Join Date: Mar 2007
Article: More Strikes: Lures That Attract Cruising Bass
More Strikes: Lures That Attract Cruising Bass
Story and Photos By David Hart
The shadow moving across the shallow sand flat was so big that Alton Jones figured it was a carp. The Texas pro was competing in a tournament on Alabama's Lake Neely Henry and was sitting in the top 10 after the second day. Things went south on the third and final day, however, and Jones was struggling to fill out a limit as the last hours turned into the final minutes.
"I'll never forget it," Jones recalls. "I just saw this shape of a fish cruising across this flat about 50 feet away, so I threw my bait way out in front of it, hoping for a miracle. The fish continued on the same path, and when it got to within about 5 feet of my bait, I just tightened up the line and shook my rod tip a little."
That was all it took. The fish saw the bait, raced over and inhaled it. Jones barely had time to set the hook. The carp turned out to be a 6-pound, 1-ounce largemouth, which not only earned Jones the big-bass honors for the day, but the first professional victory of his career. He won by a single ounce.
That cruising largemouth wasn't his first, but it solidified his confidence about how to target those shallow-water fish. Since then, Jones, one of the most prolific and successful anglers on the professional circuit today, has caught shallow cruisers all over the country to help him earn a slot in five FLW Tour Championships and 10 Bassmaster Classics.
Catching cruisers — bass that wander across shallow flats with no obvious destination or purpose — isn't as easy as Jones made it seem on that spring day nearly 10 years ago. In fact, those fish can be some of the toughest and most frustrating. Neither Jones nor Virginia pro Woo Daves go looking for cruising bass during a tournament, but they never pass up the opportunity when it presents itself.
"It's a lot of fun and a real challenge," says Daves. "Those fish that are swimming along a shallow flat aren't really looking for food as much as they are looking for a place to bed. I think most of us see those cruisers when we are looking for bedding bass, and we just target them when we see them."
Finding cruising bass isn't typically a problem this time of year. What angler hasn't seen a chunky largemouth finning its way across skinny, open water on an early spring day? Those fish start to invade the shallows after a few warm days, and they can be generously scattered over flats on a calm, sunny afternoon. Catching them, however, is even more challenging than coaxing a big bedding female to eat a lure. They aren't locked on a clutch of eggs, nor are they guarding a batch of fry. They just seem to wander aimlessly with no mission in mind.
They can, however, be caught if you take some precautionary measures and pray for a little luck. Shallow bass are extra spooky, and one wrong move can push a fish to deep water.
"One of the biggest problems is predicting where that bass will go," Jones explains. "I try to put my bait way out in front of the fish, but if he turns and changes directions, I don't have a prayer. Sometimes they go where you want them to go, and sometimes they just change directions for no reason."
To help keep that fish on a straight path, it's critical to eliminate all noise and motion. Nothing will spook a bass in clear, skinny water faster than the thump of a rod or lure dropped on the deck of a boat. Even the sound of a trolling motor clicking on and off will chase a bass to deeper water. If Jones' electric motor is running when he spots a cruising bass, he'll leave it on. If it's off, he'll avoid turning it on.
"If you spook a fish off a flat like that, you might as well find another one," Daves notes. "You can come back an hour later and he may be back up there, but once he knows you are there, he's not going to bite. It's just like stalking a deer through the woods. You usually get one chance."
Just as a deer will notice any type of movement, a bass on a clear, shallow flat will also flee at the first sign of an intruder. Jones is convinced they aren't always spooked by the mere presence of a boat. They will, however, flee when some sort of movement above the water catches their eye. That's why both pros stand perfectly still when they spot a fish. Neither angler will bend down to pick up a rod, and they don't even cast if there is a chance of spooking the bass.
In order to have a shot at one of those fish on the flats, it's critical to keep a rod in your hand and ready to go. Jones waits for the bass to pass in front of him before he fires his lure.
Lead That Fish
When he does make that cast, Jones puts the bait well out ahead of the cruising bass. One of the most common mistakes he sees other anglers make is that they put the bait too close to the fish, often dropping it just a few feet or less in front of the moving bass. Jones typically tries to lead a moving fish by as much as 30 or 40 feet. Daves also leads a fish far enough so that the sound of a lure hitting the surface goes unnoticed.
