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Beginners Corner

By Bryan Honnerlaw

 

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                        In the last issue we talked about how to choose the right equipment to fit you, and the situations they would be used in.  This month, we will be talking about our quarry, the largemouth bass.  To be successful fishermen, we need to have a great deal of understanding and knowledge about the species we are targeting.   I will not go into all detail about the species, if I did you would be reading for days, so I will leave the rest for you to discover.  But I do want to give you a good feel for the fish, and point out some facts that might help you target this magnificent fish.

                        Largemouth bass are native to portions of the United States. After they started to join trout as a very popular game fish, they were stocked in new areas.  One very historical moment that increased the range of the largemouth bass was when a train, carrying thousands of young fish in mason jars, went off its tracks and spilled all the young fry, which just happened to land in a mid-west river.                  . 

            An average largemouth bass is 1-5 lbs., with the world record being a whopping 22-4 caught by George Perry in 1932 out of Georgia.  Lately there have been a few fish that have came close to breaking the record, mostly out of California. 

            Largemouth bass are a warm water species that like shallow, weedy areas.  They like to be under or next to cover for ambush.  There have been studies done where bass are put in a large tank of water with nothing in it.  The fish will be schooled up in a corner, and when a rock is dropped in, they will all gather around it. They relate very closely to weeds, docks, trees, brush, or anything else that gives them an ambush point to capture prey.

 Bass have been recorded spawning from depths of  6’-15.  However, nests are generally in the 1’-4’ range, and on a hard bottom composed of sand or pea gravel.

 The Largemouth Bass is a member of the Centrarchidae family.  Its scientific name is Micropterus Salmoides. There are two strains of Largemouth, the northern and southern, or Florida strain.  Bass exhibit a chameleon-like quality, and vary greatly in physical characteristics due to its climate and surroundings.  Northern largemouth do not grow as large as their southern relatives due to the length of growing seasons. Bass have a spiny dorsal fin; hence the name bass, which means bristly, like a wild boar.  They are a very adaptable species, and can live in water one third as salty as seawater. 

            To understand the behavior of a largemouth bass, I think this quote from Bass Master Shaw Grigsby’s Notes on Fishing and Life pretty much sums it all up.  “And once his survival instincts are fully developed, he looks around his world with the confidence of a shark.  He reins as the king daddy of predators. The lower jaw juts forth and sloped back and down so that even when he is resting he has a bold aggressive look.  His mouth opens to an enormous circle far out of proportion to the size of his body- so big you can look down it and see his gizzards.  His mouth gives him nicknames of Big Mouth or Bucket Lips.  His mouth gives him his nicknames of Hawg, Lunker, Sow.  And his disposition gives him the simple and always respectful nickname of Mr. Bass.  He is big, broad shouldered and heavyset; a swaggering redneck linebacker of a fish.  He has two dorsal fins; the first has ten spikes and gives him the appearance of a prehistoric creature.  He is primitive, powerful, belligerent, and unpredictable.  He is prone to random acts of violence.  It is good that God did not allow him to grow any bigger.  If he weighed 60 or 70 pounds, the waters of America would not be safe for swimming.”

            Largemouth bass are purely opportunistic feeders, eating anything from golden shiners, to crawfish, to baby ducklings and snakes.  In the spring, they seem to target the protein-loaded crawfish the most, and in the fall will follow baitfish back through creek channels where the baitfish will spawn. To sustain a bass’ body weight, it takes a one-pound bass about  three pounds of food, and to gain one pound of body weight, it takes about three more pounds.  Fry sized largemouth feed on macro invertebrates such as fly and insect larvae, then begin feeding on smaller fish at only two inches in length. Have you ever heard the term your eyes are bigger than your mouth?  Largemouth bass live by this saying.

            The yearly cycle of the largemouth bass has approximately six calendar periods.  They are: winter, pre-spawn, spawn, post spawn, summer, and post summer/ fall turnover.  During winter, the water is at its coldest temperature.  Bass move to deep-water areas such as deep, backwater sloughs, main lake ledges, main lake points and humps, or bluff banks.   Bass are cold blooded; therefore, their body temperature is controlled by the water temperature.  Bass are very lethargic or inactive during the winter period, and feeding is at its minimum.  Their metabolism is very slow, and one meal may last them for weeks.  If the water temperature is less than fifty degrees, one three-ounce shad takes about five days to digest.  If temperature is over seventy degrees, bass can eat at least three of these a day. 

            In the north, as the water temperature reaches 45 degrees, bass begin to stage.  Staging is when bass start their migration towards spawning areas.  This is known as the pre-spawn period.  Bass first move to main lake points with steep ledges where they can move from deep to shallow water quickly and easily to feed.  They stage in certain areas to rest and feed during their trip.  Largemouth then start moving back creeks and tributaries towards spawning areas.  They use creek channels as ‘bass highways’, stopping and resting at bends in the channel, secondary points, laydowns that reach from shallow to deep water, docks on steep banks, and other related structure.  As water temperature continues to increase, bass begin feeding heavily, preparing for the time of fasting during the spawn.  Bass stay close to deep-water comfort zones, so that if a late spring cold front moves in, they only have to move a short distance to ‘get out of the weather.’

