Bass Essentials: Catching bass on lures
WE have all played the hypothetical game of “If you could only have one lure to catch bass, what would it be?” As a hypothetical the answer is easily offered or recall from a previous game you played with another mate. The practicalities of a single lure would rob you of the best chance and techniques to target your chosen species over a variety of light conditions and seasonal events.
Over years of lure fishing anglers tend to sieve their experiences, memorable captures and highlights and condense them into lures that have either long term or current favour. Lures that have been discontinued from manufacture make favourites more valuable as a keepsake than a usable product and the only tangible evidence of the fishing done with them are memories you hold. Often these lures are retired to the dusty shelf of the man cave where they are safe from exposure to water and potential loss, instead they slowly perish and deteriorate under tracking daylight that creeps over them each day.
It is the consolidation of all the fishing trips that help us, not only choose our favourite lures for a given situation, but also the colour combinations that have a solid reputation of success. So here are some of my essentials and must haves for any session on the Australian bass.
Let us get this out of the way before getting into the essentials. While everyone has a preference for rods, reels, manufactures, there is no escaping the basics. Rods can vary depending on whether you are in a canoe, bank bashing or in a boat as can the reels, though threadlines are universally easier to use in any situation.
I spool all my bass/bream reels with braid of differing strengths and manufacturing processes. On reels used to deliver surface lures or spinnerbaits the braid strength is 10lb, while soft plastics and diving lures is around 6lb braid. The main reason for the difference is the heavier line ties better to heavier leaders and resists the line shock of casting lures with weight behind them. There is one thing I learned a long time ago and that is bass do not care about the leader size, they are purely focused on the lure. You could tie your lure directly to the braid and still catch fish because the fish don’t know any better. If you have ever put a face mask on (diving mask not COVID) and looked below the surface of a clear, freshwater river there is tonnes of suspending debris, weed, and algae that will distract from the leader. So, using 6lb fluorocarbon as a leader is asking for trouble if you manage to hook up to a better than average fish. For jigheads and soft plastics 8lb would be the bare minimum with an inclination for 10lb, For spinnerbaits and hardbodies 15lb and surface fishing in the dead of night 15 to 20lb. The reason for heavy leader material at night is to compensate for wayward casts that bury lures deep or high in the bank side foliage. It just provides a higher level of extraction and allows enough strength for a loop knot connection to the lure. It is also a period where big fish come out to play.
Spinnerbaits, for whatever reason, work on the bass most of the time. They represent nothing imaginable in nature, where other lures mimic some life form and some, uncannily, are reproduced with anatomical precision. I guess the spinning, flashy blades and fluid skirt of thin silicone strips appeal to fish and that is why they should be an essential item in your tackle kit. There are so many configurations of spinnerbaits that it is merely trial and error until you can settle on a go to combo that provides and builds the confidence you need while throwing them. My go to is a 1/4oz black and purple, double Colorado brass blade Bassman spinnerbait. On any big river trip, I’ll start with it and end the day with it still tied on one rod. The double Colorado blades allows for a dead slow retrieve with maximum vibration and time at depth.
A few rules that I comply with when throwing spinnerbaits are; if I can see the spinnerbait in the water and not see the bottom, I need to allow it to sink more by slowing the retrieve, lowering the rod tip, or letting it sink momentarily by ceasing the retrieve. It may be a combination of all these things to get the spinnerbait closer to the bottom and where the fish are during the day. This is especially important in deeper hole during daylight when the bass are seeking cooler, darker water. At the height of the day the bass will often sink to the bottom of the pool and mooch around for shrimp or gudgeons so offerings that are mid water may not even be seem. A good rule of thumb is to turn the reel handle a full rotation every second and modify your retrieve from that point. It is not a race, and provided you feel the blades spinning you can’t slow roll your spinnerbait slowly enough. Sure, a burst of speed and a sudden drop to the bottom all adds to the mix and a potential trigger for trailing fish to strike. So mix it up but slow and deep is the key for spinnerbaits.
I will tend to use spinnerbaits as a search lure. On wide bodies of water that have channels of weed and scattered overhanging foliage that I’m paddling through and don’t have enough time to fish them intensively with plastics, the spinnerbait gets called in. They are also great at the top and tail of pools where rocky outcrops create eddies in the current and holding areas for the fish. The spinnerbait drawn across current will bump and bounce across the rock and dip into the crevices where the fish hide and often sparking a reaction bite.
There is no doubt that surface fishing for bass is the choice session of most anglers. Surface lures and techniques are as diverse as the habits of the bass themselves. Night sessions or overcast daylight periods, and even midday surface fishing all come into play depending on what lures you use and the terrain you fish. Typically, a pre-sunset start leads into the dead of night and lures like Jitterbugs with the historic plip plop sound is the stock standard scenario. What lure you end up using depends on the section or river you are fishing and the amount of floating weed across the surface. Jitterbugs and surface walkers that trail trebles work well in clear waters, but their actions can be frustratingly compromised with fouling weed. Lures that are weedless like Zman finesse frogs rigged on a wide gap worm hook or Live Target field mice are a better fit and can be fished blind over any water conditions. I like to use walk the dog or paddles on dusk where I can see what I’m casting to and as darkness sets in I’ll swap to weedless as conditions demand.
