Inches below the surface of the stained water, is an intimidating minefield of stumps and decaying timber. Endless acres of aquatic shallows are choked by hydrilla, coontail, pond weed, deertounge grass, lily pads, and alligator weeds. The locals call it “The Jungle”.
Even if a visiting angler was warned by the native residents to stick to the river channels when up on plane, and been wisely cautioned to crawl through the menacing jungle to preserve their bass boat’s gelcoat from submerged wood; it would only take a few minutes for the average crankbait enthusiast to conclude that weedless jigs and plastics might be a wiser choice. And they would be… wrong! At least according to veteran guide, Mike Siefert.
Welcome to Millwood Lake, Arkansas. It is described as a 29,260-acre lake that “meanders through timber, marshes, and oxbow cutoffs making it a ‘tree-filled’ fishing haven”, but only 5000 acres are open water, predominately near the dam. Boat lanes, (mostly the old river channels), lead the way through the rest of its timbered waters.
No one is more surprised than Mike Siefert’s clients, when their guide hands them a rod with a lipless crankbait tied on. Correction; it’s not a “lipless crankbait” – because in Mike’s vocabulary there is a better word – Rat-L-Trap! This diehard fan of Bill Lewis’ rattling flat-sided baits won’t throw anything but a “Trap”, as he affectionately calls it. “I couldn’t tell you the thousands of bass that we’ve caught on Rat-L-Traps, …and I couldn’t tell you the hundreds of bass we’ve caught between 8 to 12 pounds!”
Obviously Mike isn’t instructing his clients to throw their Rat-L-Trap into the obvious soup of thick underwater vegetation. Obtaining suitable casting locations for lipless crankbaits in the jungle, has only come about as a result of Mike’s keen understanding of the lake, having fished it for over forty years.
“Millwood’s stain comes primarily from the decaying composition.” Mike explains. “Tannic acid from the decaying timber tends to make the water a coffee or tea color.” And as a biology and chemistry major that retired early from corporate industry, Siefert ought to know. With a gentle southern drawl, he explains that most of the timber is fallen and submerged, having rotted off at the water’s surface. “So it’s just a mine field of stumps – you know, outside of the river channels and boat lanes.”
Built by the Army Corp of Engineers in the late 60’s for flood control, his home lake boasts having the longest earthen dam in the state, making the reservoir unusually wide and shallow. “The average depth of the lake outside the river channels is not more than 6-8 feet.” Which is what makes the boundaries between the jungle and those river channels and boat lanes ‘the key’ to busting big bass on lipless crankbaits.
“There remain stumps all up and down the river where the old tree line used to be adjacent to the river.” Where does he instruct his client to throw their Rat-L-Traps? “In between the tree lines, where the stump line is, and where the grass and the weeds start.”
“These huge Florida bass will use weeds just like deer use a tree line or a fence row. The river is just a highway, like Interstate 10, 20, 30, or 40. The intersecting creek channels and swings, are just like state highways that intersect the interstate. And the bass travel parallel to where those walls are, just like a deer will use a tree line or a fence line and walk right beside it. The fish will travel parallel to those reed or weeds. And if they feel threatened they’ll do one of two things; they’ll either go to deep water – that’s their sanctuary – or they’ll back up into the weedline with nothing but their nose and eyes sticking out… for protection and cover.”
“Normally, if you hook a good fish, (6, 7, or 8 pounds or better), in shallow water, you’ll notice that fish will immediately go to deep water. A big fish always heads to deep water first because that’s where he feels the most secure. So I’ll fish parallel to the old submerged river bank; either inside or outside the stump-line.”
But knowing where the bass hang out is only the first step in putting his clients on quality fish using lipless crankbaits. Teaching “presentation” is Mike’s primary objective. His goal is to help the client gain confidence in lipless cranks, “And there are a bunch of different techniques that you can implement on a Rat-L-Trap.”
Naturally, the time of year affects the presentation chosen. “Typically September is still summer for us. Fall patterns don’t happen until October,” Mike explains. “The bass are still doing the same thing they have been doing June, July and August.”
The summer conditions are largely responsible for the heavier concentrations of fish along the old river banks. “Four rivers feed Lake Millwood, and in September the surface water temperature is still in the upper 80’s. And if you’re not fishing where you have access to deeper water, (where the thermocline will be), you‘re not going to catch a lot of fish all day long in 2 or 3 feet of water with it being 85 or 90 degrees.”
“It’s like sitting at home – are you going sit in the garage where it’s 90 degrees or are you going to go in your air-conditioned house where it’s 70 degrees? Those fish are the same way, and cooler water also holds more oxygen than hot water. It’s much easier for them to breathe, less stressful, and more of a comfort zone.”
TECHNIQUES FOR BEGINNERS
What Rat-L-Trap techniques will he suggest first? That depends on his clients, who bring with them “…every level of experience from 8-9-year-old kids to 80-year-old seniors.” When asked to start with beginners in mind, Mike’s advice was straight forth and practical.
“Well, first of all I’m going to say to a beginner, ‘Patience is a virtue’. You are not going to catch a fish on every cast, (unless the fish are boiling and schooling on the top of the water all around you). Normally, when the water is calm, it takes a lot of patience.”
