Every angler’s dream is to catch a big bass, yet very few actually fish specifically for them, and unfortunately most anglers quickly lose faith in their abilities when fishing becomes tough and few fish are caught. When this happens they invariably change tactics and begin fishing for anything that bites, even if it is the small dinks that give them confidence because they are at least catching something.
Fishing for big bass is like fishing for a completely different species - your whole mindset needs to be altered and you need to be comfortable with not catching a lot of fish. In addition you need to be focused all the time and have confidence in your tackle and your abilities.
Many of the big bass chasers in the USA will fish alone for trophy bass because in their opinion big bass are much smarter than the smaller bass that most anglers target and which are also more alert to the anglers on the water. A lot of care is taken to ensure their boats are quiet, that they don’t slam hatches or drop things on the deck. Many of the trophy bass are also taken off small boats. They even go as far as wearing clothes that are not as visible to the fish so bright red sponsor shirts and caps are out and khaki and camos are in. The “stealth approach” can go as far as turning off fish finders so as not to spook the bass in any way.
I did not think much of all this until I really put some thought into the biggest of the bass that I have caught - all of which were off a small boat propelled only by a sneaker motor and I was alone on all three occasions. Big bass hunters also believe that fishing off a big boat with big outboard motor is too much of a temptation to speed off to a new destination every time you feel the area you are in is fishless, instead of persevering in the area where you are aware that big bass do exist.
Big bass seem to prefer a very slow finesse presentation and are not necessarily caught on big baits. I have caught 4 bass in the past few years or so of over 5kg – three were caught on 4-inch finesse worms and the fourth on a Junior Fluke. But that’s not to say that big bass won’t take big baits – it’s just that your chances of eliminating the small fish are far better on big baits. If you think back to the big bass that you have caught many of you will recall that you were eating a sarmie or lighting a cigarette or taking a break - basically you were not fishing the way you normally would; you slowed down and gave that big old lazy fish the opportunity to check out your bait .Big bass chasers in the USA believe that big bass like to examine their food and will often approach it a couple of times before engulfing it in a single swallow, and are usually not moving when this happens - and that is why the bite of a big bass is unlike the machine gun type bite or the pick up and run of the smaller bass. You may also recall that the moment you fish lighter tackle the lunkers jump on and bust you up. I have caught the majority of my big bass on line of 10lb and lighter.
When I talk of big bass I am talking of bass that are over 4.5kg as bass up to 4.3kg I have caught on line up to 20lb. I believe that these bass have the intelligence to recognize a line as a threat and a lighter, less visible line such as my confidence line, 6lb or 8lb Toray fluorocarbon, has been my choice for hunting big bass. Of course I use this in areas that don’t have too much structure such as Goedetrouwe Dam. It would be very unwise to fish Nandoni or Maguga dams with such light line.
Searching for big bass.
Not all dams have an abundance of big bass - if it is big bass you are hunting then you need to go where the big bass live, so research the dams in your area and find out about history of big fish in each of them. I find the best way to do this is to grab my collections of SA Bass magazines and in the “Readers Go Bassing” section work out where most of the big fish pics come from. Also look at the pics themselves and try to identify the spots the pics were taken from. What I’ve managed to work out from just opening a couple of issues is that the majority of big bass in KZN come from Inanda Dam and second is either private dams or Goedetrowe Dam. Inanda Dam may be on top of the list because it is fished more regularly than most of the others in the area, yet our biggest fish not only in the province but also in the country have come from Midmar and recently from Nagle Dam. My personal choice of big fish dams in KZN in order are Nagle, Goedetrowe, Midmar, Inanda and then Albert Falls, but I believe that all of these dams have the potential to produce record fish.
Big bass are however more threatened now than ever before. Too many fish are being removed from the dams that have the potential to become really big. When anglers catch their PB’s these often end up at home on the wall. People are still under the impression that the actual fish is required for a replica rather than the measurements and a photo. Because of the nature of a big bass needing to inspect the prey that they eat, they are more often caught by bank anglers fishing with earthworms or live bait. These big bass are then eaten for lunch without the angler even realizing how sought after such a trophy is in the bassing fraternity.
As an example I grew up with access to a farm dam in Boston and I when was about 12 years old, fishing with a tadpole spinner (my favourite lure at the time) with a cheap bright yellow solid glass rod, I hooked into a monster that actually broke my line but I managed to grab the line in my hand and get the fish to the edge. I made a lot of noise and got the attention of a nearby farmer on his tractor who gave me a lift together with my bass to the house where we weighed the bass on a kitchen scale, and it tipped the scale at 4.8 -something kilograms. I was excited and many of the farmers in the area came to see the fish, which I kept alive in a reservoir nearby the house. Had I been involved in bass fishing back then I would have been sporting the South African record, but back then I was clueless! The point of the story is that big fish have indeed been caught - we’ve all heard the stories - but those who are uninformed or just grateful that their catch will feed the whole family often catch them.
Research shows that the majority of lunkers are caught in winter or in pre spawn when bass are either full of food and fat reserves or full of eggs. Big bass tend to be the first to either move deep for the winter or move onto the spawning beds. So the time of the year is as important as the place. It’s not unusual for big bass hunters in the USA to occupy a good spot for three months of the year during the spawn or winter, knowing that this is their best chance at taking a record, fishing every day from sunrise to sunset and even into the night if the water they are fishing allows night fishing.
