You can mow down largemouths each summer at lakes filled with greenery if you know where bass lurk in the weeds and how to catch them.
Largemouth bass love grass and so do bass anglers, just not the kind that requires mowing Saturday mornings or that Bill Clinton didn’t inhale. Bassers’ favorite plants actually aren’t what normal people would classify as “grass.” Bass and bass chasers love lakes with weeds that grow from the bottom or at the surface.
In the South, the most common varieties of lake vegetation include hydrilla, Eurasean water milfoil, elodea, primrose, pepper grass, cordgrass (spartina), sawgrass, cattails and water lilies. Bassers just lump it all into one name — “grass.”
The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society and local fishing clubs actually have fought battles with municipalities and lake homeowners associations to keep them from killing grass in lakes and streams in order to save prime largemouth waters.
Why all the fuss from bass fishermen about water plants?
Habitat. Especially in the South, where summertime air temperatures can drive fish to deeper waters, lake grasses provide cooling shade and hiding places for baitfish. Such areas are bass magnets because they set the table and also provide prime ambush spots.
But at some lakes from Texas to Florida and north through Georgia and South Carolina, grass mats can cover acres of a lake’s surface and clog coves, making access to open water almost impossible. Downstream, excessive amounts of grass can clog water intakes at dams.
Heavy grass infestations also can be a puzzle for anglers who don’t use or know the specialized techniques and tackle needed to fish these waters.
Even though bass love to hide out in grass, they usually won’t chomp down on a lure that’s covered in slime or has hooks tangled in hydrilla or milfoil. Yet the best bass lakes and streams in the South have lots o’ grass.
For anglers, it’s like being given access to Fort Knox but no keys to the inner sanctum where they keep the gold.
One impoundment with plenty of grass year round is an Alabama water body that attracts Louisiana anglers every year — Lake Guntersville. At 69,100 acres, the Big G has hundreds of acres of floating milfoil, hydrilla and coontail. It’s so pervasive that mechanical harvesters cut swaths through the stuff at sections to allow boat passages.
But neither the town nor county will dump grass-killing chemicals in the lake to eradicate it. Why? Too many bass and too much cash (from anglers and national tournaments) growing in those weeds.
One local angler guide who has solved Guntersville’s grass mat puzzle is 52-year-old Birmingham native Jim Burks (www.bassinadventures.com, 252-582-5201). He also fishes other grassy lakes on the Tennessee River chain such as Pickwick, Wilson and Wheeler.
The main grasses in these lakes are milfoil, coontail and hydrilla, just as at most other Southern impoundments.
So what’s Burks’ solution for mining bass out of a salad-bowl?
Anglers can attack bass hiding in grass three ways — with plastic topwater rats or frog-imitation lures, by dropping weighted jigs or tube baits through holes in the greenery, or fishing the “edges.”
But perhaps a larger question for bass anglers at any lake with lots of grass is which plot of floating lawn to fish? Or should you fish grass at all?
One solution, said Burks, is to try the “edges,” just as if you were hunting white-tailed deer.
“Good places to try (at Guntersville) are the cut-throughs mowed in the grass,” Burks said.
If a lake has enough grass that mechanical harvesters have to clear paths for boats, Burks suggested trying these openings near dropoffs or where depth changes and bottom structure are evident. Finding clear channels with stumps and rocks on the bottom is ideal.
Fishing at these grassy, bassy superhighways also presents a variety of lure choices.
“I like to throw a hand-painted DD-22 or a Bandit 200 or 300 Series crankbait that runs 6- to 8-feet deep with 20-pound-test line,” Burks said. “I paint (the DD-22) like a Citrus Shad with a little more pearl color on the sides to make it look more like a shad.”
The absolute best situation, as at many riverine lakes with lots of vegetation, occurs when the lake authority — in Guntersville’s case, the Tennessee Valley Authority that controls the dam — allows water to pass through generators.
“That puts current in the lake and gets things to moving — baitfish then the bass,” Burks said. “(Bass) start looking for something to eat, I think, because baitfish may be moving away from them. So they’ll hit about anything you drag in front of them.”
So here’s a tip. Before you head to a lake with an operating dam, call to see if water’s being pulled through the turbines (or ask for the power-generation schedule).
For his choice of weapons to fish grass edges, Burks likes a Pfleuger Purist level-wind bait-caster mated to a 21-G Ultra-Strike Pro Series rod for crankbaits and jerkbaits.
“It’s really a lightweight rod that’s as sensitive and cheaper than G Loomis rods,” Burks said. “The Ultra-Strike rods were invented by the guy who invented Rejuvenade (livewell) additive.”
Burks also said he has a secret weapon lure that helps him catch bass when other anglers are working open water or near the edges of the grass beds.
“Everybody throws a Rat-L-Trap in the spring (at docks and in open water),” Burks said, “along with other lipless crankbaits. I’ve been going behind people throwing those lures and wearing them out with a lure called a Shakie Shad (by Strictly Bass Lures).
“The Shakie Shad is my favorite bait in late winter and early spring.”
A Shakie Shad actually resembles a Fat-free Shad or two even older balsa-wood tight-wiggle lures — a Little Cassie and a Baby Jerry — invented by Lexington, N.C.’s Jerry Lohr (David Fritts’ first crankbait supplier and guru).
