How to tweak the odds in your favour
How to tweak the odds in your favour.
Let me start with a few words of caution. I catch a fair number of doublefigure fish, and I’ve developed a local reputation as the bass-whisperer, the fellow whose maternal granny was a monster bass. You might think I know exactly what I’m talking about, but bass fishing doesn’t work that way. There are no universal truths or binding rules. The more you study bass, the more you recognise their endless capacity for springing surprises.
I’ve seen a whopper that hit a tiny mackerel feather off a crowded pier at noon and another that took a thumbnail-sized piece of bread from the surface of a busy harbour. That said, I don’t propose hunting big bass with a string of microsabikis or a slice of Mother’s Pride. There are (or seem to be) a few pointers that increase your chances of running into a giant.
1 FOLLOW THE FOOD
Bass are eating machines. In the time it takes to slip a single hook from its scissor, a decent fish can spit up a load of sandeels or mackerel that would satisfy a ravenous rugby player. I’ve cleaned bass with two or three pounds of squid or razor clams in their stomachs, so it makes sense to put your bait or lure into spots where there’s plenty of easy nourishment on offer.
Those spots can be pretty small. Successful lurefishers and fly-casters focus their efforts on the snags, outcrops, weedbeds, bottlenecks and gullies that concentrate the prey species. Good baitfishers will size up a beach and decide where the food’s likely to be most abundant and thickest on the ground.
A fair guide is to ask yourself “Where’s the weed building up, where’s there most junk on the shoreline?” The combination of wind, wave, and tide pushes everything, from empty water bottles and old flip-flops to dead squid and razor clams around and dumps it in particular areas, bass eateries, the spots to try first.
On the subject of tides, the bigger the better. More rise and fall means more current, and that drags more edible stuff into the wave. Another pointer (obvious but often ignored) is that a decent surf or a fizzy lure-fishing wave deposits flotsam and food into the shallows against the beach or rocks. The area close to the water’s edge generally holds more bass-treats than the distant deeps, so that’s where I’m fishing.
A good many of my best lure-caught bass have come from casts that were almost parallel with the shoreline, and I rarely fish a surf bait more than 30 yards from the rod-tip.
Of course, there’s a problem. Fishing where there’s most good stuff for bass to eat often means a few accidental by-catches, like rocks, weed, fast food wrappers, and old supermarket bags. No pain, no gain.
Floating fly-lines, surface plugs and weedless soft plastics keep snags down somewhat; and short casts put less line into the wave, which means bait-fishing gear doesn’t scoop up as much rubbish as otherwise might be the case.
2 KEEP MOVING
I spend an awful lot of time down by the sea. Even when I’m not fishing I love looking at the water, and now and then I spot a few bass. Here’s the thing: big bass don’t do a whole lot. Schoolies are like mackerel or pollack, always on the go, like sugar-rushing toddlers in a bouncy castle. But the monsters are often almost static, lurking behind a lump of rock or weed, or washing about in the surf, conserving their energy.
When there’s a fishing rod in my hand, that tells me that the old saying “Patience is a virtue” is a lot of rubbish. Around bass, I think patience is a self-defeating mixture of laziness and thoughtlessness. When the target’s stationary and you don’t hit it, you don’t just take another shot, you need to adjust your aim.
A lot of anglers seem to disagree. Lurefishers and fly-casters will pick a vantage point and stay there, repeatedly slinging their streamers and plugs as far as they can into the ocean. The bait brigade are no different, buzzing out a wired lead weight, plonking their rods on to tripods, slumping on a tackle box, munching a sandwich, and awaiting further developments.
Not for me. I fish my lure or fly in an arc, never covering the same area more than once or twice. With bait, unless the wave’s enormous, I use a bomb weight so my gear moves around in the surf, searching out the areas where food might be accumulating and a bass might be waiting. I only fall back on an anchored sinker in a total gale, when anything less would gallop up the beach like the ghost of Shergar. I always hold my rod. Bait or lure, I’m forever moving along the beach or rocks, a cast here and a cast there until I find the sweet spot.
3 NIGHT TIME IS RIGHT TIME
In the old days, before lures became so popular, all self-respecting bass-fishers were nocturnal creatures. Vampire-like, we emerged at dusk and slunk back into our coffins at dawn.
Even though big fish are caught in daylight, I find the hours of darkness are more productive, almost regardless of the gear you like to use. I say almost because top-water plugs have never done me many favours after nightfall. But with divers, slowly fished soft plastics or flies, and above all with bait, the smart money is on the night-shift, especially for the better specimens.
