BIG BASS

How to tweak the odds in your favour

Sea Angler (UK) - - SEAANGLER CONTENTS - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy by JAMES ‘LEAKYBOOTS’ BATTY Art­work by MER­LIN UNWIN

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

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