Pictured above: Largemouth bass love to lurk under the lily pads and crush unsuspecting prey that enters their domain. -photo by Andy Nabreski
Embrace the scum of summer and catch big largemouth bass in dense vegetation.
On my way, I passed a man and his son. I watched the little boy pull in a sunny that was so small it would fit in a fish bowl. Finally, I got to the spot I wanted to target and had it all to myself. The entire area was weeded over by greenish-brown scum that extended bank to bank. I noticed a fan pattern across the scum. I wondered if somebody had beat me to the spot and employed the same tactic, or if the trails were mine from the day before.
I took my first cast, straight out to the middle of the giant mat of scum. I retrieved my Scum Frog, hopping it past the occasional floating fast-food container, soda can, spring water bottle and abandoned bobber. I made my second cast to the left, parallel to the shore, across the face of some shrubs and an over-hanging tree. My lure landed about 6 yards away from where the guy was fishing with his son. I took one turn of the reel and WHAM! Something took my frog and went berserk in the knee-deep scum! Whatever it was, it was big, but the size of the fish was masked by the globs of vegetation, I backed away from the bank to keep pressure on the fish. At times during the fight, I wondered if I still had a fish on. When I finally landed it, all I could see was a mass of vines and black mud – and then I saw the flop of the tail. When I finally picked through the vegetation and silt, and lifted the bass up, I was speechless. I didn’t have a scale or a ruler, but the guy who was fishing with his son stood in amazement. “That’s between 5 and 7 pounds,” he said.
The huge mouth was filled with blobs of weeds. I did my best to measure the length of the fish against my fishing rod. The father took a picture with his cell phone, but then complained that he wasn’t sure if his phone was working. The little boy asked me if he could keep the fish. I explained that this was a “big breeder” and must be released. To this day, when I go back to that spot, I look for that guy, hoping that he figured out his phone and could e-mail me that picture.
Introduction to Scum
I’m lucky enough to have a couple of ponds within 5 minutes of my 9-to-5 job – I call them my lunchtime ponds. Though it doesn’t sound like much, that 40 minutes spent by the water on my lunch hour is valuable to me. I use it to experiment with different tactics, try out new lures, hone my skills, take a deep breath, relax a little, and maintain my sanity on gorgeous summer days when I’d rather be fishing than behind a computer. One of the ponds I frequent sits below a residential community in a park with a soccer field, and as early as April, the fertilizer runoff causes prolific weed growth and unfettered algae blooms.
I noticed that as my lunchtime fishing hole became overrun by wall-to-wall weeds, all the other fishermen disappeared, cursing in frustration and leaving in disgust as their spinners, crankbaits and spoons all came up draped in green. By mid-June, I had the entire place to myself. Rather than give up, I continued pitching my wacky-rigged Senko worms into any patch of open water I could find. As I dragged my bait over the solid islands of bubbling scum, I was surprised by perky bass that would swipe at my lure, sometimes just before I pulled it out of the water. I began to experiment with the wacky-rigged Senko, dragging it over the thick carpets of vegetation. Bass were coming through the scum and attacking it, many times grabbing the bait and tearing it right off the hook. I was drawing strikes, but for the most part, I was losing baits and not catching anything but weeds. I surmised that the Senko was just not suitable for these conditions.
Later that spring, a friend returned from a vacation in Florida and presented me with a souvenir – a pack of six black-and-white Zoom Horny Toads. I must have looked at it as if it was a bag of tiny aliens. “Do you like them? Will you use them?” my friend asked.
“Um, yea yea yea,” I answered. I jumped on the computer and, as I often do, checked the customer reviews of the product on the website of a couple of the nation’s most popular sporting goods stores for an instant education. As it turns out, my friend had presented me the perfect bait for my scummy lunchtime pond.
I pieced together the advice I came across in the customer reviews, but I couldn’t wait until lunchtime the next day. I headed out with my Horny Toads before work the next morning to a local weeded-over fishing hole. To my surprise, the toads actually worked much better than I expected. Bass just launched themselves at the baits – explosive top-water strikes – what could be better? A whole new tactic I never knew existed was opened up to me, and a structure that I had once found intimidating and discouraging was now welcomed.
As bass fishermen, we become accustomed to looking for structure, fallen trees, boulders, weed lines, drop-offs and more. One of the things I had to learn was to unlearn my notions as to where bass hang out when dense carpets of scum are present.
Whenever I try to figure out the riddle of a new fishing spot, my thought process goes underwater. I wonder what the fish might be experiencing. Think of high noon on a blistering summer day. Instinctively, I look to get out of the sun, to stand under a tree where I’m in the shade and cool. Bass do the same. But, the underwater world is very different than what I’m experiencing as I fish from the shore. I see a body of water baking in the sun, but when a body of water is overcome by scum, it is as if there is a giant umbrella hovering over the bass’s habitat, creating what I call “all day dusk” in the underwater environment. At times like midday, when it is bright and sunny and oppressively hot, when you expect bass to be hidden in deep, cooler water or languishing in traditional shady spots, they are instead, I believe, quite active in the cool dark world, under the “scum umbrella.”
