Most largemouth bass anglers have a love/hate relationship with aquatic vegetation, and understandably so. Stout rods and heavy line are the norm for this type of fishing, and it’s often difficult to keep vegetation from snagging on your lures. Figuring out where the bass are in the midst of acres of similar-looking aquatic plants is a challenge, and getting fish to the boat once you hook them is another.
However, there is a lot to love about the stuff. For one, on any given day there are usually some bass to be found in and around aquatic vegetation, and often big ones. By far, the heaviest largemouth bass I have caught, and seen, have been in aquatic vegetation. Additionally, this type of bass fishing is just plain fun—watching a 6-pound bass barrel through five feet of green stuff to blow up on your lure is a thrill you won’t soon forget.
You may have noticed by now that I am not referring to these aquatic plants as “weeds”, like many anglers do. This is on purpose because the word “weed” implies that these beneficial and needed plants are unwanted and harmful. Aquatic plants are just the opposite of a “weed” and provide critical habitat for largemouth bass and other fish. Aquatic plants provide cover from predators, shelter from the sun, feeding opportunities, and spawning habitat, to mention just a few of their benefits. Additionally, they provide many important functions in aquatic ecosystems including nutrient uptake, protecting shorelines from erosion, and providing habitat for aquatic insects.
There are two main types of aquatic vegetation, submergent and emergent. Submergent aquatic vegetation are plants that grow completely below the water’s surface. Examples include eelgrass, milfoil, and many native species of Potamogeton, which some anglers refer to as cabbage. Emergent aquatic vegetation are plants that some portions of which grow above the water’s surface. Examples include lily pads, rushes, and arrowhead.
Largemouth bass can usually be found in shallow water any given day, and more than likely they will be drawn toward some sort of cover—be it wood, rocks, or vegetation. In water bodies that contain aquatic vegetation, it is almost certain that some of these shallow bass will be found in it. Of course, not all vegetation is created equal. Numbers and sizes of bass will depend on a number of factors including access to deep water, prevalence of baitfish, and the types of vegetation present.
Finding Bass in Aquatic Vegetation
Coming into a cove loaded with aquatic vegetation can be overwhelming. Depending on the size of the water body, you could be confronted with acres of similar-looking plants. There are two ways to attack such a situation. The first is to simply start power fishing, making as many casts as quickly as you can and hoping it will increase the odds of casting toward a willing fish.
The second way, and the one I prefer, is to take a slower and more methodical approach. I initially keep my distance from the vegetation and take a few minutes to survey the situation before beginning to fish. Is all the vegetation the same or is there a mixture of different varieties? Changes in vegetation often indicate differences in bottom type and are key areas to find bass. I also look for any holes in emergent vegetation that might show where a bass previously ambushed prey, and for other sources of cover mixed in with the vegetation. Rocks, fallen trees, and stumps combined with aquatic vegetation are prime areas for largemouths.
Is all the vegetation shallow or are there some pockets in deeper water as well? It is often a safe bet that a bass or two will call a small patch of vegetation in the middle of open water home. Anglers fishing in this type of cover in relatively shallow water often don’t think about the effect of depth on bass location. Well, think again, because even changes of mere inches in depth or the presence of slight channels can often be enough to congregate bass in good numbers.
After analyzing the area of aquatic vegetation in front of me, I take my time and pick the cover apart, focusing on specific areas, then casting very methodically and thoroughly. When getting a hit, note the vegetation attributes where you got your fish. Finding a pattern while fishing is always important, but it is absolutely critical when successfully fishing for largemouth bass in vegetation.
Boat movement while fishing in vegetation should be slow and cautious. Emergent vegetation moves each time you do, often far beyond the length of the boat. Try to minimize trolling motor use and use the wind to help you move along. A push pole can be very helpful, especially when fishing in very thick vegetation.
Rods, Reels and Line
Dependable rods, strong line, and reels with good drags are needed when fishing in aquatic vegetation. You might have noticed I said “strong” line and not “thick.” Thin and strong lines are the norm these days. I rig most of my baitcaster and spinning reels with either 30-pound-test Spiderwire Stealth Braid or 30-pound-test Original Fireline. Both work great at slicing through the vegetation and hauling bass out from their hidden homes. When I feel a leader is necessary, such as when pitching jigs in clear water, I use 4 to 5 feet of 20-pound-test Trilene fluorocarbon. For spinnerbaits and buzzbaits, I suggest using a rugged monofilament such as Trilene XL Armor Coated monofilament.
