By Jonathan LePera
Special to BassFan
Some anglers look at a grass lake and get spun out just figuring on where to start. Others use a trained eye to know where to dive in.
FLW Tour pro Alex Davis, along with Bassmaster Elite Series pros Randall Tharp and Todd Faircloth feel right at home around the green stuff because they’ve put in time to learn it and hone their skills while sticking with a game plan. Seasonal cues are important, but so is putting the trolling motor down and getting right to work.
Good vs. Bad
Faircloth won the 2013 Mississippi River Elite Series in La Crosse, Wis., by fishing grass and he fishes it all he can back home in Texas. He prefers grass that’s green and crisp as he believes that grass that is brown, has slime on it, or is dying doesn’t have enough oxygen to hold bass. On the other hand, Tharp doesn't believe there’s such a thing as bad grass.
“I’ve caught lots of bass in grass that is dead or floating, especially in cold-front conditions in Florida,” Tharp said. “I won a tournament fishing dead hyacinths because dead grass holds heat better than green grass.”
Tharp likens grass to a hatchery – anywhere from a foot to 20 feet provides cover and ambush points for crawdads, bluegill and baitfish, all coveted bass forage. He’ll seek out subtle irregularities in the grass that make for a good ambush spot like a point, pocket or hole.
“If there are acres of grass, it turns some people off because it’s a lot like finding a needle in a haystack,” Tharp said, adding that when targeting docks, certain characteristics make some better than others. “Grass fishing is the exact same way.”
Tharp’s favorite grass lakes include Guntersville, Seminole, Champlain and Okeechobee. He honed his techniques at Guntersville, which harbors a wide variety of vegetation.
“I developed some really good ideas about how bass feed in that stuff and how to approach it my way,” he said.
Davis guides year-round at Guntersville and also competes on the FLW Tour. He’s spent years studying the habits of bass relating to the vegetation on the Tennessee River impoundment.
“Grass makes a better ecosystem,” Davis said. “If a lake has it, the fish are going to live in it, even when they’re on the ledges. Suddenly, the bait leaves the river because of water temperature and thermocline and the bait goes back to the grass and fish go with them. Grass gives bass something to hide in and that’s where baitfish or bream live.”
In Texas, during January and February, there’s still green grass to fish since the winters don’t often get cold enough to kill it off. Because of that, Faircloth says finding fish isn’t a problem.
“Generally, the protected pockets on the north-west bank will have some milfoil,” he said. “The milfoil generally starts growing first in the drains and little cuts that run up off of a creek or a flat and will be bright green. In the pre-spawn, you are going to be fishing secondary points or drains that run off of flats. Those are the migration routes.”
Alex Davis' suite of baits he favors around grass includes (clockwise from top): the Jackall Archelon for flipping, the Jackall Super Eruption spinnerbait, a Jackall Flick Shake worm, a Jackall SK Pop, a Jackall Disc Knocker and a Jackall Bonnie walking bait.
Faircloth reminds anglers that bass follow the contour lines of the lake and use grass as cover.
Finding submerged vegetation and stubble along the bottom are key for Tharp. In Florida, weeds grow to the top, mat up, die off, and grow back again and cycle a couple of times a season.
Tharp efficiently fishes such areas with a lipless crank or a crankbait. On 10-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon and a 7-foot Halo cranking rod, he’ll throw a Rapala DT-6, making contact with the bottom and deflecting off of cover. The Rip N’ Rap works best with the 7-foot-4 model, 16-pound fluorocarbon, and a Team Lew’s Magnesium reel with 6.4:1 gearing that forces him to slow down in the colder water.
On Guntersville, Davis looks for the best hydrilla of the year before since it’ll still be green. He’ll work a jerkbait, a Jackall Jacko crankbait, or a vibrating crank like a Jackall TN-70 Disc-Knocker. Once the water warms into the high 40s and low 50s, the fish will start moving from the deeper hydrilla to the shallowest milfoil. When targeting the 4- to 6-foot depth, squarebills and ChatterBaits work perfectly.
When the lake is low, Faircloth looks for bass to spawn around grass but not in the middle of it. “You want to find hard a sandy shell-type bottom. Typically, that’s going to be on the inside edge of the grass line,” he said. In Texas, if the water is high, late-spawners are in play as the water is going to stay colder longer and deeper around the inside edge.
A wacky-rigged Jackall Flick-Shake worm is Davis’ bait of choice when targeting bass on grass flats in 2 to 4 feet where the grass is the greenest.
Tharp favors a flipping presentation with either a Zoom Baby Brush Hog or a Z-Craw as they mimic a crawfish when those are the predominant forage. In stained to clear water, green-pumpkin hues work while black/blue is reliable in stained to muddy water and watermelon suits clear water.
“I like to fish vertical or targets whether it be holes in grass or points,” he noted. “You can just go down a grass line and visualize where a bed fish is going be.”
