Back seat bassin’

(Photo by John N. Felsher)

Catching fish from the rear of the boat can be a pleasant surprise when you pay attention and take advantage of your own largemouth fishing strengths.

Most anglers, especially tournament bass anglers, prefer to occupy the front of a boat because they control the action. However, practically everyone who ever fished, including most legendary pros, spent some time fishing from the back of a boat. 

For example, one young angler joined a local bass club and fished as a “co-angler” or “non-boater” — tournament parlance for someone without a boat who fishes from the back of another person’s craft. This young fellow watched the “boaters,” the people who used their own boats and fished from the front. He learned everything he could from them as he fished in the back of their boats.

The next year, the 17-year-old angler showed up to tournaments with his own boat and won the club Angler of the Year title, the first of many accolades he would accumulate over the years. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He goes by the name Kevin VanDam.

“At 16, I joined the Kal Valley Bass Club and fished as a non-boater for the first year,” recalled VanDam, who won four Bassmaster Classics including two in New Orleans. “We never went more than 30 miles from my home in Kalamazoo, Mich., but fishing the club was a great experience. What really helped me most in the beginning was that we fished with a different club member in every tournament. That’s the best way to learn. Fish with as many different people as possible.”

Fishing in front holds many advantages, like controlling the boat position and getting the first cast at bass. However, controlling the boat can turn into a nightmare, particularly on a windy day. As the boater struggles to maintain position with the trolling motor, the co-angler can concentrate on catching fish. 

Mike Wurm, a professional bass angler, and Jonathan Newton, another professional bass angler, fish near a dock. People fishing from the back of a boat can hit cover from various angles. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Battling the wind

Keith Lott, owner of Lott Lures, shows off a bass he caught on one of his buzzbaits while fishing from the back of a boat. Although most people fish from the front of their boats, the back seat can offer some advantages. People without boats must rely upon invitations from other anglers to fish. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

“As a boater, wind can be your friend or it could be a curse,” explained Donny Davis of Livingston, who fished numerous tournaments as both a boater and co-angler and won an American Bass Anglers event at Toledo Bend as a co-angler. “The boater needs to control that boat. In a big place like Toledo Bend on a windy day, that can be challenging. The co-angler doesn’t need to worry about controlling the boat or anything else, but catching fish.”

As someone without a boat who spends considerable time fishing from the back of a boat, I know that spot can also hold some advantages. From the back of the boat, co-anglers can watch everything the boater does. Observe how the boater fishes, what lure and color that person throws. Watch how that person works the bait. Everyone loves their favorite lures and techniques, but an observant co-angler might learn something completely new.

“For me, the advantages of fishing out of the back of the boat outweigh the disadvantages,” Davis remarked. “People can learn a lot by watching how other people fish. We get to see their strengths, which might not be our own strengths. I’ll ask them questions and watch how they read the water. I like to see how they work through certain situations.”

Of course, the boater sets the pace, picks the spot to fish and determines the technique of the day. Both anglers might enjoy completely different fishing styles, but the co-angler must adjust to whatever the boater wants to do. That also can become an advantage at times.

“People who fish from the back of the boat need to learn how to adapt to fishing with the different styles of various other people,” VanDam advised. “One person may fish like I do — burning up the water. The next person might like to drag a worm over the same spot for a long time. Both techniques can be very effective. People who fish together share ideas and learn new techniques from each other.”

One day, Davis watched his boater throw a Spybait, something he had never tried. Somewhat like a suspending jerkbait, but with front and rear props, it makes an excellent presentation in clear water for enticing non-aggressive fish.

“My boater was seeing fish out in open water with his electronics,” Davis noted. “He would say, ‘The fish are 50 feet out and 10 feet deep.’ He’d drop the Spybait on the spot and count it down.”

On another occasion, Davis fished a Toledo Bend tournament as a co-angler. On this frosty day, bass stayed in deep water and didn’t want to chase anything fast. Also, in the frigid conditions, they wanted small, subtle offerings.

