Largemouth Bass Fishing
By David L. Moeller, Fisheries Supervisor, Iowa DNR
Largemouth bass fishing popularity has increased dramatically in recent years. Attesting to this wide acceptance from anglers is the fact that 10 years ago about 9 percent of Iowa fishermen listed this species as the one they preferred to catch, and just 5 years later their expressed preference had climbed to 17 percent. Increased activity in bass fishing is due to several factors. Foremost is the substantial and continual expansion in the number of waters that have bass populations. Since the 1930’s, construction of numerous large reservoirs, recreation lakes, water supply impoundments, and small ponds in Iowa has spread largemouth bass habitat into every location in the state. The fact that bass are relatively easy to catch, especially in the spring and fall, also lends to their popularity. They are a large-sized, predatory fish, a thrilling fighter, often clearing the water surface with acrobatic leaps when hooked, all adding to fishing excitement. Improved management methods for bass populations have paralleled the increase in bass waters during recent years. Stocking programs, habitat improvement work, and additional angling regulations are all designed to establish and maintain quality bass fishing in most public waters in our state.
Largemouth bass prefer standing or impounded waters and avoid strong water currents. Iowa has a wide variety of these waters that support largemouth bass — small ponds, man-made lakes, river backwaters, flood control reservoirs, and natural lakes. In truth, the relative size of bass populations varies widely among these different types of waters. The man-made lakes and farm ponds support the highest bass densities, usually between 30 and 100 pounds per surface acre. Mississippi River backwater lakes contain bass densities ranging from 10 to over 30 pounds per acre. The natural lakes and large water-control reservoirs support bass populations of up to 10 pounds per acre. Differences in the population density between lakes is somewhat misleading since bass are not randomly or evenly distributed throughout a body of water. Rather, like all wild beings they concentrate into specific habitats at certain times of the year, a habit which makes them vulnerable to fishermen providing they understand bass behaivor. Even though bass density is generally lower in natural lakes and large reservoirs, bass fishing is often excellent when the fish are confined to habitats that are easily and effectively fished. No matter whether you are a beginner or an experienced bass angler, the most important factor is that you will want to exert the majority of your bass fishing effort in locations where the odds are greatest for catching fish.
(Photo Credit: robposse)
Bass fishing success is ultimately determined by where you fish and the care that is taken in the presentation of the bait or lure. Bass have a very strong affinity for submerged structures for hiding cover and home ranges. The term “bass structure,” which was coined within the last two decades, includes all of the physical features in a body of water which attract bass. Structures that bass most frequently utilize can be broken into five basic types. One of the most important is an abrupt change in bottom and shoreline contours. This type of structure includes steep-sloping shorelines, drop-offs, flooded creek channels, prominent land points, sunken islands, and just about any variation in the shoreline or bottom. Exactly what constitutes bottom and shoreline structure often varies from one water to another. Some lakes have numerous points, drop-offs, and others sudden changes in bottom contours, while others are generally dish-shaped and featureless. In lakes having an abundance of structure, the more time spent fishing these prominent features the more chance you will have for catching bass. On the other hand, in lakes that have a lack of bottom and shoreline structure the bass will inhabit locations where minor changes in the bottom contours occur. An abrupt 2-foot change in the bottom shape in an otherwise featureless lake will often be heavily utilized by bass.
Rock armoring or natural deposits, another type of structure, is also frequented by bass. Rock rip-rap that is placed along the face of the dam, on shoreline jetties, and land points to prevent wave erosion provide cover that often attracts and holds bass. Few Iowa lakes have natural rock outcroppings along the shoreline, but in those that do bass are often found in great numbers. Bass frequently utilize submerged wood — trees, stumps and brush — the typical bass structure in man-made lakes and reservoirs.
An alternate structure type often inhabited by largemouths is aquatic vegetation. Nearly every bass fisherman has experienced the thrill of easing a lure off a lily pad into the water and had a bass immediately grab it. Many species of pondweeds, water lilies, coontail, elodea, cattails, and bulrushes provide excellent cover for bass. The amount and type of vegetation fluctuates greatly, and bass use of these structures also varies. Frequently fishing the edges and pockets in vegetation beds will let the angler know when bass are found in this habitat.
Man-made structures, such as tire reefs, stake beds, brush piles, boat docks, and boathouses are also used by bass for home ranges. Fisheries managers often add structures made from these devices to fishing water with limited natural structure. Other man-made structures, such as boat docks and boathouses, have concentrations of largemouth bass and should never escape the attention of a bass angler.
