By Vic Attardo
Largemouth bass, particularly in late summer, are known as cover-hugging fish. But on late August and September mornings and evenings, the fish often abandon their cover for the open lake.
It’s then you see them voraciously making lumpy circles on the surface, chasing food that’s kicking across the top or swimming just under the surface.
As one boat mate remarked, “they got their feed bag on.”
It’s an exciting time for a bass angler. The catches made are thrilling because they come from a half-seen but highly anticipated fish, and the strikes and fight are far from gentle. But a lack of positive action can be frustrating as well.
Many years ago – before soft plastic stickbaits were in common use – a buddy and I fished Muddy Run Lake in Lancaster County one evening. After a moderately paced day catching bass along shoreline cover we started seeing the open water swirls.
We knew what they were but after trying almost everything in the tackle box, we just couldn’t catch them. They were taking something specific and all our frogs and poppers didn’t garner a strike.
That year we both acquired some salted stickbaits – the famous brand with the recognized and lamented durability of just one or two fish.
When we went back to Muddy Run again, encountering more evening surface activity, we tried our new baits Texas style with no additional weight, as the contemporary package instructed. You’d have thought we translated the DaVinci Code.
We cast the salted baits to the edge and even inside the turbulent circle area of what was obviously an impromptu gang of bass, then let the baits sink on a semi-slack line and suddenly had them run off by big fish.
What marked these roving bass different from so many other active surface fish was the fact they weren’t erupting and breaking the surface. Instead they were attacking bait a bit below the surface.
At other times and other places – and this is really the majority of times – roving bass will erupt and cut the surface. You’ll see a flush and flick of a tail as they get away with food – just don’t confuse this with the double-tail slap of a carp.
Now, when the surface rings are subtle I understand the largemouths are hitting bait high in the water column, aggressively cutting into the bait school, but mostly gathering their food as it slowly sinks, often stunned by an attack. This is the time to use the free-falling salted stick bait.
While rigging the plastic Texas style is effective, the better method, and perhaps more realistic, is to rig it Wacky style with the offset hook near the center of the bait.
With this rig, the bait falls in a U-shape, wavering as it goes down. To really tantalize the bass, give the bait a swift, short upstroke which turns down the ends of the U, making the bait appear as if it’s suddenly attaining consciousness, then let it fall stunned again. Bass go crazy for this presentation.
When roving bass aren’t being as particular, I love hitting them with a hardbody popper. The splash and gurgle of these baits bring bass to the surface with a spectacular strike.
A little trick to make these cigar-shaped baits more effective is to float them so the tail is beveled down a bit.
If the popper you’re using doesn’t already attain this position on the surface, remove the center treble and replace the end treble with a heavier one, or even a single longer-shank hook than the manufacturer’s.
An old-school way to do this with or without replacing the hooks was to wrap a coil or two of lead wire on the upper shank of the tail treble. Until two years ago I thought no one was doing this anymore, then I saw a bass pro weight his tail topwater hooks in a tournament and he scored big time.
Just goes to show, what’s old is new again.
When I want some real fun, I love using the propeller baits. Fortunately these are still very popular, and quite effective when bass are splashing.
I like to use double propeller baits – props fore and aft – as a slow-motion runner across the surface. Perhaps I give them an occasional stop and go motion, but a moderate paced, perhaps variable speed retrieve is best.
I use single-prop baits with a blade only in the front more as a stop-and-go bait. A few turns of the reel followed by a pause, often letting the surface gurgle fade out to flat water, and then a kick-start spurt to resume. Just doing this retrieve is fun, and you never know when the attack will come.
Something I like to do with prop baits is to adjust the blades by bending the ends slightly back or slightly forward. Adjusting the blades this way will increase, or decrease, the kick and the bait’s sputter. Experiment to see.
I found a roving school of bass a bit back on Lake Octararo in Chester County, and I hit them with a single- prop blade surface lure, taking two fish from the moving school. After that, their swipes were short – a little wiser to the fake. Then I bent the front blades back a bit, threw it out and the gurgle was so different. Two more bass took the adjusted lure.
With roving bass, you often need to make all sorts of adjustments.