F&S Classics: Tricks that Took 75,000 Bass
That's right—75K largemouths. In this feature from the archives, a bass expert shares some of his best fishing tips
IT WAS AN EASY summer afternoon, a cane-pole-and-bobber-type day. Bob Gressard and I were drifting along, plopping topwater baits in the shallows and retelling a few favorite fishing lies when the makings of another whopper began to unfold.
“Look at the wake following my plug,” Bill announced.
“Yeah, coming from the left,” I answered.
“No, from the right,” he said as two bass torpedoed in from opposite directions to smash the lure in unison.
Reacting quickly, even before I knew we had been watching separate wakes, Bill set the hook smartly and the fun began. An Eden for anglers, I thought as he called out, “A double, a double,” while straining against the tandem largemouths that were now in frenzied resistance.
Gressard was taking the excitement rather calmly, which befits a man who has caught or assisted in catching hordes of bass in a single day and a recorded total of 75,000 largemouths from the same lake that he designed and built near Kent, Ohio, 17 years ago.
“They’ll do that every now and then,” he offered as he held the rod tip high and cranked the reluctant pair toward the boat. “You just have to know how to do it.”
The boast was in jest, of course, but I knew that if anybody understands the peculiarities of largemouth behavior it is Bill. After all, a man doesn’t catch that many bigmouths over the years without learning a little something about how it’s done.
One thing he’s discovered on his 30-acre lake is that the bass tend to prefer certain artificial lures at specific times of the year. From that knowledge he has devised a sequence in which he fishes different types of manmade baits, from spinners in the early spring to floating plugs in summer, at which time the hardware cycle is reversed.
It was June when Gressard was showing me around his private fishing hole, Trail Lake by name. It was time in his sequence of lure selection for slinging shallow-running lures. Our choice was a floating-diving plastic minnow. The doubleheader that highlighted the day wasn’t the only evidence we were using the right baits. Between us we caught and released about 100 keeper-size largemouths in a little over four hours of fishing.
The day was hot, humid, and bright and the flat lake mirrored the hazy sky. It was not ideal bass fishing weather by Bill’s standards. But still we coaxed scores of fish to the lures, a not unusual feat for Gressard. The reasons for his consistent success date back 17 years and, compiled, make an excellent primer on bass catching.
Trail Lake, so named because an Indian path once ran nearby, is nestled in a horseshoe of low rolling hills on the Gressard family’s sprawling farm in northeastern Ohio. It is the largest of five lakes and ponds now managed, in part, for commercial bass and panfish rearing.
The most fundamental secret of his largemouth fishing success emerged in 1956 when Gressard designed the lake and began construction. It was then that he learned in minute detail, and in some cases even planned, the location of trees, bushes, land points, bottom depressions, and contours—every wrinkle that might someday assist in locating fish.
Gressard knows, for example, that a secluded bay at one end of the lake yields good catches mainly early in the season, even though its abundance of stickups, stumps, and brushy blowdowns would make it appear most promising all year long. This is because the bay is the lake’s shallowest area. It produces well in early spring before submerged vegetation thickens, but when that occurs, forage fish become difficult prey, so hungry bass move to deeper, open water where dining is easier. And because he fishes the lake constantly and year-round, Bill detects subtle changes that might affect bass fishing.
Amid an idyllic setting and without artificial controls, Gressard has maintained a limited and unique commercial fishery at his lake for almost as long as the lake has existed. Unlike most hatchery operations, Bill relies on a balanced fish population and a combination of natural bass reproduction and stocking of fry to sustain the lake’s yield of largemouth, which he sells for pond stocking, and of bluegills, which he catches or traps and dresses for sale to a local restaurant. Gressard maintains several breeder ponds where bass spawn and their fry are used to supplement the lake’s natural reproduction.
Golden shiners provide forage for the bass, as do bluegill, sunfish, and a hybrid of the latter two species. Brown bullhead, crappie, and a few walleye and smallmouth bass round out the fish population in the lake.
Because it is impossible to net bass from the stump-studded lake, Bill must harvest all bass by hook and line. That explains the extraordinary record of bass caught by himself and companions over the years and accounts for his intensive schooling in the ways of the wily bigmouth. (Lest readers be concerned about the legalities of such action, let me reassure you that, in Ohio, fish in private ponds can be taken in any number, of any size, and in any manner. Furthermore, under a fish propagator’s license, bass may be sold for stocking purposes only. Admittedly, under these circumstances, many of Bill’s bass are small fish, which often strike readily, but this does not detract from the success of the tactics that were employed in their catching.)
