By David A. Brown
Special To BassFan
Football fans recognize the term “red zone” as a reference to the 20-yard distance from the goal line. In northern fisheries, the green zone refers to an often underutilized opportunity with big-time scoring potential.
No doubt, while northern waters scream smallmouth, respectable largemouth populations offer a day-saving option when big waters turn snotty, or when fishing pressure puts the brown ones in a bad mood. Plenty of opportunity awaits in back bays, rivers and feeder creeks/canals.
Often, a shifting of gears can carry you through inclement weather, while a solely largemouth focus is often a sporting call.
What to Look For
Hailing from Salem, Va., Bassmaster Elite Series veteran John Crews certainly enjoys his trips to smallmouth land, but the most important tool he brings with him is an open mind. For him, keeping the largemouth option on the table means playing-field awareness.
“You have to have the right habitat and that means having big flats with vegetation,” Crews said. “As long as you have that, you’re going to have a bigger population of largemouth.
“If you have no vegetation or you don’t have flats, you’re not going to have that population. That goes from the Great Lakes to the Finger Lakes.”
Northern largemouth thrive in a range of vegetation such as eel grass, hydrilla, milfoil, water cabbage, cattails and pencil reeds. Options are many, but Crews made an important observation.
“Once you identify that you have the right habitat, then you’re going to be looking for certain things,” Crews said. “You’re going to be looking for combinations of vegetation like hard reed lines mixed with cabbage or milfoil in front of it. Those hard reed lines provide shelter and protection, but they need to have areas to feed.
“Docks can be a major player in those areas, as well. If you have a bay with vegetation that also has docks, those docks will have largemouth on them; mark it down. It doesn’t matter if they’re 2 feet deep, 6 feet deep, or 12 feet deep, they’re going to have largemouth on or around them.”
Case in point: During the 2020 Bassmaster Elite at the St. Lawrence River, Brock Mosley earned a third-place finish with a mostly largemouth program. Remaining within 5 miles of the Clayton, N.Y. takeoff, he focused on docks and rock shoals along residential seawalls.
During a past event at the St. Lawrence River, I joined New Hampshire pro Joe Lucarelli during a practice day and, although the winds were not terrible, Lucarelli wanted to establish an optional fallback plan. Poking around marinas and backwater areas, he nabbed several respectable largemouth.
Topwater frogs are a largemouth favorite.
This day exemplified a key factor in northern largemouth consistency – enclosed vegetation. Certainly, that’s no different from southern waters, but while drifting or trolling vast areas with scattered rock often fits the roaming smallmouth formula, the green ones are mostly homebodies that like to remain in and around protected gardens.
Similarly, during his second-place performance at the 2020 Bassmaster Elite on Lake Champlain, Seth Feider balanced his open-water smallmouth plan by plucking key largemouth from under docks. Visiting a particular marina multiple times, Feider tricked the plump largies by flipping a jig into gaps between docks and boat hulls.
And while we’re on the subject of Champlain, this lake offers great examples of northern largemouth habitat at both extremes. With lots of shallow grass, pads and wood, the upper end – in particular, the Missisquoi Bay Area – offers tremendous green-fish accommodations, while the narrowing lower end’s famed Ticonderoga region (named for a prominent fort on the New York side) boasts stellar largemouth potential amid shallow grass and shoreline cover.
Typically, when tournament trails head north – for example, the Elites’ three-event Northern Swing – anglers from southern latitudes typically offload their heavier gear and repack with an arsenal deep in the finesse stuff. Not wrong, as a mix of dropshots, Ned rigs, small swimbaits and jerkbaits will handle much of the smallmouth work.
That being said, saving a little storage space for a good selection of largemouth tackle keeps your options open. Given Champlain’s reputation for serious largemouth, most who fish there bring a selection of baits that would also serve them well from Texas to Florida. But even in fisheries where brown fish rule, diversity amplifies opportunity.
“Where the thick grass is topped out, that’s where you’re going to be working your frog or flipping heavier creature baits like a Missile Baits D-Bomb,” Crews said. “My preference is to find where there’s matted vegetation next to (sparse) vegetation with holes.
“That opens up a lot of options ¬– you can flip a Texas-rigged plastic in there, or you can work a topwater or a frog in the open holes. The fish use those open holes next to that thick vegetation to feed. I’ve seen it over and over again in northern fisheries.”
Even when he’s packing for northern smallmouth events, John Crews keeps a selection of largemouth baits and tackle in the boat.
Crews also values grass lines off the bank. Whether it’s milfoil, cabbage or pencil reeds, definitive edges with all their points, guts, and indentations present clear feeding zones. Just like a massive grass mat on a southern reservoir, these northern vegetation masses could hold fish just about anywhere, but Crews is keen on quickly dialing in specific zones to exploit.
“This is where that topwater bait can be an all-day deal,” he said. “Early morning, middle of the day, afternoon, rain, sun; doesn’t matter. They’re going to be moving in and out of those grass lines to feed and to hang out.
“That topwater is a great way to pull them out and kind of identify where they are. Once you catch a couple, then you can really pick that area apart with a punching or unweighted flipping rig and put a ton of largemouth in the boat. It’s a lot of fun."
During Mosley’s Top-5 performance, the Mississippi pro found his largemouth bites few and far between, so covering water with an aggressive reaction bait served him well. His bait of choice – a 3/8-ounce green pumpkin Z-Man Jackhammer ChatterBait with various trailers.
Wind is Your Friend
Another key component of the northern largemouth game is wind exposure. While the green-fish option often comes to the forefront when traditional smallmouth plans fall victim to a formidable blow, largemouth fishing typically turns on with the right amount of wind.
Give those largemouth something to put their backs against while food flows their way and you have the makings of a whack-fest. Of course, if the wind’s too fierce, they won’t sit amid whipping stalks and take a beating; but in moderate conditions, cover plus easy meals equals aggressive bass.
“Usually, the grass grows on flats in protected areas; it doesn’t grow where you have 2- to 3-foot waves because it would get beaten up and demolished,” Crews said. “Usually, you don’t have big waves to contend with when you’re doing this largemouth fishing.
“A little bit of wind and a little bit of ripple can absolutely turn on those fish; it will make those strikes zones a little bigger. You can throw 10 feet out in front of that grass line and a big northern largemouth might absolutely crush your bait.”