In his book, The Trophy Striper, Frank Daignault muses over how fishermen often claim, “The big bass are under the schoolies,” or, in another variation, “under the bluefish.” The common thread, he said, is that the biggest fish are on the bottom.
Of course, there are exceptions. Fishermen catch giant stripers on pencil poppers, surface swimmers, and walk-the-dog baits every year. There’s nothing I’d rather see than a big bass beating the surface into a foam chasing my topwater, but for every surfacesmashing cow, I believe there are more (and larger) bass that do their hunting along the bottom. And, in order to catch them, that’s where your lure must be.
I was reminded of this a few years back when I saw, firsthand, how a 1-ounce difference in lure weight led to a 30-pound difference in fish size.
I was fishing a current-swept sandbar with my friend, Dave. In the darkness, I assumed we were both throwing the same lure—a 7-inch, 1 ¾-ounce Super Strike Super ‘N’ Fish in yellow. The fish were making us work, giving only a couple hits an hour. As the tide was just beginning to move, I hooked a 20-pounder. About 40 minutes after that, when the current had picked up speed, Dave hooked a much better fish. The fight was one for the ages involving a screaming drag, a wrapped rock, and absolute certainty that the fish was lost when it swam at the beach so quickly that Dave’s line went totally slack. Battle over, the fish weighed 51 pounds, and after releasing it, Dave sat back and savored the moment.
I cast feverishly while Dave sat. After a halfhour, and zero hits, Dave began to fish again. On his first cast after the 51-pounder, he was tight to another drag-screamer that grabbed the lure at the edge of the sandbar and fled for Portugal.
I caught one more fish when the current slowed, and Dave had a couple more, but it was clear that the big fish had come and gone with the strongest part of the tide. Eventually the tide died, the fish left, and so did we. Back at the trucks, Dave set aside his plug for retirement, and that’s when I noticed that instead of the standard black eyes, it had red eyes—the color that Super Strike’s Steve Musso uses to differentiate heavier “loaded” needlefish from standard ones. Dave’s plug actually weighed 3 ounces, and was clearly sweeping closer to the sand—and the big stripers—than mine.
Larger bass are more reluctant to swim off the bottom for their meals. While fast-swimming baitfish like mackerel and bunker may inhabit the top half of the water column, slower-moving morsels like lobsters, scup, and blackfish stick to the depths. The largest of the big bass can find plenty to eat while keeping their bellies on the bottom. So, if you’re goal is catching one, that’s where you’ll need to get your lure.
Jigs are the obvious choice—but make sure you choose one that is heavy enough. Sometimes a jig that is too light will fail to get below the smaller, more aggressive stripers swimming near the surface. When looking for large fish, choose the heaviest jig that you can fish slowly without dragging bottom. The same goes for sinking plugs like needlefish. The heaviest plug that stays out of snags will give you the best shot at a big bass.
Most floating swimming plugs like darters, bottles, and metal lips cover the surface to 5 feet down very well, but only certain models reach depths beyond that. The demand for deeperdiving plugs in recent years has led to a surge in the popularity of “troller” metal lips. These plugs are designed to be trolled from boats, reaching greater depths, and swimming true in stronger currents than standard swimmers can handle. Fishermen can also “tune” their metal-lip swimming plugs to reach greater depths by bending up the line tie or swapping out the belly treble with a larger, heaver hook.