SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
August 19, 1963
An eminent biologist explains why anglers should not be penalized by needless regulations on the largemouth bass and offers reliable fishing tips
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 19, 1963

This Is The Fish You Can't Catch Too Many Of

An eminent biologist explains why anglers should not be penalized by needless regulations on the largemouth bass and offers reliable fishing tips

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

"The only places where fish-eating birds do damage is in hatcheries or in trout streams where there are concentrations of hatchery-reared trout that have been stocked. And, of course, both of these are artificial situations."

Water temperature plays a major role in governing the life of bass. With the approach of winter, they become quiescent. "You're dealing with a coldblooded animal that just can't function well when it's cold," Dr. Bennett says. "A bass is dormant because of the low temperatures. A bass's temperature is the temperature of the water, and until the water gets above 60�, bass are not active. Their metabolic systems are slowed down by cold, their digestion works slowly, the nervous system is slow. Smallmouths apparently hibernate, in a sense, in the winter. They have a tendency to pile up in crevices or logs. Largemouths don't generally follow that procedure. They tend to concentrate in deep water toward the bottom. But they don't stop feeding. The bass will still grab a minnow, but then the bass might take 10 days to two weeks to digest it. When you ice fish, weight a live minnow and lower it to the bottom. Then lift it up a few inches. The minnow can't move around because it is restricted and so the bass doesn't have to move quickly to get it. It's mainly a matter of finding where the fish are concentrated. You look for the deep pockets."

The water temperatures also have an effect on the life expectancy of largemouths. "The higher the temperature, the shorter the life of the bass," Dr. Bennett says. "It's just as though you wound them up quickly, and they ran down fast. A real southern largemouth—I'm not speaking of the Florida largemouth, but of the Louisiana bass—probably has a shorter life span than he would have here in central Illinois. They live to 8, 9, 10. Here bass live to 10, 12, maybe 13, at the maximum. A northern largemouth, one in northern Wisconsin or northern Michigan, lives to 14 or 16. The smaller fish, like bluegills and crappies, have shorter lives. Most bluegills here die at 4, some live to 6. You can't accumulate fish by just letting them live."

Dr. Bennett rates the largemouth as the most intelligent of freshwater fish. "Smallmouths," he says, "are not as smart. They are so excitable and high-strung that they'll actually die of fright in an aquarium from sudden exposure to light." Largemouths can often be caught on a lure they have never seen before. They are inquisitive, and their curiosity may get the better of them. "There was a spinner lure that had never been used in Ridge Lake," Dr. Bennett says, "so a man here tried it, and he caught 52 bass in one day. He tried it again, and he got hardly anything. The bass had learned. It's a matter of education. They become aware of what's going on and respond accordingly. For instance, the first morning of opening day here, the rate of catch is a half to one pound of bass per man hour. By afternoon, that is reduced by at least half. By the third day, the fishing is as bad as it ever gets. On the average, it takes one man 10 hours to catch one pound of bass. The bass have learned."

Educated bass are sometimes the reason why fishermen complain that a pond has been fished out. "A fished-out pond usually contains bass," Dr. Bennett says. "Nine-tenths of the time the fishermen just can't catch them. One pond on which we worked belonged to a fishing club of the Owens-Illinois Glass Company. There were several hundred members. They actually overfished the pond, but even then they didn't overfish the bass. The fishing pressure was heavy, about 1,500 man hours per acre per season. The ideal is 50 to 60 man hours per acre per season. The pond was small enough so that a good bait caster could reach every part of it without moving. Yet that pond contained 12 bass that were two to six pounds and several hundred bass of catchable smaller size. But they couldn't be caught at all. What you do is let them alone one winter, and they'll be hot to bite in the spring."

Even though bass soon become wary of lures and baits, there are three, according to the statistics compiled at Ridge Lake, that are generally effective. These are, in order, a blue jig, a yellow popper and a nightcrawler on a harness. Uninformed bass fishermen avoid the color blue in lures. Back in the '30s, Frank A. Brown of the Illinois Natural History Survey conducted experiments on vision in bass. He discovered that their vision was comparable to that of human vision through a strong yellow filter. Consequently, bass have the poorest vision at the blue end of the color spectrum. And that is possibly why the blue jig is so successful. "The bass can't determine what it is," Dr. Bennett says. "It's difficult for him to see it. So he'll go up to take a swipe at it to satisfy his curiosity. Our experience here with the blue jig is that it is far superior to anything else. It is better in the spring than at other times, but it is generally good the year round. A smallmouth will pick up a blue jig when it's right on the bottom. Why any self-respecting bass would do that I don't know. The best way to fish smallmouths is just to put the blue jig on the bottom, let it stay there for 30 seconds, then pull it up a couple of feet and let it settle again. Now, a largemouth will want that blue jig moving just as fast as you can crank your reel. And while you're doing that, raise your rod tip at intervals so it moves in an underwater wave."

For surface lures, poppers are more effective than plugs. Bright yellow is the most effective color for a popper, and after that, the best colors are red, brown, black and white. For a plug, red and white is the best color combination. Plugs are not as deadly as poppers, but the bigger bass tend to hit plugs more readily. "I knew a painter—he's dead now—who fished strip mines," says Dr. Bennett. "He caught more big bass than anyone I know. He used big, deer-hair bugs with lots of colors. He made the bugs himself. He'd cast one out and let it sit just like a bale of hay. He'd let it sit for 5 minutes. Then he'd give it a little twist and let it lie again, worrying those big bass onto the hook. Most of the bass he caught ranged from four and a half to six pounds. He never caught more than two on a trip, but over the season he caught more big bass than anyone else.

"You know there are fishermen who consistently take fish. As I said, our records show that 10% catch 80% of the fish. First of all, they handle their tackle well. They are able to hit where they want to hit. That's a simple matter of practice. But from then on, it's a matter of an extra little something—the certain twitch you can give a popper or the way the lure is presented. There's an indefinable something that makes the bass decide to strike or not to strike."

By far the most effective live bait are nightcrawlers. The worms far surpass minnows, crickets, grasshoppers and crayfish. A nightcrawler in a harness of three hooks is the most consistently successful live bait.

As every bass fisherman knows, there are times when the bass just will not bite. When this happens, Dr. Bennett suggests, "Take a flat board and shake them up by whacking the water. Go out and make a lot of noise. The fish will be curious. Pull the boat away for 5 minutes, and then go back in and catch bass. It works on some occasions." But exactly why bass bite or do not bite is a question that eludes even Dr. Bennett. It may be that the hot biting periods are associated with the availability of some food organism in the water. But then, Dr. Bennett is not certain. "There's nothing very consistent," he says. "That's why fishing is interesting."

1 2 3