Most often combinations of submerged structure types found in the same location produce the best catches of bass. Examples of these super bass spots are demonstrated in the following illustration. Pay particular attention to any location that has an abundance of diverse underwater structure.
Some bass structures will be visible and obvious — shoreline points, rock rip-rap along the dam face, lily pads in a shallow bay, and wood stickups that indicate submerged trees or brush. Many structure types, however, are not so easily visible. Two items are valuable to the bass angler in locating “invisible” structure. The simplest aid is a bathymetric map of the lake bottom. Contour maps are available for nearly every Iowa lake and reservoir, and these maps will allow you to easily identify and locate drop-offs, submerged islands, flooded creek channels, submerged road beds and ditches. A more sophisticated device for locating structure is an electronic depth sounder, often called a fish-finder. These precision instruments serve several purposes. First, they are very helpful in pin-pointing structure location identified on coutour maps. Second, a depth sounder enables you to identify submerged beds of vegetation, trees, tire reefs, and stake beds. Sophisticated models, graph recorders and video sonar, will also allow you to locate bass with astonishing accuracy after some experience in interpreting images. The depth sounder is particularly helpful for fishing unfamiliar waters and especially if contour maps are unavailable.
Bass fishermen that frequently catch stringers full of fish are invariably very knowledgeable in the behavioral habits of bass during different seasons of the year and the relationship of these activities with bass location. Water temperature is undoubtedly the most important indicator of bass location and activity since it is more reliable than a calender due to seasonal weather variations from one year to the next. Catching bass at a particular location during late May one year will not necessarily assure you of success at the same time and location the following year. Thus, a thermometer is also one of the most important tools that a bass angler should possess.
Shortly after ice-out the water temperature is 38 to 40 degrees F. Iowans can expect the melt to occur from mid-March to early April. From ice-out until the water warms to about 55 degrees F, largemouth stay in deep water habitats. Look for submerged structure in deeper water, such as sunken islands, deep land points, and flooded creek channels. Deep water structures close to spawning areas are especially productive. Flowing water entering a lake is another prime location during this period. These incoming creek or tile flows are usually warmer, perhaps only a few degrees, than the lake temperature, but they attract many fish species. Bass are often “schooled” at this time; therefore, concentrate your effort in places that have produced bass.
Fishing Around the Spawn
The next fishing period is called the pre-spawn, and it commences when the water temperature ranges from 55 to 62 degrees F. This is the time that bass fishermen wait for patiently. Bass move into the shallow waters, actively feed, and are particularly vulnerable to angling. Towards the end of the pre-spawn every bass in a body of water will be in the shallows and foraging. Catching bass is astonishingly easy at this time, and the odds of hooking a lunker is best since most trophy bass are females laden with eggs in the pre-spawn. Simply fish the structure along the shoreline — any object that offers protective cover for bass.
Following this period, in the actual spawning season, fishing success drops off quickly. Male bass begin selecting and constructing nest sites when the water temperature reaches 60 degrees F. Bass are solitary, reclusive spawners, so don’t expect to catch several at one locaton; individual nests are usually at least 35 feet apart. The females approach the nest only to engage in the act of spawning. Males are extraordinarily busy during this period, guarding the nest from all intruders and keeping the eggs free of silt. They guard the nest for a 10- to 14-day period while the eggs incubate and hatch. Males continue to protect the larvae for an additional 3 to 4 weeks as the fry feed on plankton in shallow waters. The male does not forage during this entire spawn and post-spawn period; however, they still are vulnerable to angling mainly because they protect the territory from all intruders, including lures or natural baits.
Female bass are quite inactive for about two weeks after spawning, during which time they feed very little. Following this recuperation period until summer arrives females utilize the same shallow water habitats occupied during the later portion of the pre-spawn period. The summer period has usually arrived by the time males have completed their parental protection activity.
Summer is the most difficult and challenging period for bass fishing. This period, when the surface water temperature exceeds 75 degrees F, begins in late June or early July and extends into late August or early September. Bass continue foraging during the warmest water period, but they become increasingly more difficult to locate. Most bass avoid water that exceeds 80 degrees F and seek locations that range from 77 to 80 degrees F. Along with temperature, dissolved oxygen is a major factor in determining where bass are found during summer. Many Iowa lakes stratify at depths ranging from 6 to 20 feet, and below the stratification level there is no oxygen or fish. During this summer period bass move into shallow water near shore during the early morning, late evening, and night-time to feed. Temperature and light condition is least stressful during these hours. Largemouths are sight feeders, and they forage much more during low light and darkness than many anglers believe. Shaded water areas can be real bass hotspots in summer.
