Three-time Toyota Texas Bass Classic Champion Keith Combs buried his face in the twin displays on the console of his boat, idling, idling, idling around a semi-private trophy fish factory in East Texas.
Meanwhile, I was in the passenger seat stewing. Occasionally we’d see a fish blow up on bait or lollygag on the surface, and all of them were big. I had a topwater rigged up, ready to fire it out at the first signs of life, but Combs might’ve cut my arms off if I’d tried. That was fine for 5 minutes, but 90 minutes later I was downright itchy.
“I don’t want to catch one big bass,” he told me, obviously sensing my impatience. “I want to catch a school of big bass, every last one of them.”
Finally, his eyes grew wide. He stopped the boat, stepped to the front deck, and we proceeded to catch bass after bass after bass. When that school dried up, he found another, on the same type of structure in the same depth range, and we laid a whupping on them too. It was almost too simple if you knew where to look and at what depth to present your lure. If we’d fished over the top of them or under them, we might have never known those bass were there. Finding the precise depth where the fish were not just holding, but also feeding, was the key that unlocked the whole day.
Here’s how you can do it, too, even if you don't own space-age sonar or you’ve never held up a six-figure Happy Gilmore check after winning a national tournament.
Use Your Graphs Combs is obsessed with his Humminbird graphs, two on the console and two on the bow of his bass boat, each with NASA-level computing power and screens big enough for watching the Super Bowl. Yes, he uses features like side-imaging to find both individual and groups of fish on the ledges of places like Kentucky Lake. At this point the technology is good enough that he can distinguish not only the species, but also approximately how big they are. Still, even if you have just a single unit with two-dimensional sonar you can take away telltale hints. For years many of the best bass anglers in the world relied on technology like the original “Little Green Box” flasher which transmitted information in the form of transient “blips,” and those anglers were deadly with it.
In addition to finding structure, cover, and the fish themselves with your sonar, you can also use it to find the baitfish your quarry is feeding on. During a December trip to Alabama’s Lake Martin with champion pro Steve Kennedy, he found that the spotted bass were out in channel drains in the 40- to 45-foot range, but only if there were shad in that zone as well. We ran from drain to drain as he kept his eyes on his sonar units, never really slowing down unless and until he saw the static-like signal telling him bait was below. Then, as with Combs, we’d stop and whale on ‘em.
Learn to distinguish not just bait and bass on your screens, but also what it looks like when bass are actively feeding on that bait. Slashing hook marks heading into the bait balls are a sign that things are about to get good. Bass that are suspended and immobile may be a tougher sales job.
You can also use your electronics to find the thermocline, which is a stratification line that divides the water column into useful and non-useful sections. The portion above the thermocline is oxygenated and the one below it is not, which means you can cut that latter portion out of your search.
Use Your Map When Combs guided on world-famous Falcon Lake on the Texas-Mexico border, he’d often drop his clients off in the afternoon, lock up his rods in the rod locker, and head back out to graph until dark. He filled memory cards with hundreds if not thousands of waypoints and he built notebooks detailing, describing, and depicting those findings (I’ve asked to see them and he has semi-politely demurred).
Falcon fluctuates quite a bit, and when they were pulling water or there was a major storm event brewing that would add water, Combs had to be ready for the change or risk not getting a tip or rebookings. He knew that if the fish were relating to rock cover in 13 feet of water and the level was dropping fast, he needed to have similar spots in 15 or 16 feet of water—because those would be 13 feet soon thereafter.
If you have a GPS on your boat, see if it has a shading feature. Once you determine that fish are primarily in, for example, the 20- to 22-foot range, you can shade everything under 20 feet and start where the shading ends. Even if you don’t have a GPS, you can effectively do the same thing with a Sharpie and a topo map. If you don’t want to ruin the map, put it inside some clear throwaway sheeting and use a dry-erase marker to accomplish the same thing.
Use Topography Find structure that had multiple depth ranges within which fish can position themselves. It might be a bluff that goes straight down, or either gently-sloping or steep points. That way you can fish deep-to-shallow or shallow-to-deep and intercept the bass along the way (taking notes on where that happens, of course).
If you don’t have a map, the topography is often obvious just from looking at the bank. Sure, the obvious will occasionally be deceiving, but find a place where bass can move vertically as they look to feed and even a single strike can give you an inkling of how they’ll set up elsewhere. Up on top of the point? Look to the shallows. At the very tip of it, or where it dumps off into a channel? Think deeper. On the sides of it, either directly in the current or completely protected from it? That’ll give you a hint, too. With a lure like a Carolina Rig, a big jig, or a crankbait, you can gauge not only how deep they are, but how far and how fast they’re willing to move to get munching.
Use Your Eyes Even without fancy, modern-day electronics, you’re not confined just to fishing super shallow if you want to know the best depth or depths. Yes, using the bank as a backstop makes life easier, but it’s limiting too. Nature provides plenty of clues as to where the bass are doing their damage.
Remember, feeding bass are feeding on something. Yes, I know it’s a truism, but it’s that way for a reason–except for during the spawn. If you find the bait, you usually have a great clue as to what’s going on. Of course, shad breaking the surface and bass hot on their tails provides you with wide-ranging options of things to throw. I’m partial to topwaters for the thrill alone, but in many cases I’ve caught the biggest fish of the school by going beneath the hot and heavy feeders. The big girls sit below, waiting for the scraps. Count down a dropshot, a grub, a jig, or a spoon and see where you get hit. If you can somehow get over the school, see where on the upward stroke you get bit. Then it’s often possible to replicate that take.
Don’t forget to look for birds, too. Herons on the bank sight-hunting smaller minnows tell a very different story than gulls dive-bombing off the end of a point or out in the open. Get to where the bait lives, and again use a countdown approach or a multi-lure approach to find out where the big’uns live.
Finally, the fish themselves will give you hints about how to fine-tune your presentation to hit the proper depth. If you’re throwing a 16-foot diving crankbait and you’re catching fish in the chin, they may be coming down to grab the lure. Try one that goes 12 or 14 feet and see if your hookups get better.
Fishing may not technically be a game of inches, but you must be in the ballpark to have a chance to win. Use all your available tools to make sure you’re as close as you can be.
Feature image via Bill Lindner Photography