There’s something downright scary about bass fishing in dense surface vegetation. Even approaching a big field of lily pads or a tangled hydrilla mat is enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck in anticipation of a strike from one of the giant bass that lurk in these seemingly impenetrable clots of cover.
A strike in a “vegemat” (my term for matted surface vegetation) can take many forms. If you’re skittering a weedless spoon or a rubber frog over the surface, it might be a jolt guaranteed to rock your senses.
Or, let’s say you reach into your livewell and grab a fat 10-inch shiner, hook it up and pitch it to the edge of the vegetation, then freeline it, letting it swim under the mat. Eventually the hapless shiner swims one stroke too far, the mat humps up crazily and ka-boosh! Your shiner is toast, and you have a 10-pound bass (and a bushel basket of grass) on the end of your line.
Or maybe you’re fishing a tournament during a cold front. You ease your bass boat up to the mat, drop a jig or plastic worm down through it, and go on red alert as the lure falls into the danger zone. Suddenly there’s the slightest twitch of the line (the kind your face involuntarily makes when you’re chatting with that friendly IRS auditor), you rear back and hammer the hook home. Your flipping stick buckles, the bass shakes its head in protest, and your line snaps, echoing like a Saturday night special fired in a back alley. No check for you at the weigh-in today!
“Despite the difficulties of fishing it, densely-matted overhead cover represents your best hope for a lunker largemouth in many waters nationwide,” says Dan Thurmond, a legendary guide who has targeted big bass for three decades on prime Florida and Texas waters. Currently stationed in Conroe, Texas, Thurmond is an expert when it comes to fishing matted surface grass.
“A nationwide proliferation of so-called ‘junk weeds’ such as hydrilla and Eurasian milfoil has made vegemats today’s primary big-bass attractors, converting many formerly mediocre lakes into lunker havens,” he says. “There’s no question that largemouths crave this thick cover. Vegemats represent the best possible sanctuary for big bass, particularly in heavily-pressured lakes.”
Doug Hannon, the “Bass Professor,” has studied bass in vegemats for years. “Bass use matted vegetation for many reasons,” he explains. “Most anglers believe it’s so they can shade their eyes from the sun, but this is nonsense—the largemouth is a member of the sunfish family, and the sun’s rays don’t hurt its eyes.
“A more likely reason they’re attracted to this overhead cover is that it gives them a tremendous sense of security. Most threats to adult bass come from above, in the form of birds of prey or humans,” Hannon says. “Hiding be-neath a mat of lily pads or junk weeds undoubtedly provides ideal concealment from an aerial assault. They’re awesome holding places during cold fronts, too, when bass will chill out and wait for weather conditions to improve.”
Hannon says that upward visibility is dramatically restricted beneath vegemats, for bass and anglers. “This explains why you can go right up to the edge of a mat of hydrilla, drop a jig off the nose of the boat and haul up a big bass,” he says.
So, if monster bass are hiding just below that matted surface slop, why the heck aren’t we fishing it? “Vegemats are bass fishing’s ultimate approach-avoidance conflict,” explains Thurmond. “You realize the fish are there, but it doesn’t take you long to grow weary of A. being constantly hung up, B. not being able to feel your lure, C. missing strikes, or D. hauling back a pound-and a-half of produce on every cast. No wonder so many bassers avoid these hassles by leaving vegemats—and the bass hiding beneath them—undisturbed in favor of easier-to-fish cover.”
Finding Sweet Spots
Fishermen venturing out onto a weed-choked lake for the first time are often intimidated by those vast expanses of matted surface vegetation. It all looks so bassy, they wonder why a trophy isn’t lurking under every lily pad and grass patch.
The biggest problem when fishing a lake with acres of surface vegetation is quickly editing out unproductive water, and focusing your precious fishing time on the most likely bass-holding spots. This might seem like an insurmountable task, but Thurmond and Hannon have some great pointers for pinpointing bass.
“I’ll comb a big vegemat quickly when I first hit the water to locate concentrations of fish, then slow down once I’ve found them,” says Thurmond. “Jigs, tubes and worms are not good search baits—they require way too methodical a presentation in this slop. Instead, I start by probing the open water at the edge of the mat with a spinnerbait or crankbait.
“On cloudy days, especially, bass will prowl the perimeter hunting bluegills and shiners. Then I’ll move to the top of the mat with weedless spoons or topwater Scum Frogs, lures that cover a lot of territory,” he says. “On my first couple of passes, I don’t really care if I catch a fish. A missed strike, even a tell-tale movement in the vegetation, lets me know where the bass are holding. I can come back and fish a tube or worm for these fish later if they won’t respond to a faster presentation.”
“Bass are edge-oriented predators,” adds Hannon. “Like a hawk circling above an area where dense forest meets open field, a bass using a vegemat will hold where thick weeds intersect a hole or open boat lane—or where one species of grass transitions into another. This maximizes their hunting opportunities by allowing them to take advantage of several prey species using different types of habitat.”