Largemouth bass forage most actively during twilight, dusk, and darkness during summer. Thus, major bass fishing efforts should coincide with these times. The best fishing strategy starts in shallow waters by fishing structures that are located near deep water which also contains structure. Bass that are loafing and resting in deep water during the day will move into the nearest shallow water structure that has food available during these periods of low-light intensity. Rip-rap along the dam, pockets and edges of aquatic vegetation beds, and other shoreline structure, all located in close proximity to deep water, will hold bass that are actively feeding and apt to take a bait or lure. If the lake you plan to fish has thermal stratification, it will be necessary to determine the depth of the thermocline. This can be accomplished in several ways, but the easiest is to consult local experts or use a minimum-maximum recording thermometer. Fish these areas in deeper waters during full light conditions. On lakes that do not stratify, fish the deeper water structures during daylight.
Locating bass after mid-September, when the water cools below 70 degrees F, is much more simple. By this time the bass have moved back into shallow water structures. Generally, the same shallow water structure areas that were productive in pre-spawn will also contain fish in autumn. As fall progresses and water temperature cools to the low to mid-50’s, bass will again return to deep water habitats. Below 50 degrees F bass feeding is greatly reduced, and they become lethargic. The growing season for bass in Iowa has ended. Angling for bass will produce the occasional fish; however, consistent catches are now more difficult.
As winter approaches and the lakes freeze, most bass anglers hang up their traditional fishing equipment. During the ice-cover period, the warmest water is always located in the deepest part of the lake, and this is where bass are found and spend the majority of their time. Movement and activity are diminshed, but occasionally bass will take forage or bait. Most of the bass caught through the ice are taken on small spoons, minnows, and tear-drop lures baited with insect larvae.
Other popular live baits for crappie, particularly during the ice fishing season, include a large assortment of insect larvae. Waxworms, mousies, mealworms, and silver wigglers all work well when placed on a small teardrop lure. Some ice fishermen prefer to use cut bait, flesh from the belly or the cheek patch of another fish. Cut bait can be fished either on a small hook or tipped on a jigging spoon.
The choice of fishing tackle and accessory equipment for bass fishing is largely up to individual fisherman. Nearly every type of gear available in any tackle shop is capable of catching and landing bass. For sure, the equipment that is enjoying the most popularity today is bait-casting, spin-casting and spinning. There are advantages as well as disadvantages to all types of fishing gear — there is probably no single all-around tackle. Most importantly, the gear should be comfortable to use, and you must be proficient in its use. The finest in bass fishing tackle will not ensure success if it is used in a haphazard way.
More advice on the premium bait for largemouth bass fishing probably has been given since man began angling than any other subject. Virtually every written article or conversation on bass fishing sooner or later addresses the question — “What are they biting on?” Nearly every bait or lure has probably caught bass at one time or another. Bass, like most fish, are opportunistic foragers and prey upon the most abundant and vulnerable food. Fish, crayfish, large aquatic and terrestrial insects, frogs, worms, and even small mammals and birds all have been found in bass stomachs.
When using natural food items for bait in bass fishing, the fisherman should determine that the bait should be continually active and move. Largemouth bass rarely scavenge dead food items from the bottom like some fishes. Nightcrawlers are not an abundant natural food, but bass will take them readily during all fishing periods. The best suggestion is to use only enough weight on the line to sink the crawler to the bottom, then move it with very slow and easy jerks. Crayfish, live minnows, and frogs can be fished in a similar manner, preferably near structure and cover, again slow, constant movement is the key to success.
The vast majority of bass fishermen in Iowa, as well as everywhere else, use some sort of artificial lure to catch “Mr. Bigmouth.” Lures come in such a wide variety of types, sizes, colors, and patterns that the novice bass fishermen must be completely bewildered when first visiting a tackle shop or sporting goods store. Most lures closely imitate natural food items, except several models which are totally unlike anything found in our aquatic environment. The main point is probably all bass lures will catch fish provided they are used in the proper manner in the correct habitat. For most fishermen it is unimportant exactly what lure is cast; the paramount things are location and presentation. If you have confidence in a certain lure — use it.
