As I’ve said before, if you don’t get thrilled by a vicious topwater strike, we probably can’t be friends. I get particularly excited by a big old finned freak of nature coming up through a film of vegetation to explode on a hollow-bodied frog, but I’m not picky—a Whopper Plopper, popper, or Spook get the juices flowing just as fast.
The truth is, though, unless you’re a topwater purist willing to accept lower catch rates, man cannot live on surface strikes alone. Most of the time, largemouths are under something. That’s where they feed the most. You might buy into the old saw that “they don’t have eyelids so they have to avoid the sun,” but really it comes down to two things: protection from predators and developing ambush points for feeding. Just like the mafioso who will only take a restaurant seat with his back to the wall, facing the door, bass feel more protected when nothing can approach them from behind. They want an unimpeded view of their surroundings. Even then, there’s good reason to remain on guard.
Whether a bass is under a dock, lily pad field, canopy of grass, weeping willows, buckbrush, or beneath some other form of cover, getting your lure in front of them is not necessarily an easy task. The cover limits your angle of approach. It also limits the lures you can use. Unlike open water, something with three trebles probably won’t fly very far. Furthermore, you should adjust your colors and employ those that show up best in dark spaces.
Here are three casts and presentations you’ll need to master to get it done.
Punching Bass consistently get under mats of hydrilla, milfoil, or even aggregated lawn clippings, where mini-ecosystems live. In fact, when you hear the “snap, crackle, pop” noise of panfish feasting on insects, that’s a sign that the food chain is in action. You’ll need a heavy-action flipping stick, a high-speed reel and 50- or 65-pound test braided line to make this work, because you’ll often be bringing back 20 or 25 pounds of salad with your hooked bass.
Lures and terminal tackle matter, too. Relatively featureless soft plastics like craws and beaver-style baits excel at squirming through the thick stuff, while anything with a lot of appendages, like a lizard or a big ribbontail, will tend to grab the vegetation on the way down. Use a straight shank, thick wire hook with a heavy duty keeper so you don’t have to constantly adjust your lure after every flip. Most hardcore flippers tie it on with a snell knot, which they claim makes the lure “kick out” when pulled and grab the roof of the fish’s mouth.
The real star of the show, though, is a compact tungsten bullet weight. It may be as light as a half-ounce or as heavy as 2 ounces, but use just enough to consistently get you through the mat. Bigger weights tend to blow the fish’s mouth open on the hookset and result in lost fish. Sometimes it’s a necessary evil. Also, be sure to hold the weight in place with a bobber stopper so you consistently have one compact package.
Make short pitch-casts to the mat, keeping boat movement to a minimum, and try to disturb the cover as little as possible while still allowing for penetration. You want your lure to bounce by your quarry’s face so he has no choice but to react.
Lures to Punch Creature Bait: A beaver-style lure is the gold standard here, providing a lot of water displacement in a small package.
Craw: Big flapping craw claws are standard for swimming and pitching to open cover, but here you’ll want a more compact model like the 13 Fishing Ninja Tail Ninja Craw, which slides through the thick stuff more easily.
Big Jig: In slightly thinner mats, a big flipping jig with a stout hook will often get your biggest bites. If the cover is too thick, you can create the same silhouette with a punch skirt over your Texas-rigged soft plastic.
Skipping Much as you’d flip a flat rock across the surface of a pond, skipping lures is an exceptional way to get them into the darkest recesses of overhead cover like boat houses and draping foliage. In some cases, the pitter-patter that the lure makes as it goes across the surface may actually catch the attention of the fish and draw them to its eventual landing spot.
Start off with spinning tackle—believe me it’s easier and more forgiving—and angle your rod tip as close to the surface of the water as possible. Try to get the lure moving parallel to the lake’s surface with a quick snap of the wrist, while keeping your eyes focused on its eventual destination. It may take time to perfect, but you can accelerate your success by practicing in open water rather than trying to thread the needle from the start. I like a shorter rod than normal for this technique, usually something in the 6-foot-3-inch to 6-foot-6-inch range versus the 7-foot to 7-foot-2 that I employ for most spinning rod techniques. Braided line to a fluorocarbon leader will work, but make sure the connecting knot is not only strong, but also small so it won’t “catch” as line leaves the reel and mess up your mojo.
Once you master it with a spinning rod, you can try it with baitcasting tackle, too. Just be sure to use a high-end reel and set the cast controls relatively tight at first or consider a reel with computerized cast controls to minimize the damage.
