When he felt the almost imperceptible tug on his line, set the hook, and then reeled in a 3-pound largemouth, it was easy to see the satisfaction on Skeet Reese’s face. It wasn’t because he’d just brought in the fish that would win a national tournament but, rather, because he had just defined a strike zone. It was his first bass of the morning, and it came from an underwater ridge 21 feet deep.
In bass fishing, the strike zone is the distance a fish will move to strike your lure. It is a way of measuring how active or inactive bass are at a particular moment. Defining this zone will tell you where to cast your lure, how to retrieve it, and even which lure to use.
“Determining the strike zone is one of the primary keys to bass fishing,” notes Reese, a BASS Masters Classic contender and veteran tournament angler. “The quicker you can define it, the better your chances of success. Sometimes a strike zone may be as small as 6 inches; sometimes it might be as large as 50 feet. Just imagine a bass with a circle around it. Everything within that circle is the strike zone, and that’s where you have to put your lure.”
Before you can begin defining a strike zone, you have to get a strike, which means your first bass of the day may well be the most important. You don’t even have to land the fish; just realizing where your lure was and how you were retrieving it when the strike occurred is the first step in defining the strike zone.
For example, if a bass hit your crankbait right beside a stump, the strike zone could be quite small because the fish are holding tight to cover. Changing to a slow-moving lure like a plastic worm or jig that stays beside the stump might be a good move. Conversely, a strike several feet away from that stump generally indicates a larger strike zone because you can assume the bass left the stump and followed the lure. In that case, stay with the crankbait.
That first bass will provide you with other clues, too. For instance, a fish hooked on the outside of the mouth often indicates the lure was not running deep enough. A very light strike frequently means the lure is too large. A solid strike and a well-hooked bass mean you’re using the correct lure and retrieve.
The first bass does not usually provide all the information you need to precisely define how active the fish are, but it definitely provides a foundation on which to build. Seasoned pros like Reese may have bass dialed in after just two fish, depending on the technique they’re fishing.
Into the Zone
“Always assume the strike zone is small when you begin fishing,” advises Reese, “and make your casts as accurate as possible to specific targets. Defining the strike zone in shallow water is easier than in deep water since you can usually see where the strikes occur. But don’t get too close to your targets; if you spook the bass, the strike zone will shrink.”
Defining a strike zone in deep water is done initially by studying your depthfinder. Here, boat control plays a major role in how quickly you can do it. Even if you do not actually see bass on the electronics, you should be able to identify places they might be, such as the top of a hump, the end of a ridge, or the edge of a channel break.
“Lure awareness is absolutely essential in deep-water fishing,” emphasizes four-time world bass fishing champion Rick Clunn. “Those bass tend to be in very specific areas and the strike zones may be fairly small, at least initially. Put out buoys to mark specific places to give you reference points, then fish those places thoroughly from different angles. Remember your retrieve when the first fish hit. As soon as you get your first strike, immediately cast right back to the same spot again.”
Strike zones vary by the season. Here’s what Reese and Clunn have learned to anticipate throughout the year: In springg, summer, and winter, strike zones tend to be small, though low-light conditions will nearly always expand the zone, regardless of the season. This is why early morning and late afternoon usually offer such productive fishing action. Surface schooling activity also indicates a large strike zone.
The strike zone is generally largest in autumn as bass feed for the upcoming winter by aggressively chasing baitfish. If you see this happening, usually in the backs of creeks, you know without even hooking a fish that the strike zone is big.
When strike zones are large, fast-moving lures like crankbaits, spinnerbaits, and topwaters produce well. When strike zones are small, bass are nearly always holding tight to cover or structure, so most pros prefer smaller lures like jigs and plastic worms. Strike zones can change daily, too. Wind and cloud cover generally change fish moods the quickest; when either is present, strike zones increase, whereas without them the zone will shrink. A change in wind direction may also make the strike zone smaller. Reese has seen changes in the strike zone take place in as little as 15 minutes, especially if the zone is increasing.
“If you lose a fish or two because they were poorly hooked, the strike zone usually shrinks, too,” adds Clunn, “and even poor lure presentation, such as inaccurate casting, will shrink a strike zone. The bass change from being offensive to defensive, and they simply lose interest.”
Smaller bass traditionally have a larger strike zone than larger bass, primarily because the larger a bass grows, the less active it becomes. Thus, cautions Clunn, don’t be misled if your first strike of the day is from a very small bass.
“The fish you learn the most from are the 2- to 4-pounders,” he notes. “A very small bass tells you you’re at least in productive water, and a very large bass means you’re having a lucky day. But intermediate fish are the ones that really give you the most information.”