Whatever surface you use it is the retrieve that can make a difference to the catch rate. Bass are very aware of things splashing down on a still surface at night, so there is no need to start the retrieve immediately. Let the lure settle for a moment and then move it a metre or so and rest it again, give it a shake and repeat the process as you would after a failed hit. On tough nights you will find you get more hit on a drifting lure than one in constant motion and certainly from big fish. Seasoned bass anglers will attest to hasty strikes close their rod tips and they are generally from following fish. Given a few pauses throughout the retrieve those fish have more opportunity to make up their mind to hit your lure further away from the bank or canoe and it will save you from the girlie squeal and butt clenching. With Live Target field mice, drifted on the surface, you often don’t even hear or feel the hit, just a tightening of the line that leads to weight, so you need to be ready.
Weedless lures are also your best option on overcast day with casts needing to be delivered to the dark recesses of bankside overhangs. Deep banks that are obstructed by sticks and foliage is where you will find bigger bass on the overcast days and drawing them out means you can’t be scared to drive your lure well into the darkened water. Even if you get caught up with a weedless lure occasionally, the rewards are well worth it.
Leading into the end of the bass season there are opportunities to fish a rising river that has been swollen by autumn rain. Slight rises and discolouring of the water provides a window to use surface lures throughout the day as the bass scourge the bank edges and take advantage of the drowned insects and emerging worms. Any eddies that the rising water create are prime areas to toss a surface lure at. Dropping your lure in the eddy and allowing it to wash to the bank, before starting the retrieve is ideal as the fish seek relief from the river flow and feed on passing food.
Few anglers would argue that the best surface action can be had during the new moon (no moon) period when the river is set in pitch darkness. Most nights any prevailing wind that has tormented and blown your canoe or kayak around has abated and it is the stillness that make the fishing so exciting. Being deprived of your sense of sight seems to heighten your hearing and sense of touch which is another reason so many anglers love night session. A good investment for night fishing is sourcing a red-light head torch. It removes the harsh white light that can put the fish off and greatly reduces the attraction of the billions of bugs that are waiting for the slightest glimmer of light.
My general approach to the deep snags and overhangs during bright daylight hours is to fish a variety of plastics on the bottom as close to the structure as possible. Like football jigs, which are successful on bass, a jig head and plastic fished deep will draw fish to the bottom as it sinks. Plastics are also perfect for drifting under snags in faster water or to undercuts in the rapids. The beauty of the football jigs and soft plastics is any fish holding midwater in the snags will be drawn to the bottom by the sinking lure, some from curiosity and others from hunger.
The jig head weight depends on the water you are fishing but a 1/24oz with a no2 hook will work in most situations and may just need more sink time. Where faster water or current is involves elevating the weight to around 1/6oz with a 1/0 hook works. Teamed either jig heads with something like a Gulp Shrimp in cam colour and you have a deadly combo that can be hopped on the bottom in short stretches. Fishing any lure close or on the bottom comes with the risk of snagging up and is the price we pay to access quality fish. Considering the bass feed heavily on shrimp, early and late season, to put on condition before and after spawning, shrimp patterns are a no brainer. Small fish profiles are ideal around areas like weed edges and rocky out crops or paralleling logs and snags. Plastics are also used to enhance spinnerbaits and football jigs with curly tails the most common and effective.
Leader material for jig heads should be around the 10lb mark which allows some suppleness in the line and strength to tie a loop knot, allowing more action from the jig head.
Fishing hard body lures seems redundant considering the other options available to us, but there are times it can be the change up when everything else has failed. Suspending deep divers are the pick of the hardbodies and in natural colours or with heavy contrast between colours. The advantage deep divers provide is that they can be driven deep quickly and allowed to hover close to snag piles or standing timber. Then worked in short bursts broken up with a series of pauses. I don’t think there is a better wake up call than having a hard body crunched and the rod tip buckled over. With all my hard bodied bass lures the trebles are crushed down for a few reasons.
The first is they come out of your hands and fingers with little fuss, except for the initial discomfort. They are also more easily discarded by the fish should you suffer a towelling and retrieval from snags and trees is marginally easier too.
These days most manufacturers incorporate rattling ball bearing in their lures, that the fish seem to respond to well. The classic success of the Jackall TN50 bears witness to the rattle success. Berkley are set to launch a new range of hard bodies called Pro Tech and the colour range are exciting for the bream and bass anglers. Classic colours mixed with colours like watermelon pearl and ghost pink that look the goods and I am keen to run some very soon.
April is one of the best times of the season to target big bass. With water temperatures becoming cooler than the summer peak the fish are, believe it or not, more active, and willing to move around. The warmer water can make the fish lethargic and harder to catch during the day and is a reason the nights have elevated activity. This time of year, there is no issue with fish survival after release as there is in summer. Summer temperatures in the river can reach over 30 degrees in wide, shallow and still pools and dissolved oxygen is depleted so quick release is always key.