Cold Hard Facts
Among other things, Gressard has learned that one of the best times for bass fishing is in early spring when most fishermen are still by the fireside nursing terminal cases of cabin fever.
“I’ve heard guys swear that bass don’t become active until the water temperature gets past 50 degrees,” Bill has noted. “But I take bass when the surface reaches 46 degrees, although that’s about the coldest they start hitting consistently. Things start picking up when the water a few inches below the surface reaches 48 degrees.”
Actually, a fair number of bass are caught through the ice on Trail Lake. Bill and a few friends fish the lake often in the winter, primarily to keep panfish under control. Tiny ice flies tipped with maggots fool most bass even though deep water temperatures then are a long way from 50 degrees.
According to conventional thought, largemouths are virtually dormant under the ice. If that is true, Trail Lake bass live by different rules. Although they may not chase their prey very far, and doubtless feed less in winter, a striking bass is every bit as spirited under ice as it is under the summer sun. Peering from an ice shanty into the lake’s clear waters, I’ve watched many bass streak from cover to smash the small flies I was jigging erratically just off bottom. Occasionally they miss connections and keep on going, but when a bass does grab the lure it invariably fights hard, though briefly, before yielding to steady pressure.
Spin to Win
Gressard pays special attention to water temperature and how it affects largemouths because of the nature of his business. Bass travel best in his tank truck when the weather is coolest. Fish respiration increases and the oxygen content of water decreases as temperatures rise. Transportation of fish to lakes where they will be stocked is best done in cold weather. Consequently, Bill starts fishing as early in the year as possible and rarely fishes for the market beyond May.
Several years ago I fished with Bill in April on Trail Lake, and it was a time when it had snowed at night and was cold and blustery during the day. I wasn’t optimistic about the fishing.
“We’ll use spinners,” advised Gressard as he cranked up the outboard for a short ride to a shallow shoreline on the windward side of the lake. “When there’s a chop on the water I usually fish the side getting the wind. The waves stir up food for minnows and the bass often move in to feed on the small fish.”
Bill uses a spinner of his own design, which features a flat painted body, blade, and treble hook with nylon dressing. I tried a safety-pintype spinner festooned with a red-and-yellow rubber skirt. Bill considers large baits ineffective that early in the season so both our spinners were under 2 1/2 inches in length.
We cast to the bank where the water, by virtue of its depth, appeared warmest and retrieved as slowly as possible. We tricked only a few small bass and I soon began to suspect that even Bill’s experience on Trail Lake could not offset the effects of the cold.
“Let’s try the brushpiles,” he suggested after repeated casts failed to produce a strike in one of the lake’s usual hotspots.
One of the advantages of owning a lake is that you can manage it for your own purposes. For his bluegill operation, for example, Bill sinks wire cage traps at strategic locations around the lake. Near some of them he places feeding stations he designed as part of the natural recycling of resources from the lake.
Road Kill for Bluegill
The feeding devices consist of three stakes driven into the lake bottom and extending above the surface as a tripod on which Bill mounts a wire basket. Placed in the baskets in warm weather are punctured plastic bags full of road-killed animals or bluegill entrails from filets dressed for sale.
Within hours after posting the bait, bluebottle and flesh flies begin laying eggs in it. The eggs hatch and the larvae feed on juices of the tainted meat. Several days later the larvae, in the form of maggots, crawl from the meat intent on burrowing into the ground to form a hard brown shell from which the adult fly emerges. Instead of dropping to the ground, however, the larvae fall to the water where they are quickly gobbled up by bluegills and small fish which, in turn, attract larger fish in heavy concentrations around the feeders
The brushpiles Gressard has anchored to the bottom in deep water serve a similar purpose. They are sources of food and shelter for forage fish whose presence draws the larger predator fish.
I was surprised to hear Bill propose fishing deeper water, submerged cover or no. “The brushpiles are just below the surface and tend to reflect sunlight and thereby hold the heat,” he explained. “The warmth seems to stimulate plant life and microscopic organisms on which small fish feed. Bass move in to forage and also because they, too, are seeking warmth.”
Gressard has found the peak largemouth feeding period to be during the time when the water warms above 46 degrees until spawning begins at water temperatures in the low 60s. The period immediately after spawning is outstanding, too, but not as hot as the several weeks preceding serious courtship activities, according to Gressard.
As if to illustrate his point on that cold April morning, Bill headed for deeper water and a semicircle of submerged brush after dragging me away from the shallow water where I was certain the bass would be.
