The two sonar units I have on my bass boat—one at the console and one up front—both contain more computing power than the 13-inch television I owned back in college by a factor of a thousand. Truth be told, though, they don’t get nearly as much use.
I’m a tidal river rat, where a substantial portion of the feeding largemouths stay in less than 6 feet of water much of the year. Even when I’m on nearby impoundments, I prefer to stick to that range. I’m proud to say that I’ve caught bass as deep as 47 feet, but I’ll be the first to admit that I get a little bit jittery outside of that comfort zone. Hey, admitting that you have a problem is the first step to curing it, but in this case, I don’t really feel like I want or need to fix anything. When I absolutely have to go deeper—and there are certainly times when I do—I have the basic skills to do so, but I’ve realized that staying shallow most of the time is OK.
Even on bodies of water where the deep bite prevails, I’m convinced that there’s often a resident population of fish in shallower zones. And by “shallow” I mean shallower than you could ever think possible. Like “so shallow that they should have sun tans on their backs and mud on their bellies,” kind of shallow. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve plinked a Senko or a topwater up tight to shore just as something to do as I trolling-motored between spots and been surprised by a full-grown green beast of burden. If you see a likely target, even if you presume it’s in less than a foot of water, chances are that your eyes aren’t deceiving you. At some point in time it probably holds a bass, and all of those other textbook-reading anglers probably elected to not cast at it. That makes it a virgin target.
Times and Places to Look for Sunburned Shallow Bass During the Bluegill Spawn: The bass spawn is over, and they’re starting to move out to their summering haunts on the offshore ledges and humps. Most anglers will try to track their movements along underwater highways and intercept them there, but you don’t have to. A few weeks after the bass are done, look for a series of crater-like colonies in the back of protected pockets. That’s panfish doing their thing and there will invariably be a group of marauding bass patrolling the perimeters looking for an easy meal. They’ll go shallower than you’d think fish of their size can go.
When it’s Rough on the Main Lake (or River): Wind can stir up the food chain and make bass less cautious, but it can also cause you to break your shit—like hulls, trolling motors, and vertebrae. If it’s too rough to get out and stay out, then go in the opposite direction, as far back as you can in protected waters and look for bass that never left the bank.
Bedding Bass: Spawning fish are a tricky deal, because they tend to get super-shallow, although those tend to be the smaller, less-wary specimens. Traditionally on most of our mid-Atlantic tidal fisheries, the low tide is the best, but the spawn is the one time I don’t find that to be the case. They want a roof over their head in case everything goes to hell and the shallowest sections go dry. Still, look to the bank to pick off some quick ones, and then when the sun gets higher look out on the slightly deeper stumps and rocks for big mama.
Bass Chasing Bait: As bass chase baitfish, particularly in the fall as they move into tributaries, sometimes they’ll herd their prey directly up against the bank or even onto it. There’s nothing sadder than a flopping minnow on the mud, until a bass or bird swoops.
Rising Water Levels: I learned this one from reading Kevin VanDam’s first book, but on certain reservoirs as the water level comes up quickly the bass move with it. This lesson stuck with me because he specifically mentioned Buggs Island in my home state of Virginia, which I’ve exploited on several occasions. Just don’t get ahead of yourself. In some places the bass may be freaked out by the sudden rise and may remain on the old shoreline or the first break off the bank for a period of time.
Backwaters and Up the River: When everyone else is taking a number out on the ledges or the textbook points, you can go the other direction by either going as far up the river as you can (in an impoundment) or as far back in the creeks as you can get from a lake. Be careful because this can get you hurt or stranded. But if you find a little untapped population of fish in the backwater fish bowl they can be remarkably easy to catch.
Cover That Holds Super-Shallow Bass Sometimes skinny-water fish just relate to the bank, but cruisers with no particular agenda or relationship to cover are often the toughest fish to catch. By the time you see them they’ve seen you too and that can make them skittish. You’re better off finding even a small twig or branch or sprig of vegetation to get them pinned. Super-clear water isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but it requires an extra bit of stealth.
Some of my favorite pieces of foot-or-less cover are docks and duck blinds, and the ricketier the better. Old docks keep the food chain humming and become repeat staging spots for new generations of fish. On our tidal waters, the best ones I’ve found are those where there’s just enough water on a super-low tide to conceal the bass, with every other piling effectively high and dry. There’s only one place for the bass to be, and they’re typically primed to feed.
Another type of cover that consistently produces are boat ramps. Yes, many of them have an indentation at the end where prop wash dug a hole, and that’s a primo spot, but so too are the edges of the ramp, all the way up to the bank. Make multiple casts before you leave.
Your Boat Matters Super-shallow bass are one scenario where bank beaters sometimes have an advantage over the guys sporting metalflake and 300-horsepower engines. They’re bringing the lure deep-to-shallow instead of shallow-to-deep, and the fish are waiting. Of course, you’ll need to be super stealthy—no stomping down the bank, gorilla feet. The best bet is to stay low and make long casts parallel to the bank to cover all of that fertile ground.
If you’re in a boat, take extra precautions to ensure that you don’t spook the fish or bust up your pride and joy, in that order. Run your trolling motor high in the water to avoid digging into the bottom—but not so high that it cavitates on the surface. Most units have “quick adjust” knobs for changing height on the fly, but if you can’t do that put an empty water bottle in the scissored portion of the mount to keep it elevated. Even better, take a page from the flats fishermen, and use a push-pole to get you where you’re going. (Author’s note: You may also need it to get out. Ask me how I know.)
If you have shallow water anchors like Power Poles, use them often. Learn to make long, quiet-entering casts to likely targets. Turn off your electronics, too. I leave the GPS on to mark places where I see shallow fish, but I turn off the “ping” of the sonar to avoid making extra noise.
Finally, think about where you’ll be taking your boat and plan accordingly. I’ve had a keel guard on my last several vessels to protect against fiberglass damage, and if I’m going up into the nasty stuff I’ll often swap out my clean prop for my “river prop” that has seen better days. A hydraulic jackplate is also a huge advantage, not just for getting up on plane, but also for long idles deep into the backwaters.
Lure Presentations for Skinny Water Bass In addition to the stealth required of your approach, once you’re in firing range you’re not going to want to mess things up on the first cast, or what my wife calls “Dropping your candy in the movie theater lobby.” If your 1-ounce jig lands like a grenade or your deep diving crankbait gets stuck on the bottom and requires a rescue mission, you’ve likely spooked the nearby fish for the foreseeable future.
Lure choices are seasonal, but stay light and subtle: Senkos, finesse jigs, ¼-ounce spinnerbaits, and lipless cranks. Topwaters including frogs are another exceptional choice at certain times, and you can even cast them up onto the bank and then drag them quietly into the strike zone. When all hell breaks loose, you’d better be ready for it.
Most of all, when you’re in that shallow, try to avoid engaging in anything other than brief conversation with the kids on the bank. And if your fishing partner or anyone else tells you you’re fishing too skinny, shoot back some old-timey wisdom: “Bass ain’t tall.”