On a typical fall Texas Panhandle day last October, a gentleman visiting from California caught a 14-pound largemouth bass in the stilling basin of Lake Meredith. Now, catching a lunker largemouth of this size is unusual for even the best anglers. However, what makes this fish very interesting, at least in my book, is not that it came from the Panhandle nor that it was over 14 pounds. Instead, this fish was unique because it was caught using a very small lure—a fly in fact.
On the one hand, I was thrilled to see such a fish caught on a fly because it reinforced my belief that smaller lures and baits, when presented effectively, can result in very productive numbers of fish, particularly in clear or shallow water. Further, his catch proved that larger fish, even lunker bass, can be taken with small lures. But, on the other hand, as an avid bass fly fisherman, I realized that there is probably not much chance of my ever holding the state record for largemouth caught on a fly rod.
During my angling evolution, I have shifted to using increasingly smaller lures, lighter tackle, and smaller means of accessing fishing areas. During that evolution, I have found that the number of fish I catch has increased, and I am enjoying the experience even more. That is not to say that this strategy is better in any sense, only that it is different. And it works, particularly in clear water on windless days.
During many Saturday morning fishing shows and while participating in several adventures with Jerry Dean, I have often entered discussions on the relative merits of lure, tackle, and craft size. As an angler with more than a passing familiarity with bass biology, big baits (live or lures) make a lot of sense when hunting big fish. Bass bio-energetics are such that the fish must balance the metabolic cost of hunting for prey with the metabolic gain of catching that prey. Therefore, it makes perfect biologic sense for a fish that is an ambush predator to visually select food items that provide the best energy expenditure energy gain cost-to-benefit. In short, bass may have evolved to select the largest food item - if it is available - that they can consume.
However, the downside to this angling strategy is that there are fewer large fish in any population of bass relative to the number of small fish. Therefore, as bait size gets larger, fewer fish can actually consume the bait.
The relative sizes of threadfin shad and gizzard shad provide a good example. Threadfin shad rarely grow to a size so large that bass can't consume them, while gizzard shad routinely get too big for bass to eat. Clearly, the smaller the lure, the more fish are susceptible to its allure (no pun intended). Secondarily, at specific periods during the year, the majority of food items available are smaller items as prey are hatched and enter the food web. Therefore, it has been my experience that smaller lures, which more resemble the predominant baitfish, are the most effective.
On a trip I took one summer day with Honey Hole staffer Mike Hastings, the only lure we used with any success on schooling bass was a very small shad imitation that closely resembled the baitfish under attack. Anything larger was ignored. Downsizing tackle also has some real advantages. Some are esthetic, it is a lot of fun catching fish on light tackle, and in the hands of a skillful angler, huge fish can be brought to the net with amazing frequency. Other advantages are a matter of cost.
Excellent lightweight rods and spinning reels can be had for a fraction of the cost of baitcasting equipment. Now, in some cases, heavy tackle is a must. It is impossible (at least for me) to fish jigs with line and light rods. Fishing for bass in heavy cover requires heavy tackle. But in most other situations, getting small is just as effective.
The advantages of getting small with tackle are decreased line visibility and presentation quality. Largemouth bass have an acute sense of sight, again a character related to its feeding strategy of ambush feeding. Smaller test line is less visible in clear water and, therefore, less visible to the fish. It is as simple as that. Without question, lighter test line breaks more easily, but that can be offset by many of the newer line formulations. My favorite is the new fluorocarbon lines that are extremely strong and abrasion resistant. But more importantly, fluorocarbon has the same refractive index as water, and the line becomes virtually invisible to the fish. Even if only the last few feet of your line is fluorocarbon, you will see a remarkable increase in fish landed with this type of line.
Lighter lines and smaller lures also transfer less energy to the water surface as the cast culminates. Largemouth bass "hear" low-frequency vibrations along their lateral line with such accuracy that blind fish can still earn a decent living based on their ability to recognize and locate the source of sound waves in the water. So, the less energy transferred to the water surface, the less likely fish will be frightened by the presentation, and the more likely it will be construed as a living prey item. This fact has been the basis for fly fishing since its inception, but the theory also holds for bass fishing with other tackle. Think about it, how often do you see baitfish make a big splash on the water's surface? As location is everything to a business, presentation is everything to successful fishing with light tackle.
Getting small with your craft also has real advantages, principally in ease of transport, low cost, and the angler's ability to stay low to the water's surface. It is tough to argue with today's bass anglers' success with modern bass boats. I love to fish from Jerry's Cobra when he lets me get close enough to touch it. Modem electronics are a huge help in locating fish, as well. But most anglers can be just as successful with smaller boats and less sophisticated electronics.
Fish can see us when we can see them. That seems straightforward enough, but fish generally cannot see anything below 15 degrees above the water's surface. The refractive character of water and light as it is bent in water provides an advantage for anglers because it imparts a blind spot to the fish. I often use a small "kick-boat" or float tube and a pair of fins for fishing rivers and small lakes and ponds. These are easy to transport, very inexpensive and allow the angler to approach very close to waiting fish.
On a recent trip to Lake Austin, I watched a school of bass scatter as a boat approached my rather hidden position in the reeds. I was lower to the water surface in my kick-boat than the fish could see and armed with light spinning tackle. I was hooking up on almost every cast. Then they were just gone. Now, to be fair, fishing from a bass boat with heavier tackle does allow for longer casts that remove the angler from the sight of the fish. Getting small with your craft is a tradeoff, but it works.
One of the best and most recent advances in getting small is the light-weight, inexpensive, portable electronic fish-finders that are starting to appear in the fishing catalogs. For less than $250, anglers can purchase units that fit on a kick-boat or float tube and work very well. About two years ago, I purchased one of these units and used it regularly on my canoe and other small craft. It lacks the sophistication of other types of electronics, but it is excellent for mapping the bottom of an area, getting temperature readings, and locating fish. I highly recommend these units.
Getting small is not for everyone and does not work all the time. But it can pay real dividends under conditions that are very normal for the Texas summers. So one of my New Year's resolutions was to get small this year and to stay small until I learned all the subtleties of this style of fishing. I know I will have lots of fun, and I know I will be a better angler come this time next year.
Catch and Release.
Bill Harvey has been canoeing, kayaking, and fishing the rivers and bays of Texas for over 40 years. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in fish and wildlife and is a professional fish and wildlife biologist for TPWD. He is nationally recognized as an expert in the biology of warmwater fish species and pioneered biological research on Florida largemouth bass. He holds numerous fly fishing state records, ties his own flies, and is an excellent spin-casting teacher.