Spring is upon us across most of the country. Tournament bass fishing season is in full effect, the shallows are heating up, and plants and trees are starting to bloom. For an avid largemouth angler like myself, this means it's time to sight fish.
Throughout the years the practice of sight fishing for bass has evolved from a well guarded secret, that only a few of the top touring professionals were utilizing, to one of the most studied techniques in the game. Learning my craft in California has given me an opportunity to do a lot of sight fishing, and in turn hone the skills that it takes to be successful at it.
The first step in the process is obviously finding the fish, which often times can be the hardest part of the equation. I've seen it time and time again, where anglers just blast through an area with their trolling motors on high and completely miss seeing the fish. Take your time when you are searching an area for bedding fish, be stealthy in your approach, and let your eyes adjust to the conditions, taking in everything you are seeing beneath the surface. This is going to allow you to see significantly more fish than an angler who is in too big of a hurry. Another tip I would give you is not to confine your search to the typical textbook areas when looking for spawners. This can mean looking in deeper water than other anglers, or just a completely different location. Thinking outside of the box will often pay off in spades when looking for spawning bass. I've found fish spawning on dock braces, outboard motors, and various other locations that you might never think to look.
Once you've found the fish there are several ways to catch them, but the first order of business is setting up properly to see how the fish is reacting to your bait. The main thing I want to do is make sure the sun is at my back whenever possible. Having a quality pair of polarized sunglasses, and wearing a garment with a hood like the AFTCO Samurai sun hoodie to block out as much peripheral light as possible, is key to giving yourself the best view of the bed and the fish, regardless of the depth and water clarity. Depending on how the fish is responding to my presence in the area will determine how close I want to set up to the bed. As a general rule of thumb I like to stay as far away from the fish as possible. I would say more than half of the sight fish I catch I never see eat the bait.
Choosing the right bait to catch a bedding fish is simply a matter of trial and error. There is not one bait that is going to catch every spawning fish you locate. One of the biggest mistakes I see anglers make is trying to force a fish to bite a particular bait, rather than letting the fish tell you what it wants to react to. I've caught bedding bass on everything from a crappie jig to a 9" swimbait, so keep that in mind when you are laying out your options for a day of sight fishing.
How long I spend on a bedding fish depends on the circumstances. In a tournament situation if I come across a fish I know I am not going to have to cull, then I am probably going to spend a good bit of time trying to catch it. The largest bass I ever caught in a tournament was in a WON BASS Pro-AM event on Clear Lake back in the day, and weighed 14.85. It took me over an hour and a half to catch that fish, and my co-angler had fallen asleep by the time I hooked her. That was a circumstance to spend as much time as it took to try and catch that fish, but each situation is different and you just have to react accordingly.
I hope these tips will help you become a more successful sight fisherman on your next trip to your favorite body of water. Good luck, and hopefully your personal best is waiting for you around the next corner!