Shaw Grigsby, a professional angler and national television show host, lands a bass he caught while fishing from the back of his boat around weedy cover. Note the Power-Pole anchor poles holding the boat in place. (Photo by John N. Felsher)
John N. Felsher shows off a bass he caught on a topwater bait while fishing with Keith Poche, a professional bass angler who grew up in Louisiana. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Learning the hard way

“I’m a power fisherman,” Davis revealed. “I like to go fast, but the co-angler is at the mercy of whatever the boater wants to do. My boater started throwing a little open-hook jighead tipped with a 2.5-inch swimbait. He was dragging it very slowly, something I hardly ever do. He was smoking me with that little bait! Eventually, he gave me one and I caught my limit, but if I had been a boater or fishing by myself, I probably would never have caught those fish.”

Even when a boater gets hot on fish, never duplicate exactly what that person does. Try a similar bait, but maybe a slightly different size or color variation. Even with identical baits, just a subtle change in the retrieval cadence could produce better action. Sometimes, fishing with a bigger or smaller weight changes how a lure sinks, which could make a difference. 

When the boater isn’t catching bass after bass, try something completely different. For instance, if the boater fishes a spinnerbait, throw a jig or worm. Putting dissimilar bait types or colors in the water can help determine patterns. Forced to do something different, a co-angler might even discover a new pattern few other fishermen considered. 

“I never want to duplicate exactly what the other person is doing,” Davis said. “I always try to do something a little bit different. I’ll throw a different kind of bait or work it a different way. No matter how good a fisherman is, nobody is going to catch every bass.”

Regardless of bait selection, always look for “new water.” Watch where the boater places a bait, then hit a different spot. When fishing a shoreline or shallow cover, boaters typically throw forward and hit one side of an object. For whatever reason, bass might favor a different spot. Perhaps the sun hits that spot a certain way or a little current creates a tiny eddy that holds fish. Maybe underwater structures attract bait. Bass on the other side of that cover might never see the boater’s lure.

“People could fish the best lures in the world, but if they fish in the wrong place, they won’t catch anything,” quipped Bill Dance, a legendary angler. “Even a bad lure fished at the right depth will catch some fish.”

In tidal south Louisiana, water flow changes direction frequently. Current might position fish on one side of an object in the morning and the reverse a few hours later. With the entire back deck as a casting platform, a co-angler can make repeated casts at various angles without disturbing the boater. 

Becky Smith lands a bass that hit a crankbait while she fished from the back of a boat. Not everyone can afford to own a boat so they depend upon someone else taking them fishing. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Try a different angle

“Boaters throw at certain angles as they approach cover,” Davis explained. “If we’re coming up to a fallen tree, I will throw something from the back of the boat at a completely different angle. Whether fishing from the front of the boat or the back, casting at different angles has helped me over the years. If I’m catching fish by hitting cover from a different angle, often, the boater turns around to fish that stretch of bank from the other direction.”

When fishing Louisiana bayous and canals, most anglers toss at the shorelines or visible cover, but they could literally turn their backs on the best honey holes. Fish commonly stay in deeper water, particularly during temperature extremes. Bass holding in the middle of a bayou might seldom see lures. While the boater beats the banks and blowdowns, work a worm or jig along the deep bottom contours or reel a deep-running crankbait through the middle of the bayou. Simply dragging a Carolina rig, Texas-rigged worm or similar bait behind the boat can cover huge tracts of rarely fished water and catch fish few others think to tempt.

When fishing in deep water, boat position doesn’t matter as much. Over a hump or a ledge or when probing a deep brush pile and other structure, the boat stern could just as likely sit over the best spot as the bow.

Besides controlling the boat and everything else, boaters also owe some things to their co-anglers. Front-enders need to leave their back-seaters some room to fish. Good boat partners communicate with each other so they can both catch their share of fish.

“We get to see all kinds of different personalities when fishing tournaments,” Davis commented. “I’ve had some great boaters, but some want to hog the water. For the most part, I’ve gotten along with my boaters and I’m still friends with many of them. Fishing as a co-angler has been a great experience and that’s why I still do it.”

About John Felsher 20 Articles
John N. Felsher is a professional freelance writer and photographer with more than 1,700 articles in more than 117 magazines to his credit.