During a half-day fishing trip earlier this spring, starting at 9 a.m., Burks said bass had pulled into 4- to 6-foot-deep water during the sunny morning.
“We caught eight fish, and the best five weighed about 14 pounds,” he said. “All but one were caught on the Shakie Shad in red shad color.”
The Shakie Shad, he said, is a flat-sided, plastic crankbait with a semi-buoyant 1/4-ounce body (containing rattles) and a diving depth of 5 1/2 feet.
“It’s got a tight, strong, erratic wobble that drives fish crazy,” Burks said. “These fish also have gotten lure-smart, so they probably are reacting to something different.”
When he uses a flippin’ stick to drop lures directly into grass mats, he prefers a XMB 755.5 8-foot-long graphite rod and a 1-ounce tungsten weight. His lures vary, but recently he’s discovered a new bait.
“I like to use a ReAction Innovation Sweet Creature (lure) in watermelon color,” Burks said. “It looks like a crawfish.”
He keeps the Sweet Creature and flippin’ rod at the ready because the normal grass drill is to make a cast with a frog or mouse and retrieve those lures back to the boat across the surface of matted grass.
However, because those lures are weedless to prevent hangups, what sometimes happens is a bass will blow a hole in the milfoil, trying to eat the frog or mouse, but only succeeds in knocking the lure a few feet into the air.
“That’s when you pick up the flippin’ rod and drop the creature bait into the hole the bass made,” Burks said.
He uses 65-pound-test Spiderwire spooled onto the reel of his flippin’ stick because a 4-pound bass dredged from the grass will be similar to hoisting a 35-pound red drum — the bass generally gets covered in milfoil and hydrilla before it reaches the surface.
“They feel like they weigh a ton with all that grass on ’em,” Burks said. “So you have to have some strong line that won’t break pulling all that weight.”
Before he reaches for his flippin’ rod, Burks’ frog- or rat-fishing rig is a Pfleuger Trion reel with a 4.3:1 cranking ratio and a Castaway East Texas Grass Rake GL610 rod that’s 6-feet, 10-inches long.
“I usually throw a Stanley Ribbit frog with a green top and white belly tied to 65-pound-test Spiderwire monofilament when I’m fishing on top of the grass,” Burks said.
A new grass lure anglers might try is the Zoom Horney Toad with cut-tail legs; it’s also weedless.
Lonnie Stanley, who invented the Ribbit frog, suggested putting a glass bead on the line in front of the lure to help break through thick cover and keep scummy vegetation off the hook’s eye.
Successfully fishing grass mats requires two characteristics that are tough to do in combination — focus and patience.
First, anglers must keep their concentration because skittering a lure across grass can be boring. Strikes often don’t occur immediately, which means repeated casts and retrieves. But anglers need to be totally focused on what they’re doing when a bucketmouth blows up on a plastic frog or rat like a great white shark smashing a gray seal.
At the same time, patience will be needed when a strike occurs — but not too much patience.
“Your instinct is gonna be to set the hook immediately when (a bass) blows up on you,” Burks said, “but that’s the wrong thing to do. If you do, you’ll just snatch the lure out of his mouth.
“You’ve got to give him a second to turn his head down, with the lure in his mouth, and let him go for the bottom before you set the hook. And you have to set the hook hard because the bass probably will have grass wrapped around the lure. So the hook has got to get through that stuff before you can get it into his jaw.”
Barry Maner, Burks’ fishing buddy who owns a house at Guntersville, said creeks near deep water that feature numerous boat docks and piers are also good spots if you get tired of skittering rats or frogs at grass mats.
If your favorite grassy lake has boat docks and piers, that’s also a good spot to try — if the coves where they’re located aren’t wrapped up in greenery.
Zell Rowland won a 2005 BASS tournament fishing Guntersville docks with a 3/8-ounce blue/black jig with a 3-inch black/blue YUM Big Claw trailer, a 1/2-ounce Cordell Spot and a 5 1/2-inch Smithwick Rogue jerkbait.
George Cochran won the same tournament a year earlier by “dead-sticking” a bone/green back jerkbait and Strike King Series 3 Diamond Shad lipless crankbait in scattered milfoil. He cranked the jerkbait down 5 feet, then let it sit motionless for as long as 10 seconds.
Bass, Cochran said, wouldn’t hit it without the pause. It was just a different retrieve that attracted their attention.
For reasons already noted, lake authorities or towns sometimes wipe out grass and ruin fisheries for a while. The good thing — for anglers — is that like coyotes, once grass gets established in a big water system, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.
And that means sooner or later, the bass fishing will rebound.
“After (Guntersville’s homeowners) eradicated the grass in the late 1980s and early ’90s, they realized they’d made a mistake,” Maner said. “A lot of people kicked up about it. So now they use the harvester just to keep things open at docks and piers.”
Maner said with the return of grass, anglers once again catch 10- 11- and 12-pounders, which gives a much-needed shot in the arm to local tourism. Anglers, who spend cash on rooms, food and lodging, flock to the lake to test their skills. Guntersville’s also a favorite BASS tourney site.
“Now you also see a lot of 6- and 7-pounders, too, which is unusual for a lake that gets this much pressure,” he said.
Freshwater fish species, particularly highly targeted largemouth bass, must have two of the mainstays of survival — food and shelter — to prosper.
That’s what grass provides. And where grass survives, bass will thrive. And that makes everybody happy, from the anglers to the chamber of commerce.