For the majority of my adult life I’ve fished for bass approximately 70 days a year, all over the United States, as well as in Canada and Mexico. Over the past few years, though, I’ve ratcheted that number down to about 50, and I feel that my instincts and abilities have substantially improved, along with my catch rates.
At first glance, that seems to run against everything we’ve been taught as anglers. The universal mantra, across all types of fishing, is that “There’s no substitute for time on the water.” I certainly agree, and technically, I’m not spending any less time on the water. I’m just spending it differently. For the other 20 days of my season I now target other species. Even in places where no bass swim, I’ve found ways to get better at bass fishing. In fact, I think some of the lessons have come substantially faster than if I’d spent comparable time on familiar waters.
If you want to improve your bass-fishing game, it pays to diversify. Here are five lessons I’ve learned while targeting species other than bass in both fresh- and saltwater:
Lesson #1: Have a plan before you start fighting a big bass.
- Location: Guatemala
- Species: Sailfish
My personal-best largemouth, caught in 2012 on my 42nd birthday, pulled a Boga Grip to 12 pounds, but even a world-record bass is not going to overpower me. Many have made me look foolish over the years, but mano-a-mano I’m going to win every time. That’s not so with billfish or other species pushing triple digits. Even a 60-pound sailfish moving at 60 miles per hour can whip your butt in a hurry and make you wish you’d spent more time at the gym. On two trips to Guatemala, totaling six days of fishing, we’ve caught 81 hard-charging sailfish. Every one of them stripped drag. Every one of them jumped multiple times. You can’t just boat flip them like a 3-pound largemouth on 65-pound-test braided line.
Landing a sailfish is about patience, using the right angles, and tiring them out. Sure, the boat helps a bit, but ultimately form matters more than anything. I’ve learned the same lesson with triple-digit halibut pulling them out of 300 feet of water. If you go into it with a head of steam and no game plan, you’re going to get whipped. It’s the same with bass, even if they can’t pull you around. You need to have a strategy, and you need to execute it perfectly or they’ll find a way to get off. Find a place where you can catch any sort of big fish and you’ll figure this out quickly and find remedies to avoid heartbreak.
Lesson #2: Be prepared with the right tackle and the right rods.
- Location: Zambia
- Species: Tigerfish
Fishing for tigerfish with a variety of spoons and inline spinners on the Zambezi River, my wife and I hooked perhaps one of every five fish that bit, and landed one of every two that we hooked. We weren’t necessarily doing anything wrong to bat .100, that’s par for the course (to mix sports metaphors). Like sailfish, tigers are wicked fast. By the time you feel one hit, they’ve already run 40 feet into the current with your lure. They also have extremely hard mouths, with limited spots to sink a hook. We never improved our hookup rates substantially, but by making sure that we had fresh trebles every day, and by switching from semi-limber crankbait rods to slightly stiffer rods, we were able to catch up with them and keep our catch rates respectable. Every link matters and any fish—from perch to marlin—will find your weak spot. Don’t give them one.
Lesson #3: Use current to your advantage when landing a bass.
- Location: Bristol Bay, Alaska
- Species: Grayling, Dolly Varden, and rainbow trout
On the fly-in streams of Bristol Bay, we chased grayling, Dolly Varden, and gorgeous rainbow trout in crystal clear water that was often less than knee-deep. There were times I extracted multiples from pockets the size of a hubcap where I could see the bottom, but not my prey. More importantly, though, we could not overpower these salmonids with our 6-weight fly rods. We’d watch them use current breaks, or even hunker down right in the middle of the stream, to thwart us. Whether it’s power generation on a TVA lake or the tidal flow of a mid-Atlantic river, bass use current much the same way, both to ambush and to escape. If you use it against them, rather than allowing them to use it against you, it can be your friend. Figure out how to keep fish going in the direction that you want them to go.
Lesson #4: Don’t give up on a spot too quickly.
- Location: The Amazon
- Species: Peacock bass
I cast my big prop bait to the same lagoon entrance for the tenth time, and for the tenth time it produced nothing. “Same place,” my guide Cobra instructed. Cast number 11, nothing. “Same place,” he said again. On the 12th cast, all hell broke loose and an 18-pound peacock bass knocked the oversized topwater six feet in the air. I still hadn’t stuck the fish, but Cobra smiled and pointed at the spot once again instructing me to cast. I did, and this time the fish engulfed it. I love to run and gun for bass with my trolling motor on high, hitting high-percentage spots and moving onto the next one if I don’t catch anything. But if a fish should be in an area, don’t give up on it quickly. Trust your instincts and your experience. Sometimes it takes a little longer to land a fish.
Lesson #5: Targeting species other that bass on familiar waters can give you an advantage.
- Location: Virginia
- Species: Catfish
When my wife and I were invited to go on a guided catfish trip on our home waters, the Potomac River, I stuck my nose up in the air a little. What did we need with those trash-eating bottom-dwellers? Well, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable trips of my life. We caught eight blue cats from 32 to 59 pounds, all within sight of areas I’d fished for bass in for years. Not only did I gain an appreciation for another species, but I got a better understanding of how the overall ecosystem of my local waters operates. Catching the blue cats gave me a chance to see another apex predator in the area as well as the bait it feeds on. I even identified a previously unknown structural element that I’m sure will hold bass at some point.
Chase a new species on “old” waters and you may look at your home playing field from a new perspective. That last trip also taught me something else. I learned that you don’t need to travel far to try something new. Yes, novel scenery adds to the overall experience, but when budget, time, or some other factor limits your range, don’t let those things also limit you from widening your horizons. Even if bass are the only fish you really care about, veering outside of your lane a bit will help you chase your dream fish more successfully.