“It does help to hire a guide to at least take you to where he has been catching fish, …but remember, as a general rule, not all of the fish in a lake will feed at the same time. There are different age groups and sizes of fish, and they all respond differently and feed at various times throughout the day. We may fish down a river for two hundred yards and not get bit, and in the next hour put 25 in the boat. So it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. It’s all about timing.”
Mike reassures his beginning clients, that when the fish begin to feed, “All you have to do is throw that Rat-L-Trap out there, and wind it back at a slow to medium pace until you connect with the first fish. And we’ll keep doing this as we move down this bank or creek channel.”
Over the years, Siefert has noticed beginners tend to make the same initial mistakes. Especially “…fishing it too fast. Because that’s what inexperienced anglers, especially kids tend to do. They see fishermen throwing and casting, throwing and casting, …and that all they think you have to do, is just throw it and crank it. And that’s what I try to tell clients, is that you have to pay more attention to ‘presentation’. It’s more than just blindly throwing and cranking the reel handle.”
“So I try to tell them; just be patient, and slow your retrieve down. I say ‘If you see a stump out there sticking 6 inches out of the water and we’re in 12 feet of water in the river, you know there’s a tree beneath that stump all the way to the bottom. And if you’ve got 12 feet of tree there, the fish could be suspended half way up the tree, just sitting beside the tree, or it could be all the way on the bottom, or 6 to 10 inches off the bottom.’”
“I’ve thrown to the same stump or tree with a Rat-L-Trap 10 or 15 times and not caught a fish until the last throw. If I see a tall stump and suspect a fish is on it, I’ll throw beyond my target, knowing that a fish could be suspended at any point up or down that tree. I also know that typically, under most conditions, a ½ oz a Rat-L-Trap will sink at a rate of 1 foot or 1½ foot per second. So you can count it down ‘a thousand one’, ‘a thousand two’, ‘a thousand three’ – and it’ll be at 3 or 4 feet.”
“But the first throw I’ll make, is retrieved at a fast clip just to get a reaction strike from a 2, 3 or 4 pound fish that may be near the surface, actively feeding. The second or third cast I’ll slow it down. Again, throwing beyond the target. You don’t want to throw it right on top of your target, nor engage the reel immediately, because the bait will begin a pendulum swing back to the boat, away from the tree. So cast beyond your target and pull 10 or 15 inches of line off your reel, allowing it to sink parallel to your target. Then engage your handle and begin your retrieve past the target at the desired depth.”
Mike adds, “And, if I don’t get bit the first, second, third or fourth time, I’ll slow it down until I have fished both sides of the tree at various depths.” The reason, he explained, was that the strike zone on some trophy-sized bass can be so small that, (even a loud noisy bait going over their head), they’re sometimes going to totally ignore it until your bait almost bumps them in the nose. “Or until you deflect the Rat-L-Trap off the tree or stump, and it looks like an injured, stunned, baitfish …or an injured crawfish, …then they’ll react to that.”
Many pros advise against using a Rat-L-Trap as a deflection tool because it doesn’t have a lip and an angler can get hung up. To that, Mike makes a bold statement: “If you aren’t getting hung up, you’re not fishing in the right spot.”
“I can’t tell you the number of fish, 6 or 7 pounds and larger, that I have caught by deflecting Rat-L-Traps off of stumps and timber. Why? Because the bait travels with the nose down because the line-tie is half an inch up the lure’s back. As it’s coming through the water column the hooks on the belly are up and behind the bait.”
Mike explains how the deflection should be handled. “When you pull the bait towards a tree or stump, you can feel your line grinding as your line comes around that stump. As that line makes contact you can feel that grinding in your handle. When it starts getting real tight this indicates your bait is coming right up to the tree. That’s when I’ll slow my retrieve to a mere crawl, (‘feeling’ it like you do worm fishing), or even stop my retrieve, and let the bait hit the tree. Then I’ll just twitch my rod just 6 or 12 inches to the right or to the left, whichever goes to the outside of the tree.”
“As the bait bumps and bangs into the tree trunk or stump, it makes a racket and knocks off bark and plankton and debris stirring up a ‘cloud’ of particles as it hits it, and as it takes off to one side, I’ll just let it fall on limp line. It looks like a baitfish, or a crawfish, or a bream, (whatever color I’m throwing), just ran into the tree, possibly being chased by another predator. It now appears to have stunned itself, and is trying to regain its sense of direction, wondering ‘Ah man, what was that?’”
“As it’s trying to regroup and figure out where it’s at, it is falling parallel to the tree. And that, a lot of the time, is when you get a reaction strike. Many times, my Trap will just ‘stop’ when I hit that timber. Thinking I hung it, I pause again to feel for a movement like in worm fishing. Often a huge bass already has it, and will turn to one side or the other and casually begin to swim off or up or down that stump with the Trap already in his mouth.”
If throwing a dozen times to the same tree at different speeds and levels in the water column seems like overkill, Mike is quick to point out that it is the process that leads to finding trophy bass. An angler may have to catch the smaller, more gullible fish first, in order to clear the way to catch the more cautious ‘grandma’.
