It was an anxious bunch of bass fishermen awaiting blast off at the first annual Santee Cooper Open Bass Tournament.
They had just enjoyed two great days of practice. There seemed to be bass hanging around every cypress or dead willow tree during practice. Everyone had caught fish and some were predicting that it might take 60 pounds or better to win.
Most of the anglers tried to maneuver their powerful bass boats into position for a fast start in the race to the prized fishing spots. I eased my way to the back of the pack. My little 14 foot Tidecraft powered by a 20 horsepower motor was no threat to race anyone. But that had nothing to do with why I dropped to the rear of the pack.
The partner I had drawn, a doctor from Columbia,S.C. was already convinced I was crazy. So, he did not bother to comment. When the starter^s gun sounded and the other 69 boats headed for the mouth of Eutaw Creek, I slipped my engine into reverse and backed towards the launching ramp. I was not quitting I had a plan.
I could still hear boats in the creek when I told the doctor to drop the anchor. I knew the doctor was not happy about what I was doing because we had discussed the plan at length the night before. When he realized that he could not change my mind, he silently complied with the rule that permitted me to run my boat the first half a day.
The doctor had wanted to go to the shallows where everyone had good success in practice even though a cold front had came through late in the afternoon during the last day of practice. In a couple of hours the temperature dropped from the low nineties to the high seventies.
I had ordered the anchor dropped on a turn of the old creek bed about 75 yards from the Bell^s Marina launching ramp where all the contestants had launched their boats.
I did not have to use the depthfinder to locate the spot because I had found it during a similar weather condition the previous July. I knew the water was about 22 feet deep and there was a submerged tree across the creek bed.
Discarding my bait casting tackle with 17 pound test line I used when thrashing the brush, I had a medium action spinning rod rigged with 10 pound test line and added a Texas rigged, eight inch plastic worm to the line.
Within an hour I had three pound and a half largemouths in the live well. I knew my partner was not impressed because after a while he was casting to the shoreline that he could reach from where we were anchored.
After a fishless hour, I moved about two hundred yards to another bend in the creek bed and picked up another bass of about the same size.
After another move and another small bass was put in my live well, It was the doctor^s turn to run the boat.
As soon as he was at the controls, he headed for the shallows. He did not have a fish when we left the deep water and he did not have a fish at weigh in time. I still had the five bass I had caught in the morning.
Five little bass that weighed just an ounce over seven pounds does not sound like a spectacular catch. On most days it is not, but on this day it was good enough to place fifth in a field of more than one hundred bass fishermen.
The leader was Blake Honeycutt, a Hickory, N.C. pro, who had caught a limit of eight bass while vertical jigging a spoon in deep water. His fish were even smaller than mine, but their total weight exceeded my catch by almost a pound.
Neither catch was spectacular, but more than half of the contestants had been skunked because they had either refused to adjust to the conditions or did not know how to fish deep water.
I have heard fishermen say that they would rather not catch bass if they have to fish for them in deep water. These people may as well put their bass fishing gear away for the summer if they fish some Southeastern bass waters.
Nobody has to tell me that a big part of the enjoyment of bass fishing is making that perfect casts under the branches of a cypress tree right up against the tree trunk or dropping a lure right into the break in a weed bed. Even if you don^t get a strike, you feel good because you made a good cast.
That^s one kind of good. But it doesn^t come close to the good you feel when you do battle with a big old hawg and win the battle. I don^t think it matters how deep you have to go to get the fish.
While I have caught largemouths in shallow water, particularly from shallow and weedy lakes, during the warm months, most bass have a tendency to school on deep water structure or suspend during the summer in deep water reservoirs like Lake Lanier in Georgia.
In lakes that stratify or form layers of water with different temperatures, most bass will collect where the thermocline meets some cover or structure. The thermocline is the layer of water just below the hot surface water. It is several degrees cooler, has the right dissolved oxygen content and the most comfortable environment for largemouth bass during the hot months.
Thermocline is not the only reason for bass to collect in deep water. Not all lakes stratify. Some are too shallow and others have too much flow to form layers. Yet I have found largemouths on deep structure in lakes that do not stratify. I have found bass on old creek beds and drop offs in Santee Cooper where I read the temperature on the bottom in the low 80^s and it was the same as the surface temperature.
I am not sure why bass seek the depths in these non stratifying lakes. Cold or storm fronts moving through will drive them down. It is a possibility that the sun might burn up some of the dissolved oxygen near the surface. There are probably other reasons like the secure feeling of being in deep water or the availability of food, but all of this is speculation on my part.
Why bass seek deep water is not important, but finding and catching them is.
If you can locate the depth of the thermocline by studying the water temperature with a temperature gauge down to where there is a noticeable change in the temperature, you are way ahead of the game. If you ascertain that the thermocline is at l8, 20 or 30 feet, all you have to do is fish a lure where there are bass at that depth.
