When Bass SuspendWhen Bass Suspend
Fishing for suspended bass doesn't have to mean no catching
By Ronald F. Dodson, Ph.D.
All of us appreciate that bass are challenging critters to catch. One pattern that requires fishermen to give special emphasis in lure presentation is when they are suspended. Bass suspend for several reasons. Probably one of the most important is because concentrations of forage can tend to localize under certain conditions at specific depths. This is particularly true for shad. For example there are certain times of the year in the summer, fall, and winter when the shad actually are represented on your graph as a solid cloud, which stratifies at reproductive levels in a lake. This is your first clue that there is a real chance that bass may be concentrating in the same depth strata, if for no other reason than the abundant presence of food.
The reason shad layer is often helpful in identifying not only where bass may be since they may be feeding on the baitfish, but also under some conditions the shad help to define when there may be a reduced chance of bass being below a certain depth. For example, shad may be at a given depth because there is a concentration of small food sources at that level. However when you run into the layering of shad in the summer, particularly over deep water, you may be also observing the impact of either an oxycline or thermocline. If there is a major temperature shift (thermocline) at a level, then the water that is more ideal for holding shad may also be a give-away that it provides a defined comfort zone in which the bass will stratify.
On the other hand, when the shad are not seen below a specific depth there is a real possibility, particularly in the summer, that the deeper water may be oxygen poor. Both of these environmental changes can occur in the summer months but unlike the effect of the thermocline, the reduction of oxygen in the water does more than simply affect the comfort of the bass.
In reality such oxygen-poor water would essentially cause the bass, as well as shad, to "hold their breath" if they choose to enter the layer. These environmental changes are not just limited to deep water but occasionally occur in more shallow areas of the lake. As I noted the shad are good markers, which predict both the preferable depth where there are concentrations of food but also a comfort zone, which likely will hold bass.
Suspended fish will, if given the chance, find cover in the preferred depth in which they are suspending. So if there is a clearly defined level, which seems to have concentrations of shad then recognize that depth but also ask if there is some adjacent cover or structure in the area. When you make such a match you have even a greater likelihood of finding more stable holding patterns for bass in that area. When you are in schools of suspended bass do not leave the area without asking yourself "why were they there"? We all appreciate for example the importance of creek channels as holding places for bass. But over the years it has amazed me as to how many times the productive areas are depth related which can on a given day be duplicated on the edge of other creek channels at that same depth in the same lake. Once you figure out the magic depth then the game plan is to cast along the drop and try to keep your lure at the given depth on retrieve. The longer you can keep the bait in the right depth the better your chances of getting suspended bass to hit. If they are suspended along a creek ledge for example you may be wasting your time if you let the lure fall out of the strike zone by working it in the deeper wash of the channel. In contrast to the suspended fish holding adjacent to structure, the scattered suspended fish in more open water (even areas with the right depth but without structure), are likely more rapidly moving schools, which are foraging on the suspended shad. After feeding there is a good likelihood that they will then go back to the holding areas where there is cover or structure at the preferred depth.
I have mentioned the fact that sometimes the bass actually seem to have a depth below which they are not readily willing to chase prey. From the fisherman's standpoint this means if you fish a lure that passes below that level in which the bass are comfortable then you may well be fishing dead water for that part of the retrieve. As is evident the importance of a good graph cannot be over emphasized when looking for likely levels where bass are holding and for subsequently working schools of suspended bass.
I have always been partial to crankbaits and have felt that understanding suspended bass is critical in how I present the lures. One of the things you have to learn about cranks is that while many look similar they are often greatly different in not only action but also the depth at which they dive on retrieve. It is important when selecting a series of lures that you not only recognize the obvious importance of different colors, but pay attention to the depth at which the manufacturer has define the specific bait will run on retrieve. Trying lures, which permit you to fish different depths help you to define the strike zone for the suspended bass in an area. You can have the right color and action, but use a bait which does not dive deeply enough and go right over a school of bass and they simply not care. The other factor in working suspended bass is that they may be doing just that-suspending. In other words they may be "hanging out" at a given depth and not actively involved in feeding. You can change that somewhat if you put a food like morsel in their face. Sometimes it requires you actually entice them into striking by creating a more erratic action on the bait as it passes through the level at which they are suspending. Any crankbait will catch more fish if you concentrate on stopping and starting the bait on the retrieve, or at least vary the speed of the retrieve. Such erratic action with a crank just as with a topwater can often trigger a response reflex, and a strike when the bass is actually not that inclined to feed.
