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Following Nature's Lead

Subtle weather changes throughout the day offer clues to bass behavior.

By Paul A. Cañada

The sun clearing the horizon exposes the dew of early morning. Sweet smells associated with East Texas’ rural countryside fill the air. Overhead, a flock of egrets, framed by a colorful canvas of clouds, wing their way to one of Lake Fork’s many protected coves.

Moving down the road, Mark Pack looks to his left and views a pasture of cattle, up and actively feeding. He immediately sports a wide grin. The veteran guide, successful lure designer and accomplished tournament pro knows what that behavior means to bass fishing.

“Active cattle, active fish,” he thinks. “Downed cattle, downed fish.”

Pack spent his childhood on his family farm in Roswell, New Mexico. The Packs grew row crops — wheat, corn, alfalfa and cotton — in the fertile valley of the Pecos River. When not working on school assignments or in the fields, Pack spent his time fishing the many stock ponds and small reservoirs near his home. It was there that he learned to look around for clues about bass behavior.

Most dismiss Pack’s cow-based prediction method as simple folklore, since there’s really no science to back it up. Cattle are domesticated and may not have the same reaction to subtle changes in nature that affect the behavior of wild critters. He admits, he doesn’t know why the two occurrences — active cows and actively feeding bass — go hand in hand, but he does know that, for the most part, at least anecdotally, the approach works. Many times catching fish is more a matter of confidence, and if seeing the cows up and feeding while on your way to the lake gives you confidence, by all means believe it.

“Nature provides us with plenty of signs,” says Pack. “It may be a slight change in the weather, a heron wading along the bank or a wake moving away from a shallow bank. If we pay attention to them, they can help us locate and catch bass.”

Nature’s Ways

According to Pack, weather patterns give us the greatest clues to changes occurring in the bass’ environment.

“The bass is extremely sensitive to changes in its environment,” says Pack. “As soon as conditions in the environment change, the bass can move from actively feeding to inactivity, or vice versa.”

With the exception of water temperature, it seems nothing affects a bass’ feeding activity or association with cover and structure as does light penetration. Many factors — water clarity, cloud cover, surface disturbance and the sun’s position in the sky — determine the depth light penetrates. Clear water, a high sun, cloudless days and a calm water surface all contribute to greater light penetration. Alternatively, less light penetrates under cloudy skies, in heavily stained or muddy water, or when the water surface is agitated by wind.

Typically, the greater the light penetration, the deeper the bass move, or the more cover-oriented the fish become. The bass move into shallow cover — aquatic vegetation, flooded timber and under boat docks — as the amount of light intensifies. If shallow cover is sparse, the bass may suspend along abrupt breaks into deeper water — such as a ditch, creek channel or wash.

Bass are normally found shallow and actively feeding during periods of low light penetration. Because of this, most anglers consider overcast days — and dawn and dusk — to be the prime times to be on the water. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Gary Garrett, a fishery biologist at Heart of the Hills Research Station in Ingram, believes the more successful bass may instinctively feed under low light conditions because it gives them an advantage over schooling baitfish.

“Bass are instinctive fish, and those that don’t have the right instincts don’t survive to reproduce. That’s what we call natural selection,” says Garrett.

“Like most predators, the bass feeds when the odds are in its favor. It must not expend more energy in the hunt, chase and kill than it gets in return from the digested food item. Mature bass learn to target sick or injured prey, or healthy prey that can’t quickly dodge or outrun an attack,” says Garrett.

Probably the most overlooked, yet significant, environmental change affecting the bass’ location, feeding activity or orientation to cover and structure is a change in wind speed or direction. Again, wind stirring up or agitating the water surface encourages fish to move shallow to feed. Additionally, wind blowing against a shoreline creates feeding opportunities. Bass cruise the edge of mud lines formed along a wind-blown shoreline, foraging for baitfish and crawfish feeding under the cover of the water-carried sediment.

Similarly, wind blowing against a point moves water and creates current. Plankton is blown against the point and concentrates baitfish and, of course, predators. The bass take positions along the structure or cover so as to take advantage of the super-charged food chain.

