'Ambush' Is The Wrong Word

Fish Facts
Largemouth bass
Author Ralph Manns studied and observed bass behavior for years, starting with an electronic trucking study in 1977-78, and continuing today.

When largemouth bass feed actively, they move. Underwater observers, scientific experimenters, and electronic trackers all report the same things: black bass hold inside or near to cover when they are inactive and resting. When they are actively feeding, they move outside thick cover and usually travel along edges.

The slim, muscular, and streamlined shape of bass is best suited to make short dashes after prey fish. It is less well designed to ambush prey by lying hidden and camouflaged inside cover. Fish that routinely feed by ambush usually have several characteristics in common. They are bulky, camouflaged, sit on the bottom, and move only inches when they strike. Moreover, ambush feeders normally have big mouths and heads and relatively small bodies and few muscles because they move little and often must wait many days between feedings. Sculpin, rockfish, halibut, and sole are typical ambush predators.

Experiments in which bass were given chances to feed inside and outside cover show bass forced to live inside thick cover are unable to chase prey and are forced to use ambush tactics. These bass catch few prey, grow slowly, and may even starve if prey aren't abundant. Although they sometimes ambush prey, ambush is an inefficient tactic for bass.

Bass that can leave cover to cruise individually or in small schools along edges of thick cover do so. They startle individual preyfish and scatter prey schools. Prey that dart the wrong way or dash too near another bass were eaten. Big bass expert Doug Hannon calls this tactic "flushing." The tactic is suited to bass' ability to cruise at slow speed and then to accelerate rapidly to strike vulnerable prey a few feet away.

When prey isn't overabundant, cruising bass encounter and has chances to catch many more prey than ambushing bass. Studies show bass feeding along the edges of thick cover catch enough food to grow and remain healthy.

Largemouth bass
Bass usually only enter and hide in cover to protect themselves. They often suspend, hunt and rest in plain view near cover.

Scuba divers, me included, have watched bass that were immobile inside cover and apparently asleep. These fish didn't feed, even though edible-size prey was within inches of their mouths. These inactive bass also refused lures presented within inches of their noses and were almost impossible to catch-unless something aroused them from their torpor before the lure passed by. Electronic trackers frequently report that bass that hold for long periods in the same place aren't usually catchable.

In contrast, bass that held near the edges of cover and moved back and forth were occasionally tempted by lures that were placed nearby. They were also more easily aroused to active status by repeated casting. These bass are usually neutral or semi-active. Neutral bass tended to hold near other bass, but don't synchronize their movements or hold close together. Scientists call such groups "aggregations" rather than schools. Preyfish often hover nearby, but stay at least 3 feet away and remain constantly wary. Neutral bass will strike prey that blunder too close and often drift around rather than holding in one place only. Electronic trackers often report these local wanderings, but anglers find only precisely placed casts interest such fish.

When bass want to feed actively they form schools with bass of similar sizes and swim off together. They cruise fairly steadily along edges of cover (into open water if there are many bass and shad are abundant) to flush prey. These are active, catchable fish if anglers can locate them, predict their direction of movement, and put a lure in front of them. Nearby preyfish know when bass were preparing to feed and immediately move well out of range. The bass move away looking for prey that haven't seen them coming.

The idea that bass feed by ambushing prey apparently resulted from some false observations and assumptions. Bass are inactive or neutral most of the time. While inactive, they frequently rest inside thick cover. It they aren't digesting food, too sleepy, and totally immobile, lures flipped right on their noses may be taken. They also may wake up it aroused by repeated casts. Thus many bass are caught in cover where ambush is the most likely tactic. Moreover, moving bass still may stop periodically at places where cover or structure stops, starts, bends, or changes. Bass taken at these locations may seem to ambush lures or prey, even though the bass aren't actually hiding there.

Bass usually don't move only one way. Lunkers monitored by Texas bass-tracker, John Hope, moved almost constantly when active, but they patrolled to-and-fro along the edges of cover or break-lines. Anglers who "hole-sit" on edges, bends, and points of weed beds or other cover during feeding periods may encounter several schools of passing bass or contact the same school several times as it passes back and forth. This can create an illusion that the feeding bass aren't moving. Active bass also move along cover edges anglers can't see. Fairly open pathways often exist under thick weeds and seemingly impenetrable brush. Fish that are apparently caught "inside" such cover may be moving along relatively open edges. It's hard for anglers to tell the difference between a bass that was caught while holding inside or under a bush to "ambush" prey and another that was moving back and forth at the same depth under a cluster of bushes.

Truly inactive bass tend to sleep alone. When bassers take several fish during consecutive passes by the same bush, they likely have found a spot that fish are moving through rather than resting fish. Inactive fish seldom school, don't strike readily, and don't move about rapidly enough to quickly replace bass that were caught moments before.

The belief that bass "ambush" their prey apparently worked its way into bassing lore because many outdoor writers prefer to use aggressive, action-packed words. The image of a bass hiding behind a rock to "ambush" unsuspecting prey makes bass seem vicious, like a western movie "back-shooter." and therefore a more worthy opponent. "Chasing" or "flushing" tactics just don't make bass seem as tough and exciting. But "ambush" is the wrong word to describe how bass usually feed. Bass ambush if opportunity presents itself, but this is not their preferred feeding tactic.

To catch more bass, anglers must know how bass really behave. Actively feeding bass usually move in small groups. They usually don't hide inside cover thick enough to block their vision and/or hinder attacks. Cover is cover for prey. Prey hide in it to escape bass. Bass use cover for the same reason. They move into it to rest undisturbed by larger threats like yellow catfish and anglers, rather than to feed. Bass are most often caught along the edges of cover because prey gather there and are more easily flushed there.

To feed effectively and often, bass move out of thick cover to seek, startle, or flush prey along the cover edges in ponds and reservoirs. Most pond owners will see and confirm this fact for themselves if they sit at pondside, as I do almost every day, and watch bass using Polaroid glasses.

Reprinted with permission from Pond Boss Magazine