 p.m. on Ringwood State Park’s Shepherd Lake, my son and I bass fished an even handed way—weightless Chompers worms 17 feet down along a weedline’s edge, the breeze light enough for control. We heard a whoop and watched an angler catch a good-size bass back in the weeds. It became apparent he fished topwater plugs. Another good bass struck. I looked at the sky to notice the sun had dimmed as clouds thickened and understood, feeling distinctly one-upped by someone else taking an odd approach. I pride myself on doing things differently because that tends to make the difference. I believed I knew why those bass hit, but hadn't thought to try topwaters.


Largemouth and smallmouth bass serve as an interesting academic research subject for an obvious reason: anglers want to know. I never believe a single fact explains an entire complex behavior, such as why bass feed early and late during summer, but sometimes a single cause seems to explain everything. The eye structure of both largemouth and smallmouth advantages them over forage fish in changing light. Bass see forage early, late—and with thickening or weakening clouds mid-day—better than forage see them.


Don't confuse this with the tapetum lucidum, walleye namesake, which advantages walleye over prey in any very low light or turbulent water, not particularly changing light. But bass and walleye may hug bottom for the same reason, although exceptions to this behavior exist. Walleye suspend over oxygen depleted depths, and bass sometimes cruise slowly in mid-column or near the surface right out in the open under intense sun. Usually they won’t hit because they are not staging to prey at all. They don’t seem to notice you just a few yards away because they are less aware than normal, as if in suspended animation. When feeding, bass usually stage at or in cover to ambush prey, or prowl the bottom, particularly among aquatic vegetation or rocks, with their eyes directed upward.

Forage fish naturally tend to swim nearer to the surface in order to evade predators on the bottom—they have little choice but to create safety in numbers. Not only do bass see them better than they can see bass given equal light, it’s darker near bottom where bass camouflage—and against light at the surface, forage make distinct silhouettes.  

For relatively shallow water—as deep as 12 feet if clear—nothing beats a surface lure now when light is changing. Bass know they have the advantage, are looking skyward for a mouthful, and catch sight of that commotion. You can just imagine the trigger response. So many strikes leave no doubt that bass put their all into the sheer thrill—whatever this is for a bass—of demolishing the target. From eye socket to spinal column—it’s a very short fuse and a hot detonation.

The typical opinion states that calm water is best for topwaters. I don’t really disagree, but it may not be true. This past May I arrived at Round Valley Reservoir on a lunch break without my lure bag, but I had a rod and my license. As soon as I parked, I reached into the glove compartment to find a big, white buzzbait. The sky was clouding. The wind drove the surface like buffalo herds.

Unlikely? I thought so. But not only did I catch three bass in 45 minutes, fishing the shoreline at Lot 2, one was a smallmouth that struck from at least 8 feet of water. I knew the breakline adjacent to a shallow flat was prime locale—but would a bass really come up with that much wave action above it? Perhaps it was crucial it was a big buzzbait.

For chopped surface—try to beat the commotion. You may not be able to do it with a musky plug, but choose larger lures and the type that creates the most commotion like buzzbaits, Crazy Crawlers, Jitterbugs, and the Devil’s Horse.

For a calm, mid-day surface, my preference may be for smaller plugs, and I especially like the clear plastic versions of Hedden’s Tiny Torpedo and the smallest Zara Spooks. Whether they make a difference or not, I’m curious about these choices and have caught bass by them.

Now is the time to begin to think about big bass in the thickest vegetation available. Often lunker bass are not at the outside edge of weeds along the deep open water, but just inside where thickest vegetation begins, and even further back in it as if they intend to hide from you. Try Money Frogs, Boohah Baits, or Phatrats—if you get a strike it will blow weeds wide open.

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