I‘m a liberal leaning outdoorsman attempting to open the minds of right wingers to the idea that libs fish too. Anglers come from all walks of life, left, right, and center. Not everyone who fishes for bass is a redneck fond of Nascar, country music, and religiosity. Expect posts about largemouth bass fishing, techniques, reviews of lures and other products, but not any condemnable conservative rants. I hope to inspire the online angler community to dial down rhetoric which will do more harm than good to our sport.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

• Fishing Dead Pad Stems

From now until some time in late spring, dead pad stems will be a prime target of mine. In the past, I learned that on area lakes, when fish are not biting around cypress trees, docks, and other “reliable” spots I’ve catalogued in my mind over the years, I can turn to old lily pad fields for a couple of bites. At this point in my journey, I cannot stand here and tell you I’m an expert at breaking down everything that goes on under the water among these dead pad stems, but I do have a few pointers and tactics that work for me.

The first thing you must realize is, just like any other forms of cover and structure, what you see above the surface of the water does not necessarily represent what is going on underneath. With lake flats, for example, unless you’ve explored the bottom contour with a weighted soft plastic, spinnerbait, or crankbait, or you have inspected the area with your electronics, you might never know about humps, rock piles, or channels beneath you. With laydowns and stump fields, you only know what you can see sticking up above the water. Surrounding all of that visible cover lurks everything from branches, more stumps, brush piles, and sunken logs.

Old lily pad fields are no different. When pads die off, leaving nothing more than stands of dead stems, lake levels have most likely dropped too, so any of the taller stems will be sticking up in plain sight, with or without their pad tops attached. More stems are hidden along side everything you can see above water, an underwater forest, if you will. What at first appears sparse is nothing of the sort.

With that in mind, the first task on my mind is lure selection.

I could approach this topic in terms of all the possible options or I could come at you with what has worked for me. I will opt to explain the latter as I have the most confidence in describing how I fish those lures in old pad fields. The main rule I follow is, pick a lure that will most likely not hang up every single cast. If I do choose a lure that might snag on a pad stem, I make sure I use a reel with a high speed ratio. If I snag, at least with a fast retrieve, I will snag within reach and not five feet down. The longer the cast, the better.

The first taste of success in old pad fields came when I was tossing a 1/2oz Terminator T1 spinnerbait. It was windy, but not at all what I would consider a blustery day. I positioned my boat on the outer edge of the field and cast into it and into the wind at an angle. I’d let the spinnerbait drop and then worked it back at an average speed. I picked up a few nice fish on my first pass. If I recall correctly, one was nice and fat, somewhere in the 3lb range.

1. Spinnerbaits
So obviously, the first lure I consider throwing into the dead stems is a spinnerbait. I may bump into a few stems here and there and yes, I may hang up from time to time, but if I’m not working the bait close to the cover, I’m not fishing it right. That said, I do not intentionally try to bump into stems. I only try to swim the bait close to what I know is there. Repeat casts over the same small area will yield results. Random casts seem to work just as well as organized methods.

2. Lipless crankbaits
The second option is to throw a crankbait of some kind. While I love my shallow divers with square lips, I do not feel a pad field is where these baits were meant to be thrown. In fact, throwing any bait with two or three sets of treble hooks is asking for trouble. Lipless cranks paired with a high gear ratio reel, for me at least, is an obvious choice. I can keep a lipless crank swimming as high in the water column as I can get it without breaking the surface. Unfortunately, with some lipless cranks, no matter how fast I retrieve, they will undoubtedly swim a few feet down. Again, snags are an inevitability. In a more recent outing, I tossed a 1/2oz Strike King Red Eye Shad. Long casts were easy to make, but once the lure hit the water, I began my retrieve. No KVD-intended fluttering for me. In shallower water, a 1/4oz crankbait will avoid hangups whereas a 1/2oz bait will dive right into the thick stuff. Holding the rod to my right at an upward angle of about 2:30, I would pull the lure towards me, reeling at the same time, and then let off, allowing the lure to fall again without, I repeat, without stopping my retrieve.

3. Buzzbaits and other topwater lures
A third reliable option really only performs well among shallow stems. Topwater lures can draw out bass laying in wait. The reaction is not quite as fierce as topwater bites during the summer months, but bass will definitely hit a buzzbait. Like the other two baits, repeat casts are often required, but for those of you fishing old pad fields in three feet of water or less, buzzbaits are a good third option.

