In The Crosshairs

The science of matching presentation to fish location and mood.

When we talk about a fish's "mood," we mean the measure of aggressiveness that reflects its interest in feeding and willingness to chase baits. Mood can vary greatly from day-to- day, or even hour-to-hour, based on weather conditions, water temperature, sunlight penetration and other factors.

In The Mood
We all experience days when bass and other gamefish are really biting, chasing down and attacking virtually anything thrown near them. At the other extreme, we’ve also suffered through days when the fish ignored just about everything.

In general, only about 10 percent of the time offers prime feeding conditions when fish are aggressively biting. These are rare super days when you can’t do anything wrong. At the opposite end of the spectrum, about 10 percent of the time, it seems you can’t do anything right. Severe weather swings or other negative factors seemingly knock bass for a loop and cause them to clamp their jaws shut. If they had eyelids, they’d probably close them under the circumstances.

When bass and other fish are aggressively on the chew, we say that they’re in positive mood, and that they display a positive feeding attitude. Conversely, when they’re in a negative mood, they seemingly don’t want to eat, bite or move. The rest of the time, bass are in a neutral mood, meaning they’re not exactly chasing, but can be tempted to investigate, follow, examine and perhaps bite a variety of lures and baits. Other times, neutral fish can be partial to specific lure styles or retrieves, to the point of being extremely selective.

About 80 percent of the time, fish are neutral, which means you can expect to get bit if your locations and tactics are in the ballpark. Yet even under the worst conditions, some bass are still willing to bite—just not chase. You have to hit them right on their noses, using just the right lures, worked in ways that precisely match their mood and current feeding regime. It may not be easy, but it can still be done.

Just look at the results of tournaments held under poor fishing conditions. Even when the bulk of the field manages only meager catches—if they catch fish at all—there’s invariably an angler who does something just different enough to catch fish and win. It’s a good lesson for us all. If you find a pack of reluctant bass hunkered down together in a small area, and show them just the right presentation, you can still catch them. Along those lines, my brother Al Lindner feels that some fish, somewhere, are always biting—even under the toughest conditions. According to him, if you’re not catching them, you either haven’t found them, or more likely, haven’t yet shown them what they want to bite, in the way they want to bite it. In fact, chances are you’ve been fishing right through negative fi sh.

Response Strategies
To enhance the appeal of tactics to bass of all moods, we need to understand and apply several concepts that increase their tendency to respond and bite.

Strike Window: The ability of bass to see approaching baits, largely determined by water clarity. In clear water, bass can see prey at a distance, so they have large strike window. Conversely, on dirty, dingy or muddy waters, strike windows can be quite small, and your offerings must be placed precisely for fish to see them. Note this has nothing to do with the fish’s mood. Rather, it strictly refers to its ability to see prey at a distance and respond to its approach.

Distance Of Commitment: The distance a bass will swim to strike a lure. This is obviously related to water clarity, and its mood. Aggressive bass tend to move farther to respond to a lure, regardless of water clarity. Jim Lindner is fond of saying, “The farther you can get a bass to move after a bait, the more likely it is to strike.” Basically, the intrigued bass tends to get more serious about eating as it closes the distance to the lure. If it doesn’t lose interest and turn away before it reaches its target, it becomes increasingly more likely to bite.

Matching The Hatch: Interestingly, the type of forage upon which fish are feeding has an effect on distance of commitment. For example, if bass are primarily eating crayfish, a bait that approaches across or near bottom will generate a response from a greater distance than one that passes overhead. On the other hand, if bass are feeding on suspended prey like shad, they may ignore nearby bottom-bumping presentations, yet rise some distance to strike a lure that resembles a shad. In other words, matching forage profile and behavior can be equally important to distance of commitment. Also note that we don’t simply imitate the predominant forage with a lure that mimics its size, profile and color; we also replicate its motions and position in the water column, be it near bottom, on or near the surface, or somewhere in between.

Angle Of Lure Approach: Bass positioned in or around ambush stations often respond better when a lure (or natural prey) approaches from a certain direction. Even if a bass is hungry and actively seeking food, it may be more likely to strike a lure approaching from one direction than from another. Most of the time, this has a lot to do with the makeup of the ambush station.

For example, if a bass is sitting in a tangle of brush with only one opening to the surrounding area, your lure must cross that open area. Naturally, a lure approaching from a direction where the fish’s view is obscured is far less likely to generate interest and attack.

So, evaluate the cover you’re fishing. A stand of bulrushes may have one edge exposed to open water, while a stump may have exposed roots on only one side. There’s a sweet spot your lure needs to hit. Obviously, the more and larger the openings, the better the chances of getting a strike.

Sun Angle And Shade: Bass anglers are already familiar with the idea of fishing shade; casting to the shady side of a stump or dock, or fishing the east shoreline of a lake during early morning and the increasingly shady west shoreline as evening moves toward sunset. Shade tends to make bass more aggressive, encouraging them to leave cover to feed or strike lures that approach near enough to strike.

Shade can also make a difference in deep water, particularly if the water is clear. West Coast finesse fishermen like Troy Lindner use time of day and the resulting sun angle as a guide, and quickly jump from spot-to-spot to take advantage of small pockets of temporary shade. Th is often means fishing the shady side of a shoreline point, focusing a cast or two on a key prominent feature (such as a boulder) near the tip where shade is created. If a fish doesn’t bite, he won’t waste time fishing the sunnier, more exposed areas. He hits only the key spots, then moves on, maximizing his efforts in high-percentage areas.

Dialing In The Bite
In the end, bass location and behavior are fairly predictable. And most of the time, knowledgeable anglers are probably fishing areas where good numbers of fish are located. But that still leaves “presentation.” If it doesn’t match the fish’s mood, and the other aspects of its behavior, your success plummets, even if you’re fishing in the right spots. But if you’re on target with the right tactics, you can usually catch fish, even under the most difficult conditions. Like Al says, “The fish are always biting.” You just have to figure out the recipe for success.

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