By Chad LaChance
As of 2011, 19,569,000 or 59.3% of all licensed anglers in the United States placed the largemouth bass at the top of their list of favorite species to pursue. That’s 23 percent higher than the next closest fish, the humble sunfish family and 34% above third place, the smallmouth bass. Americans don’t always fish, but when we do, we prefer largemouth.
Now, before I go on, don’t hate on me. I know this is ‘The West’ where trout are king and bug slingers are the regionally stereotypical anglers. But are they? After all, a full 85% of respondents to the U.S. F&WS survey cited “ponds and lakes” as their favorite angling venue, leaving a relatively small percentage in search of the perfect drift. While it’s true that trout can be flat water dwellers, only 20% nationwide preferred trout. There’s no denying the two majority percentages – preferred fish and flat water – add up to one thing. So don’t look now oh little rainbow trout, but there’s a big ol’ bucketmouth charming the baggy waders right off your adoring fans.
Numbers aside, what’s not to like about a fish named for the ample size of his yapper? I mean, geez, in a game centered around getting your hook in a fish’s mouth, this has got to be a good sign!
Let’s talk about that gaping maw for a second. A largemouth bass can and will consume one third of his body weight or length in a single gill-flaring vacuum of a bite and that bite may contain nearly anything even remotely edible. Ducks, snakes, bats, mice, insects, invertebrates of all sorts – and of course his own finny kin – are all on the menu. He’ll eat from the surface to the dirt and anywhere in the water column between and he may do it day or night. Yep, when it comes to grubbin’, the largemouth truly lives up to his name.
Not only can a largemouth consume stupidly huge prey, but in most cases he can do so with very little effort. I liken the largemouth to many people I know; fat, lazy and only seeing value in food if it has maximum caloric content and involves the least amount of work to obtain it. If a largemouth bass went to a fast food joint, suffice it to say he’d ‘Super Size’ it and he’d do so from the drive-up window to avoid expending the effort to walk, er, swim inside. It’s no wonder America loves largemouth; we’re jealous!
With a bucket-sized mouth and voracious feeding habits, largemouth simply must be easy to catch, right? Well, yes, sometimes. And sometimes they’re dang frustrating. The problem with any fish that is a very efficient feeder is that they feed basically at will and spend the bulk of their time resting and digesting. A quick look through a stack of largemouth bass pics will make it clear from their commonly bulbous bellies that digesting just might be a major part of their day.
When they’re feeding, largemouth can be very easy to hook, but landing them is another story. That boca grande of theirs is great for both consuming prey and unfortunately for rejecting lures, a skill they seem to practice. Largemouth have a signature mouth open, head-shaking jump when hooked that is both the dream and nightmare of bass anglers. We all love to see it and we all cringe every time they do it, because we know it may be the last time we see them. Tarpon anglers also know this feeling well.
The largemouth bass is probably most associated with the southern U.S. but they are native to many areas and have been introduced into all the lower 48 states and Hawaii. They are tolerant of a wide range of water temperatures, clarity and general conditions and can easily survive under ice caps. Here in the west, they thrive in large impoundments like Lake Mead, Lake Powell or Navajo Reservoir despite wildly varying water levels and they truly can be the proverbial big fish in a small pond. In fact, reclaimed gravel quarries and small urban ponds offer some great bass fishing, perhaps part of the allure of the species. Not everybody has access to trout, pike or walleye, but if you’re reading this column, there’s a real good chance you have bass fishing near by.
Regardless of where you fish them, fishing “cover” is the single most important aspect of largemouth bass fishing. Structure is the shape or contour of the lake (think drop-off or submerged channel) while cover is anything that sticks up from the bottom or out from the bank, like a log, weedline, dock or rock pile. Since they’re lazy by nature, largemouth will hang almost stationary near anything that provides perceived cover for them. I say perceived because that may also sit on changes in bottom content or shade lines. Basically, they like anything different from the mundane bottom around them, with a strong preference for sitting still rather then roaming much. Given a good piece of cover with food in the immediate vicinity, a largemouth might not move much for days on end. Better to not get much exercise in their minds.
In my home state of Colorado, trout truly rule anglers’ time on the water. After all, we have the highest average elevation and thousands of miles of rivers and streams teaming with the colorful buggers. We also have lots of urban anglers that spend their time on water storage reservoirs and lakes in pursuit of stocked rainbow trout, so much so that Colorado Parks and Wildlife stock millions of trout as both fingerlings and “catchable” 8-10 inchers. I jokingly call these stockers “bo-bos”, while resident largemouth bass call them snacks and we already determined that largemouth bass loves them a snack!