4. Soft plastics
If you are hell bent on throwing soft plastics this time of year, I’d recommend throwing either a speed worm, regular or ultra-vibe, a ribbontail worm, or a swimbait. I’ve tried stickbaits and creature baits like brush hogs and lizards, but the ribbontail worms are probably a safer bet. I think any bait that has extra vibration works better than lures which lack a marked presence in the water. Just keep the bait going with a steady retrieve and you should eventually find what you are looking for. If you have the time, a plastic worm might be a good follow up bait to catch any fish who didn’t find your first offering all that appealing. I'll even throw in a bonus tip here. Do not forget to try a wacky rigged soft plastic stickbait. Sure, it's a dicey approach and you'll have to navigate with some extra effort, but for those shy bites, it's an option you must not forget.

5. Swim jigs
In the back of my mind, I am convinced a swim jig should produce just the same. Given their ability to remain relatively weedless and the fact that anglers can add any trailer they’d like, rattle or no rattle, it makes sense to me that a swim jig is well suited for fishing dead pad stems. I have only recently tried fishing this kind of lure in dead pad stems and the first thing I noticed was that the sensation was slightly different than fishing a crankbait, but less energy is required to fish the same area. Although I did not draw out any fish, I would recommend attempting to match the hatch with baitfish colors and using a steady retrieve. In a pinch, you can swap out trailers and fish the bottom contour for any fish that are laying in wait. The weed guard seemed to be the only spot where debris would collect and hanging up in pad stems was not a problem at all. Let me know if you have tried a swim jig in this sparse cover. I’d be interested in hearing your experiences.

My natural instinct was to fish the edges, thinking this time of year, bass might be holding closer to deeper water. I found that bass treat these old pad fields just like flooded timber. They relate to the stems just like wood. There is no telling which section they will gather in, so make long casts and cover a wide area until you find something that’ll bite. Then focus on that spot for a while to draw out any fish that are schooled up in that same area. Thick stands of stems or thin sparsely spaced stands, it does not seem to matter. Just throw into the thick of it and see what you can find.

Boat positioning can be critical. It can also be cumbersome. A trolling motor might get gummed up in seconds after having slashed through only a few stems. On a windy day, I either allow the boat to drift with the breeze or I position the boat on the outer edge of the field and attempt to keep the boat steady so as to fish one area, working my way meticulously backwards in the field to cover the whole area. Then I start that process all over again, sometimes employing the use of the big motor to return the boat to the original spot to save time and battery power. On calm days, I will sit right in the middle of the field, using the least amount of trolling motor movement as possible so as to not alert the fish to my presence. One thing I will not do, however, is anchor myself to one spot. If you have power poles installed on your boat, use them. Just realize you might be doing a lot of moving around, especially if you get snagged.

Let’s change gears now and talk about setting the hook and dealing with snags.

Hooksets are free. Lures are not. Detecting bites in a pad field like this really is an art and learning the difference between a bite and a pad stem takes time. I still set the hook on stems all the time, so I would go as far as to say nobody can tell the difference 100 percent of the time, so hedge your bets. Anything that feels like a firm tap is probably a stem. Anything mushy could be a bite. Your eyes and the sensitivity in your fingers are your two best friends. You will feel a stem give as you pull across it. You might even see it bend in the water. You will definitely know when you’ve snagged one that sticks up out of the water. In time, you won’t even care about hitting stems anymore. You’ll just fish through the pain. When in doubt, go ahead and set the hook. Even a slight pull is enough to stick a bass, but not enough to embed your hook into a stem so bad that you will never get it out. If you think you had a missed strike, cast to the same spot a few times. If the bass are active, they’ll hit. Try to have a sense of humor about all of this and you will be fine.

Why have a sense of humor? Snags are unavoidable. There is no way around it. At some point, you will be cleaning off your lure. At some point, you’ll be repositioning your boat to pull free of a well anchored stem. Do not let repeated snags deter you. This is part of fishing lily pads, dead or alive. The frustration should test your patience, but I don’t want you out there losing lures, so let me go ahead and share some ways I’ve learned to free my lure from a stem that just won’t break.

But first you must understand what you are up against.

