by Jim Porter
There are a hundred (maybe a thousand) and one theories about where bass spend the MAJORITY of their time. I'm talking about what we like to call the "home" area. The general consensus of most anglers is that bass are normally in open, medium-depth water and only come shallow to feed occasionally. These movements to the banks, or shallow zones, are referred to as migrations. I have to admit that, in the absence of hard-core scientific data, the theory seems to be a good explanation. However, I am of the opinion that it is not necessarily fact. For a good many years, I have maintained a fishing log book and the study of that data, coupled with the recollections of countless trips to the pond, indicates that fish may be just like people and animals when it comes to living in a specific area.
For example, the human race can be found inhabiting nearly every place on this earth--Eskimos in the icy northern wastelands, Arabs in the deserts, Seminole Indians in the swamps, Tibetan tribes in the mountains, various races in the jungles. You name it and somebody lives there. Deer are similar. Some live in the swamps, others in the mountains and they do not seem to make any great effort to all gather in some happy climate where the livin' is easy. Porter thinks that fish are that way, too. Now, we all know that the various types of bass differ in their preferences for real estate. Smallmouths like deep, cool, clear, moving water with lots of rock and gravel. Kentucky bass seem to favor about the same features as the smallmouth, except that he doesn't care for the current and the surrounding water does not have to be nearly as deep. Largemouths prefer warm, stained water and normally hang out at a variety of depths. Although there are always exceptions, smallies and kentuckies generally do not vary their patterns very much. However, the old largemouth seems to live just anywhere he darn well pleases and can be found most everywhere in a given body of water.
To get straight to the meat of the issue, that log book I was talking about indicates that the largemouth bass can be found extremely deep, extremely shallow and at many places in between in the same lake on the same day. Through a system of tagging we have used, it also appears that a group of bass does not move too far from their selected area and has a tendency to be rather "homebound", for the want of a better word. The records show that a bass that was caught in more than 20 feet of water was never caught again shallower than 12 feet. Conversely, a bass that was caught in, say, four feet of water was never caught again deeper than 12 feet. A very interesting fact (and I call it a fact because it happened too many times to be mere happenstance) was that bass that are found in a shallow area of heavy cover, such as a large weed area or zone of standing timber, never seem to stray far from it. At best, a strong weather change may drive them out to the first breakline off the cover zone. But, more often than not, they just seem to go into the thickest part of the cover and enter a semi-dormant state until the weather stabilized again.
In one large weed flat on Lake Guntersville (Alabama), we marked a total of 37 different bass with yellow tags. In the next year, we caught over 30 fish, some twice or more, with the yellow tags (continuously releasing them). On a few occasions, we caught the yellow-tagged fish out on a drop in 10 or 12 feet, but never deeper.
About 500 yards away from that weed flat is a long bar that runs in off the river channel edge and swings back to parallel the channel. The channel is a bit over 40 feet deep at that point and the top of the bar is at about 22 feet. From this quarter mile stretch of structure, we placed red tags on 25 fish. My records show that we caught a red-tagged bass on 26 occasions, never shallower than 15 feet and never more than a hundred yards from the bar. I am at a loss regarding where or when these bass spawned, since we never found them shallow.
These findings held throughout the year, in all the seasons. In the Winter, the weed flat fish moved out to the edge of the weedline in 10-12 feet of water where, at this depth, the weeds continued to live throughout the cold part of the year. These fish could still be caught from the weed area but were extremely inactive until the warming trends began in February. Incidentally, we never caught any of the yellow-tagged bass anywhere but in, or near, that weed area.
We ran these tests on three other areas of two other lakes and the results are about the same. What value is this data, one may ask ? I suppose the real value is that it adds some to my understanding of the habits of the fish, something I'm constantly trying to do (mainly because I don't like them being smarter that me!). Seriously, though, it has helped my ability to find fish.
The theory of bass being linked to a general living area tells us that, if they are not where we expect them to be, they are probably NOT TO DARN FAR AWAY. Therefore, if we apply a bit of our knowledge of structure and use a map and depth finder properly, we should be able to find the critters. As the guy on TV said, "It works for me".
Another interesting item is the change of location due to a weather change. Now, we've already said that the shallow, weedbed fish either moved out to a drop just past the weedline or went into the thicker parts of the weed growth. Well, how about those bass out on the deep structure? I'm glad you asked! Weather had little effect on them, except in the early Spring. At that time, a good, strong cold front would push them right off the bar--but NOT deeper. They would suspend somewhere around 20 to 50 feet horizontally off the river channel side of the bar and generally at the SAME depth as the bar. Why, I don't know. Maybe it had to do with the fact that the moving current was less subject to change caused by the weather than the still backwater. It beats me. However, I do know that they were there because they could be seen on the graph and caught on a vertical jigged spoon.
During the past 14 years that I have been in Florida, I have noted this same "home area' instinct. We have marked hundreds of bass in the Farm 13/Stick Marsh and continue to catch them time and again in the same general areas that they originally came from. Biologists with the Florida Game & Freshwater Fish Commission also indicate that their electro-shocking and fish marking programs clearly show this same 'home area' trend. In fact, some of the biologists believe that the 'home area' syndrome starts with the new spawn crop and where the schools of freshly hatched bass first take up an extended residence. For the young-of-the-year hatch, this is usually an area with enough cover to provide small food chain substances and protection from the larger predators. It may well be that bass lives out its life without ever straying far from the original area of his birth.
In tracking these movements of bass, especially out on deep structure, a graph is really a help. There is one little trick that you should know, however. Remember when all the books said you could mount your transducers INSIDE the boat if you had a place with purely translucent fiberglass between it and the water? Those guys didn't have a graph when they told us that. The way to get the super clear readings on the graph, complete with all the "hooks" and other fishy indications, is to mount the transducer OUTSIDE. That's a big 10-4, Vern, baby. With the investment you've put in that recorder, you want the best out of it. You put that thing outside, for sure. If you want to prove it and you've got a compatible transducer up on the trolling motor, plug that front transducer into your recorder and see what you've been missing.
The summation of what has been said herein is that bass may well be `homebodies', living out their lives in a selected portion of a body of water. Some appear to prefer the shallows, while others like the deeper zones. It certainly would help answer the questions about why bass can be found at a variety of depths on a given day and why there always seem to be bass on certain structures year-round. But, there are a lot of questions remaining to be answered and that's part of the fun.
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