Many of these changes occurring in the bass’ environment are obvious. Yet others are very subtle. However, because most of these changes — whether subtle or fairly obvious — occur during the day of fishing, they’re hard for most anglers to recognize.

“A wind shift or change in cloud cover isn’t always easily recognized by the casual angler,” concludes Pack. “But, no matter how subtle or obvious a change may be, being able to recognize the change and make adjustments in your presentation is the key to staying in contact with fish. Those bass anglers unable to recognize the changes and make the necessary adjustments might as well call it a day.”

Like Pack, Weatherford’s Gary Klein owes much of his success to correctly reading nature’s clues. According to the former B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year, not all anglers are able to recognize the more subtle clues and changes. However, a group of sunfish rushing recklessly at a bank or a scattering school of shad is obvious enough for most anglers to see and understand. Clues like these abound in nature, and they tip anglers to obvious feeding activity.

“As I am fishing,” explains Klein, “I watch for any activity along the bank or in the water itself. Often, while moving along a bank, you will see or hear a small group of minnows scatter or a sunfish bolt. Other times, you might see a twig, lily pad or reed move and know something big moved. I can’t tell you how many times I have flipped to an area where a twig just moved and hooked up with a nice bass.”

Birds can also help anglers identify zones of activity. Large wading birds such as great blue herons will feed on many of the same prey items taken by bass, while slowly wading along a bank or by dropping from a perch. Diving birds such as cormorants, grebes and loons working along a bank often help anglers identify areas of baitfish activity.

Plugging into Nature

Klein believes most anglers’ inability to pick up on the subtlest clues is linked to their own environment.

“Those of us who live in heavily populated areas and make long commutes have a tremendous amount of environmental noise and stimuli coming at us all the time,” Klein says. “We’re conditioned to shut out the excessive environmental stimuli and to focus on only what’s immediately important. While that allows us to survive in the urban environment with some degree of sanity, it hurts us when we go outdoors.”

Klein’s point is simple: Most anglers’ focus is too narrow. When concentrating solely on the cast and retrieve, anglers miss what’s going on around them. They’re literally numb to the clues signaling changes occurring in the bass environment.

To better illustrate his point, Klein suggests the following exercise. Go to your backyard or porch and pause in silence for a moment. Close your eyes and carefully listen.

“If you concentrate enough,” suggests Klein, “clear your mind of unnecessary thought and listen carefully, you can hear a multitude of sounds, from miles away, that previously were unheard.

According to Klein, anyone can learn to be more observant, but it requires a focused effort, as well as plenty of time on the water.

“Admittedly,” reveals Klein, “I don’t have the ability to instantly put myself into that mental state. I think it’s because I am so socialized. That’s why I like unlimited practice time before tournaments. It gives me time to settle back into the bass’ environment.”

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fishery biologist and avid tournament angler Steve Magnelia spends many of his days working out in the field, yet he still finds he has to make a concerted effort to stop, look and listen to what’s going on around him.

“In the past, men and women spent their days hunting and gathering food, and working the fields,” says Magnelia. “They were required to spot subtle changes in weather and clues in their environment if they hoped to survive. Today, we get encapsulated in our houses and our cars and are no longer able to pick up on what’s going on in our environment.”

Magnelia has found two important exercises have helped him improve his awareness. First, he tries to spend as much time alone on the water as possible. Second, he likes to take slow walks through the woods by himself.

“When you fish by yourself, or walk through the woods alone, there’s less to distract you,” shares Magnelia. “If you slow down and take your time, you will see, hear and smell things you’ve missed in the past. I believe Rick Clunn calls this time alone the ‘sacred silence.’”

Pack, Klein and Magnelia all agree — the very best bass anglers excel at recognizing and understanding the many clues signaling changes in the bass environment. Equally important, the more accomplished anglers make the required adjustments to take advantage of these changes.

“The bass is a fairly simple creature,” concludes Magnelia. “Its behavior is closely linked to its environment. Changes in its environment often dictate a change in the bass’ location and activity level. The better we are at picking up on these changes, the greater chance we have at locating fish and making the right presentation.”

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