Catch Double-Digit Bass
Here are lessons learned for catching a largemouth topping 10 pounds.
Any other November afternoon, you’d likely find me set up on a hardwood ridge waiting for a big whitetail to cross my path. But Nov. 2, 2017 was different. It had been hot as a firecracker for the past week or two, and I could barely see a single deer at our farm. I think I saw three does in 10 days, which is very uncharacteristic for that piece of land. To add to the misery, I was getting awfully tired of swatting mosquitos, picking seed ticks out of my arm hair and feeling gallons of sweat drip down into… certain places. I think you get the point.
But darn it, I had to scratch the itch and get outside. I got a few articles written early in the day, so right before supper I headed to a pond I’ve helped intensely manage for several years. I brought one rod because I didn’t think I’d fish for more than 20 minutes. In my infinite knowledge, I forgot my hooks, weights and soft plastics because I was in such a rush to beat the sunset. Thank the Lord I had a few emergency Ziploc packs stowed away in the passenger door of my truck. I shoved a few bags in the back pocket of my ripped blue jeans and started walking down the bank, simply casting at anything that looked good.
I ended up getting to fish for about 30 or 45 minutes, and I was a bit frustrated. Here I was, a full-time outdoor writer and angler, and I couldn’t see a deer or catch a bass. As I was about to gather my gear and head to the house, my buddy, the pond owner, walked down from his house to chat with me.
As we were standing on the bank complaining about the humidity, our deer seasons and the pterodactyl-like swarms of late-season mosquitos, I was mindlessly pitching my Texas-rigged Zoom Baby Brush Hog to a single twig sticking out of the water about 4 feet off the bank. I’d pitch to it, let it sit for a second and simply reel it back in. I wasn’t really fishing, and I certainly had no expectations of catching a bass. I was just chewing the fat with an old buddy.
That’s when things got interesting.
On what I’d guess was my 50th pitch to the same exact twig—I’m honestly not exaggerating—I felt the smallest “tick” you could imagine. I figured a little ol’ bluegill was nipping at the appendages of my Baby Brush Hog.
“Dern bluegill,” I told my friend. “I probably couldn’t even catch one of those today.”
As I held my rod at the 2 o’clock position just to make sure it was a pesky bluegill, my line slowly started swimming to the right. I’ve caught tens of thousands of bass in my lifetime, and I had never seen my fishing line move in this manner. It wasn’t normal. I’d describe it as “snaking” through the water in an S-pattern, almost like the wide tail movement of an alligator.
At that moment, I knew something special was about to happen. The goal I had worked toward since I was three years old was about to happen. It’s so difficult to explain, but whether you’re fishing or hunting, every outdoorsman gets that gut feeling when things are about to go down.
I had that gut feeling. Something special was fixing to happen.
“Um, dude,” I quickly shouted at my buddy. “It’s a freakin’ giant.”
I set the hook with just about every ounce of strength my wiry butt could muster. When I set the hook, I couldn’t turn this fish. Imagine setting the hook into a tight limb line a few feet under the surface. That’s exactly what this felt like. My 17-lb. Seaguar fluorocarbon was hissing as this fish high-tailed it toward the perceived safety of deep water. I saw my line rising in the water column, and I knew she was about to jump. When she came up, I officially lost my ever-loving mind as I dipped my rod tip into the water in a desperate effort to keep her down. She could hardly get her gill plates to clear the water she was so fat. I may have said a foul word or two. I may have blacked out for a few seconds. I sincerely don’t remember.
As I started getting her close to the bank, I frantically emptied my pockets with my right hand as my left hand held the rod. I threw my truck keys, wallet and cell phone behind me on the bank. I was totally prepared to go swimming for this big girl.
After a few more futile jump attempts, the beast had all she could take. I won. After all the times I’ve screwed up and lost big bass, I finally won. As she laid up on her side offering me her bottom jaw to grab, my hands were numb. My whole body tingled. I had a lump in my throat, and I couldn’t talk. I shook like a dry oak leaf in late fall. It’s an emotional experience, and one I hope every angler can experience at one point.
Her bottom jaw bone was bigger around than my thumb. My arm shook as I tried to hold her out for a photo. I couldn’t touch my fingers together as they were wrapped around the base of her tail. She was the one I had spent decades to catch. I will forever remember the way the slimy, thick scales of her caudal peduncle gently scraped against the callouses of my tired, achy left hand.
That ol’ girl ended up weighing 13.14 pounds. She measured 25 inches in length, 23 1/2 inches in girth, and her back was an astonishing 4 inches wide. After some photos, she was released in excellent condition. As she glided out of my hands for the final time as I kneeled at the shoreline, she gave me a face full of water when she kicked that big ol’ tail for the final time. To this day, I feel like it’s the best proverbial middle finger I’ve ever received.