Lures to Skip Senko: The single greatest lure ever created, and perhaps the most unlikely, skips like a dream either Texas or wacky rigged.
Jig: Anglers in the Carolinas have perfected “shooting” jigs under docks and boathouses on fisheries like Lake Norman. The fast fall triggers a strike, and these bulky baits often get the biggest fish around to bite.
Buzzbait: Just as a buzzbait doesn’t look like anything found in nature, it doesn’t appear that it should skip easily, either. The trick is to remove the skirt and replace it with a buzz toad like a Horny Toad or Ribbit. It’ll still take some practice, but getting it under a boathouse or pier will aggravate fish that have never seen this presentation in those tight spaces.
Pitching When flipping (or, in the vernacular, “flippin’”) came along in the 1970s and 1980s, anglers used a fixed amount of line to dip lures in heavy cover. Pitching built upon that, but made the reel a part of the team, too. Hold the rod in your dominant hand and use the other hand to guide the lure and pendulum it forward along the surface of the water, making for a stealthy presentation. The off hand doesn’t throw the lure or otherwise provide any momentum, but rather serves as a guardrail of sorts. Eventually some anglers minimize its role altogether.
You can use spinning gear for this technique, but baitcasting tackle will allow you to make more pitches. Quick, precise, numerous presentations are the name of the game. The perfect pitch skims above the surface then drops quietly into the spot of the anglers’ choice, often smaller than a coffee cup. You can also use overhead cover like support beams and branches as a fulcrum to get your lure where it’s going. You’ll know you’re good at it when you catch fish from places so far back under cover that you’re not sure if they’re on dry land.
While soft plastics and jigs are the standards for pitching, you can use any kind of lure, even those with treble hooks. Some Tennessee anglers have made a career out of putting treble-hooked topwaters in spots where most anglers would fear to throw a jig.
Lures to Pitch Senko: Unweighted it may take a while to fall, but the subtle waggle of this Bic Pen lookalike is unrivalled for tempting even the most wary or pressured bass.
Other Soft Plastics: When you need a faster fall than a Senko provides, a Brush Hog, tube, worm, or lizard behind an appropriately sized tungsten weight penetrates cover and gets to the bottom faster.
Single-Blade Spinnerbait: A short-arm spinnerbait with a single Colorado blade is the ultimate drop bait. Pitch it next to dock pilings or other vertical cover and it’ll helicopter straight down.
Extraction When you put your lures in deep, dark places and get bites, you’re going to lose some fish. It’s an occupational hazard. Your strategy should be covered by two maxims that may seem contradictory but are in fact not mutually exclusive:
First, always have an exit plan. When you pitch into the heart of a thick bush or skip into the deepest recesses of a marina dock, figure out your ideal strategy for getting your fish from the point of the strike to your boat. Pre-planning often helps, but sometimes you’ll have to get a little bit creative.
Second, be prepared to discount the importance of the first rule. Put your lures anyplace a fish might live (so long as it’s legal), even if there doesn’t seem to be any possible route to get them out. You can worry about that later, but if you don’t cast to where they live, they’re not going to bite. It’s a simple fact.
Other Places to Use These Techniques Trash and sawdust mats: When various forms of flotsam aggregate in the backs of backwaters, bass will use the shade and the oxygen of inflowing water as resting points. You won’t necessarily get on a pattern of floating tennis shoes and Dunkin’ Donuts cups, but these areas can be money.
Tire reefs: On lakes like Texoma on the Texas-Oklahoma border, these wave-crushers protect marinas and the black tires hold heat. That makes them deadly holding spots in cold-weather scenarios.
Pontoon boats: On recreational lakes, moored pontoons or those tied to docks often hold suspended bluegills and other bait, which in turn attract bass. As with docks, remember that these are someone’s property. If you can’t comfortably get a lure under a pontoon without damaging the boat, wait until you can.
Additional Notes Property Rights and Wrongs: Some landowners and dock owners get downright ornery about people fishing under or their property. You usually have the right to do so, but that doesn’t mean you can abuse things they own. Be courteous in the way you fish and in your conversations with them. Sometimes it may just make sense to leave, allowing discretion to be the better part of valor.
Waste Not, Want Not: If you fish under things, you are going to lose some lures. While it’s more painful to lose a single plastic worm than your $16 vibrating jig or $24 jerkbait, make an effort to get them all back, both to preserve the environment and the toes of some potentially-unlucky swimmer.