Tuesday, May 19, 2015

How shallow is too shallow?

"I dunno, looks too shallow" I said.  I was about ready to move on to deeper water when BOOM! a bass inhaled my buddy's topwater frog at the end of his cast in what looked to be ankle-deep water.

We're talking water so shallow you're dragging your boat across the bottom of the lake.

Water so shallow that your trolling motor is digging into mud and sand even though its as high as it goes.

In the springtime, fishing shallow water can be a blast!  Don't make the mistake of thinking water is ever too shallow as I almost did.  Topwaters like hollow body frogs and and horny toads are a thrill to fish in water that is only inches deep because you can literally see fish creating a wake as they charge toward your lure to eat.

The problem is, these fish can be spooked very easily in shallow water.  If the fish sees or hears you before you see them, its game over.

To solve this problem one must have a perfectly tuned setup to allow for max-distance casting.  This means having a quality reel with the brakes and tension knob set as light as possible, a rod longer than 7' with a Moderate Fast or Fast action, and a lure with a bit of weight to it.

Combined with a good 50-60lb braided line, this setup will allow you to put a lure out far enough to get those unsuspecting bass to eat.

Next time you're out fishing, don't rule out the shallowest water in the lake, especially during spring!

Good luck.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hog hunting -- heavy duty flipping

Up until more recently, a topwater frog would be my go-to bait when fishing shallow vegetation like lily pads, coontail, maiden cane, milfoil, duckweed, etc.
While a frog is great for getting a strike from an aggressive bass in shallow water, little did I know I was pulling my frog right over the top of wary and giant bass that just didn't want to come to the surface for a frog.  Perhaps they've seen it before, perhaps they are just in a bad mood.  Who knows.
What I do know is that a few years ago when my fishing buddy Marty Sexton pulled out a 1oz tungsten weight pegged on 65lb braided line with a beaver-style plastic, he started yanking giant fish right out from under where my frog had just been -- over and over.  How could this be?  I had confidence in my frog that if I brought it near a bass it would eat.  I started to question what I thought I knew about fishing shallow weeds and have since learned a lot and refined what rods I keep tied up for attacking the slop.

While I used to keep only 1 flipping stick in the boat, I now keep 5+ rods over 7 feet ready to go: a frog rod, a heavy swim jig rod, a heavy flipping rod, and a horny toad rod.  The rest of my big-rod setups are for swimbaits and fishing deep.

I've since learned quite a bit about heavy flipping through trial and error and time on the water, and through asking my buddy Marty a million questions about the specifics he learned while flipping in Florida and southern states often with various BASS Elite pros and local guides.

Here's a few dandies that have been landed in my boat flipping heavy jigs in thick vegetation

 Ben Feldman with a tank

 Myself with a 5.5lb big bass of the tournament

After a few years of trials and tweaks, this is my favorite heavy flipping rig right now and some notes about why:

Old-school green Daiwa 7'6" Heavy power moderate action with an extra long rod butt.
I've tested a bunch of different flipping rods and this style flipping rod is by far my favorite for flipping a big jig or tungsten weight from 1/2oz to 1.5oz.  The moderate taper helps absorb the shock of braid.  The slower-action taper also helps me really load the rod and pull very hard while absorbing head shakes.  The longer rod butt increases leverage significantly, allowing me to pull harder than with a shorter rod butt.  To me, these are the most important attributes in a flipping rod.

65lb braid like Power Pro or 60lb Sunline FX2 are lines I like.

Rubber stopper
I don't like the generic yellow/red/black weight stoppers.  My favorite stopper is the little tacky cone-shaped stoppers made by Paycheck Baits.  I have noticed that the cone shape avoids slime and snagging up on limp vegetation.  The standard barrel-shaped stoppers seem just a tad more snaggy and cause more fouled lures.  Barrel-shaped stoppers still perform well in most circumstances.

I recently switched from an EWG hook to a VMC heavy flipping hook with the molded bait guard on the shank of the hook.  I tie a snell knot to the shank of the hook, being certain to thread the line through the hook-point side of the eyelet.  Do it wrong and the hook leverages away from the fish!  Do it right and when you set the hook your hook point swings up.  The result is an awesome hook-up ratio.
Also, this style hook results in a more-weedless presentation than an EWG hook.  The bait-holding knuckle by the eyelet of an EWG hook can get held up on vegetation while a straight-shank flipping hook makes a perfect wedge shape with the soft plastic causing less snags.

