By David A. Brown
Special to BassFan
Boils, bumps and near misses can prove frustrating – but they can also tell you a lot about the fish’s mood. Same thing goes for hook placement. Are the fish choking a bait, or are they mostly hooked outside the mouth?
Weather, fishing pressure, forage abundance, time of day, current/tides; many factors determine how aggressively a fish engages a bait, so understanding why they’re reacting a particular way provides essential perspective for the adjustments that often result in tight lines.
For instance, Bassmaster Elite pro Timmy Horton said there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a fish trail or roll behind a surface bait without biting. If a fish gets a good look at a lure, it may stop (the attack), but its momentum causes that tell-tale boil as the fish turns away at the last moment. Equally irritating is a bass that “bumps” a bait with its mouth closed in an effort to stun a prospective meal for an easier capture.
Works on shad and blueback herring, but a hunk of hard plastic – not so much.
In such cases, switching up the look may change the picture and Horton’s keen to give the fish a target to hit by adding a red/white feathered treble. Pulsing in lifelike flair with every twitch of the topwater, the feather’s strong visual contrast pulls the fish’s focus close to the lip-grabbers.
Horton will also change his bait color to entice topwater strikes. For example, if he’s getting near-misses on the Azuma Z Dog in the translucent purple rain pattern, he may go to a bone white – a “louder” appearance that the fish can’t miss.
Pace the Race
Dispelling a common misconception, Horton offers this wisdom: “A lot of times, people think you need to slow your lure down and make it more subtle to get fish that are missing your bait to bite it; but a lot of times it’s the opposite – you need fish to come up from the depths and commit.
Tim Horton frequently adds a feathered treble hook to topwater baits to give rising fish a better target to shoot at.
“For example, in the fall, if you’re on Smith Lake or Table Rock and you’re drawing fish up from 15 to 20 feet of water, you want those fish to not stop their commitment. I tell people ‘speed up.’ if the fish are missing your bait, they’re getting to good a look at it. So increase your retrieve speed and you’ll find they’ll commit to biting.”
FLW Tour pro Brandon Cobb implements this strategy into his near-miss response plan. First, he’ll speed up his retrieve within the same cast to give the
fish a fleeing prey look. Any fish looking for stunned prey won’t take kindly to a potential meal dashing for cover, so that sudden burst of speed commonly triggers the follow-up bite.
If that doesn’t work, Cobb analyzes the scenario and determines whether the fish was actively feeding in a well-defined space, such as a bream bed. If so, he’ll fire off another cast over the exact course of his previous presentation.
If that doesn’t work, Cobb sends in his follow-up bait — a wacky-rigged Zoom Fluke Stick. Casting this subtle subsurface bait to the last point he saw the fish respond to a topwater bait is likely to push an indecisive predator over the edge.
Change It Up
For active bass in shallower areas, Bassmaster Elite pro Cliff Crochet’s a fan of a Rat-L-Trap’s undeniable fish-calling vibrations. Throwing the original 'Trap in seasonally-appropriate colors, Crochet believes in targeting the most aggressive fish and then downshifting if needed.
“If they want to play, we can play; wide-open the whole time,” he grins. “I’ll start off with a fast, aggressive retrieve – it’ll be a mix of steady reeling, twitching and dropping, but 80 percent of the retrieve will be moving the bait.
“If you’re catching them, you’re catching them. If you’re getting a lot of misses – just swipes and not hooking up, or the fish are getting hooked outside the mouth – I’d turn everything down.”
This means slower retrieves comprising short, sharp pops; or he’ll go silent with the Stealth Trap. Another option: Crochet changes the sound from that “crazy, crazy” of a traditional Trap, to the low, thunk-thunk-thunk of a Knock-N Trap.
Similarly, Horton knows that switching from a rattling crankbait to a silent version of the same lure will often tempt a few more bites from a school that’s gotten wise to the sound of trouble.
A Few More Considerations
Misplaced Attention: Texas pro Stephen Johnston has great faith in his Carolina Rig, but he knows that too many tugs without connections probably means the fish are nipping at the weight. Kicking up dirt and rumbling across the bottom, it’s easy to understand the sinker’s attraction, but frustration begets substitution.
Jimmy Mason often throws a wacky-rigged YUM Genie Worm when he gets dialed in on pre-spawn fish staging on rocky areas near the flats.
“When that happens, I’ll put down that Carolina rig and pick up a football head,” Johnston said. “That gives them something similar to Carolina rig, but it’s a more compact form so you catch more of the fish that bite.”
Heavy Stuff: Jason Christie knows that a motivated bass won’t hesitate to blast through matted vegetation to grab any amphibian meal that crosses hitsis radar. However, the thick stuff eliminates direct line of sight, so the fish have to go on movement and sound.
If he sees a fish bumping the mat with its head, Christie knows that fish is trying to locate his frog. In a move intended to help eager bass pinpoint his bait, the Oklahoma pro will add lead BB’s to his Booyah Pad Crasher. This not only adds sound, but it makes the frog sit lower in the mat. Often, that deeper impression is what fish need to dial in their target.
Find and Focus: Sometimes, responding to a bite actually refers to the bite itself. Specifically, when Alabama pro Jimmy Mason’s looking for pre-spawn fish staging on rocky creek edges adjacent to spawning flats, he finds he can be most efficient by covering water with a shaky-head. However, once he gets dialed in on an active area, he likes to slow down and fish a wacky-rigged YUM Genie worm.
Whatever scenario you’re working, keep a mental tally of how the fish are responding and note the patterns that can provide you with insight into why you’re missing opportunities. Sometimes it’s you, sometimes it’s them; but anglers savvy enough to read the clues and respond effectively will be the ones boasting big weights.