by David Lynch
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity—it’s also a description of the life of a Northeast swimbait fisherman. Throwing huge swimbaits for monster northeast largemouth can be a lonely, grueling, frustrating, and yet ultimately rewarding way to catch the bass of a lifetime.
Many anglers have dabbled in this type of fishing, but few stay committed to it; spending long fishless hours on the water is certainly not for everyone. However, those who do commit to fishing swimbaits will catch dramatically bigger largemouth bass.
The oversized swimbaits I’m referring to are 7- to 12-inch, 3- to 6-ounce baits designed to imitate any number of forage fish, such as rainbow trout, perch, herring, golden shiners and sunfish, and even rats and mice. No matter what the main forage is where you fish, there is a swimbait made to imitate it. Developing and maintaining the confidence that a largemouth will eat these huge baits can be the biggest hurdle to success.
Big Northeast bass will eat oversized swimbaits in a variety of conditions all season long. I was fortunate enough to catch and release the 2008 Massachusetts Gold Pin largemouth of 9 pounds, 6 ounces on two different occasions, on two different swimbaits. The first was on a cold, raw, and miserable April 27. The high temperature that day was 48 degrees, yet the 9-pound plus largemouth ate my 9-inch Rago Real Trout as I bounced it along the bottom in 22 feet of water. That was the first bass I had caught in more than 100 hours of swimbait fishing that season. On November 1 of that same year, the bass absolutely crushed a 9-inch Dark Trout MS Slammer over deep, open water. I believe the bass had been suspended in the water column, looking for trout cruising near the surface.
The key to catching that fish both times was simply staying dedicated to throwing nothing but big swimbaits. I have caught four bass heavier than 9 pounds, and all have been on swimbaits – this is definitely not a coincidence. My latest 9-plus pounder was caught on May 15, 2012. The fish hit on a hot, sunny, calm bluebird day, conditions many fishermen would consider tough. A Huddleston Deluxe fished off a woodcovered point in 25 feet of water proved irresistible to the 9-pound, 2-ounce largemouth. In case you’re wondering how a bass could eat an 8-inch, 4.5-ounce lure, I’ll have you know that bass had engulfed the bait so deep that it was not even visible when I landed the fish. The hit was just a light tap, similar to when a largemouth bass hits a jig. Big bass will aggressively eat these baits all year long.
The fascination with big baits and big bass started in Southern California in the early 1990s. About once or twice a year, there would be an article in one of the national bass magazines on the monster bass being caught there on huge trout imitatinglures. Some of these baits were soft, single-hook baits designed to swim through the water column or drag and jig along the bottom. Other baits were huge, jointed wooden plugs used to call lunker bass to the surface for what appeared to be a wounded trout dinner. As I would read and re-read those articles, I couldn’t help but think, “Why not here? Why wouldn’t these same baits catch huge bass?”
The more I thought about it, I realized there was no reason these same tactics couldn’t be successful here. A Southern California bass in a deep, clear trout pond is going to get big by supplementing their regular diet with stocked trout, same with a Massachusetts bass—but throwing these big baits is not limited to trout-stocked ponds. You can imitate whatever the large forage is where you fish. This is the key to consistent big-fish success. Herring, fallfish, eels, shiners, and sunfish are all abundant in waters throughout New England, and all are great food sources for bass to grow huge on. To me, the best way to catch these fish is with a swimbait.
The biggest obstacle to swimbait success is mental. Fishermen naturally want to catch fish, but totally dedicated swimbait fishermen do not worry about catching fish. A successful season for a swimbaiter could literally be one fish. You might spend a long day on the water, fish really well, yet still have nothing to show for it. The next time out, I can’t concern myself with whether or not my last trip was fishless. If my best shot for a big fish is to throw the same bait, in the same places, in the same manner, I will do that day after day, week after week, and know I will ultimately get rewarded. Throwing a 3- to 6-ounce bait in this manner is physically, and often mentally, grueling. It is easy to find a reason not to throw a swimbait—too hot, too cold, too sunny, too windy, too long between fish—the hard part is staying committed and not giving up on the dream of a giant swimbait-caught largemouth.
My favorite picture of a swimbait fish from Massachusetts is of Joe from Real Prey Swimbaits with an 8-plus-pounder that hit one of his prototypes. He is dressed like he is climbing Mount Everest, and there is a snow-covered hill in the background. It was certainly a day many would find an excuse not to fish at all, and most would definitely find an excuse to not throw a swimbait. Turns out Joe also caught an enormous 5-pound, 9-ounce smallmouth the same day, I believe solely because he was throwing big swimbaits.
When should one throw a swimbait? I say always. I always want to have a large lure with a big profile to target big fish. My first fishing trip this year was early March in a shallow, weedy pond with a herring run. Conventional bass-fishing wisdom suggests that a suspending jerkbait would be the bait of choice in these conditions. Wanting to throw a bigger swimbait, I threw a very slow sinking, 7.5-inch swimbait that could be worked in a jerk-and-pause cadence similar to a jerkbait. That day, the larger profile bait outfished all the conventional baits my fishing partner threw. I only caught two fish, but they were
a 7-pound, 2-ounce largemouth and a 5-pound, 11-ounce personal-best pickerel.