A recording depthfinder makes this a much easier task. Just look for creek beds, drop offs, road beds, fence rows, foundations, stump fields or other structure that show up on the chart at the same depth as the thermocline. Sometimes fish will show up on the chart.
When fish suspend during the summer, as they will in the deeper lakes, there are only two ways to find them. The first is by lucky chance, but the only practical one is locating them with a depthfinder.
If you don^t own a temperature gauge or are fishing a non-stratifying lake, it takes some experimenting to find the bass.
There are two methods that I use to find bass under these conditions.
My numero uno trick is to drift plastic worms on points, bars, humps or in old creek beds. The advantage of this method is that the lure is always on the bottom no matter what the depth. most of the time that is where you will find bass this time of year.
There is nothing complicated about drifting plastic worms and I am surprised that more anglers don^t use the technique.
I use a Texas rig with at least a quarter ounce sliding sinker. When I reach an area that I want to check, I make a cast and let the lure settle to the bottom. Then I take up slack until when the rod is parallel to the water the worm is still bouncing on the bottom. As soon as you feel a tap or strike, swing the rod upward to set the hook.
The ideal situation is to have a light breeze that pushes the boat along, but at a speed that allows the worm to bounce along the bottom. If there is too much wind or no wind, the trolling motor must be used to move the boat.
It is a good idea to have a fish buoy so that you can mark the spot where you caught the fish by tossing the buoy over as soon as you feel the strike.
Sometimes you can drift over the same area and catch more bass on the same spot. If I catch two bass in the same general area, I will anchor the boat and try casting. If the bass are schooled tightly, it doesn^t take long to get a limit.
My second tactic for locating deep water bass is to troll deep running lures over bars, submerged islands and along points.
I use Bombers because I have found that they will catch fish even with sliding sinkers on the line in front of the lure.
What I try to do is troll so that my lures are at three or four different depths. I do this by rigging one Bomber by just tying in on the line. Then I will put a half ounce sliding sinker in front of one lure, three quarter ounces in front of the next and one ounce on the other. The sinkers ride right on the lure^s lip and do not kill the action.
Increasing speed will increase the depth these lures will run. Also, the lighter the line you use the deeper the lure will run. Once you establish the depth by catching a fish, rig all of the lures the same way and try to maintain the same speed.
When you hook a fish, toss over a marker buoy and troll through the area again. If you hook another bass, it is a good idea to anchor and try casting with plastic worms.
Largemouth bass are not always on structure. Last July, while fishing Lake Lenier with Charlie Lang, of Savannah, I had one of those days when we tried just about everything and never had a strike.
"If the bass ain^t on structure, they got to be suspended somewhere," Charlie said when we returned to the dock. "I read a lot of bait in the open lake today, but I didn^t pay much attention to them. Let me show you something."
From out of his jump suit pocket came several pieces of graph paper from his chart depthfinder.
"See these," he said as he pointed to band of dashes so close together that it was almost a solid band.
"That^s a school of bait. Now look at this one."
He pulled another piece of graph paper out of the pile that had a band of bait fish just like the first one. However, just under the band were five distinctly separated dashes.
"I^d be willin^ to betcha a steak dinner that^s bass suspended under the school."
I didn^t take his bet, but the next morning Charlie eased his boat out into open water and turned on the chart depthfinder.
"There they are," Charlie yelled after we had been cruising in mid lake for about 45 minutes. "About 22 feet down."
We were both rigged with 3/4 ounce Hopkins spoons on the end of our lines. We let out enough line so that the lure just touched the water when we held our rods parallel to the water.
Then we pulled about two feet of line at a time through the drag until the lures were about 20 feet below the surface. Bass will come up to strike.
We then commenced vertical jigging, which is just a matter of lifting the rod tip about a foot every 20 to 30 seconds and letting it fall until the length of the line stopped it.
It didn^t take long for the first strike. A three pounder was brought in by Charlie. That was the beginning of a day that produced 13 bass between two and six pounds. We released all but two that I kept for dinner.
All of the bass came from three schools that we found under bait fish. The schools were in about 60 feet of water with no structure in the vicinity.
Many anglers consider vertical jigging a monotonous way to catch bass because of the lack of casting and lure presentation skills. However, there is something about a full stringer of bass to take the monotony out of any technique.
Vertical jigging can be done with just about any kind of tackle, but I prefer a medium action rod in either spinning or bait casting. Light rods tend to collapse when setting the hook or lifting the lure to give it action.
Going deep may not satisfy all your largemouth desires, but it is a simple fact of life that you will have to fish deep to catch them if that is where they are hanging.
That may not go down in bass history as one of the most astute observations, but a surprising number of people who don^t catch bass in mid-summer don^t seem to realize it.