Manufacturers and fishermen classify bass lures by the depth at which they are most effectively used — top-water, mid-water and deep-running. Top-water lures include poppers, hair-bugs, surface plugs and buzz-baits. Obviously, these lures work only when the bass are located in shallow water. To expect a fish to take a surface lure from 20 feet is simply expecting too much. Best catches are usually made by fishing top-water lures close to structures, such as weed beds, brush, tree tops, land points, and rip-rap in water five feet or less in depth.
The mid-water lures are designed to fish in the water column, especially for bass that are suspended. Some run close to the water surface, some at mid-depth, and others dive sharply into the deeper depths. The major classes of mid-water lures include spinner-baits, minnow-plugs, crank-baits, spoons, wet-flies and streamers. True spinner-baits are most effective in shallow water because they imitate swimming or injured minnows. Wet flies and streams fished with a fly rod are also good lure for the shallows. Minnow plugs and crank-baits are equipped with a depressor lip that causes the lure to dive during the retrieve. Some models float on the surface when at rest, while others sink. The sinking models can be used at nearly all depths by merely counting down the sinking action to the desired level. Crank-bait lures work particularly well around rock ledges and sunken trees. Spoons are extremely versatile for bass fishing and can be fished at almost any depth and retrieval speed. The weedless models tipped with a pork rind strip or minnow for additional appeal are best for fishing weed beds and lily pads.
Some bass anglers concentrate their fishing efforts around deep structure in summer with jigging-spoons that are fished just off the bottom. These lures can also be dressed with pork rind or soft-bodied attractors. Other deep water lures include lead-heads, plastic worms, and many other varieties of soft-bodied lures that resemble natural food items. They are usually most effective when fished during activity periods when the bass are located in the deeper parts of a lake, near land points, drop-offs, and flooded creek channels. The choice of fishing these lures with or without dressing it with a minnow or other bait is variable — both ways work about equally well.
Lure color and pattern is probably more confusing than lure type to most fishermen. A visit to any tackle shop will show you lures of every imaginable color and pattern. Modern technology has produced soft bodied lures in several flavors as well. The question most frequently asked is, “What is the best color lure for bass?” Research has shown conclusively that under laboratory conditions bass prefer red, and they can distinguish it from most other colors. There are two suggestions for color and pattern are: if one color does not produce fish, try another; and in clear water use bright colored lures and in turbid water use darker colors.
With increased popularity of bass fishing has come the rapid development of accessory equipment, all designed to give an edge to the fisherman. Boats have been created specifically for the bass fisherman, electronic fish finders are commonly used to scan the depths and locate fish, sophisticated probes for measuring optimum water quality to pin-point bass location have been produced. Lure color can now be selected from an instrument that measures light conditions and water clarity. Are these necessary to be a successful bass fisherman? The answer is “of course not”; knowledge of fish habits is still the most important factor, and always will be, but these gadgets certainly add to fishing comfort and convenience. Personal choice is the rule in this case.
Catch and Release Fishing
Bass fishing popularity has also brought an increase in the concept of no kill and fishing for fun. Most Iowa waters have minimum length limit regulations and largemouth bass shorter than the limit must be released immediately with as little injury as possible. However, there is a growing faction of anglers, some organized into bass fishing clubs, that promote the release of all fish that are caught, regardless of its size, except for a trophy-sized fish that can be mounted.
There are certain suggestions for anglers that plan on releasing their bass that will enhance the chances for survival. Land the fish as quickly as possible — exhaustion plays a key part in hooking mortality. Remove the lure hooks while the fish is in the water, and hold the bass by grasping the lower jaw between the thumb and forefinger. Live bait anglers often find the hooks deeply imbedded in the gullet and swallowed. Rather than doing serious harm to the bass by trying to remove the hook, simply cut the line close to the hook. Few fish die from the hook itself.
Organized competitive bass fishing has become a common occurrence in many Iowa waters. Over 25 bass clubs are active in this state. Just how successful are these anglers and what happens to the bass caught in tournaments is often misunderstood by non-participants and has led to some controversy.
A comparison of bass catch rates in tournaments reveals that the club fisherman is only slightly better than the average angler. Most bass clubs encourage the release of bass by deducting tournament points for weighing-in dead fish. Benefits from competitive fishing have been derived by these clubs donating substantial sums of money for research and habitat improvement.
The largemouth bass is truly one of our outstanding game fish. They will challenge your finest fishing ability and will do battle at every opportunity. Whether you rarely fish for bass or have desires to win a bass tournament, treat them with the respect that they have earned and deserve.
*Mayhew, J. (editor). 1987. Iowa Fish and Fishing. Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Des Moines, Iowa. 323 pp.