A large majority of the time, fishing a swimbait in those conditions will not yield any fish, but I always want a bigger bait to try to entice bigger fish. Tactics may change
depending on conditions and time of year, but in all situations, a big fish will move farther for a big lure.
How does one get started with this type of fishing? It can be intimidating for someone who has thrown conventional lures that average a ½-ounce to switch to throwing 4- to 6-ounce baits. It is not a style of fishing for everyone. I suggest trying it out with one or two baits before making a full-time commitment to big swimbait fishing. I believe only two baits are required to start out with an 8- to 9-inch soft swimbait to work along the bottom and a wakebait somewhere in the 9-inch range. The best known of those baits are probably the Huddleston Deluxe and MS Slammer. There are plenty of alternatives, but a big topwater and big swimming bait that can be worked on or near the bottom are essential.
If you really want to get into swimbait fishing after trying it out. You can invest in different style baits for different situations. There are the Osprey and Optimum baits for fishing a bit faster in the middle of the water column. A Lunker Punker is a versatile, walk-the-dog type topwater that is great on a number of different species and is just a fun lure to fish.
Tackle and Technique
You might be wondering why, this far into an article on swimbaiting, I haven’t touched on tackle or technique. It’s not that these aren’t important considerations, I just think mentally committing to this style of fishing is of utmost importance. For swimbait fishing, a round baitcasting reel works best. There are solid ones, like the Shimano Cardiff, that are fairly short money. For topwater and wakebaits, a 300-size reel works great, while for heavier bottom-bumping swimbaits, I like a 400 size with greater line capacity and a bit more power. You will want to have the drag set moderately for topwaters, but for bottom-bumping baits, your drag should be set tight—once a fish is hooked on this type of swimbait, your goal is to get it in the boat as quickly as possible to keep it from throwing the hooks.
For the 4- to 6-ounce baits, you’ll want an extra-heavy swimbait rod and 20- to 25-pound-test monofilament. A heavy action rod with a fast taper works well, but always check the rod specifications to see what size lures they are designed to handle. I also use 20-pound monofilament for my topwaters, but I want a rod with a bit more give for that type of fishing. Braided line will work for topwater baits, if you prefer the feel of braid.
Swimbait technique is simple, just throw it out and reel it in very slowly and very steadily. Deepwater baits are crawled slowly and steadily along the bottom, even jigged for lethargic cold-water bass. I prefer to fish “uphill,” casting to deeper water and retrieving the bait to shallower water, as this is the best way to keep contact with my lure and the structure it is going through.
Wakebaits should be worked as slowly as possible on top. Some very good fishermen I know like to swim certain wakebaits subsurface, but I believe in waking them. This way, fish don’t get a good look at the bait; all they see is a baitfish struggling along the surface.
For subsurface presentations, I prefer a slower-sinking Huddleston or an Osprey or Optimum bait.
Make multiple casts at productive areas, hitting a point from different angles and approaching cover from different directions. Often, showing a fish a different look
at the bait can trigger the bite. One exception would be in cold water, when bass are lethargic. Here, a slow-sinking swimbait that can be ripped, pulled and then stopped can be deadly. Bass will generally hit this bait on the fall.
I tend to fish slower and deeper than fishermen using conventional lures. Bottom-bumping swimbaits excel in 15 to 30 feet of water, especially in clear water. Points, wood, rock and sharp drop-offs are great places to target. A sharp drop-off with an adjacent flat can be a prime target for big fish to move up and feed on top. The sharper the drop, the likelier a big fish will make that area its home year round. Weedbeds rising near the surface can be a deadly area for a big wakebait.
As I mentioned, big bass will strike big swimbaits all year long. Cold-water jigging can be done with a weedless swimbait; I like the 6-inch Huddleston for this.
Night fishing from spring through fall can also produce huge bass. There’s no need to throw a bunch of baits – a wakebait for topwater, an Osprey for running over the top of cover, and a 3:16 Mission Fish swimbait to bounce along the bottom are all that is really needed.
Any area with lunker potential should be revisited often. Sometimes it is just a matter of being on that spot when a big fish is on the prowl for a big meal. It is not necessary to cover a lot of water – focus on prime areas and fish them thoroughly.
I highly recommend using a net; I hate hearing stories of huge fish that throw the hook while thrashing around at the side of the boat. Chances are, if the fish was that close it could have been netted.
Finally, I would like to stress the importance of being prepared to catch the biggest bass of your life. It is important to release these fish alive to reproduce, and maybe even be caught again. You should be ready to weigh, measure, photograph and possibly transport a huge bass. Having a camera, tripod (for solo pictures), scale, measuring tape and a livewell always available is a must. I go a few steps further and carry a certified scale and an affidavit for the Massachusetts Freshwater Sportfishing Awards, and I have local weigh stations programmed into my car’s GPS. You are fishing for the bass of a lifetime, so do not let that moment go by without being able to document your accomplishment.