I for one am happy folks like to catch stockers; it gets people “out there” so to speak (which I’m all for) and it gets the managers to keep trout population numbers up via stocking, thereby growing us larger than average bass.
Western bass fishing is not fundamentally different than in bass fishing’s Dixie homeland, but there are a few things to keep in mind and one of them centers around those stocker trout. In the south, find shad and cover and you’ll find bass. In many lakes in the west, find bo-bos and cover and you’ll find bass. Of course we have shad, shiners, crayfish, smelt and other food plentiful food sources, but something about those silly stockers fresh from the hatchery that big largemouth really love. Perhaps, they’re easy to catch because their naïve. Perhaps they’re easy to swallow with their spineless fins and superfine scales or perhaps it’s that they’re nutrient-dense from their constant hatchery diet of ‘Trout Chow’. Most likely it’s all of the above. Whatever it is, anywhere that largemouth and stocker trout intersect is a good place to fish. For this reason, look for areas with rising trout or even follow stocking reports to determine which lakes in your area were recently stocked and where exactly on the lake they we placed (usually a boat ramp area).
Consider that California owns most of the top 20 heaviest largemouth bass ever caught. Why California? Because southern strain largemouth were stocked in waters that are also stocked regularly with trout, a magical combo for grownin’ bigguns’. The California waters are warm enough for the southern bass to grow year-round, yet cold and deep enough to allow trout plantings. In most of the west, we have northern strain largemouth bass that grow slower but are more tolerant of cold and potentially ice-capped lakes. They don’t reach CA size, but the concept is the same.
Match-the-hatch types will immediately think “swimbait”, those monstrous trout-looking hunks of rubber, wood or plastic made popular by the Left Coast bass catchers and for good reason. After all, feed ‘em what their eatin’, right? Yes, to some degree. But keep in mind, the larger the lure and/or clearer the water (clear water is common in trout-stocked lakes) the better chance a bass has at making your lure out to be fake. Many bass in the top 20 all time bit live crayfish or jigs. Consider them a mid-day snack between meals, you know, something quick and easy to tide you over until dinner. Steady trout stocking only helps them grow quickly, but remember at all times that largemouth are opportunistic feeders.
Another difference is western bass fishing besides forage is water level fluctuations. Western reservoirs tend to move up and down a bunch. This keeps bass moving more than in the south as they attempt to maintain cover within their preferred depth range (which is often determined by temperature and light penetration). A rock pile may be great today and dry tomorrow. It forces anglers looking to be consistent to fish with an open mind with regards to location. This fluctuation also keeps aquatic vegetation in check as the banks dry up periodically. Bass love grass – heck, they even earned the nickname grass pig – but they will gravitate to rock, wood, willows, docks, boat ramps or any other cover in the absence of vegetation. In the event of rising waters flooding terrestrial vegetation, largemouth will move right in with a “where have you been all my life” conviction.
A great way for western bassers to avoid major water level fluctuations and have aquatic vegetation to make their fishing more traditional is to focus on reclaimed gravel quarries that are common in the mountain west. These ponds range in size and shape and the deeper ones are sometimes stocked early and late in the year with trout. Fishing quarry ponds is one of my favorites and an excellent way to land a trophy largemouth. A small hand launch boat or float tube makes it even more fun. Focus on the weedlines; just as they green up for the year is a prime time to ‘git ‘er done’ on a hawg. When it comes to bass, big fun can be had on small ponds.
I mentioned bass being cover oriented earlier; that is a major clue about catching them. Fishing cover requires casting accuracy and line and lure control more than any other angling. In my experience as a guide, folks transitioning from fishing other species underestimate the importance of this point. I cannot overstate how important accuracy and line control is in typical largemouth fishing. Similarly, the size and power of your tackle needs to be such that you can present fairly heavy lures on fairly heavy line to fairly heavy cover. It’s not about the size of the fish, it’s about where they live and what it takes to get them out.
In a certain ironic twist, finesse bass techniques involving light line and small baits originated here in the west. It’s because our fluctuating water levels keep aquatic grass to a minimum and our waters tend to be clear and deep; bass will get a good look at your offering. Fishing typical western lakes may have you using six pound fluorocarbon and a three inch tube jig one minute and 50-pound braid and an eight inch swimbait the next. For this reason alone, western largemouth fishing is dynamic. Add in fluctuating water levels, four distinct seasons and a wildcard forage base of stocked trout and you have the makings of a special sportfish in a special area of the country.
The mountain west might be known for its trout fishing, but 19 million anglers nationwide are on to something and it’s something good!