Reels for this kind of fishing need to be well built. I have been pleased with the performance of my Orra SX30 spinning and Revo STX-HS baitcaster reels (both by Abu-Garcia). Other good reels to try include Quantum’s Code series. Regardless of the reel, make sure to cinch the drag down all the way. This is not finesse fishing, and when you hook a fish you typically need to get it to the boat as fast as you can before it has a change to bury itself in the vegetation.
A whole host of rods will work when fishing for largemouth bass in vegetation. While they all need to be relatively strong, certain ones work best for specific applications. For example, a frog rod needs to be strong, but with a fast tip so you can manipulate the bait when “walking the frog” and skipping the bait under trees and bushes. After many years of trying different frog rods, I finally found heaven in a Denali Rosewood Frog Rod.
Some great all-around and reasonably priced rods come from the Abu-Garcia Veritas line. I use a 7-foot heavy, extra-fast baitcaster for pitching jigs and a 7-foot medium-heavy fast spinning rod for everything from fishing plastics on top to swimming jigs. Others that work well for this type of fishing include Quantum Code 6-foot 10-inch medium-heavy spinning and casting rods, and medium-heavy or heavy 7-foot All Star rods. A great combo I also use is a Johnny Morris Signature Series II rod (6-foot 8-inch medium, extra fast) and reel. This is a lighter setup, but it works well for swimming jigs and pitching plastics along outside edges of vegetation.
Frogs and Toads
Well-made frogs like the Spro Bronzeye Frog and the Phat Frog from Snag Proof are easy to walk the frog with, and both of these have surprisingly good hook-up rates as well. These lures are essentially snag-proof, so don’t be afraid to throw them into places where you would normally never dream of casting; typically, the farther back into a mess of vegetation you can cast, the better. Although it is painful, on most days I have found it best to work these lures as slowly as possible. Walking the frog, especially when you have the lure in a likely ambush location, can be deadly. Just make sure you are twitching your rod with slack in your line so the frog stays in place while moving seductively from side to side. I always tie my superline directly to the frog using a double Palomar knot. If you are getting short strikes, try trimming about ½-inch off the frog’s skirts.
Plastic toads are a staple of most every bass angler who fishes in vegetation, and there are a number of good brands including Zoom, Strike King, and Gambler. I find I get better results with the toads when I reel them in just quickly enough so their legs cause a commotion on the surface. In my experience, Zoom Horny Toad hooks with built-in keepers are a must when fishing these baits.
A lure that blew me away is the Bobby’s Perfect Buzz Frog, also by Snag Proof. Just like it sounds, the lure has a frog body with a buzzbait blade on the front. Unlike a typical buzzbait, it floats, so you can pause it at any time. I found the blade turns well even at very slow speeds, but it does tend to get hung up in thick emergent vegetation. Traditional buzzbaits work for this type of fishing as well, although you don’t want to cast them into the thick stuff. Throw them parallel to the edge of the vegetation or into pockets in it where bass will often wait in ambush. Try using smaller buzzbaits with smaller blades, as they will come through vegetation easier. Although there are plenty of brands out there to choose from, I’ve had good luck with the ¼-oz Santone buzzbait and a similar-size Gut Grenade Buzzbait from Cajun Tackle House.
There are three categories of plastics I use as topwater baits: 1) soft swimbaits with square or paddletails; 2) stickbaits and worms; and 3) creature baits.
Soft swimbait plastics that I use on top include Berkley’s Havoc Grass Pig, the Grass Kickerz from Z-Man, and Lunker City’s Salad Spoon. The two that cause the most commotion are the Grass Pig and the Grass Kickerz. These are both great to use when the wind is up or you want to draw attention from aggressive fish. I Texas-rig both of these on 4/0 or 5/0 Gamakatsu EWG hooks. The Grass Pig is great for drawing fish out of vegetation and then sinking at the outer edge of the plants. The Grass Kickerz floats due the special ElaZtech material, which also allows the bait to stretch (reducing tears). This buoyant bait can be popped along the surface much like a popper frog. The Grass Pig and Grass Kickerz are great search baits because you can fish them pretty quickly and still get great action. The Lunker City Salad Spoon can be fished in a similar fashion, and while it makes a great gurgling noise when coming through the water, it is best fished in areas with sparser vegetation.