Of the various species of vegetation that form surface mats, lily pads, which are rooted to the bottom, and water hyacinth, which drifts freely, are arguably the most predictable when it comes to determining bass location, Hannon says. “The outer edge of these weeds is the most obvious place to start. Be alert for subtle points or indentations, which bass use as ambush spots. Also watch for places where lily pads thin out or get thicker; this often indicates a change in depth or bottom composition, another potential bass attractor.
“You’ll often find the best lily pad fishing during midday,” he says. “That’s when the fragrant blossoms of these plants open wide, attracting droves of insects. The inevitable horde of bluegills follows, and bass move in to follow the forage.”
Steps For Fishing Mats
1. Work The Edges: At first glance, super-dense hydrilla and milfoil beds can be daunting, but keying on bass-holding edges can put you on fish quickly. Texas pro Larry Nixon likes to crank a Rattlin’ Rapala around the edges of hydrilla mats in the early morning, before bass move too far under the weeds. “I cast parallel to the edge, running that bait hard and fast,” he says. “When you contact cover, rip the bait free. If bass are hanging just under the mat, that’ll get their attention.”
Some types of vegemats, especially water hyacinth, can be fished effectively with live bait. “Hook a big wild shiner above the anal vent with a stout weedless hook, put your baitcasting reel in free-spool, drop the baitfish at the mat’s edge, and it’ll usually swim under the mat on its own,” Hannon says. “When it does, it stands a good chance of getting eaten by a big bass. You can’t believe the giants you’ll catch using this approach.”
2. Over The Top: When weeds grow to within a foot or so of the surface, burning a spinnerbait with two small Colorado blades, or a lipless vibrating crankbait like a Rat-L-Trap, over the top of the grass can provoke an arm-wrenching strike. A noisy surface popper works, too.
By midsummer, vegetation can grow at an amazing rate, and may form a mat all the way to the surface. “Weedless rats and frogs can crawl over this slop without getting mired down, and are a lot of fun to fish,” Thurmond says. “Cut a small slit in the back and pack the hollow bait with 1/4-inch pieces of plastic worm. This will permit longer casts on heavy tackle without compromising the lure’s flotation. Dropping in a couple of glass worm rattles makes it easier for bass to hear the bait coming.”
When vegemat bass want a smaller bait, try an alternative presentation. I recently fished a duckweed-clogged lake with South Carolina bass pro Davey Hite. He couldn’t get a hit using a surface frog, so he switched to a 4-inch tube with a wide-gap hook and an 1/8-ounce sinker. Hite lubricated the tube with oily fish attractant, cast it onto the mat and slid it slowly across the top. He caught two dozen bass up to 6 pounds using this approach, the same presentation he used to win $225,000 in the 1998 FLW championship tournament.
Jordan Paullo also fishes tubes over dense lily pads near his home in Connecticut but he’s begun to ex-pand his arsenal with the introduction of the Booyah Swim’n Jig, which he says is the bait for fishing vegemats.
“The key is to keep a steady retrieve so the bait makes a V-shaped wake across the top of the mat. Even if there’s only an inch or two of water above the weeds, bass will hear the commotion from a distance.”
3. Punch The Mats: Junk weeds such as hydrilla grow in towers with open water between them, but by summer these towers have exploded to the surface and folded over to form a nearly impenetrable vegemat. Instead of keying on the top of the mat, North Carolina bass pro Marty Stone prefers to pitch or flip a jig to bass holding in and around the weedy towers beneath it. He’ll shake the jig until it wallows its way through the mat, or haul off and smack the jig through the surface layer with a sharp slap of his flipping stick. Then he lifts, drops and shakes the jig repeatedly until a bass grabs it.
Florida pro Bernie Schultz has plenty of experience punching mats as well. He prefers a Yamamoto Craw Worm, Kreature or Senko (junebug or green pumpkin color). Depending on the density of the mat, he’ll use a 5/16-ounce all the way up to a 11/2-ounce weight to break through. He advises that once you bust through the mat, use your rodtip to keep the lure high in the water column. “Bass are most aggressive when they are hanging right below the canopy,” he notes.
Several years ago, before underwater video cameras were widely available, Hannon got so hooked on fishing vegemats that he bought a cheap black-and-white surveillance camera, improvised a plastic housing for it and used it to scope out hyacinth mats for big bass on lakes near his Tampa, Florida, home.
“I’d move from one mat to the next, looking for bass. Sometimes I’d see fish hanging under the hyacinths that were so big, they were downright scary. It was almost as exciting watching them on the monitor as it was catching them—almost!”
Likewise, as exciting as it may be to watch pros haul lunkers from seemingly impenetrable cover, no thrill compares with catching them yourself. Don’t let vegemats intimidate you; the right approach will get you off of the sidelines and into the trophy zone. Editor’s Note: To chase trophy largemouths with guide Dan Thurmond, give him a call at: (281) 363-9950.