It’s great when that first cast meets with aggressive reception, but often, it takes some dialing in to determine the fish’s preference. Notwithstanding the oft-proven merits of junk fishing, a handful of examples show us that certain lure pairings hold particularly strategic benefit. Like a boxer setting up his opponent with jabs and then sneaking in a body shot or a Major League pitcher throwing the changeup, there’s more to successful bass fishing than randomly grabbing lures and hoping for the best.
In some cases, the fish will dictate when you reach for that follow-up bait, and the classic scenario that most anglers can relate to is the topwater game with a Zara Spook, a Luckycraft Sammy or Reaction Innovations Vixen. Picture the scene we’ve all relished. You fire off a cast and unleash the prettiest dog-walking retrieve the mortal world has ever seen. The enticing saunter impresses the local largemouth too, because somewhere between a zig and a zag — KABLOOSH!
Big hole in the water, but your rod remains straight and the lure remains at its surface post. It’s frustrating, but sometimes bass just miss. Whether that’s intentional — i.e. scaring off intruders while nesting or guarding fry — or just an ill-aimed attack, the ballooning exhilaration of a topwater encounter bursts most painfully when met by the sharp pin of close-but-no-cigar.
Stop there: If you haven’t thrown your rod to the deck, stomped your feet, snatched your hat off your head and shouted those unmentionables, the opportunity may still exist. Indeed, if you bypassed all that temper-tantrum stuff and you’re still in those precious, fleeting seconds right after that topwater explosion, the bass may be game for another go.
If you tarry, time will ice the fish’s enthusiasm and send you back to square one. That’s why you should always keep a follow-up rod on the ready so you can get another bait in front of the fish’s face before it loses interest. Another shot with that topwater may do the trick, but in most cases, a bass that just aired out his lips might be more inclined to bite below the surface.
For one thing, two consecutive topside trips makes him severely vulnerable to ospreys and eagles, but also, the appearance of a baitfish imitator fluttering through the water column gives the appearance of wounded prey, and that’s always an easy sell.
Good options for a topwater follow-up bait would be a subsurface lure like a Bomber Long A or a Rapala X-Rap, but don’t hesitate to swim a Texas-rigged curl-tail worm through the hot zone. When in doubt, a weedless, weightless stickbait like a Senko or Wave Tiki Stik twitched in the vicinity of a recent blow-up does a good job of impersonating a wounded baitfish.
Find ‘em and exploit ‘em
Mark Davis offered some good advice for fishing the transition between winter and spring. Essentially, the prespawn period can find anglers chomping at the bit for that shallow-water sight-fishing stuff, but Davis knows that even before the main act takes the stage, there’s plenty of action to be had with the preliminaries. The key is preparing yourself with that one-two punch mentality.
"You have fish trying to move up, and they have spawning on their minds, but every third day you have some kind of weather — cold, rainy — that holds them back," Davis said. "So you have what I call ‘the yo-yo effect’ where the fish come up, then move back, then come up again.
"You do have some fish that come up and stay, but they get really hard to catch."
Noting the importance of sustained warmth and barometric stability to the prespawn movement, Davis said: "They’re ready to make their move, and when it does finally happen, it all happens at once and it’s off-the-charts good. The fish are just bursting with eggs and they’ll run to the bank and feed like crazy."
Eager for the action to break open, but mentally prepared for some patient searching, Davis approaches the early spring transition with two main offerings: a crankbait and a football head jig. The former enables him to chase down a squirrely opponent, while the latter brings the heavy leather once he gets them on the ropes.
"When fishing does get tough and the bite slows down, you can cover the area thoroughly with the crankbait," Davis said. "Once you have confidence in the area, you can take that jig and pick it apart."
In deeper spots, maybe 10-13 feet, Davis will use a Strike King Series 5 crankbait and switch to a Strike King Redeye Shad for shallow hunting. He likes the red, brown and orange tones of crawfish patterns, but in stained water, he goes with a chartreuse bait with a brown back.
Davis cranks with a 7-foot cranking rod and a 5:1 reel loaded with 14-pound monofilament, which helps keep those treble hooks in place. He’ll test various retrieves and focus on sensitivity.
"Once you locate the cover, stop moving the bait with your reel and use your rod to sweep the bait through the cover," he suggests. "You’ll be surprised at how much ‘feel’ you’ll gain. That will help you a lot. You’re gaining a lot of control, but you’re also slowing down and that’s important to catching (early spring) fish. You can slow the bait down, crawl it and just finesse it."
When his cranking program locates fish, Davis picks up a ½- to ¾-ounce Strike King football head jig with a Strike King Rage Tail Craw trailer — all in green pumpkin. He fishes his jig on a 7-foot medium-heavy rod with a 6.4:1 reel carrying 15-pound fluorocarbon. Bumping bottom with a little crustacean impersonation is the deal here.
"It looks a lot like a crawfish — it’s the same thing that we’ve done with Carolina rigs for years," Davis said. "You’re not hopping it — you’re just keeping contact with the bottom. You’re going to hit some cover or some stumps, and you’ll have to work it through there. The football head jig is not made for heavy cover, but for sparse cover, it works great."
Until spring officially settles, Davis advises sticking with deep water adjacent to a lake’s primary spawning areas.
"That will be relative to the body of water you’re fishing, but, don’t get too far away from the deep water until this weather breaks, and you’ll be alright," he said.
Other dynamic duos
Hollow Body Frog and Buzz Toad: Similar to topwater hard baits, a Spro Bronzeye Frog or a Snagproof Ish’s PHAT Frog can bring out the beast in a bass, but the aggression doesn’t always equal a connection. When that happens, and follow-up tosses go ignored, try switching to a buzz toad like a Stanley Ribbit or a Wave Tiki Toad. For one thing, the toad’s kicking legs make for a more intrusive and irritating presence. Moreover, when you pause a toad, it sinks, so utilize those gaps in lily pads or let a toad descend off the edge of a weed mat and get ready to have your arms stretched.
Dropshot and Tube: If you’re catching fish by hanging that little worm or minnow a foot or so off the bottom, but the bite dies, try switching to a more active presentation with a 3- to 4-inch tube on a leadhead sized appropriately for the depth you’re fishing. If you’re dragging the tube, go with a leadhead sporting a 60-degree line tie, as this keeps the bait plowing forward. However, if you need to make more of a display to taunt the fish into reaction strikes, a 90-degree line tie is the best fit.
Spoon and Carolina Rig: Especially productive over ledges, a jigging spoon can fire up a bunch of fish that have seen too many crankbaits. When this action slows, patiently dragging the old ball-and-chain through the neighborhood will often deliver another fish or two — possibly even a whole new rally.
Whatever you target, keep in mind that the dynamics of any fishing scenario inherently require a diverse arsenal. However, make the most of your fishing day by taking a proactive approach with a designated game plan. Hit ‘em with this punch and follow up with that one.