The spawn is in full swing in many parts of the country, as we saw at the Toyota Series Western Division event on Lake Havasu a couple weeks ago and again at last week’s Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit event on Lake Martin.
Though plenty of fish were caught at both events by methods other than sight-fishing, FLW did write some fat checks to pros who were looking at some or all of their fish. Also, in each tournament, a top-10 finisher employed swimbaits to catch some or all of their bass while sight-fishing. Ron Nelson, the Pro Circuit Angler of the Year leader and a renowned sight-fisherman, used a Keitech Swing Impact FAT for blind-fishing and sight-fishing at Martin and earned a runner-up finish. California’s Kevin Hugo took seventh at Lake Havasu and caught some of his biggest bass sight-fishing with a Little Creeper All American Trash Fish or Sunfish.
Though the reasons why they settled on swimbaits varied, both pros can offer valuable lessons for any angler tackling a spawning scenario.
In Hugo’s case, a swimbait is a standard sight-fishing tool. It fits his aggressive approach to bed-fishing, which is rooted in efficiency.
“A lot of people try to finesse them and throw the smaller baits, but, especially the bigger fish, they really react to the bigger baits,” he says. “I like throwing the bigger [6-inch] Trash Fish. A lot of people drop-shot the smaller one, but that bigger one is my go-to when I see a big fish on a bed. I just feel like the bigger ones like that better.”
It might seem logical to use a smaller bait when bed-fishing to make sure the bass gets the entire thing in its mouth. Hugo says that’s not really an issue. When a bass decides it has had enough of his Trash Fish, it has no problem engulfing the entire thing.
That’s especially the case with bigger bass. If smaller bass try to mouth it but don’t get the bait, Hugo doesn’t care. Those fish aren’t his target anyway. And if he does need to add a quick keeper to his livewell, Hugo can pull out a drop-shot and quickly catch a small male that’s already been fired up by his swimbait.
With only eight hours in a typical tournament day, Hugo figures there’s no reason to sit on a bed for 20 minutes unless it’s a real giant. So when he finds a bass on a bed, the pro stays back as far as he can while still being able to see the fish. Then he drops the bait right on their nose with each cast. It’s not a finesse tactic by any means.
For the most part, he fishes the swimbait on bottom like a Texas rig. If the fish is ready to bite, it’ll happen quick. But Hugo can also trigger a reaction bite by giving the bait a twitch or hop next to the fish.
“When it’s ‘up in the air,’ they’ll suck it in,” Hugo says. “You have to be quick on the hookset because a lot of times they’ll suck it in and then spit it pretty quick.
“I think a lot of people will throw their bait in there and just leave it. I don’t leave my bait in there very long. I figured out, especially with the bigger females, the more times you put it in front of their nose, the more likely you are to catch them. Sometimes I’ll run the bait down their back or give them a little nudge. Obviously, I’m not trying to snag them. A lot of times if you tick them off they’ll turn on it and eat it right away. They don’t like to be touched.”
There’s no finesse in Hugo’s tackle, either. He fishes a 7-foot, 7-inch iRod Air flipping stick with 50- or 65-pound-test PowerPro braid (heavy line to keep fish from running into tules once hooked) on a Shimano Metanium reel with an 8.5:1 retrieve ratio.
The swimbaits are rigged on 7/0 weighted swimbait hooks with screw keepers. He uses a natural baitfish pattern in clear water and either white or chartreuse in stained water or windy conditions. The regular Trash Fish is Hugo’s starter, but he keeps the Sunfish handy because sometimes the fish prefer that profile.
Ultimately, the entire strategy is based on giving fish something different, especially if they’ve been educated by other sight-fishing anglers.
“If 10 guys come by and throw a 4-inch drop-shot or a little grub and then you come by with something bigger, especially the bigger fish, they’re more likely to bite it. I caught multiple 4- and 5-pounders off the bed at Havasu, and every single one of them came on either the Sunfish or the Trash Fish.”
Nelson’s approach to swimbait sight-fishing at Martin really had nothing to do with imitating a nest-robbing bluegill or trying to show fish something different than his competition. His intent in throwing a 3.8 or 4.3 Swing Impact FAT was to match his lure to the local baitfish. Unlike bass that bite out of defense on the bed, a lot of Nelson’s largemouths at Lake Martin were actively foraging.
“If you sat and just watched a bedding fish, he would be constantly chasing,” Nelson says. “He was chasing these little minnows. Not bream or crappie; he was chasing little minnows. I think those fish, depending on their primary diet, eat shad or blueback [herring] or both, depending where they are at on the lake. Those fish are dialed into eating those minnows after coming out of deeper water. They were trying to eat those minnows, not just targeting bed raiders.”
When he was cruising around looking for beds, Nelson threw his swimbait on a homemade lead-head jig with an open hook. Once he spotted a bass on a bed, Nelson swapped to a Texas-rigged swimbait with a small weight (1/4 ounce or less) and a wide-gap hook – 5/0 for the 4.3 and 4/0 for the 3.8.
“In practice I pitched a jig, Senko, Beaver at them, and the swimbait still got the biggest reaction and was the best trigger for those fish,” he adds.
When Nelson fished the Texas-rigged swimbait, he mostly kept the bait on bottom, but he’d pop or twitch the lure to get a reaction, sometimes resulting in a bass choking down the bait.
A key point for Nelson was having the patience to wait until the fish was in the perfect position to set the hook – preferably facing away and at a slight angle. He even let some fish spit his bait out if they weren’t facing directly at him, knowing he’d get another chance when the fish was at a better angle.
According to Nelson, when a bass is facing the boat, that fish will start swimming at the boat the moment it feels even slight pressure from the bait, which makes it more difficult to get good hook penetration. Whereas, when he can turn the fish’s head with the hookset, his landing ratio goes up.
“Sometimes you just better wait until you know the odds are in your favor,” he explains. “If it’s facing dead at me, instead of the rod hooking that fish at 9 o’clock [on the hookset], that rod gets to 12 o’clock before you get any tension on it, and now you’ve lost that opportunity.
“The same thing applies to me on cruising fish. I try to make sure that fish is eating that bait facing away from me because I’ve lost too many fish when I cast short or left or right, and that fish came to me to eat it. Then, all of a sudden, you have a long cast out there and have to really reel, reel, reel to catch up. If it’s facing away from you, instantly you feel the weight of that fish when you set the hook.”
Nelson doesn’t have plans to make a swimbait a regular player in his sight-fishing arsenal. His reason for throwing it at Martin was situational. It fit what he encountered there. But, he’s always got Keitechs handy if a similar situation arises again.
And that’s the takeaway for most bass anglers: Even if you don’t normally use swimbaits for sight-fishing, you probably ought to keep them in mind. Whether you need to show pressured fish a different kind of aggressive presentation or you’re trying to match the hatch for more of a feeding bite, swimbaits work for sight-fishing, too.