I like a beaver style bait and there are a ton of companies making them.  I prefer Netbait's for the slightly thicker midsection vs Reaction Innovations sweet beaver.  I like the Missile Baits D-Bomb too.

Jig alternative
If I use a jig, I prefer Dirty Jigs no-jack.  It's got a nice shape, an awesome hook, and they stand up.  Oldham's are nice too.  I haven't used many others that I like.

For clear water I really like Okeechobee craw.  It's green pumpkin on one side and sparkle blue on the other side.  Looks like a bluegill!  Straight green pumpkin and spayed grass are my next favorites for clear water.  In dirty or stained water I really like black with blue fleck or black with red fleck because it gives a better silhouette.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Culling in Minnesota

Brandon Palaniuk learned the hard way this weekend that Minnesota is anti-bass; anti-tournament, even though he was trying to follow the convoluted and antiquated Minnesota culling laws.  Fishing the biggest and best-paying bass circuit in the world, the B.A.S.S. Elite Series, he was DQ'd after gaining a hefty lead for culling just inside the Minnesota state line.  He most likely lost the $100,000 first place, the free entry into the Classic later in the year (guaranteed $10K+), and whatever bonuses his sponsors may have had for 1st place and a Classic entry.

Keep in mind, nearly all states allow culling in tournaments.

Just to clarify exactly how he broke the rules, he inadvertently culled just inside the Minnesota state border on the Mississippi River, which wanders through backwaters, on land, through the main channel, etc.  It isn't right down the middle of the channel as one might expect.

Here's the related rules that most fisherman are arguing need to be addressed:

2013 Minnesota Fishing Regulations

Page 3: "Fish must not be retained longer than is needed at the site of capture to unhook, identify,
measure, and photograph. Placing the fish in any type of container or on a
stringer is not immediately released. Any fish not immediately released is
considered to be “reduced to possession.”"

Page 13:  "Once a daily or possession limit of fish has been reached, no culling or live
well sorting is allowed."

Mississippi River WI/MN Border water specific rules:

Page 72:  "[MS River] Smallmouth and Largemouth daily possession limit: 5 fish (14" minimum)"

Page 74:  "It is illegal to cull fish that have been reduced to possession [on the MS River WI Border Waters]"

The way the rules read, you can cull as much as you want until you reach the daily limit on inland Minnesota waters, regardless of whether the fish is put on a stringer, caged, or kept healthy in an aerated livewell.  Page 13 of the 2013 regs make it clear that you can cull until daily possession limit has been reached.  The daily limit on Minnesota waters is 6 bass, not 5 like on the MS River.

If you are on a WI/MN border water, you can't cull whatsoever according to Page 74, regardless of being at your limit or not.  If you cross the official state line into WI you may cull because WI laws allow for it in a tournament, even if you caught your fish on the MN side of the river.

Technically speaking, Palaniuk broke 2 rules in the 2013 regs.  He not only culled in a MN border water (broke rule on page 74), but he also culled after already reaching his possession limit in MN (page 13 rule).

These are the rules as they are written, and they are just plain wrong.  Why are these rules in place?  To prevent fish death and preserve the fishery.  Most bass tournaments in the state of Minnesota have a 100% live release rate after the tournament is over; after the fish have been sitting in the livewell all day.  They are healthy and swim off to be caught another day, but technically this shouldn't even be allowed if an angler is already at his limit for the day, which again makes no sense if the goal is preserve a fishery.  There are heavy penalties in bass tournaments for killing a fish so anglers do everything they can to keep the fish healthy and happy in their livewell.  An enclosed livewell that constantly cycles in clean water keeps fish alive.

Laws against releasing fish put on a stringer, which are often dragged behind the boat all day, make sense.  Fish put in baskets don't seem to live too long either.  If fish are being kept with the intent of fileting and eating them, force people to keep what they reduce to possession.  Don't impose these laws on the folks who are keeping fish alive to be released later, like in all bass tournaments. 

Minnesota needs to re-evaluate these antiquated laws to allow for culling of live fish from an aerated livewell, or do what Wisconsin did and allow for culling in tournaments with livewells only: http://www.bassmaster.com/news/new-law-allows-culling-wisconsin

Monday, June 10, 2013

Team Tournament Culling Tips

After fishing tournaments for 15 years, I've seen everything when it comes to culling; from throwing all fish in a net in the bottom of the boat to "eyeball" 'em, to high-tech digital scales that store and add up weights for you automatically... until the batteries run out.  Even the smallest culling mistake could cost you hundreds of dollars or more in a tournament.  Speeding up your tournament culling means more fish in the boat (presuming having your line in the water more=more fish).  It also can make for healthier fish at the weigh-in.  Less stress from having to be re-weighed, balance-beamed, etc means healthier and more lively fish to be released later.