            Cover and structure are used interchangeably by some people, but are actually defined as two different things.  Structure is any change in the bottom depth, such as ledges, where the bottom has a quick drop or break, humps where the bottom depth rises in a certain spot with deep water surrounding it, or ditches, such as along an old road bed.  Cover is any physical feature that bass relate to, from old sunken cars, to stumps and timber, to bridge pilings or weedbeds. 

            When the water reaches 55-60 degrees, bass begin finding hard bottom areas made up of sand or small gravel to construct nests.  They also seek areas sheltered from the wind.  Males pick nest sites and fan out small debris with their tails.  During this time, females will use rubbing posts, or the bottom to bang themselves against to loosen up the roe, readying them for deposition.  When nests are ready, male’s court with a larger female by bumping and chasing until the female deposits her eggs into the nest. There is no problem with the eggs staying in the nest as they are adhesive. The male encourages the female to spawn on his nest sometimes having several females use the same nest.  A female largemouth contains 2000-7000 eggs per pound of body weight, but only deposits several hundred eggs in the nest at a time.   The male then simultaneously releases sperm or milt over the eggs.

            Spawning is thought to peak during the first full moon after the water temperature is sustained at 65 degrees, though spawning is known  to occur from temperatures of 50-80 degrees.  This variation in timing keeps entire year classes from being destroyed by adverse weather conditions.  Larger females tend to spawn the earliest.  This may be because they have had many years experience, and want to get to the best areas first to ensure the highest survival rates of their young. 

            Males usually pick nesting sites next to a stump, rock, or other object.  This gives him at least one side of the nest that is protected from predators such as bluegill, small fish, crawdads, and salamanders. After the female lays the eggs, they move back into deeper areas they accompanied during the pre-spawn.  The male guards the nest for 2-5 days, keeping the eggs oxygenated by fanning them with his tail.  This also removes waste, silt and other harmful debris from the nest.  After the eggs hatch, they will stay for another week, sustained by a yolk sac.  At the time of hatching, bass are only 3 to 5.4 mm in length. Fry, or young bass then swim together in large dark balls.  This gives them a large silhouette, which makes them less appealing to predators.  It also gives them safety in numbers.  Both of these factors increase their chance of survival. 

            The period after the spawn is known as the post spawn.  This is a time when bass are recovering from the strenuous spawning period.  Fish are lethargic and move very little at first.  Some fish will remain the rest of the summer in their spawning areas, but the majority will follow their same pre-spawn migration routes back out to main lake areas.  As bass bring their bodies back up to a good condition, and are rested, they start feeding often, and get into a regular pattern, feeding most heavily during low light conditions, and whenever an opportunity for an easy meal arises. 

            The next period in a bass’ year is the summer.  Bass move to areas that will sustain them throughout the warm months.  These areas usually consist of weedbeds, main lake points, or main lake ledges.  Deep-water areas are common places for summer bass.  Depending on the lake, deep-water areas are usually considered to be twelve foot deep, down to the thermocline, which is a stratification layer with an abundance of oxygen and comfortable temperatures. 

            In the fall, surface temperatures start to drop, until turnover takes place.  This is the period when stratification layers mix because of uniform water temperatures.  This negatively affects bass until the water stabilizes.  After the water stabilizes, water temperature continues to drop, bass feed heavily on baitfish, putting on energy reserves for the winter period.  Bass follow large schools of baitfish back through creek channels toward warmer water.  This time of year the only cover bass may relate to is the schools of bait.  They follow the schools, swimming underneath, then corralling them to the surface, and engaging on a feeding frenzy.  They eat until they look like footballs, feeding constantly, knowing they have little time left before winter.  Water temperature continues to drop until bass turn lethargic again, and they move back to their deep winter haunts.

            Understanding this cycle is detrimental to our success as anglers.  Not knowing these annual occurrences can be like hunting elk for days up in the high ranges of the rocky mountains when they have all actually migrated to the low country.

            One more piece of information I believe all of us should have a grasp on is the economic value of fishing, especially for black bass.  In a 1985 survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the largemouth bass was the most sought after  species in the U.S.  That number has undoubtedly grown since then.  The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) boasts over half a million members from 52 countries and 50 states.  The U.S. fishing industry accounts for three billion dollars each year and a huge part of this is due to the largemouth bass.  Anglers spend millions of dollars a year on tackle, rods, reels, line, maps, boats, fish finders and other equipment.

As a bass angler we need to be responsible, and thoughtful as we are in the public eye.  Do not litter, be respectful of all other anglers on the water, bass fishermen or not, because it will come back to haunt us if we don’t. Be knowledgeable of your quarry, and proud of your sport, because largemouth bass is America’s fish!

 

Bryan Honnerlaw  runs Okeechobee Outfitters, a professional guide service on Lake Okeechobee, Florida. He is in Florida November-mid May. He does instructional fishing in Ohio May-October, and tours on the BFL and Everstart tournament trails.  For those of you interested in learning in depth bass techniques and get hands on experience,  Okeechobee Outfitters offers a four-day bass fishing school, twice a year, on Lake Okeechobee.  One session is in April, and one is in November.  The school includes six guides in fully rigged tournament bass boats, classroom and on-the-water time, lodging, and a tournament where you make the decisions on day four.  For more information on this school or on guided or instructional trips in Florida, or Ohio,  call Okeechobee Outfitters at (937) 728-1344, or email at bassmastercull55@hotmail.com 
 

 

 

 

 

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05/29/05