I keep this in mind as I approach a body of water that has scummed over, whether in full or partially. Once, during a week-long fishing trip to Black Lake in Upstate New York – where I fished every waking moment – bass were more active in the early mornings or evenings, leaving shaded areas and venturing out to feed. Therefore, we targeted traditional structure with traditional baits. As the sun got high in the sky and the day heated up, fishing at the traditional structures slowed, and we had success targeting the largely overlooked scummed-over corners and coves. In fact, virtually the entire food chain seemed to concentrate in these areas during the hottest part of the day.
I liken the world of a bass in heavy muck to Joe Frazier in the 14th round of the “Thrilla in Manila,” a grueling boxing match, both men pushing each other to their physical limits. By the 13th, Ali had blinded Frazier. Joe was unable to see his opponent, all he could do was sense that Ali was in the vicinity. He followed the shadows, listening to the footsteps and vibrations on the canvas, trying to discern his targets from cheering fans and flashing camera bulbs. He’d take a stab in the dark, throw a haymaker at where he sensed Ali’s jaw might be, hoping to connect. This is how I picture an opportunistic largemouth bass hunting a frog bait that is being dragged across a dense matt of scum. The bass is stalking a creature that is not in the water, but above it. Therefore, I imagine that under these circumstances, the bass is partially blinded, unable to rely on all of the sensory tools it would normally utilize for hunting.
Since I obtained my first bag of Zoom Horny Toads, I have watched the number of slop baits dramatically increase. In fact, there are so many out there now that it is difficult to keep track. Basically the bait that you will have success with will depend on the type of vegetation and slop that you are fishing. I have come across a variety of aquatic vegetation, from “snot grass” with a jelly-like consistency, to a fine green hair that sticks to everything, to the tentacle-like hydrilla and milfoil. Even more important than the vegetation type is how it relates to the surface and the availability of open water. How “dry” are the weeds – do the weeds float on top of the water’s surface, or are they partially submerged? Do the weeds go wall to wall, or does the scum appear more like islands in open water? Is the scum mixed in with leafy vegetation such as lilies or water chestnuts, and are the lilies as big as dinner plates or as small as quarters?
As you address the conditions and select a bait, keep in mind that bass are opportunistic feeders that will strike at anything that they suspect might be food. Therefore, when you choose a bait, you should select the one that is easiest for the bass to detect and locate. At the same time, you must use the scum as your ally and pick a lure that looks the most life-like in the conditions.
A hollow-bodied frog consists of a hollow plastic body fashioned to look like a frog, mouse or bird, rigged on a double hook in a way that makes it virtually snagless. The key to these baits is their buoyancy, which helps them cruise over the surface of most obstacles they encounter.
Hollow-bodied frogs usually have tassels rather than feet, but some of them include paddle feet. Out of the package, the tassels are a bit long, so you may want to trim ¼- to ½-inch off them. I usually leave a few threads at full length because I think it makes them look more like frog feet. In addition, some of the hollow-bodied frogs come equipped with rattles and built-in drains that expel water and keep the bait sitting on top of the water.
A bait that has earned its way into my “go-to” category is the Original Scum Frog made by Southern Lure Company. The Scum Frog is a stroke of genius in its simplicity and design. It’s rigged like a little boat, and if you twitch it just the right way during the retrieve over mats of scum, you can get it to perfectly emulate the hopping of a frog. It casts well, has strong hooks, and has not rusted on me yet. Plus, it is durable enough to take slashings from vicious northern pike and still retain its effectiveness.
The Scum Frog glides easily over rafts of floating vegetation – when it’s like a cement patio of bubbling green that looks like you can walk on it. However, the Scum Frog does have its limitations. If there are breaks in the scum with large patches of open water, or when there are sporadic lily pads present, the original Scum Frog is not as effective. The Scum Frog does not “walk-the-dog” well in open water, and the lilies act as ramps that send the Scum Frog airborne, often flipping over. Hollow-bodied frogs like the Spro Dean Rojas Bronzeye Frog or the Tru-Tungsten Mad Max are more effective if there are areas of open water or lily pads present.
Buzz Frogs, or toads, are frog-shaped soft-plastic baits that have paddle feet and are designed to create disturbance and vibration on the surface. They are meant to be dragged over and through mats of scum. They make a racket similar to that of a Jitterbug or a buzzbait when dragged through debris or across the surface. I have used many different ones and have had success with the Strike King Rage Tail Toad, Stanley Ribbit Frog, Yum BuzzFrog and the Zoom Horny Toad. The Z-Man PopFrogz have a cupped mouth and paddle feet, and also float!
Toad baits do not come pre-rigged. You can rig them on a quality size 4 or 5 extra-wide-gap offset hook, or you can use tandem frog hooks designed specifically for soft-plastic frogs. When rigging, it helps to “keel” the frog, or fold it down the middle so the belly is slightly distended. This ensures that the lure will ride on the water like a boat, upright. I’ve had problems with these baits spinning in the water if not hooked dead center when using a single extra-wide-gap hook.