If there is adequately oxygenated water, bass may suspend just off the bottom. Again your graph as well as your first fish can tell you a lot about the potential for suspended bass being present.
I emphasized the importance in many occasions of fishing for suspended bass in a given layer of water. The smaller the strike zone the thinner is this layer of productive water. It is during these times that special presentation techniques are very important. The ideal lures for such fishing are either baits that suspend on retrieve or countdown lures. The suspend type of lures are generally crankbaits which float when they hit the water and obtain their maximum diving depth on retrieve. The problem is that a floating bait tends to want to pop to the surface when you stop the retrieve. In fact historically a balsa plug had great action, but tended to float up to the surface fairly rapidly when you stopped the retrieve. In fact it usually did so much more rapidly than a comparably sized plastic plug. Thus if you want the plug to stay in a given layer longer, and yet have the ability to stop and start the retrieve you were at a handicaps with a plug that was highly buoyant. A suspend plug does just as the name implies in that you can get the bait up a given depth and it resists the urge to float so that it "suspends" at that depth. This is ideal when you are fishing bass that have a narrow feeding zone and don't want to move very far up or down to take a lure.
The other types of lures, which are ideal for working suspended bass, are the count down types of bait. In essence you can think of any plug, which sinks as a count down plug. The critical part about fishing a count down plug is to let it do just that, but be aware of the depth to which you let it sink. When you throw such a plug use a one-two-three count system to judge how deep the bait is falling per second. This will permit you to know how long the bait fell before you got a strike, and thus you can duplicate a drop to that same level on the next cast. If you sirnply want to judge the fall rate for future reference, then take some time on your next trip and while setting in a given depth let your plug fall till there is slack line. From then on you can be confident as to the depth you are working that plug in the future by using the count down technique.
A soft jerkbait such as a Slug-Go, or Zoom Fluke is a great countdown bait. You need to judge how you rig the bait based on the depth of water you are fishing and the layer of that water in which you want to concentrate the presentation. The drop weight of these baits can be altered by either adding a metal spike (small nail) into the head area (which does not have any action any way), or place one or a couple of split shots on the lead line ahead of the bait. There are count down baits which get to the desired level for presentation in a hurry. These include the various types of spinnerbaits. Everyone knows that a cloths pen type of spinner will fall rapidly, however most folks really have little incite as to the depth they actually are working the spinner on retrieve. This is alright when your working shallow water, but if you hope to work these baits most effectively in deeper water you are going to have to be conscious as to exactly how deep you are letting the bait work on retrieve. If you are planning on working 15 plus feet with a spinner and cannot make yourself slowly retrieve the bait, then the only other option is to go to a one or one and a half ounce bait which lets you keep the bait down to a reasonable depth even with a more constant retrieve.
The other spinnerbait of choice for working suspended bass is a Littl'George. These tailspin baits are ideal for such conditions in that they cast a mile and drop like a rock. The combination lets you work considerable area in a minimum of time. The only catch with these plugs is that you can easily work layers of water below the strata where the bass are holding. Since these baits drop so fast the problem often is just the opposite of that of the spinnerbait in that you may be actually working them deeper than you think on retrieve. Often suspended bass are feeding on shad or bream so the colors you pick should follow these patterns when selecting choices of color.
If bass are suspended just off the bottom, then a soft plastic such as a lizard or worm are great baits. A Carolina rig with a longer leader is especially good for working bass suspended close to the bottom particularly when you use a floating lizard. However, if the fish are suspended a distance from the bottom again it is very easy for you to fish the worm or lizard and if not struck on the fall, actually drop below the potential layer of feeding bass. You can compensate in one of two ways. First you can use a lighter lead, which lets the soft plastic fall through the suspended zone of the bass more slowly. The other game plan is to actually swim the bait back to the boat. If the hits occur while I am swimming the bait, then I feel totally confident that the fish are suspended and will try to establish how rapidly (as relates to the depth) the lure needs to be retrieved.
Fishing for suspended bass can be very productive if you first recognize that you are in suspended bass and adjust your presentation accordingly. I may not always have been the sharpest tack about some things but if the bass will tell me their preference of depth in which they are suspending, I am sure going to try and keep something on the end of my line in that depth.
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