Is ‘big mama’ typically at the bottom? “I’ve found that as a general rule the larger fish are closer to deep water, or at least have access to deep water.” Mike clarifies by saying, “Unless, of course it is early in the spring when they’re getting ready to spawn. But we’re now at the end of summer, and this time of the year they’re going to desire access to deep water. They may pull up shallow early in the morning or at night, but when the sun gets up, they’re going to be in close proximity to the deeper water.”
What is deep? Mike admits, “…deep water is relative. If I’m fishing in 6 feet, and 20 yards away is 12 feet, then 12 feet is relatively deep compared to 6 feet. Or if the fish are in 6 feet of water at daybreak, they may move up shallow into 2 foot of water at night, feeding on frogs or lizards or anything else that wanders close enough to get bit.”
“But as the water starts heating up from the sun, and the temperatures increase, they’re going to pull back out to where they have access to deep water. Why? Because it’s cooler and it holds more oxygen and it’s easier for them to breathe. It’s their comfort zone… deep water is their sanctuary. It’s where they feel the safest.”
“And you can bet you last dollar,” Mike adds, “when there’s a tournament on the lake with a hundred boats running at a hundred miles an hour in a hundred different directions, …and when every lure known to man is being thrown in front of them, they just shut off and drift into deep water, (and into a sulking mode). There they wait until all the commotion goes by or subsides. Why? Because they know that all that boat activity is not a natural part of their “everyday world. And large fish have learned through trial and error what is a threat to their survival, what to respond to, and what not to respond to. When there are 200 horsepower engines running up and down a river, they know that’s not natural.”
Does Mike tend to find his larger fish earlier in the morning, or later in the evening - when the traffic slows down? “Yep, my best big bass days are when its calm, (in mid-week), and I’m the only one on the lake. …or on days when there’s not a hundred boats running up and down the lake.”
When pushed for more, Siefert explained, “Well, I’ve learned that stealth does play a big role in catching big fish. I remember as a boy, my dad used to tell me ‘Be quiet son, you’re gonna scare the fish!’” He admits that, while that statement isn’t always 100% true, much about stealth does apply. “When you’re slamming rod lockers, stomping around in an aluminum boat, knocking over coolers and cans, and raising all kinds of racket – these sounds transmit underwater so much faster than it does in the air. And when the fish sense unusual commotion, vibrations, and loud racket going on, they go into a defensive posture. Why? Because they know that loud noises and all this commotion and racket, is not a normal part of their everyday environment.”
“You have to get into their world and think like they do. Because when you’re out there fishing, you’re in their world, in their zone, in their living room.” Mike says the bass’ natural environment is normally quieter when human activities on the lake cease. However, with a hundred boats running up and down the lake, the traffic “…imposes on their world, and they go into a defensive posture. The big fish just sulk in the deeper water and wait until all this abnormal activity above their heads subsides. So I have learned that stealth does play a huge role in catching trophy fish. You’re not going to ‘accidentally’ catch a 10 or 12-pound bass. It’s always a very purposeful and methodical presentation at the right time, in the right place, doing the right thing.”
The Arkansas guide tells his clients who wish to target larger fish, that they have to be very methodical. “It takes a lot of stealth, preparation, a certain skill set, and a lot of time and patience. It’s a good fisherman with the right presentation and a combination of equipment and conditions. I can take you to where there are some 10 or 12-pound fish, but unless you are willing to make the sacrifice of a methodical, slow presentation, and entice that fish to hit, there’s not much I can do to make that fish hit. There are days, when the big boys just don’t want to cooperate.”
“When it comes to catching a trophy, everything has to line up just right, or it just won’t happen. That includes the angler’s skill and mind set, the ambient conditions like frontal passages, cloud cover, wind, temperature, current and change of gate discharge of water at the dam; all of that and more, plays a huge role in catching a trophy Florida Bass. They don’t get trophy size by doing stupid stuff, or just reacting to anything or everything that passes in front of them every day.”
To be continued…
In PART II... our Arkansas guide will continue to share with us the knowledge that is essential to fishing lipless crankbaits successfully. Including… the proper hookset, the fight, big bass and their territorial behavior, treble hooks and a way to test sharpness, what happens when hungry bass strike, the proper speed of the retrieve, and a mind blowing Rat-L-Trap presentation you won’t believe.
In PART III… Mike Siefert teaches us about colors and patterns, discusses sizes, casting, scent usage, split-rings and speed-clips, line, rods, reels, and rod position. He shows us how to adjust to changing water levels, light conditions, and when to change up. Discussed are the unique challenges of working with pros, when to hire a guide, how success is in the details, and the power of confidence.
In PART IV… we’ll get a close up look at Mike’s pro-staffer connect to Bill Lewis Lures’ manufacturing company and some of the developments going on at Rat-L-Trap, including “Liv-N-Sound®” and the “Vibra-Trap™”.
For more information about Lake Millwood and guide Mike Siefert, contact:
Millwood Lake Guide Service
P.O. Box 4957 Texarkana, TX