I had a fiberglass reproduction made of her along with a commemorative plaque. It hangs above my desk, and as I type these very words, I still look up and smile. The goosebumps return, the eyes well up, and my smile turns a mile wide. I will never forget that day as long as I live, and I humbly pray that the Good Lord allows my children and grandchildren to cherish the reproduction as much as I do.
Now that you have the background story, I wanted to share with you what that catch taught me about big bass behavior. I’ve had a while to truly reflect on the circumstances surrounding that catch, and I believe my observations may help your chances of catching a double-digit bass.
Lesson 1: Don’t Let Light Bites Fool You
Some of the biggest bass I’ve caught have bit the lightest. They don’t get big by being dumb, so they’re often some of the most hesitant fish to bite a lure; they’ve seen a thing or two in their day. This is why it’s so important to take every bite seriously. It would probably make all of us sick if we knew how many big-fish opportunities we’ve missed by monkeying around on the hookset.
Because these giants are known for biting so softly, it’s imperative to become a line watcher at all times. You won’t always feel the bite, especially if she bites it on the fall on slack line. As soon as you see any irregular line movements—jumps, ticks, whatever—set the hook. Don’t get in a feeling contest with the fish. Trust your judgement, and set that hook.
Lesson 2: In Doubt? Retie
I just so happened to check my line about 20 minutes before hooking to the 13-lb. bass. I quickly rubbed it between my thumb and index finger, and it felt a little rough, so while talking to my buddy, I quickly retied my hook. I’ve become pretty particular about this over the years, so it was second nature. But I’ve also been through those lazy spells where it’s “good enough.” I think it’s something we’re all guilty of at times.
If I wouldn’t have retied my line, there is absolutely no way I would have landed that bass. She had my bait so far down in her mouth that her teeth were rubbing a bad spot in my line several inches above the hook. It’s important to realize that big bass have giant mouths, and their teeth are like sandpaper. If you’re just a split-second late on the hookset, you’re playing with fire in regards to your line condition.
Lesson 3: Repeated Casts A Good Thing
This fish didn’t eat my Baby Brush Hog because she was hungry. She bit the dern thing because she was mad as a hornet. Remember when you were little, when someone would put their finger right in front of your eye and say, “I’m not touching you!” repeatedly? You’d let it slide for a while, but eventually you’d get irritated and swat their hand away.
That’s exactly what happened with this bass. I ticked her off into biting. She wasn’t feeding and seemed to be fairly lethargic. Without those repeated casts, I would have walked right by her and never had the opportunity with which I was blessed.
Did I mean to make all those casts? Not really, and I’m not suggesting you make 50 pitches at a single twig. But if something looks good, and that gut instinct kicks in, trust it. Make a half-dozen casts toward it. You’ll be shocked by the number of big fish this will catch.
Lesson 4: Adjacent Deep Water Is A Big Deal
Except for the spring spawning period, you’ll likely find the majority of your biggest bass in areas adjacent to deep water. This applies to ponds, lakes and reservoirs. Again, they don’t get big by burning a bunch of calories chasing forage around in open water. They’re calculated ambush predators, and they’re really good at it.
Deep water is a relative term. In this particular instance, she was in just a few feet of water. But the laydown she was using was hanging out into 12 feet of water. She had the best of both worlds—shallow water and deep water—within just a few feet of each other. With a few kicks of her tail, she could change her entire living situation in a matter of seconds.
Now, I’m not saying you won’t catch a 10-pounder in 8 inches of water this summer. But I strongly suggest paying extra-close attention to any shallow cover within a cast’s length of deeper water.
Lesson 5: Catch-And-Release Works
Just last week, I received the best news I’ve heard in quite a while. A friend of mine, who also has permission to fish that pond, caught the same bass this spring! We compared pictures, and she had the exact same markings and the same melanosis spot on her jaw line. It was undeniable and unmistakable. I was tickled pink to hear the news and was absolutely thrilled that another angler had the opportunity to experience her sheer power and size. He probably had an even better fight, as he caught her on an ultralight crappie rod and 6-lb. test near—you guessed it—adjacent deep water. Now that would be fun.
Please hear me out on this: Big bass are just like big deer. They have good genetics, and these genes have to be carried on to their offspring if you want to enjoy continued success and impressive quality. Keeping some small cull bass for pond management is essential to a healthy fishery, but let those big girls go if you’re willing and able. Handle them gently, and don’t torque their jaws too much. It’s so hard to grow a double-digit bass, and everything has to go perfectly in their lives for them to reach such a large size.
Heck, in today’s world, a fiberglass reproduction looks even better than a skin mount. You don’t even have to kill the fish to get a sharp-looking trophy for your man cave or office.
The next time you’re fishing your favorite pond, lake or reservoir, keep these factors in mind, and I believe you’ll quickly increase your chances of catching that elusive trophy bass. I’m certainly no expert, but I hope you can use my one lucky catch and multitude of prior screw-ups to your advantage this year.
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