The Checklist: Patterning Fish With Big Baits

The Checklist: Patterning Fish With Big Baits

My aim in the following article is to describe the checklist I use when trying to establish a pattern in late summer and early fall – the series of baits and areas I work through to establish an understanding of what the fish are doing that day.

Photo: Bill Siemantel

Photo: Bill Siemantel

My aim in the following article is to describe the checklist I use when trying to establish a pattern in late summer and early fall – the series of baits and areas I work through to establish an understanding of what the fish are doing that day.

When fishing big baits, you really have to switch your mindset and understand that you're targeting bigger fish. However, you also have to keep in mind what you already know. You may be good at patterning heavy-cover fish, or Carolina-rig fish on points, or dropshot fish on humps. You need to rely on those same tools, but adapt their use to big baits.

And remember, you don't have to throw 12-inch baits all the time. This time of year, you'll want to throw smaller baits, like 6-inch swimbaits or rats or frogs. You have to work down your checklist until you figure out what the bass want. At no time is that more important than during late summer.

The weird thing about August and September is that the timeframe falls right in the "middle." It's not really true summer, nor true fall. You get a lot of transition fish, with some deep fish starting to come shallow for shad, and some shallow fish starting to head deep. Also, wolfpacks begin forming, where the bass act like a group of marauders, pinning fish against structure.

Always, when trying to establish a pattern, you need to play the percentage game. You need to create the best opportunity for you to see fish, and begin unraveling what's happening that day on the water. There are those anglers who will go out and throw a 12-inch swimbait all day hoping for one or two big bites. But in doing so, they rob themselves of the chance to understand how to catch multiple fish in short periods of time.

If they do catch a big fish, odds are, that fish won't tell them much, because they don't know where the fish came from, why that particular presentation hooked it, and how they can replicate it in other areas.

Forage Factors

One important consideration during August and September is that the water column is very set-up. You have your top cover in the shallows, your good weededges in the mid-depths, plus channel edges and ledges down deep. This allows you to establish patterns much more easily, because the fish move a lot less, and the cover doesn't move at all.

In August, I really count on big fish to be keying on shad and frogs, plus other forage like rodents, snakes, etc. So to play the percentage game correctly, I break down the day – early morning, midday, evening, and night. If I approach key areas, I consider the time of day, then choose a bait that'll give me the best percentage of seeing, or catching, a big fish. I know that a lot of anglers will be throwing frogs on the mats, but I'll usually start there anyway, seeing if big fish are shallow.

I power-fish, covering as much water as I can with a frog or rat. I especially like the Rago Generic Rat for fishing any holes in the weeds. So I always check out the surface bite real quick, and if it doesn't happen, or I get a few good fish in the morning and then it quits, I do one of two things. I either go deeper into the cover, pitching and flipping, or more often, I turn around and move out to the deeper breaklines and weededges.

If I fail to raise fish using high-percentage baits in the mid-depths, I'll then move out even deeper, to the humps and channel edges. You need to check each depth thoroughly. You need to cover water. You need to throw a bait the fish are likely to at least follow. All the while, you're thinking about your checklist, trying to understand where the fish are and what they want.

I really can't overstress the importance of seeing fish. It can be just as important as catching them. If the fish start revealing themselves, if you begin to dial in the area they're using and the forage they're keying on, you can go back into that area with a more specialized bait and really whack 'em.

And you need to try everything, and check things off as they fail. Obviously, the better your checklist – where you can mark off things like depth, cover, water clarity, where the fish are holding, available forage – and the faster you'll be able to develop some type of pattern.

When you finally unearth that pattern, and you gain confidence, you'll be able to seine through the water much more quickly and you'll be successful every day. You'll be able to catch big fish every single day.

Not Much Different

The approach I'm trying to outline is probably no different than the way you fish right now – I'm just selecting for larger bites. My typical day in August or September starts with frogs and rats in the shallows, then big tubes or other baits in the mid-depths, then eventually, if nothing works, swimbaits down deep.

But when it comes to swimbaits during this time, you'll want to get away from the trout patterns and fish a white-and-black, or white-and-green bait. You're trying to suggest a large shad, bluegill, crappie or bass.

I'll leave you with one good example of how to move out and target deeper fish. The classic late-summer big-bait spot is a deep hump with weeds down to 25 or 30 feet. Here, I'll put on a black-and-white swimbait and cast well over the hump. I then slow-roll along bottom up toward the hump. As soon as I start to feel the resistance of the weeds, I kill the retrieve. This puts the nose of the bait inside the weedline, with the tail sticking out.

At this point, I begin to experiment. I'll deadstick it, I'll shake it, I'll pop it, all the while being careful not to force the whole bait into the weeds. Bass really like to pin preyfish against that grass, and when they see that tail sticking out, they'll come right up and strike the bait. You may not get them on the first hit, but keep working the bait, because they'll come back and try three, even four times.

You have to think of that deep weededge just like you would a bluff wall or vertical channel edge. The wolfpacks hover in deeper water, like a gang of marauders, running and pinning fish against that weed wall. Get your bait up against that weed wall, and you'll get bit.

It's a pretty simple approach – start shallow, finish deep – and one you're already familiar with. You just need to transpose the patterning methods you use with jigs, spinnerbaits and plastics onto big baits. Use high-percentage baits until the fish show themselves, then dial in your presentation. It might take the better part of the day, but once you pattern them, you've struck gold.

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