Standing on a casting deck and staring out at a big bedded bass in clear water feels a bit like that dream where you’re running late for the important meeting and get there only to find you’re in your birthday suit. The fish seems to stare back at you and you’re frozen. Maybe that’s just me.
On the other hand, looking out over a vast expanse of water too murky, muddy or stained to allow sightfishing instills a whole other kind of panic. It’s hard to narrow the water down to even the acre bass are staged, much less pinpoint individual fish, accurately place baits or trigger strikes.
Obviously, bass anglers don’t have much choice in the matter. If we want to reap the huge rewards that can come from targeting early-season bass, we have to adapt to the conditions—whether we’re fishing water that’d pass for Grey Goose or Guinness.
I recently shared a boat with two top bass pros who know how to handle both extremes. Their insights will help you put more bass in the box this spring.
Bass pro Brian Snowden hails from Reeds Spring, Missouri, a region where clear, deep highland reservoirs rule, and bedfishing bass means sightfishing. Not surprisingly, he’s honed an arsenal of skills that give him the edge when he and bass go eyeball-to-eyeball.
The first element is simply getting within a short cast of big fish undetected, a process Snowden begins as soon as he rolls out of bed in the morning. “I always wear dark clothing—no white,” he says. “Sky-blue shirts are great.”
His next and most valuable step begins long before he ever palms a reel—pre-fishing recon of his target water. Snowden identifies a milk run of spawning areas, and marks them on his maps and GPS. Knowing the locations of each spot well in advance lets him plan his day based on wind, wave and current conditions that might affect clarity, then make an effective stalk when he begins fishing. As he hits each spot, Snowden goes into stealth mode.
“I kill the motor as soon as I start seeing the first signs of beds in the distance,” he says.
The gentle touch goes far beyond that, however.
“I don’t stop at my big motor, though. I kill the trolling motor, too, and instead rely on a push pole to close the gap,” he says. “Even the quietest electric motors create enough noise and vibration to turn off fish in really clear water. Not only that, I also turn off all of my electronics—sonar, GPS, everything—before I even pick up a rod.”
When he’s running on all-quiet, and inches from striking distance of bedded fish, he pulls one last ace from his sleeve.
“I keep an anchor in the back of the boat and slip it in the water when I pole into position,” he says. “I haven’t always used one, but that anchor’s helped me tremendously since I started using it.”
The anchor does more than just hold him within range, though. Used correctly, it helps him see more bass and trigger more strikes.
“You can actually use the boat itself,” he says. “Even on seemingly dead-calm days, there will usually still be enough of a breeze to create ripples on the surface, and they really impede visibility. I use the anchor to hold the boat as a windbreak to fish-holding beds, and that little edge results in a lot more hookups.”
Snowden fights for every bit of visibility he can muster, because his go-to tactic demands it. Sure, he tip-toes on eggshells when stalking beds, but he cops an attitude when he finally thumbs a spool.
“I get in the bass’ heads and try to provoke them into striking,” he says.
To pick just such a fish fight, Snowden ties up a Yum Sweet Cheeks swimbait on 17- to 20-pound flouro, casts it past a bedded bass, then hops it into the bed itself. There’s nothing new there, but that’s when Snowden’s strategy gets mean.
“I pop the bait to physically bump the bass,” he says. “I want it to hit them.”
Assuming the bass doesn’t eat the bait right then and there, Snowden keeps bumping the fish with the lure, trying to provoke an aggressive reaction.
“Once you can get that bass to turn around hard after you bump him, immediately reel in and fire back with a tube and swim it through the bed,” he says. “You need to keep the fish irritated, so you may have to switch back to the swimbait and bump him a few more times before he’ll go. You might have to repeat the process several times.”
Snowden says one of the most important parts of the presentation is landing the bait approximately five feet past the far edge of the bed, and then swimming or hopping it to the fish. Center-punching the nest on the cast and landing the swimbait right on top of the fish is a sure way to stop the action.
Jimmy Mason, a bass pro and guide from Rogersville, Alabama, fishes the opposite end of the spectrum on his home waters of Guntersville and Wheeler lakes on the Tennessee River system.
“On these river-run reservoirs, you don’t have many places or opportunities to sightfish bedded bass—maybe only about 20 percent of the lake,” he says.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Mason says. “They usually bite better than fish in really clear water. The way I see it, the harder it is to see a bedded fish, the faster you can catch him.”
The catch, of course, is that you need to find them first.
Start by combing hard-bottomed, protected areas in the shallow flats in coves and similar spots. This is where the latest mapping GPS and sonar combos shine.
“I use mapping chips to identify the top spots in these larger areas before I even fish them—like corners and little indentations within a flat,” Mason says. “I think bass feel more comfortable building nests in places like this because they have fewer sides to defend.”
Such attention to detail remains critical as you pick apart spawning areas.
“I key in on uprooted vegetation,” he says. “If I see a spot with floating eelgrass with its roots still attached, I’m pretty sure a ‘buck’ has just pulled it up from around a bed.”
As soon as Mason identifies an area with active fish, he gets on the bow-mount and starts picking apart the flat with soft stickbaits.
“I rely on 5- and 6-inch Yum Dingers in watermelon red. The color scheme works better for me in stained and muddy water than any other. Plus, bedded fish seem to trigger off the flake in that pattern.”
The key is fishing as slow as you can and covering every inch of the best spots. It’s critical to pinpoint the most likely bed locations and visualize your bait working through these areas.
“I like to take my hand off the reel handle to force myself to slow down just that much more,” Mason says.
Because spawning bass relate so strongly to the bottom and the few inches of water around their beds, Mason tweaks his setup to make the slow presentation fish as “fast” as possible. He Texas-rigs the Dinger and slides a 1/16- or 1/32-ounce bullet weight ahead of it. That bit of extra weight gets the bait near bottom faster.
“You’re fishing just as slowly, but the faster sink rate means your bait is spending more time in the strike zone and less time falling into it,” Mason says.
If fish are hitting light, he moves down to a 4-inch Notta Worm on 8-pound flouro and fishes even more slowly.
“The bottom line is that you are fishing blind, so sometimes you need to just put the trolling motor down and fish through these key spots.”
Stumps are another key area to probe, but Mason believes most anglers make the mistake of thinking of them in simple, two-dimensional terms.
“You have to realize, especially in older reservoirs, that it’s not just the stump that can hold fish—it’s the several feet of root system around it. Over the years, soil around the roots has eroded away and there’s often a whole complex around the stump.”
Ironically, Mason learned this critical blind bedfishing principle from a sightfishing experience.
“I was fishing a tournament on Santee-Cooper and a big female was bedding within a root system, directly under the trunk,” he says. “What was really amazing was that she actually had to lie on her side to fit in the spot. If you don’t fish stumps hard, you’re going to miss a lot of fish like that.”
And the ability to “see” bass in such out-of-the-box ways will let you catch them like never before.