Lone saplings stand like sentinels marking the cover Bill sunk years ago and anchored with old auto tires. Knowing the precise location of the underwater tangles, he cast a spinner to the far edge of one of them and began a slow retrieve. Two cranks of the reel handle brought action. His rod bowed deeply against the stubbornness of the largemouth, which gave a brief but lively fight.
When bass become especially reluctant, Bill resorts to trolling to locate fish. With a spinner or small shallow-running minnow bait towed behind the boat, Gressard motors his small outboard parallel to the shoreline. He uses no extra line weight, as that would interfere with the natural action of the lure. He controls the plug’s depth by varying the boat’s speed. As a rule, the slower the troll, the better your success early in the year.
Among the lessons experience has taught him is that nocturnal bass fishing is best on moonless nights. Overall, however, the prime times are between dawn and 9 A.M. and from 5 P.M. until dark. As far as atmospheric conditions are concerned, a rising barometer, particularly following a storm, is ideal because it usually finds old linesides on the prowl for food. If there is a great deal of thunder and lightning associated with the front, it could be several days before the fish return to normal.
Gressard prefers fishing under an overcast sky. Bright sun is inclined to put bass in a jumpy mood, he says. And when fishing in any kind of weather, Bill dresses in dark clothing that does not reflect light. His boats, too, are painted dull colors to prevent unnecessary glare.
The Seductive Worm
But foremost among the theories he has tested over the years is his belief that different lure types should be used at certain times of the year.
While acknowledging that nothing is foolproof, Bill points out that most of his bass have fallen victim to artificial baits employed in a definite sequence which finds him using spinners in early spring, plastic worms as the water warms, floating-diving plugs in early summer, and topwater lures early and late in the day through summer.
Although he favors the “Trail Lake Spinner,” which he designs and makes, Bill concedes that most any spinner will catch bass in early spring if it is fished correctly. The lure should be light in weight so it can be fished slowly without snagging bottom, and it need not be weedless because aquatic growth usually does not flourish until later. Smaller spinners with a single blade and single treble hook are preferred.
He feels that whether you spinfish or use casting gear, select the lightest line possible. If the lake is generally free of obstructions, 6- or 8-pound-test monofilament will suffice as long as your reel drag is set to yield line under moderate pressure. Spring bass in particular tire easily so there is no reason to horse them in quickly. If the lake you fish is thick with cover, of course, heavier test lines are required.
When spawning begins, Gressard switches to the plastic worm, which he considers the choice bait for seducing male bass guarding the nuptial bed. He rigs the worm with twin hooks, one forward and the other aft. The trailing hook is responsible for taking some 90 percent of the bass, he says.
Fish the worm without weight. Cast the lure to the shallows, preferably along shorelines with mixed gravel and mud bottoms or where light colored depressions disclose the locations of spawning beds. Let the worm float to the bottom before beginning a slow retrieve, raising and lowering the rod tip as you do. Spawning bass rarely smash the bait, preferring to mouth the worm gently, sometimes carrying it away from the bed and dropping it. Strike if you see your line moving laterally or on an angle from your line of retrieve. If you miss and are confident the bass didn’t feel the hook, cast a spinner or plug to the same spot and the bass frequently will hit it.
After two to three weeks of worm slinging, Bill changes to a minnow-shaped lure that floats at rest and dives just under the surface when retrieved. The bass usually are out of the deepest water by this time and eager to sock a bait in the shallows after dawn or before sunset, or to pounce on the plug from cover in offshore areas during the day.
From the shallow-running lure, Gressard turns to the topwater bait through the summer, although his fishing generally is confined to early and late in the day during that period. One of the deadliest floaters on Trail Lake has proven to be a 2-inch plastic plug with a silver propeller just ahead of the trailing treble hook.
Bill likes to fish the topwater near shore or in water up to 10 feet deep around known cover, even that which is totally submerged. He casts the floater well away from the boat and allows it to sit motionless until concentric circles from the splash have disappeared. The retrieve is then made with short but sharp jerks of the rod tip. The noisy, splashing lure is hard for most bass to resist.
The effectiveness of floating baits diminishes with the first frost, whereupon Bill reverses the sequence of lures as fall progresses. He ends the season as it began, fishing with spinners again.
Gressard’s methods aren’t the only ones that take bass on Trail Lake, of course, and he is the first to admit it. But he isn’t likely to change his ways. After all, with all those bass behind him, he must be doing something right.