CHAPTER 6 – LESSONS LEARNT

Trying Times

I used to think bass were the stuff of dreams. They had a mystical air, a fish to be spoken of with reverence and in hushed tones. I suspect this was because I never caught many.

As I grew older and I learnt more, I began to catch more bass. It began to dawn on me that learning how to catch this fish was going to take a long time. I began to realize that bass are not ordinary fish – they are very, very special and they’ve become a big part of my life.

One thing I learned very early on was that catching bass was not about how many. As John Gierach said, “The first thing you learn is that no matter how hard you fish you can’t catch them all. The second thing you learn is that you’ll be a lot happier if your definition of good fishing depends more on poetry than body counts.” Poetry depends on a sense of appreciation.

My Dad, who was also an angler, taught me to appreciate the moments that all fishermen savour – the darkness of the pre-dawn and the long summer sunsets, the dolphins and the seals, and the philosophy of fishing and the environment. Most importantly, that appreciation doesn’t just come from catching fish – it comes from trying to catch them. It comes from looking at a bass glistening in the first rays of the sun, caught using a new method or at a new mark – and you never quite believing it. If the pleasure of catching fish is in its pure drama and well understood, the art of trying to catch fish sets us apart.

Fishing is an exercise in contemplation, experimentation and hard work – none more so than bass fishing. This article is about experimentation and hard work, and I wish to impart some solid information that will help you to find bass and put some thoughts down on how to catch them.

Reading the simply great books of Mike Ladle & Alan Vaughan and John Darling should give you all the information you need to find bass. Why then are good bass marks sought after and jealously guarded? The truth is that finding bass is very easy, and very hard at the same time. Finding bass is easy if you believe what you are reading – the hard part is making yourself believe it and working hard to prove it. Minds though, do have a tendency to wander from the task at hand, to think about other things, and to trip you up. They get you thinking in a way that’s not good for catching bass, like, “This is easy – I know how to do it now’.

All of what follows is based on what I have learnt through my own experience, and what I look for and think about when searching for bass.

Structure and tide

Structure – bass love it, and depend on it. The structures along my favoured coast are mostly shallow rocks and reefs bounded by sand and gravel. These rocks are often quite large and in areas of kelp and weed, but they act like magnets for bass providing both the food, and shelter from predators.

Tide – is also very important. Not only does water come in and out, it also goes along, particularly where deeper water surrounds shallower marks. In these areas water is funnelled up and over the shallows creating riffles and runs. It is tide moving across and over these shallows that gives us a marvellous opportunity to ambush our fish. A strong tide moving over shallow rocks creates a small area of disturbed water downstream of the rocks. Notice I said small. The area of water disturbance does not have to be large at all. Look for these runs, they concentrate the fish.

It is no coincidence that these mini reefs hold fish at certain states of the tide. Fish either side of this reef will move up into the run to intercept the food washed over it. On a flooding tide, reefs and their runs change – and us anglers must change position and perhaps tactics.

On one of my favourite reefs, with a good early spring tide the run will develop downtide of the rocks about 30-40 minutes after low water. The fish are there immediately and will (presumably) stay in the run until the energy they expend by staying outweighs the food value of what is being carried towards them. The deeper the water becomes, the more difficult it must be to feed easily on the food carried towards them (although I’m pretty sure they don’t rationalise it in this way). A baitfish being carried along in shallow water does not have a lot of options for escape. As the water becomes deeper the bass have to work harder, and I assume this causes them to disperse. Often they will stay inshore close to the reef in very shallow water (2-3 feet) right up to high tide and beyond searching the area. At other times they simply disperse more widely, and so catch rates drop.

So what does this tell us? We all know that bass love structure. What we often forget is that this structure may only produce for a small amount of time – as anglers we must look for structure and tide and then work hard to find the optimum fishing time. This is the difficult part and it can take a long time. One thing is absolutely certain – time spent fishing is never wasted.

Once bass have utilised a particular structure (not necessarily manmade structure) they will move on. You must find where they go. Do they just disperse, or do they go and find another structure and tide conditions close by? If they do, and you can find it, you have just extended your fishing time – and made yourself more work to do. Each spot needs to be fished in all permutations of tide, weather and season to reveal its secrets. And in time it will — if you concentrate.