Finding bass on nests is the easiest way to locate big bass but you need to target the deeper nests rather than those in the shallows. Good polaroids and experience are essential for spotting nests. Big bass will normally occupy nests closer to areas that have deep water nearby so that once the spawn is over they can move straight into the depths to rest.
Bigger baits may be more effective during the spawn and irritate the bass into biting rather than the bass wanting to feed on it. Swim baits such as the ZMAN Water Hawk 1oz spinnerbaits, 10-inch worms and big top water baits such as tango dancers or Wake Shads can also be effective, but slow down in your presentations and use longer pauses in your retrieve. Be aware of natural migration routes where a bass will move from a shallow to a deep area as these can be productive target areas. Also know where the deep-water structures are as most bass when disturbed will head straight for such areas. Avoid areas frequented by many anglers and rather target areas that others avoid.
Think like a hunter when targeting big bass - focus on your surrounds, take note of fish busting up in shallows, movements in the reeds or ripples on the surface. Keep an eye on where the baitfish are heading and imagine where you would ambush them if you were a bass. Don’t just rush into the cast if you spot something - think about your cast and make sure you are in the right position to make the cast as effective as possible. Big bass are easily spooked, so practice your casting so that they are spot on and get the action of the bait right first time. Make sure the bait is sitting properly on the hook and that it is swimming properly, and then set the hook right first time as big fish will only give you one chance and you need to take it when it is offered.
Check your knots after every fish and after it has passed through structure retie it if it looks at all suspect, and keep an eye on your drag, particularly after you have baited up as I have seen guys forget that they loosened it to thread the line through the guides. Big bass have an uncanny ability to bite when things are not right with your tackle. Your chances of landing big fish will be greatly increased if your tackle is looked after and of good quality.
Most of my big fish have come when I’ve least expected it - the first fish I caught, that I still call my biggest ever even though I had to estimate the weight by using measurements and not a scale, was caught at Nagle Dam. Iit was December a couple of years back fishing off an inflatable with just a sneaker motor, a couple of worms, one fishing rod and an Abu Garcia reel spooled with 10lb Berkley Big Game line - no camera, no scale, no landing net and no clue what I was in for! Fishing a 4-inch Finnesse worm in Watermelon I had landed a number of dinks and the guys who had accompanied me with their own little craft were struggling to get bites and asked for one of the baits I was using. So I cast in and let the lure hit the bottom and left it alone while I scratched around in my boat that was half full of water for a bait to toss over to the guys on the other boat. It took me a while and just as I was about to move the boat closer I lifted the rod and felt a soft but heavy “thunk!” almost as if I had got snagged in a tree or something, but as the saying goes “striking is for free” and I set the hook. For a couple of seconds I did believe I was snagged but the line started coming up slowly, feeling more like a plastic bag than a fish. There was very little resistance until the fish surfaced, took one look at me and headed back into the depths where it remained for at least 5 minutes but which felt like hours. Anyway I finally boated the beauty - not easy without a net – and only then did I realize the size of the fish and almost cried when I realized no scale and no camera! The thought did cross my mind about taking her home and having her weighed on the kitchen scale, but her bulging eyes and pure beauty got the better of me and I knew she was going back into the water regardless. As I was about to release her the guy on the other boat called out: “hey don’t you want a pic?” Was I ever so grateful someone had thought to bring a camera! We took a few pics and measured on the boat the length of the fish turned out to be 74cm and roughly 50cm round the belly. But that’s what happens if you are not prepared, so now on my boat I know where the scale is, I have pliers, I have a tape measure and the net is always within reach. What may have turned out to be a record fish ended up back in the water with me always wondering if it was!
Most of my other fish over 5kg have been caught in similar fashion. At Inanda about three months after the fish at Nagle I fished hard all day on the small inflatable and caught a few decent size bass in the region of 3kg but nothing great. I made my way back to the picnic site via Dusi Point but needed to organize myself a bit before calling it a day. The wind was blowing a bit so I tied the boat to a tree and put in a cast. I was also fishing a 4-inch finesse worm on a split shot rig and the same 10lb line that I had caught he last fish on. I let the bait sit there while I packed everything away again for a good four or five minutes before I picked up the rod. I turned the reel once and felt the weight of the fish load up onto the rod and unlike my first fish it really took some time to land. I had a scale and a net and a camera but no one to help me, but “luckily” my boat leaks heavily and there was enough water in the boat for the bass to be happy in while I rushed off to the bank where a youngster took some pics for me and I released the fish, which weighed just over 5.1kg.
The very next weekend I went back to the dam and straight to the tree and put a cast on it with a June Bug Baby Fluke and was straight into the same fish, only it now weighed 5.2kg and still had a tail of a tilapia sticking out its throat. I had pics of fish on both occasions and loaded them onto my lap top which was unfortunately stolen a couple of days after - the lap top meant nothing to me but the pics were priceless!
Over the past few years I have caught numerous bass over 4kg and a few over 5kg, but I do spend a lot of time on the water and there is no substitute for that if you want to catch big fish - you need to put in the time and the more you catch, the more you learn. Catching big fish during the week as opposed to weekends is much easier, and over the next year or two I hope to figure out a way to change this, but I don’t think it’s going to be that easy. I also need to get past the mental block of just going out to catch fish instead of going out to target big fish. Competitions have a lot to do with one’s state of mind - your main aim in a comp is to get limit and big fish are a bonus.
There are records to be broken in our dams, and if you are willing to put in the time and target them specifically, your chances will be better than just hoping for a lucky fish while out fishing your normal patterns.