I see it all the time: The elementary-aged kid on my boat with his much more experienced bass fisherman dad outfishes his father 4 to 1.
In the early days, I really thought of this as beginners’ luck. But after seeing it so often for so long, I began to look for reasons for this great difference in results. I’ve narrowed it down to one thing: hook-setting.
Fishermen, and especially experienced bass fishermen who rely on soft plastic baits heavily, tend to develop an instinctual, reflexive, hard, sweeping hook set. Beginners, on the other hand, typically do little or nothing when a fish strikes. Sometimes this do-nothing approach is much more effective than overdoing it.
In the summer months, when topwater schooling activity typically peaks, several species on our local reservoirs (Belton, Stillhouse, Georgetown, Waco, and Walter E. Long) tend to feed at the surface more than during any other season of the year. Smaller largemouth bass up to 15 or 16 inches (often called “schoolies”), hybrid striped bass, and white bass are the species most prone to feed on topwater. These schooling fish work together to herd forage fish (typically threadfin shad) to the surface, pin them there and then feed on them. This behavior is more common at low-light times such as sunrise, sunset and when heavy cloud cover reduces direct sunlight.
I tell my clients to envision that for every fish that can be seen with the naked eye, there are 20-30 more fish beneath that cannot be seen. School sizes can easily range into the hundreds.
When fishing for schooling fish, I always advise my clients to look at the entire school, figure out the way they are heading, and then place a cast beyond the school (by casting completely over the top of the school) and just a few feet ahead of the school’s direction of travel.
As the lure is retrieved and struck by the fish in the school, I suggest simply maintaining the speed and cadence that attracted the fish in the first place without setting the hook until a fish has successfully hooked itself.
If the first fish that hits your bait gets hooked, you have accomplished your purpose. But if the first (or second or third) fish that strikes does not hook itself, your presentation is still right there in the thick of the school to attract another taker from the vast number of aggressive individuals in the school.
Were you to set the hook with a powerful rod sweep when that first fish hit, your bait would travel rapidly 8-12 feet away from the school at an unnatural speed, permanently breaking contact with the entire school.
Many times what looks (and can feel) like a strike is actually more of a “swat.” I’ve observed this at boatside hundreds of times. As two or more fish close in on the same bait for “the kill,” they detect one another and one or both will divert at the last second. This can result in a misleading splash or “boil” on the surface that looks like the fish has just taken the bait. Many fishermen will mistakenly set the hook when spotting this boil beneath their bait. Sometimes one of the fish will continue on toward the bait but just nip at the tail end, never getting a hook in its mouth. Keeping your bait in that vicinity as long as possible — refraining from setting the hook and pulling the bait far from these actively feeding fish — will allow other members of the school to move in and take your offering.
Topwater schooling action is not the only type of schooling action that exists — it is just the easiest to recognize. Whenever you are dealing with a concentration of fish, whether they are on the surface, just beneath the surface, suspended at mid-depth, or holding on bottom, if you are using a horizontal tactic to attract them (poppers, crank baits, lipless crank baits, spinners, tails-spinners, swim baits, etc.) this guidance applies.
Intentional concentration is the key. If you know you are prone to setting the hook hard, when you find yourself in a schooling fish situation, you must concentrate on not setting the hook by mentally rehearsing not setting the hook as you work your bait. Literally tell yourself, “I will not set the hook when I get a hit. ... I will not set the hook when I get a hit.” If your concentration wanes, your subconscious takes over and you’ll revert to your old reflex of a hard hook-set.
Give this a try. Perhaps this will be the week you outfish that kindergarten student.