Learn how a Florida sight-fishing expert finds big bass on beds and coaxes those fish into biting.
Northern Florida tournament regulars know.
If bass have begun moving onto beds and Tim Mann is fishing a tournament, he will be someone to watch, come weigh-in time. A veteran tournament angler who considers the St Johns River home waters, Mann is a master at sight fishing. He and tournament partners have notched countless tournament wins over the years and have brought some monstrous bags to the scales.
Mann has an uncanny knack for finding the right caliber of bedding fish and figuring out how to catch those fish. We talked with Mann about his approach and how it helps set him apart in so many spring tournaments.
“Bass like to spawn on a hard bottom, and they like to spawn against some kind of structure.” Mann said. “They really don’t like to spawn out in the open, where there’s nothing to protect against predators.”
Specifics vary enormously based on the lake, but roots of lily pads, stumps, logs, dock supports, seawall corners and gaps in eelgrass, hydrilla or coontail beds all provide the kind of cover bass seek when they spawn.
In the St. Johns River, which typically has extensive eelgrass flats but has none right now, bass have been spawning against cypress knees in much shallower water then they would normally choose for bedding.
Because of the St. Johns’ current troubled state, Mann has spent significant time fishing less familiar waters over the past couple of springs, so his search for bedding bass often has started at square 1. When searching for beds, Mann looks for protected shallow flats with a hard, sandy bottom make up and then starts searching the water near various kinds of cover within that area.
Sometimes most of a lake’s beds will be close to a certain type of cover or in a few specific areas, but there’s no magic answer to the right cover or locations for all lakes. It takes searching and paying careful attention to clues.
Bass beds, in classic form, are dug out bowls along the bottom that are mostly clear of debris. They look brighter than other areas and are somewhat round. Some beds are obvious and very easy to spot. However, the beds that are easy for one angler to spot are easy for everyone to spot, and those fish tend to get a lot of pressure.
Mann searches for the less obvious beds and for the clues that a bass is using a piece of cover – clues that prompt him to really search for the bed itself and for the bass using that bed.
He pointed toward rubbed roots of lily pads as an example. Where there’s a little gap in the pads, he’ll look for roots that have been upturned or visibly rubbed against. That tells him there’s a bed, so he’ll look closer for the bed and will stay very still, scouring the area for the bass.
“Nine out of ten times, you’ll never see those fish if you’re not looking for the clues,” he said.
Similarly, bass might spawn at the end of a submerged log, where the bed is not obvious and the only clue that suggests staying close and watching for the bass is a bit of bark rubbed off at the end of the tree or a slightly difference bottom appearance against the log.
Mann also pays attention to clues from the fish themselves. When he looks across a broad eel grass flat, he’ll often see surface swells. When he sees a swell a couple of times in the same spot, it usually has been caused by a bedding bass chasing bluegill or shiners out of the bed.
Similarly, when he’s staying on the move and searching, Mann often will see the male bass on the bed, but rarely a larger female. They are much spookier than other fish and usually take off before the boat gets close enough to see them. Mann often will see a bulge on the surface when the bass suddenly takes off in shallow water. If he sees a big swell as he approaches a spot and then finds a bed and male bass when he gets to that spot, he knows a good bass is using that bed.
He’ll circle back to a good position for looking, drop his Power-Poles and watch the bed. Eventually the female will return, and he can see if it’s a fish he wants to spend time trying to target.
A Stealthy Approach
“It’s really important to be stealthy for catching those big fish,” Mann said. “They already know something isn’t quite right, and the more they become aware of you, the harder they are to catch.”
Unlike some sight fishermen, who like to mark a bed with a stake and blind fish from far back, Mann likes to see the fish. He stays as far back as he can and still see the fish well. He always positions the boat so his shadow never crosses the bed, using Power-Poles to maintain his position. He also stays as low as possible and avoids any abrupt sounds or movements.
Stealth is also about bait presentations. Repeatedly pitching a bait into the middle of the bed and on top of a fish is a recipe for NOT catching that fish.
Mann always pitches past the bed and keeps his trajectory low to the water so the bait lands with minimal splash, and then he brings the bait back to the bed and drops it or slides it in so it enters the bed as naturally as possible.
At times, he intentionally gets the bait in prime position when the fish is away and then will keep it completely still, sometimes for several minutes, until the fish returns.
“When I move it slightly and that’s the bass’ first awareness of an invader in the bed, sometimes it will immediately grab the bait.”
Once Mann’s bait is in the bed, he keeps it there as long as possible, shaking the bait without changing it’s position as much as possible.
Making Them Bite
The reason Mann doesn’t like to blind cast to bedding bass is that he wants to see how the bass react to every movement of the bait. That includes reactions by the male and the female.
“If you can get the buck engaged, the sow becomes much more likely to bite,” Mann said.
He wants to get the male bass fired up to trigger defensiveness in the female. However, he usually prefers to not catch the male first because that can make the female much more difficult to catch. Seeing what is happening ensures that he doesn’t set the hook on the wrong fish.
Seeing in the bed is also important for identifying any sweet spots where the bass seems extra concerned about invaders and for seeing how the fish reacts to every twitch, hop, shake or slide, or even to the bait sitting still. Every fish is a little different, and coaxing fussy ones into biting often starts with careful observation and consideration of clues. It can also call for a lot of patience.
Mann does all his sight fishing with soft plastics, and likes slender baits in subtle, natural colors. His traditional favorites have been a YUM Craw Papi and Vibra King Finesse Tube. However, this year he has leaned heavily on the new YUM Spine Craw, which has the narrow profile he considers crucial and provides just the right amount of movement.
“The Spine Craw does a really good job on the beds,” he said, noting that the appendages create a lot of subtle movement and that the claws move just enough when he shakes the bait without really moving it in the bed. His favorite Spine Claw color is Natural.
Mann rigs a Spine Craw with a 5/O hook and a 1/8-ounce weight, although he’ll go heavier with the weight if it’s too windy to maintain good control of the bait with 1/8 ounce.
Mann still uses a Vibra King Finesse Tube at times, primarily when a specific fish won’t quite commit, and he feels like he needs to show it something different.
Fish You Can’t See
Finally, it’s important to note that not all bedding fish are caught by “looking at them.” When Mann or his partner is working a specific bed, the other is usually in the back of the boat fan-casting with lures that will call fish up off beds when they pass over. If they are in a grass bed or around stumps or other cover, they’ll target holes in the grass and any visible pieces of cover as they work the area.
“We usually have three baits tied on for fan casting – A Boy Howdy, a Pad Crasher and a Thump’N Dinger.”
The Boy Howdy provides a slow option for casting to specific targets and raising the ire of any bass that might be guarding a bed. The Pad Crasher is critical when there is a lot of vegetation at the surface. Thump’N Dinger is rigged with a very light Texas rig and swam quickly, so it swims right at the surface, and the fast-moving tail ripples the water.
During a recent tournament, while Mann was working a bed fish, he noticed a spot near the opposite bank where the orange bottom color was just a hint darker, and he wondered if it might be a bed. His partner had a War Eagle Spinnerbait tied on, so Mann directed him to make a long cast just past that darker spot.
“When the spinnerbait rolled over that spot, a 3-pound buck came up and just crushed it,” he said. “They’re quick to attack a bait that gets close when they are unaware of your presence.”
Whether you see the bass or not, paying attention to every detail is critical to maximizing opportunities when bass are on beds.
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