When the fish start their transition to the post-spawn, Faircloth recycles many of the same areas he targeted during the pre-spawn phase since the fish are likely to use the same migration routes.
“The fish are going to be migrating back to the main lake,” he said. “I’m going to be targeting the inside edge of the grass line where a lot of bream will start spawning.”
Faircloth’s is partial to a topwater bait on a 7-foot medium-action Castaway Skeleton casting rod paired with a 7.0:1 ratio reel spooled with 16-pound Sunline monofilament. He’ll fish a Strike King KVD Splash when target fishing around isolated weed clumps or brush off a flat. He’ll use the same setup with 30-pound Sunline FX2 braid when working a Strike King Sexy Dawg over expansive flats.
Davis throws a Jackall SK Pop, a Jackall Bonnie walking bait or a Jackall Super Eruption spinnerbait around points in the grass.
“Right when they get done spawning they get in the grass for 10 days and recuperate before heading for the ledges,” he said.
With summer comes heavy growth of hydrilla and milfoil and that puts plenty of fish in Tharp’s wheelhouse as he’ll keep a frog rod and punch rig within reach.
Tharp looks for a canopy, whether it be a matted clump of hydrilla or milfoil or a giant grass bed at Guntersville that mats up and dries off. The sweet spot, he says, will be a “cave” or hollow area underneath.
“Big fish need a big dark cave or home to move around in,” he said. “I get bigger bites in the thickest, nastiest stuff that you can imagine. I love fishing that way, seeing how thick of stuff I can get a bait (into) and get a fish out of.”
Tharp wants to put his bait in front of more fish than anyone else.
“I like my bait to stop or pause as it hits stuff on the way down, but I don’t want to have to shake it,” he noted. “I want my bait to get to the bottom every time.”
Todd Faircloth likes to fish a Strike King KVD Splash (top right) when target fishing around isolated weed clumps or a brush off a flat. For expansive flats, he'll tie on a KVD Sexy Dawg (top left).
He’s found that in scattered vegetation, real clear water, or when bass are feeding aggressively, he draws more bites with a swift fall. When the bite is slow, he’ll decrease his rate of fall so much that he might have to shake it through the stalks to get his bait to the bottom, which is key.
In matted vegetation, he likes the Zoom Z-Hog because he can fish it efficiently and quickly as the bait easily penetrates cover. While it won’t go through clean every time, Tharp has found that 90 percent of his bites occur when it does. A 1- to 1 1/2-ounce sinker are his mainstay, he’s had success with even heavier weights in windy conditions.
Davis suggests anglers not handicap themselves by having just a couple bigger weights.
“I got beat by my best friend in a BFL because he was flipping a 1 1/2-unce sinker and I was flipping 1 ounce,” he said “That particular day, they wanted a faster fall rate.”
Tharp pointed to Greg Hackney’s win at the Lake Texoma Elite Series (BASSFest) earlier this year when Hackney pitched a 1-ounce weight to create a reaction bite in water that easily could have been fished with a quarter-unce weight. Tharp likes to “crash the mat” by pitching the bait high into the air to force its way through because sometimes the algae or scum on the surface of the mat is so compact there’s no other choice.
While rods, reels, and line are a matter of preference based on how each angler fishes, what he doesn’t waver on is hook style.
A snelled, straight shank hook is imperative when fishing braid, Tharp says. Consistently, he’ll fish a 4/0 VMC heavy-wire hook, but a 3/0 or 5/0 are dictated by the size of the bait. When fishing 12- to 14-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon, he likes the thinner hook.
The summer is also Faircloth’s favorite time of year to fish, especially the low-light conditions in the morning and evening. That’s when he’ll fish the outside edge of grass lines from 8 to 20 feet down. Main lake points, flats and drains are key as well.
When the sun gets high, the bass bury into the grass. Faircloth counters that by parking his boat on the outside edge so he can pitch a black/blue or green-pumpkin 1- to 1 1/4-ounce Strike King Hack Attack jig rigged with a matching Rage Tail Menace Grub.
If he can’t get a jig to the bottom, he’ll opt for a Slither Rig with a 4/0 straight shank hook and a Menace grub. He’ll fish them on a 7-foot-6 Castaway Skeleton V2 flipping stick and 50-pound Sunline FX2 braid.
“When it’s hot, if they have something crashing on it, they have to eat it or get out of the way,” Faircloth said.
While some anglers consider their jig to be a crawfish imitator, Faircloth wants to imitate bream.
“If you see grass top out 3 to 4 feet beneath the surface and see bream swimming around in it, that’s a really good sign that you’re in a fertile area,” he said.