Pad stems, at least dead ones, have two structural parts that you need to familiarize yourself with. The first is the outer lining of the stem. The thickness varies, but even the smaller stems can be as tough as tree bark. Once your hook barb embeds in the stem, it simply isn’t going to come out. The good thing is, it appears the anatomy of every stem is roughly the same. Vertical lines span the entire height of the stem and since the plant material is decaying, it can be relatively easy to break along these lines. You might bring a big chunk back with the lure, but at least you will get your lure back. I believe the decay is more pronounced higher up in the stem, so as I mentioned earlier, retrieves that swim low in the water column may put you in a world of hurt. The second and less daunting aspect of the stem to make note of is the slimy and silky center of the stem. This stuff is beige in color and sometimes resembles sauerkraut. Most of the time, if you break free from the stem, you will get a big clump of this stuff on your hook and around your lure. I even get the stuff in my line guides after a while. Clean it off and continue fishing.

Now let’s talk about lure recovery. Pulling loose from a pad stem can vary in terms of success. Most of the time, you can rip right through them and pull off the remaining vegetation boatside. If you hang up, you’ve likely run your hook through that thick part of the stem. The first thing I do is tug a few times. If I don’t break free, I start yanking with an upward motion. Why? I want to pull my hook into one of those vertical grooves so my lure slides right out. If I don’t break free, I slowly approach the stem I’m stuck on, taking up the slack as I go, holding my rod tip up in the air in front of me. Because of those grooves in the stem, pulling straight up always works better than pulling from the side or at an angle. If I’m still stuck, I have to either inspect the situation visually and remove my lure by hand or I lower my rod tip down, cranking up all the slack until I hit my lure with the tip. Then I pull, shake, and move the rod around until I break loose. Sometimes, I have to grasp the pad stem and pull that way, but because of the amount of decay, most stems break where I pull from. Understanding all of this will come with time and experience. You will get stuck out there, so plan on having identical spare lures on board just in case you break off and lose one. It happens. Hopefully these few techniques I have just explained save you from that expensive outcome.

Old lily pad fields offer a slightly different level of involvement and the terrain behaves differently than many other spring, summer, and fall cover and structure. Unlike wood cover, if a bass tries to wrap around a pad stem, there’s still a good chance you’ll be able to fight it out. Stems move and break. Stumps do not. The areas are usually wide open spaces and lily pads are found in most lakes we bass anglers frequent. Do not pass up the opportunity to fish those spots. I am always shocked to see anglers out on area lakes fishing the visible cover near cypress trees this time of year, avoiding the dying pad fields altogether. Perhaps it is the frustration of getting snagged. Maybe it’s the stigma surrounding dead and dying vegetation that turns them away. If you are tired of fishing wood cover this time of year and there are still dead pad stems on area lakes, give them some of your attention. I know for a fact they hold lots of fish. As illustrated by a recent outing, even 5lb fish can be lurking among the pad stems. All it requires is a little bit of patience, persistence, and experimentation on your part. That’s fishing, after all.


MDTolic said...

Oh yeah, a swim jig instantly comes to mind when I see stuff like this. I'd definitely start with a buzzbait or a Stanley Ribbit, but a swim-jig would be at the ready. They are incredibly weedless baits. Surprisingly weedless really. But you can't be too bummed if you lose one; or 3. Those pad stalks, as you know, are crazy strong. If you pierce one, with a stout swim-jig hook, it will not come out unless you get your hands on it.

I prefer a pointed nose on my swim-jigs. I think it helps in the heavier cover and should deflect to the side of these stalks better. I use 3/8 and 1/2 oz. jigs (when I want a really long cast). That water looks a little dingy as well. I'd go with a paddle tail trailer or a Paca craw; something that puts out more vibration than the standard grub trailer. I'll typically keep my retrieve at a speed where I can just barely see the bait below the water. But if conditions allow, I have no problem letting it hit bottom on the initial cast, and shaking it like a standard jig, before I start a steady retrieve back. A lot of my swim jig hits happen right after splashdown.

While "match the hatch" is always a good strategy, I prefer white swim jigs. In fact, I've only thrown white for the last 3-4 years. Not solid white, necessarily. But white with a few strands of a blue or purple. Maybe even a baby bass pattern, but it will be mostly white. And with swim-jigs a thicker skirt isn't necessarily better. My trailer is always white or pearl.

Lastly, I prefer swim jigs with a heavy hook; not light wire. I find, that on a steady retrieve, the bass hook themselves. Little setting is needed. That would help in this situation, I would think. However, a lighter bait, say 1/4 oz, and lighter hook, may provide you with fewer hang ups to begin with. So you'll have to experiment... which I know you enjoy anyhow. Hope you post your results if you do!