Don’t be afraid to fish very shallow water. If shore fishing, do not wade until you have covered the wash of the waves. From a boat, be careful, but get in close to the shore and drift or anchor in four to five feet of water (make sure the tide is rising!). Boat positioning can be critical in these situations, so experiment.

Poppers and sliders

Poppers and sliders not only let us fish very shallow water; they immediately give us information about whether the bass are present. A swirl at a lure is a great sight and it gives us a whole host of information that can be used to our advantage. Obviously it means fish are present, but the tide state, time of year and the weather conditions need noting to be of use again in the future.

Poppers are great lures that create a big disturbance and are superb for rougher water, distance casting and hungry fish. Do not think that poppers just work in calm water. The more disturbed the surface the more confidently fish will take. If the waves are standing up nicely in the run of tide, that is even better. Fish the waves, and then fish the run off. Then fish the waves again. Watch the waves too. Bass will give themselves away quite subtly at times, but if they are chasing food in the run you should see them.

If bass are present in shallow water you should always be able to catch them on a popper and a slider. A bold statement but these lures generate an instinct that overcomes all others. When a fish takes, wait until you feel it before lifting the rod; do not strike at the swirl. Keep it coming and if the fish is still interested speed up. Conventional wisdom suggests stopping. This can work, but I would always speed up first and fish the cast out – if it happens again, I might try a stop. Speeding up (or carrying on at the same speed) works more often for me.

So, if it’s all that easy why don’t we all catch more bass? The truth is a lot of us don’t work hard enough at it, we can easily be happy with our lot, with our favourite lures and favourite places.

Being prepared to change is hard. A lot of us fish in our comfort zone. We love it there, it makes us feel secure. One of our most basic needs is to feel secure. We think of ourselves as reasonably good anglers because we catch a few fish, more or less when we feel like it. We enjoy ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it does stifle progress. Don’t forget, fish change in their wants too, we need to make the changes or we are just presenting yesterday’s menu. If you keep doing what you’ve always done and expect to improve your results – you won’t. You are probably relying on chance to catch a bass. The best way to catch more bass is to change, and keep changing. What works today may not work tomorrow. Success doesn’t necessarily mean you have succeeded – you have just failed less. As the psychologist Karl Jung said, “Success merely confirms us in our failings, it is only through failure that we truly learn.”

Sometimes the reasons for failure seem obvious. Be wary of this as bass are not obvious creatures, and the reasons for failure may not be the reasons you first thought of. Perhaps this is best illustrated by an example. You are at your favourite mark, at your favourite time, fishing your favourite lure. You feel confident and you catch a schoolie. The time and the tide pass away with no more success and you give up, bemused. You had expected to land at least a couple. What lessons have been learned, if anything? Presumably we have caught in this place before, so why didn’t we catch many this time? Something obviously wasn’t right. Was it the tide, the weather, what we fished with or the way we fished it? We all try and decipher the information we are presented with to improve results. Past success though is only part of this information. Some keep diaries of weather conditions, tide, wind, temperature, but are we making conclusions from unreliable information? Always be prepared to challenge and be flexible. If you know that fish are present and can’t catch them you must change the way you fish for them.

If you get a follow or a swirl, it’s a sign the fish is interested, but not enough to take it. Giving it more of the same is unlikely to change its mind. So change something. If it then takes, was it because, or in spite of, what you did? John Gierach, the American angling writer, said of this “. . . it’s like voting Republican all your life in the hope that eventually you will get a good one.” If the fish are present and you are not catching, you are not showing them what they expect to see, or what they want to eat. Offer them a different lure, or present it in a different way and you will get results. Remember, bass are opportunist feeders and are always willing to feed. That doesn’t mean they are always feeding, but you can induce them.

As I said, this is all hard work. It takes an open and enquiring mind, time, money, effort and of course  – concentration.

Author: Julian Fox

Historical note: This article first appeared in BASS magazine no.109 Spring 2004.

Photo: Michael Brazendale

© Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society 2008

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