Back Seat Bass

There are advantages for those fishing in the back.

John N. Felsher | January 14, 2019

Practically every person who ever held a fishing rod spent some time in the back of the boat at some point. Even legendary anglers like Kevin VanDam, one of only two men to win four Bassmaster Classics, not to mention his numerous other titles and honors, began his illustrious career standing closer to the gasoline motor than the trolling motor. 

As a youngster, VanDam watched and studied anglers like Bill Dance, Virgil Ward, Jimmy Houston and other fishing legends to learn everything he could. In 1983, the 16-year-old joined the Kal Valley Bass Club in his hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich. as a non-boater, also called a backseater or co-angler. After winning his club’s co-angler of the year title in his rookie season, VanDam traded the back seat for the driver’s seat and roared into angling history. Still, he fondly remembers those youthful days standing in the back of someone else’s boat.

“We never went more than 30 miles from Kalamazoo, but fishing the club was a great experience,” the champion recalled. “What really helped me most in the beginning was that we fished with a different club member in every tournament. Fishing with as many different people as possible is the best way to learn. There’s no substitute for time on the water.”

VanDam doesn’t spend much time in the back of a boat any longer, but many anglers without boats can only fish at the invitation of a friend, enter a tournament as a co-angler or cast from the bank. Therefore, many anglers spend most of their fishing time looking at their partner’s back and going where that person wants to go. When they arrive, the frontseater positions the boat, usually to his or her own advantage.

“Boat positioning is always a big factor with bass fishing,” explained Mark Denney Jr., of Bonaire, who won the 2008 Bass Federation Georgia State Junior Championship and competed in the FLW World Championship tournament that year as a co-angler, among his many fishing achievements. 

“The boater always has first dibs on any piece of cover or structure they will fish. The person who presents a lure to a bass first usually has the best chance to catch that fish. Trying to catch fish behind someone is always a challenge,” said Denney.

True, the person driving the boat decides where to go, controls positioning and usually takes the first cast at prime bass cover, but the backseat can also hold some advantages. With the power to control the boat comes great responsibility. The frontseater might spend significant time just keeping the boat in position, particularly on a windy day or when fishing in swift current. While the frontseater battles the trolling motor, the backseater can focus on lure selection and make repeated casts. The secret to catching more fish is keeping the bait in the water.

Kevin VanDam, a professional bass angler from Kalamazoo, Mich., got his start in bass fishing by learning to fish from the back of the boat.

Fighting to keep the boat in position and hitting that next piece of cover, the frontseater doesn’t usually pay much attention to what the other person does. However, the backseat can easily observe how the frontseater fishes and analyze what works. By watching where and how the frontseater fishes, a backseater might figure out patterns and possibly learn new techniques or styles. 

“People who fish in the back of the boat need to learn how to adapt to fishing with the different styles of various other people,” VanDam advised. “One person may fish like I do, burning up the water. The next person might like to drag a worm over the same spot for a long time. Both techniques can be very effective. People who fish together share ideas and learn new techniques from each other.”

Every so often, a bass might swirl or miss a frontseater’s lure. If so, the backseater who pays attention could quickly toss another bait to that spot. Generally, bass won’t strike the same lure twice, but they might grab something different. Also, if the first fish doesn’t hit again, others might. For a second chance at feeding bass, anglers should probably throw something subtle, like a fluke, wacky worm or similar slow-sinking bait.

Trying different or unusual techniques can frequently put more fish in the boat. In heavily pressured lakes, many anglers tend to use the same popular lures. Over time, bass could grow conditioned to those lures and generally ignore them. If a person throws something radically different, the opportunistic feeders might smash that enticement. For this reason, new baits hitting the market work extremely well, for a time, because bass haven’t seen anything like them before.

Moreover, by throwing two dissimilar baits, both anglers attempt to catch different fish and double their chances to determine patterns. For example, if the frontseater throws a topwater or spinnerbait at shoreline cover to tempt bass feeding higher in the water column, the backseater might want to flip a jig or toss a worm toward deeper water to target fish that might never hit or even see that frontseater’s selection. Dragging a fluke, shaky head, Carolina rig or a similar bait behind the boat, something frontseaters cannot easily do, covers large tracts of water and might catch fish nobody else tempted. A backseater forced to do something different might even discover a new pattern few other fishermen considered.

“If the fish are biting, the person in the front gets all the bites, but nobody can catch them all,” quipped Scott Curving from Fairhope, Ala., a co-angler with numerous tournament wins as one of the most successful backseaters in FLW Bass Fishing League history. “It’s futile to do exactly what the person in the front of the boat is doing. I almost do the exact opposite.”

Usually, bass hit varied presentations on any given day, but at times, finicky fish key on particular prey with specific shapes or colors. Even so, a backseater should never exactly duplicate what the other angler throws or how that person works it. Slight variations within the pattern might even bring better results. For example, a slightly larger or smaller bait or a subtle color change could provoke more strikes. Changing the weight could also affect the action. For whatever reason, a bass might want a lure that sinks faster or slower or moves in a particular way that day.

“There’s always a pattern within a pattern,” Denney explained. “If what the angler in front is doing is working, the person in the back needs to make subtle little differences to avoid doing exactly the same thing. Retrieving a bait with a different type of cadence or one with a slightly different color, size or profile could work even better.”

Blake Hall lands a bass that Becky Smith caught on a spinnerbait while she was fishing in the back of the boat. Outlined in the author’s story are a number of advantages for those who bass fish from the back.

When fishing shallow cover, the frontseater typically hits the most interesting cover first, but that person can’t hit every piece of cover. Therefore, the backseater should watch where the frontseater casts and look for unfished water or hit cover at a slightly different angle. From the bow, an angler typically throws forward to avoid interfering with the other person, but with the entire back deck available as a casting platform, the backseater can make repeated casts at various angles without disturbing the frontseater.

“Anglers in the back of the boat need to find different waters than where the other person fishes,” Curving recommended. “A person fishing in the back has more room to fish in many different directions. When fishing really thick, matted grass, a backseater has an advantage because fish might be anywhere.”

Occasionally, changing the retrieval angle could entice more strikes. When fishing a shoreline, a frontseater might only hit one side of a fallen log as the boat moves past it. The backseater can work a lure along the back of that log in water left completely undisturbed and tempt bass that never saw the frontseater’s lure. For whatever reason, big bass might prefer a specific part of cover. Perhaps, sunlight hitting the water from that direction encourages algal growth that attracts baitfish. Maybe the rays glint off the lure, making it more visible there. Current possibly creates an unseen eddy or a submerged object provides an excellent ambush spot.

When fishing a hump or shelf in deep water, boat position doesn’t really matter as much. Usually, both anglers can cast in multiple directions and catch fish. If vertically jigging over a brushpile or other structure, the back of the boat could just as likely sit over the best spot as the front.

“When fishing deep water, the backseater has an advantage, especially when boats have electronic units both anglers can see,” Curving confirmed. “When offshore fishing, I try to outcast the other person. If I can cast 10 or 15 feet farther than the other angler, I can fish water that person can’t touch. I always keep a bait tied on that I can sling really far in case a fish blows up behind the boat somewhere. I’ve caught a lot of big fish doing that.”

Whether fishing from the front or back deck, in a tournament or just as friends, fishing partners should always cooperate and conduct themselves with courtesy so that each one can fish effectively and enjoy another fun and productive day on the water.

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