4 DODGE THE TIDDLERS
Once in a blue moon we bass-fishers run into conditions that have us boiling over with excitement, racking our brains for creative excuses to bunk off work or duck a family commitment. A big tide, a rolling surf or a bubbling wave over the rocks, an inky black night, is almost more than flesh and blood can stand. But there’s a hitch.
When things look perfect for bass, lots of bass show up; and most bass aren’t 10lb trophies, most are small or medium sized. Added to which, little bass are more mobile and active than the monsters, faster on to a lure or bait. I’ve never caught a double from an area heaving with schoolies.
I find two things sometimes do the trick when wanting to fish more selectively. The first is to head out when the waves and weather are almost too wild for sensible folk to venture forth. A raging gale and a maelstrom of surf seem to put the babies off their grub. Maybe they can’t swim through a boiling swirl of backwash, but the big bass certainly can.
I’ve caught 10-pounders when even a wired lead wouldn’t hold bottom for more than a couple of minutes, when the wind was chucking great lumps of airborne wrack up the shore and the sand was shot-blasting my face to its normal weather-beaten glow. An Atlantic storm doesn’t make for easy fishing, but a whopping bass compensates for the discomfort.
The second trick is to fish really close in, right in the surf-table. The conventional wisdom says you should cast to the third wave. Fine, maybe a good place to start. But if the third wave’s full of nippers, I’m trying the first or the second, often just 10 or 15 yards from my boots. A lot of anglers find the little fish, then keep casting to the same spot in hope of a bigger one. That makes as much sense as eating a whole bag of vile crisps just in case the last one tastes better. School bass are so called because they swim in schools. If you want to catch their grandmother, there’s no point fishing in the playground. If the babies are 30 yards out, there’s at least a chance of a monster much nearer to the margin, where
the surf’s about 18in deep and boiling like a turbo-charged hot-tub. It’s almost never too shallow or frothy for a double.
5 DON’T SCARE THEM AWAY
Even on a wild night big bass are surprisingly cagey. In a calm sea, they’re very easy to frighten. I’ve watched people wading with their lure-rods or their fly-gear, eyes glued to the horizon, chunky fish darting away as they trudge through the shallows.
I’ve also met a fair few blankers who cast from beaches, headlamps blazing seaward as they stomp around like uncoordinated elephants in a mosh-pit. There’s nothing wrong with wading or powerful lights, but I like to fish the shallows before I wade them, to keep my light well away from the water, and to step as lightly as possible for a clumsy old geezer in trouser-waders.
“It’s almost never too shallow or frothy for a double-figure bass”
6 PICK THE RIGHT BAIT
Bass-fishers know their bait or lure makes a difference, and a lot believe in a single charttopping winner. I meet folk who tell me they always use a white Patchinko, a purple Senko, a Clouser minnow or a bunch of lugworms. I reckon their loyalty is misplaced.
I spent a number of years fly-fishing for trout, and that’s a game that teaches you to imitate what the fish are eating right now. I don’t think bass are very different. They take more readily when you offer them something like their current prey. When the water’s full of mackerel I want a mackerel-sized and shaped lure, when the sandeels are in, something a lot smaller and slimmer. On a muddy shoreline lugworms can be just the job, but ragworms work better on white, shingly sand.
For monsters there’s another factor to consider, and that’s size. Big bass need a lot of food, and they are not going to forage too far to find it. Little worm baits and tiny sandeels are fine for schoolies, but I want a bait or lure that appeals to the larger fish. That means big lures, nothing under about 135mm, and retrieved slowly enough to interest a lumbering brute. In the surf I go for something a tad chunkier, about 200mm of mackerel, squid, or razorfish.
Like a lot of fishers, I catch most of my mackerel bait. In late summer, when big bass start to show in decent numbers, catching mackerel is a piece of cake. As autumn turns to winter, the mackerel are harder to come by, and my lure turns up more squid , which means it’s time to lob squid baits into the wave. A really wild storm in winter can carpet some of my beaches with razorfish shells, delivering a clear message about the menu in bass country. Keep it local and seasonal.
7 HAVE FUN
This is the most important advice of all. Bassfishing should be a pleasure, so if any of the previous six tips would spoil your enjoyment, ignore them. Bass are wildly unpredictable. No matter how or when you fish, you still have a chance of a trophy. It’s that chance, that makes our sport such a delight.
If the third wave has schoolies, try the first or second for big fish
An 11lb 5oz bass caught on razor clam in December
A September 11lb 14oz bass on mackerel
Think where food is likely to be abundant for bass
The big fish tend to be solitary creatures
Match your bait to what the bass are eating
Above: Squid is a good choice in the winter
Whole squid produced this fish in a gale
Below: Most of my bass fall to mackerel baits