The majority of buzz frogs sink, and this can be problematic in floating mats of weeds. You will have to bring the lure to the surface by reeling quickly and keeping the rod tip way up. If you don’t, the bait will submarine and dredge up weeds.
Toad baits also catch frogs! I’ve had bullfrogs chase these lures, grab the paddle foot and hold on for dear life.
These unique soft-plastic baits include the Strike King Rage Tail Shad and the Lunker City Salad Spoon.
The best way to describe them is that they are a cross between a curly-tail grub and a toad. They possess a body that is designed to plane across the surface while a single curly tail creates a disturbance. These baits excel in situations when the weeds are sporadic, partially submerged, or barely tickling the surface. Under these conditions, the action of the tail is most pronounced. If you are fishing near scum islands, you can work the swimming spoon over the top, or cast to open water beside the island, allowing the lure to sink and working it past the submerged structure.
The Rage Tail Shad creates a large disturbance, while the Lunker City Salad Spoon is the more subtle bait. The Rage Tail Shad’s tail is more rigid and more compact. Therefore it takes more drag from open water to make it produce sound. Because of this, The Rage Tail Shad is not effective over dense, floating mats of scum. The Salad Spoon has a tail that is longer and more supple, and it needs less drag from water to produce sound and vibration. Therefore, it is the more effective bait over heavy, dry mats of scum as the tail will drag behind the bait and undulate. Both are terrific baits that I rely on all season.
Setting The Hook
One of the most challenging aspects of fishing in heavy scum is getting a good hookset. Remember that the bass is partially blinded by the conditions, so be prepared for a fair amount of hits and misses from the bass you are hunting. To help improve your hook-up ratio, when the strike occurs, stop reeling remain calm. Resist setting the hook right away, but don’t “bow to the cow” and count to five either. You must strike a middle ground. Drop the rod tip toward the striking fish, keep a tight line, and when you feel the weight of the fish, set the hook. Most of the time you will be rewarded with a fish, but many times you end up with nothing but a weed-covered bait.
On some of the hollow-bodied frogs, the hooks are rather tight in the bait’s body, requiring that the bass completely crush the body of the frog in order to expose the hook. Because of this, the hook might not find the jaw of the fish. On some days, it may be necessary to bend out the hooks slightly from the body of the lure to get better hooksets.
Go Heavy or Don’t Go At All
If you plan to fish heavy slop, your 6-foot, 6-inch medium-weight bass rod will not be enough. Fishing around, over and through muck, slop and vegetation requires heavy tackle. I use a heavy, fast-action, 7-foot rod rated for 15- to 20-pound-test line and lures from 3/8 to 2 ounces. I match the rod with a spinning reel that has a quality drag system like the Shimano Spheros 4000 for my slop fishing.
Sometimes, depending on the conditions, I will downsize my outfit to a 7-foot medium inshore rod with a 3000-size Team Daiwa Tierra spinning reel. This set-up works great when the vegetation is more sporadic and there are opportunities to fish patches of open water. However, I have found myself under gunned with the lighter setup. As an added bonus, both of these setups can pull double duty for light saltwater applications.
Braided line is not an option for this type of fishing – it is a necessity. I go with 30-pound test. Braided line does not stretch, and this characteristic is critical for quality hook-sets. It will also help you keep pressure on the fish during the battle.
Keep in mind, when a hookup occurs, the bass will grab the bait, along with the muck, and head down below the floating weeds. You will then have to not only contend with the fish but the muck that gets dredged by your line. It is not uncommon to have a softball-size glob of weeds preceding any fish that you catch. Braided fishing lines will help cut through some of the weeds. I generally keep my drag tightened so that I can keep in touch with the fish through all those weeds.
I find it very difficult to fish this way without a leader. The last few inches of line take a terrific beating as it is dredged though the vegetation by an angry fish. I generally start out with a 20-pound-test monofilament leader that is about 8 to 12 inches long, with a clip for the lure and smallest swivel possible to attach the leader to the main line. Depending on the vegetation, the swivel and clip may become magnets for debris. I eliminate the clip first if this is the case, but I keep the leader and tie the lure to it. I have noticed that a shorter leader helps to keep your line from drooping and keeps contact with the surface vegetation to a minimum.
One thing that scum bassin’ will test, other than your tackle and your knowledge of aquatic vegetation, is your patience. In short, depending on the type of vegetation you are up against, you may have to clear your baits of weeds and scum after almost every cast. You will be getting your hands dirty, so bring a rag with you or wear a T-shirt you don’t care about. In addition, understand that you may be startled repeatedly by misses by aggressive fish, and false hits by, of all things, bullfrogs.
With all the effects that development has on our ponds and lakes, including overnutrification and the introduction of invasive vegetation, learning how to successfully fish the scum has become a necessary evil in urban and suburban areas throughout the Northeast. So when you approach a pond in mid-summer that is scummed over, don’t get intimidated, and don’t give up and walk away. The bass are out there, and they are hunting. Break out your heavy gear and your frog imitations and have some fun in the scum.