Catching bass relies on knowledge of largemouth bass behavior, and, when it comes to understanding bass behavior, anglers may have taught biologists more than biologists have taught anglers.
Here's what biologists have learned about bass behavior.
Largemouths move shallow to spawn in the spring. Repeated electrofishing surveys prove that at least some bass remain shallow and associate with cover - wood, rocks, aquatic vegetation. Telemetry studies - tracking radio-tagged fish - have shown that bass remain in a relatively small area (biologists call this a home range), often moving from one area of cover to another, if cover exists. By determining preferred habitat, telemetry studies have provided vital information for habitat conservation and management.
If you read the telemetry studies closely, you will also learn that bass can spend a lot of time in open water.
Here's what anglers have taught biologists about largemouth bass.
Bass like cover. Since the first angler crafted a bass plug, success came from fishing around objects that gave the bass cover and made them a more effective ambush predator -logs, lily pads, underwater weeds, just to list a few.
Lure manufacturers crafted lures to more effectively fish shallow water without getting snagged. As noted above, fishery biologists rely on this cover orientation when designing and conducting sampling surveys.
In the 1950s, a seasoned angler named Buck Perry demonstrated that a lot of bass live in deeper, open water and concentrate on structure - noticeable changes in bottom topography, like a creek channel, a ledge, or a hump on the bottom.
While a lot of bass anglers continued to beat the banks, a few began to fish deeper structure. Plastic worms, and then jigs and deep-diving crankbaits, hit the tackle-store shelves.
Yes, Perry was right - a lot of bass live on or near the bottom in deep, offshore waters. Biologists know little about these fish because they don't have effective methods for sampling them.
A lot of different bass lures have been invented since the 1950s. Many have come and gone, a few have been timeless in their effectiveness.
The latest craze involves lures that are life-like replicas of the foods bass eat - lures that look like and act like forage fish or crayfish.
The best example of this is the swimbait, both soft and hard.
Not all baits catch bass everywhere, and the issue is not whether you catch more bass on a swimbait than on a crankbait or any other style of swimming lure where you fish. The point is largemouth bass are well equipped to discern even small nuances in lures.
The Alabama rig may be the most-recent lesson in bass behavior. The phenomenal success of this contraption can be explained by a fundamental of animal behavior. The well-proven concept of a "releasing stimulus" states that there are certain components - usually just one or two - of a stimulus that trigger a response. In the case of a bass biting a lure, the releasing stimulus is something about the lure - the color, shape, action, vibration - that triggers attack.
Possibly, the Alabama rig takes the concept of releasing stimulus to a new level, in that a group of forage swimming in synchrony may be a super-releasing stimulus.
The jury is still out, but the Alabama rig may have taught the biologists another lesson, namely how abundant open-water suspended bass are.
When the Alabama rig first hit the scene late last summer and fall, I thought, "OK, this is a time when bass are suspended and feeding on shad. No big news here."
But the continued success of the multi-lure rig this spring sent the message that there are plenty of suspended bass in at least two seasons.
We'll have to wait to see if "the rig" continues to be a good teacher of bass behavior throughout the summer and beyond.