"I don't want that bass to know my lure is there until he gets to within about 5 feet," Jones says. "I want the bait to be on the bottom so when that fish gets close, I shake the lure just a little. The fish sees it and thinks it's a crayfish or something else on the bottom."
Daves agrees that the most effective tactic is to put the bait well ahead of a moving bass, but there are times when he'll make a drastic change and actually drop a bait right behind a cruiser. He'll typically do that after he's tried presenting the bait in front of the fish. For some reason, the splash behind a bass is less likely to spook it than a lure dropped a few feet in front of its face. Daves believes that splash gets a bass's attention, and it will often turn to address the bait. If it does, there's a good chance it will actually eat the bait.
"Every once in awhile, I've thrown a trick worm about 10 feet in front of a bass so that it sinks right down to the fish as they get to it," he says. "They'll just kind of suck it in without really missing a beat. They just eat it and keep swimming. Most of the time, that doesn't seem to work, but you just never know with these fish."
Both Daves and Jones keep an open mind when they select a bait for cruising bass. Of course, they do have their favorites. Jones has done exceptionally well on a 5-inch Yum Dinger, while Daves favors Zoom trick worms. Both anglers also like tubes, and Daves will even throw a floating twitch bait — like a Rapala or a Bass Pro Shops XPS jerkbait.
Whether Jones fishes a weighted or unweighted Dinger depends on the depth at which he expects to see cruising bass.
"Most of the time, I want some weight on my lure because I want it to get down to the bottom in a hurry," he says. "If the fish are in a foot of water or less, I'll go with an unweighted lure, but I'm usually fishing with some weight. Of course, I don't want so much weight that it kills the action or keeps the lure buried in the mud on the bottom, so I typically use a 1/8-ounce slip-sinker. I know some pros also like to insert a nail weight into the head of their soft plastics."
The real factor in choosing a bait is to have an open mind and be willing to try different styles, colors and sizes. Daves recalls a tournament on South Carolina's Lake Murray where he was catching cruising largemouth bass on a yellow trick worm one day and a white worm the next.
"They wouldn't touch that yellow one the next day," Daves says. "I think too many anglers stick with a single bait and don't change if it doesn't work. Try different things."
While Daves prefers brighter colors, Jones tends to go with darker hues like green pumpkin or black and blue, especially if the bait is resting on the bottom. If he's fishing a soft-plastic shad, he'll use lighter colors.
Both are sure to use fluorocarbon line, which is far less visible underwater than standard monofilament. If he's targeting bigger bass or bass in heavy cover, Jones will use 60-pound braid with a 25-pound fluorocarbon leader to make sure he doesn't lose any quality bass.
How a bass responds to a bait usually will determine your next move. Sometimes, the fish will rush over and snatch it off the bottom without the slightest hesitation. That's a slam dunk. Often, however, the bass will turn on a bait and sort of study it for a few seconds. That's the moment of truth, and what you do next will determine whether you catch that fish.
Jones will allow the fish to look at the lure before he moves it. If the bass turns away or backs up, he'll tighten up the line and bring the bait to life by shaking his rod tip.
"I keep the line completely slack so I don't move the bait until I want to move it," he says. "If the fish starts to move off, I'll shake my rod tip just to give the bait the slightest action. If you've ever played with a cat, they will pay attention to the toy and then sort of lose interest, but if you move that toy again, they'll come back to it again. Bass are pretty similar. By bringing the bait to life, you'll get that fish's attention again, and he'll often come back to look at it again."
If that still doesn't work, Jones and Daves will get a little more aggressive and snap their rods to pop the bait up off the bottom. The idea is to mimic a fleeing crayfish or baitfish. It's often the ticket to convince bass to bite.
Jones insists that all bass are different, and each one will react to a bait unlike the others. Sometimes, however, those cruisers just can't be caught. Of course, the challenge is convincing those fish to eat the bait you offer them. Do it right and you'll be rewarded with the thrill of watching a bass pick up your lure. Few types of fishing are as exciting as targeting bass in shallow, clear water.