Here's a few things I am doing this year to help speed up culling, improve the health of my fish, and spend more time with my line (and my partner's line) in the water:

1)  Weigh and tag all fish under 3lbs as they come in the boat.  Do not wait for a limit.
2)  Use the two sides of the livewell to categorize the fish:
        a. Passenger-side livewell for fish you want to cull.
        b. Driver-side livewell for lunkers.
3)  Log fish weights by number or color for quick reference.  Options:
        a.  Digital scale can store weights (don't even think about using this option if you can't keep extra AA batteries in the boat!)
        b. Write the weights down with a grease pencil or on a pad of paper that you can keep out of the elements.
        c.  Ardent cull tags are OK, but you have review ALL of them at once to make sure you have the smallest fish to cull.  There’s more room for error using this method and I don’t like it…
4)  Don’t weigh or tag fish that look to be over ~4lbs.  Get the fish in the livewell as soon as possible!  Cull out the smallest fish after the upgrade fish is safe in the livewell.
5)  If 2 fish are within an ounce of each other or otherwise pretty close, use a balance beam to ensure you are throwing back the smallest fish without a doubt.

To me, its way faster to find the "red" tagged fish than to hunt around the livewell for "tag #2".  Again the Ardent cull tags require that you first check each one in the livewell before culling, all while hoping none have been bumped and changed lbs/oz.  It opens up a level of error I am uncomfortable with.

I am convinced that the best solution is to tag fish by color and to keep a little plastic chart with a grease pen in the boat to record weights.  Recording the weights by color allows you to instantly know which fish to throw back before even opening the livewell, significantly speeding up the process.

Have any other tips or advice?  Post below!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Trolling Swimbaits for Big River Walleyes

Taking a page out of bass and muskie fisherman's playbook, walleye fisherman are slowly discovering the magic of the swimbait, but under a different and I'd argue improper name - Dragging.

Trolling swimbaits really is what dragging should be called, because that's what it is -- pulling a swimming soft plastic through the water by using the trolling motor while not letting it touch the bottom.

Dragging would imply that you are doing just that -- dragging the jig on the bottom, which is wrong if you want to catch fish using this poorly-named but incredibly effective method.  How effective?  multiple fish over 20", limits within an hour, giant fish near 30", etc can be expected once you figure it out.

The trickiest part of dragging is dialing-in the setup.  You need to get the right combination of boat speed, line weight, jig weight, and plastic size/style in order to keep that swimming morsel in front of fish.

The best combo we had going this early spring was 10lb Suffix 832 line, 1/8th oz jig head, and a small 4" paddle tail swimbait, all while moving at 2-4mph depending on depth.  This is a pretty good starting point.  Make a half cast off the side of the boat, put the trolling motor on low, and start trolling and zig-zagging up and down a contour.  The key seems to be pulling the lure fast enough to keep it off the bottom, but slow enough to make sure its not riding too high and out of the strike zone.

Feel the bottom?  Either speed up or reel in a little line.  Never feeling the bottom?  Let a little line out to see how far from the bottom you are.

This method really shines at night when you can get into the shallows and hook into a giant!  I haven't tried this on a lake yet, but I would imagine it would be a killer method on Mille Lacs or anywhere with a decent night bite!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Rockin' Bass

A 21" 5.01lb bass off a deep rock pile in the Twin Cities metro area

Summer is here!  That means the deep bass are getting fired up right now.
There's nothing better than bombing a cast as far as you can up over a rocky hump and getting bit near the end of your cast.  Your rod loads up often from getting snagged in the rocky bottom.  Its often easy to mistake a bite for being snagged on the bottom, so you have to really focus on movements in the line and rodtip, keeping a sensitive feel for the 'bite'.  As I always say, hooksets are free, so even if I'm not 100% sure that the negative feedback in my rod is a rock or fish, I'll often give it a hookset for good measure.   Half the time its a rock.  The other half the time you think its a rock, but then the rock starts to move... and off in the distance you see a giant bass come to the surface to do backflip, only to head back to the depths to try and get away.  Fish on!!