A Texas-rigged Strike King Cutter worm in red bug, plum or green-pumpkin with a 3/8-ounce sinker unpegged is his mainstay for those situations. Making repetitive pitches in front of the boat to the inside of the grass, he’ll work it out on slack line with 95 percent of the bites coming on the fall or when popping it out of the grass. He prefers grass mats 3 to 4 feet beneath the surface instead of a matted wall.
During the late stages of summer and into the fall at Guntersville, Davis flips milfoil and hydrilla. By that time, the grass that he targeted during the pre-spawn becomes so impenetrable that fish can’t even swim through it.
“The outside grass in 8 to 10 feet starts growing deeper and you have clumps,” he said. “Beneath, it’s clear and fish can ambush once your bait gets through the top of the mat.”
On a 7-foot, 6-inch heavy-action G. Loomis E6X punching rod paired with a Shimano Curado 70 XG casting reel spooled with 80-pound PowerPro Maxquatro, he’ll flip a Jackall Archelon creature bait, but he’ll never peg it. A Jethro Baits bobber stopper is key as pegging the bait causes it to spiral to the bottom.
A shad-colored swimbait on 15-pound fluorocarbon paired with a 7-foot, 5-inch heavy action Shimano Zodias rod and a Curado 200 works for a vibrating jig rigged with a green-pumpkin Jackall Rhythm Wave 3.8 or 4.8 with the tail dipped in chartreuse dye, as it imitates a bluegill perfectly.
When the leaves start to turn color, Davis turns his attention to the mats at Guntersville. He’ll listen closely for the sound of bream popping near the surface. That’s usually a giveaway that he should pick that area over.
“I fish all mats but look for activity and cover as much water as possible until I hear the brim popping and sucking or visually see signs of life,” he said.
Upon seeing a fish boil, or a bluegill flee, he’ll drop his Power-Poles and work the area over with a frog or a flip bait.
Once the grass tops out and starts dying, it‘ll appear to be scummy because the sunlight cannot get through the water and it hollows out beneath the mat. If fish are missing the frog or popping it out of the water, he’ll weight the frog with small BBs to keep it on the surface to stay where it was.
No matter where Randall Tharp is fishing, he's always confident that he can figure out how to catch fish in and around heavy vegetation.
Once hooked, he’ll drag the fish to him not wanting to destroy the grass mat using 80-pound Maxquatro.
“I had one fish over 10 pounds eat my lunch on Guntersville as I couldn’t do a lot with him on 50-pound,” he added.
When fishing a drawn-down reservoir, Faircloth will have a Strike King Sexy Frog at the ready, but his secret weapon is a Strike King Red Eye Shad. Long known as a pre-spawn bait, he’s caught his biggest fish in the fall on it.
During late summer and early fall, Tharp will seek out the deepest grass available. Moving into the late fall, he advises anglers to head shallower because as the water temps cool, the bait will move up and the bass will follow – that’s where he’ll throw a frog and a topwater. In 2008, he won a Bassmaster Southern Open at Guntersville fishing a frog in the fall and caught 30 pounds on day 1.
If there’s any type of vegetation growing 2 to 3 feet off the bottom, he’ll switch to his flipping stick.
Tricks of the Trade
Tharp noted what separates the great flippers from the mediocre ones is the confidence to do it all day.
“I have confidence everywhere I go,” he said. “All you need is to get one bite and then you can try to duplicate it everywhere.”
Anglers with a deck full of rods leave Davis shaking his head.
“They’ve got every bait known to man, but confidence in none,” he said. “Pick what works. Finding where fish are in the grass is more important than switching between 20 rods.”
Davis enjoys the lunchbox work ethic that comes with fishing grass – there are no shortcuts
“Every grass patch, flat, main river channel, back river channel, big pocket like in the Northern lakes all have their own identities,” Davis says. “You might be going through there and find a 5-foot kick-out like a little point where it makes a 10-foot-deep end pocket. There’ll be a whole school sitting there, but on the topo it just looks straight.”
Finding a school of fish that can carry an angler through a multi-day tourney is Faircloth’s favorite part about fishing grass.
“You need to go out here with the mindset that you’re going to fish grass all day and find something different,” he said. “Maybe it's a bare or a hard spot, a point, a drain, or a knob off of a grass line. When you find that, you’ll find fish.”
If they shut down after he’s caught a few, he’ll leave them alone for an hour to settle.
Some anglers come so unglued once they finally find fish that they forget how to set the hook.
“Guys get so excited when they get a bite they drop the rod and get slack in the line,” Tharp said. “That’s the biggest no-no, especially with braid.”
When pre-fishing, Tharp fishes a frog with the hooks removed just wanting the fish show themselves. If he’s flipping, he’ll rig a sinker but tie on a Hitchhiker instead of a hook to thread his bait onto. He can feel the bites and roughly gauge their size, but not stick any. Come tournament time, he’ll use 1 1/4-ounce heavier weight to compensate for the missing hook to dial in the rate of fall.