Although not commonly thought of as topwater baits, in calm conditions plastic stickbaits and worms can excel for this type of fishing. I call my favorite the “Bob Handy Special,” named after a longtime bass angler and friend of mine who has used it to take numerous largemouth bass over 7 pounds. It is nothing more than a Bass Pro Shops 4¼-inch Stick-O worm rigged straight and weightless on a 1/0 Eagle Claw weedless hook. My friend casts these baits on spinning tackle and superline, skipping them along the surface, alternating between a straight and erratic retrieve. YUM Dingers also work well if you can’t find the Stick-O worms. Two other plastic worms that work great for topwater in vegetation are the Zoom Ultra Vibe Speed Worm and the Culprit 7-inch Fat Max, which I rig 2/0 or 3/0 Eagle Claw weedless hooks. The Culprit Fat Max’s thick tail has a really nice flutter action when you let the bait die and give it a slight twitch.
With most of these topwater plastics, it is a good idea to stop reeling when you reach any opening in the vegetation. This allows the bait to sink, often enticing a bass that has been following the lure. When fishing plastics on top, hold the rod tip at 11 o’clock and reel just fast enough to keep the lure on the surface. When you get a strike, lower the rod tip to the water and then set the hook. Sometimes I use a steady retrieve without moving the rod tip, and other times I fish the bait almost like a hard jerkbait, with a twitch-twitch-pause cadence.
Another unlikely topwater plastic rig using creature baits was suggested to me by Tommy Hagler, a Texas resident and the owner of Hag’s Tornado Bait. He told me a great way to fish his Undertaker bait is to Texas-rig it on a 4/0 EWG hook with a 1/8- or ¼-ounce bullet weight, then reel it quickly over the surface. He wasn’t kidding, as I caught some real nice largemouths using this tactic. Other creature baits that work well using this method include Zoom Brush Hogs and Berkley Powerbait Chigger Craws, but see what you have in your tackle box and give them a try first. I use an Eagle Claw rigging stop or Bass Pro Shops sinker stop in order to keep the bullet weight tight to the hook.
Flippin’ Rigs & Jigs
When looking for a subsurface reaction bite while using plastics in vegetation, most anglers rely on a flippin’ rig or a jig to get their offerings to the fish. Although this isn’t the best way to cover lots of water, it is a tried-and-true method to thoroughly pick apart a stand of vegetation and put some very large bass in your boat. The technique I use when fishing these baits is to pitch to a likely area and let the bait drop on a slack line so it falls straight to the bottom. If your line stops moving before it hits bottom, set the hook. If the bait reaches bottom without a strike, bounce it a couple of times and then reel up. As with frog fishing, use at least 30-pound superline and tighten your drag.
There are many jigs available for this type of fishing, and I keep collecting more each year. Regardless of the brand, look for a strong hook, aerodynamic head, good fiber guard, and a cross-eyed or forward-set line tie. Rattles are often a good option in stained water. In general, jigs in 3/8-, ½-, and ¾-ounce sizes should be all you need. My current go-to jigs include All-Terrain Tackle’s Grassmaster Weed jig, River2Sea’s Junk Grenade jig, and Berkley’s Jay Yelas Flippin’ Gripper jig. Experiment with trimming the skirts on your jigs to give bass a different look.
When using flippin’ rigs and plastics in vegetation, ensure you have a very strong hook, a good flippin’ weight (3/8- to 1-ounce), a sinker or bobber stop, and a keeper spring. Some of the best hooks I have found for this application are Gamakatsu Heavy Cover Worm hooks and Cajun Tackle House Skull Dragger Flippin hooks. A number of good flippin’ weights are available, and I would encourage you to use tungsten for its small size and increased sensitivity. Some of the larger flippin’ weights, such as the River2Sea Trash Bomb and the Cajun Tackle House Baby Toe Tungsten Flippin Weight, come with line protection inserts intended to cut down on line fraying.
Punch skirts are a great addition to use with flippin’ rigs and plastics. They are fantastic at helping the bait get through vegetation and give the bass a slightly different look, as few Northeast bass anglers use them. I use Donkey Punch Skirts, which come with rattles and a clicker “hub” for extra sound when it comes in contact with your weight.
Both jigs and flippin’ rigs can be tipped with the same plastics. There are enough plastic trailers out there to sink a boat, but a few that have worked for me include: Berkley’s Havoc Slop Craw and Craw Fatty, YUM’s Craw Papi and Big Show Craw, Z-Man’s Punch CrawZ and Flappin CrawZ (these float and sit up straight off the bottom), and Zoom’s Z-Hog and Super Speed Craw.