Its a sight you have to see.  Or even better yet, experience for yourself.

Here's what I look for when targeting the monsters of the deep:


Yup, that's about it.  Find rocks on points, humps, saddles, weed edges, or even in the middle of nowhere.  To do this you need a good map and a good depth finder.  A GPS is a great tool to have as well.

Idle your boat over these spots slowly while watching your graph.  If rocks are there it's usually quite obvious.  The bottom of the lake will appear different than over a sandy or muddy area.  The bottom should appear jagged, with thick solid readings on the display and almost no weeds in sight.  If you have a GPS mark it!  If no GPS toss a marker bouee out over where you think the rocks are.  A good way to practice reading rocks on your depth finder is to go over an area you know for sure has rocks, and examine closely.

The best way to confirm what's down there quickly is a heavy football head jig or a heavy carolina rig (aka C-Rig).  I like to cast a 3/4oz weight on 12lb test fluorocarbon line and a 7'6" rod with good flex to work the bottom quickly and effectively.  Cast beyond where you think the rocks are and scoot your jig/rig across the bottom until you run into rocks or gravel.  Make sure you don't lose contact with the bottom!  The deeper it is the slower you have to go.  Once you feel the rocks or gravel slow down and work it very slowly.  Inch it along.  You can feel where the rocks are and the size of the rocks by noting the distance your rodtip travels between the start of the hesitation to the stop of the hesitation.  Gravel will feel much much different than 2' boulders (visualize your jig being dragged over these two objects).  Sand or mud will feel like dead, smooth weight.  As I'm sure most of us already know, weeds will feel mushy and become exponentially 'heavier'.

So give it a go next time you are out bass fishing!  Since these spots can be very small relative to the rest of the lake, always be courteous of others out on the water.  You don't want to be right on top of someone else.  Being at least about 1x casting distance away is the norm on most lakes (some lakes/rivers have a different norm).

Also keep in mind, not all spots that have rocks will be good.  In lakes with a bunch of rocky areas you may wind up checking all of them and finding fish in only 1 area.  The fish you do find will be worth it.

Have any other tips worth sharing?  Post below!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Spawning Bass -- like a ticked-off dog

Make that bass growl!!

The bass are just now starting to spawn!  This is the best time to get out and sight fish bass in the shallows, or, in dirty water, pitch up into shallow water and wait for your line to jump!

With the early warm weather we've had this year the bass are spawning earlier than ever.  I recently found 5 male largemouth prepping beds for their female partner to drop her eggs.  These fish are aggressive, territorial, and willing to chomp on nearly anything you put in front of them. 

I managed to catch all 5 of those bedding bass, releasing them to watch them swim back to their beds.  Mind you, this was on the MS river -- the only legal place to target bass in MN right now.  Unfortunately, Minnesota is one of the only states in the entire country that bans bass fishing on lakes this time of the year.  Most people don't realize that Minnesota is the exception to the norm.

Even B.A.S.S., an organization who's goal is to protect bass through responsible tournament fishing practices condones bass fishing during the spawn, and holds many tournaments where bed fishing takes place without detriment to the fishery.

There should still be some bedding fish to be caught come bass opener, but not as many as previous years with the early spring we have this year.  You might have to go north to find a good spawning bass bite this year!

My favorite technique for bed fishing is pitching a texas-rigged tube or creature bait right into the middle of the bed and twitching it as slow as possible.  The bed will appear as a 2'-5' diameter light-colored patch on the bottom of the lake, often covered in clean gravel/shells from the fish sweeping away the sand/muck with it's tail.  You want to be as far away from the bed as possible while still being able to accurately cast to it.  Using a highly-visible plastic, like a white tube, can help detect bites.  When the white disappears, the fish ate it!!  Polarized sunglasses are a must-have in order to see what's going on under the water -- as being able to see the fish and how it reacts to your lure can make a huge difference in your success rate.

I like to compare a bass's mentality to that of a dog... you poke at it enough or find something it doesn't like, and then repeat repeat repeat, eventually it will snap.  While you can't hear the fish 'growling' like a dog would when its ticked off and about to react, you can visually see the bass becoming 'upset' that your lure repeatedly is visiting its nest.  When you see the fish turning sharply to nose your bait, you know its ticked off and ready to bite!  Like this:

Here's a couple big girls getting ready to spawn that were landed in my boat this year:

Steve Loraus with a nearly 5lber.

Marty Sexton with a nice one.