Learn to fish the weeds, not avoid them

“How are they hitting?”

It’s the ultimate icebreaker when anglers meet. The other week on a nearby lake my fishing partner and I asked this question of two different boatloads of fishermen, and received two very different responses.

“Terrible!” was the first answer from a, shall we say, mature pair in a johnboat. “@#$% weeds. Didn’t catch a thing all day!”

“Pretty well,” said our second quizee, a younger fellow in a one-man plastic craft. “Been picking up a few out of the weeds.”

One question, two answers. Two different aspects of summer fishing when weeds begin to choke a good amount of our waters.

We all have this choice: to look at weeds as unsurmountable obstacles or as holding grounds for summer fish, especially bass.

Bass are structure-oriented creatures. In the early part of the season, structure is pretty much well defined. Stumps, fallen trees, rock piles — all these are pretty obvious. The trouble is, they’re obvious to everyone, not just you. If the water is heavily fished, rest assured that other anglers have worked these spots prior to your visit. They likely either hauled any resident fish out of there and kept them or at best made them hook shy.

When summer arrives, however, great structure appears everywhere as weeds sprout. These provide shade, cover, and oxygen for both bass and the baitfish that attract them. Canny anglers catch more fish by concentrating on areas where the fish are. And weed beds are just that place.

In bodies of water with few weeds, there’s not much question of where to try. For example, on one section of river where I frequently fish, there are only a few weed beds, and these are the spots I always hit.

However, on other waters, such as small, shallow lakes, at this time of year the weed beds stretch almost endlessly. So many weeds, so little time. Cutting down on unproductive areas saves this valuable commodity.

Not all weeds are the same. Some are more attractive to fish than others. In Pennsylvania we generally find water moss, pondweed, duckweed, waterweed, coontail and milfoil beneath or just breaking the surface. Emergers include water lilies, pickerel weeds, arums, cattails and rushes.

Areas where two types of aquatic vegetation come together are better than stretches of the same ol’, same ol’. Indentations and points in weed masses are also better than unbroken lines. A hump in the bottom surrounded by deeper water and covered with weeds is also good.

Now that you know where to look, the next question is what to use. The key is to avoid plugs with lots of hooks or lips that will grab any salad you pull them through. It’s amazing to me how you can catch fish on baits covered with rubber skirts, feathers, and other hangers, but let one strand of weed attach to them, the same fish avoid them like the plague.

In early morning or late evening, bass tend to feeding near the surface. If the vegetation doesn’t break the surface, any topwater plug can bring them out of their cover. My old faithful black Jitterbug is always my first choice, especially when there is a little chop on the water.

When the surface is glassy, I go to a Torpedo or Devil Horse. These don’t kick up as much of a ruckus, which may put bass down in still water. A trick I’ve learned is to cast the plug, let it sit until all the ripples vanish, twitch it a little, then retrieve steadily.

If the wind is blowing up whitecaps, the fish may need more stimulus. Then I go to a Pop-R or Chug-Bug, which puts up a more noticeable splash with each jerk of the rod. Another choice is a buzzbait, which I begin to retrieve before it hits the water on the cast to keep it just bulging the surface.

If the weeds cover the surface, I go to a soft weedless floating lure. Mann’s Rat, Moss Boss, or my favorite Yum Frogs are good choices. Keep in mind, however, that none of these are completely weedless. They will pick up some salad from time to time, but the hooks are hidden.

I vary my retrieves, sometimes going slow and steady and other times an erratic stop and go. I always pause over openings in the weeds, letting the lure sit for up to a minute, then twitching it before continuing the retrieve. This sometimes induces smashing strikes.

Plastic worms and slugs, Texas rigged with the hook point buried and fished weightless through the weeds, have been effective for me during midday when the increased sunlight moves the bass deeper in the water under the salad. I recently found some very realistic heavy crayfish imitations that are good for smallmouth in the weeds.

I tie the hook directly to the line, rather than on a swivel and leader as I usually do with plastic. The swivel is just another weed catcher when you drag it through the vegetation. Swimming tail worms add more action. These are great either dropped into holes in the weedbed or dragged through it. Keep a tight line as the bait sinks: bass will often hit it on the drop.

In sparse weeds or along edges, spinner baits are a good choice. They do pick up some garbage, but not as much as crankbaits, especially those with lips. I prefer white or chartreuse with double blades, usually a small Colorado coupled with a larger willow leaf.

I may add a grub or twister tail to the hook for additional attraction and a slower drop, but many experts recommend keeping them natural for better hookset. I retrieve these in a very herky-jerky manner.

Hook a bass near a weed bed, and he’ll do his darndest to dart into the cover. That’s why heavier lines and stiffer action rods are my choice. I generally go with my Ugly Sticks and 12-pound test line to horse them out of the thick stuff. A lot of times you’ll find yourself bringing in a haystack, which necessitates going through a lot of salad to find the meat.

I usually wear a bathing suit under my jeans when fishing at this time of the year to preserve my modesty if I have to go in after one that has hung itself up so badly that I can’t even winch it out. I’ve fished with friends who have been good enough to do that chore for me, but usually they just volunteer to hold the rod while I take the dunking.

For bait fishermen: I once fished with a guy who exclusively used minnows in the weeds to catch some of the biggest bass I’ve ever seen. He used a 12-foot pole with about 8 feet of heavy line attached only to the tip. He hooked a live minnow through the back and “dabbled” into openings in the salad, raising it to the surface where it wriggled enticingly, then letting it dive into pockets before repeating the procedure.

I had to keep alert because any time he would get a strike, the fish would come catapulting through the air into the boat or beyond, with no warning from my friend. Nothing like a bass upside the head to make you flinch while anticipating the next one.

Try my tips for greenwater angling and you too will look at weeds as an opportunity to explore rather than an obstacle to overcome.


Harry Guyer Jr. writes about the outdoors for The Sentinel.