“Matching the hatch” is a fly fishing term often borrowed by bass fisherman.
Basically it means fishing something of the same size, color and action as what fish become accustomed to feeding upon. Rarely does it have the same critical applications on big lake bass as it does on a trout stream, except during the fall.
The hatch on big lakes is shad. Billions of them are hatched during the spring. For most of the summer, bass don’t pay them a lot of attention, because they are so small, but by the fall they reach a substantial three-inch length and travel in large, obvious schools.
These pods of shad spend most of their time feeding on zooplankton and other minuscule things floating in the surface film. Gradually they work their way to the backs of bays, looking like clouds moving across the surface. They are easy to spot, and most of the time you’ll also see bass and other fish busting into them, minnows leaping like silvery streaks of an explosion. You can even hear there splashy disturbances from a hundred yards away.
On most fall days, bass follow and work over these minnow pods all day, which is why you need to match the hatch.
Like a trout during a Hendrickson hatch, they become accustomed to feeding on certain shape, color and size of food. I’m not suggesting that bass are as selective as trout, but by November they have been working over these shad pods every day for well over a month, so yes, they become highly selective.
A lot of fisherman, because they see all the surface commotion, make the mistake of fishing top water lures. What they’re seeing is hundreds or thousands of minnows leaping clear of the water to escape predators below. Occasionally the momentum of an attacking bass will take it above the water too, but all the attraction and action actually is taking place place under the surface.
A lot of what you catch near the top water column of these surface disturbances (called “jumps”) will be smaller bass. Bigger bass are attracted to them too, but they tend to hang a little deeper, more leisurely picking off cripples the frantic little guys miss, so it sometimes pays big dividends to count the lure down and retrieve it a few feet below the main mayhem.
My favorite lure to match this hatch is a one-quarter-ounce Rat-L-Trap, chrome with a blue back. It is the exact size of young-of-the-year shad during the fall and represents well the shape, color, flash and fleeing action of the real thing. The rattling noise it makes doesn’t hurt either.
Some other guides I know use the larger and heavier models, but I think the quarter ounce is the perfect size, and you can cast it a mile without backlashing. The only advantage to the larger lipless crankbaits is bigger treble hooks. I lose a lot of big bass on the quarter ounce Traps, but I’m convinced I get more strikes with it.
The manufacturer of Rat-L-Traps says the best way to fish them is fast, and that’s pretty much the case, so I use a reel that has at least a six-to-one retrieval rate.
(Because you fish it fast most of time, a limber rod with a soft tip, or a parabolic bend, will hook more fish than a stiff worm rod.) I’ll start out burning them back about as fast as I can for the first hour or two, then gradually slow down until I start catching fish. Most of the time, faster is better.
Fall fish are more aggressive than any time of year, and they are accustomed to fast-moving, fleeing shad, so while such a rapid retrieve may not produce as well as other times of year, it trips their predatory trigger during the fall.
How you approach these minnow pods is important. Most bays contain numerous minnow pods, and the temptation is troll around and chase the most active ones, but it is much better to study the scene, set up where you see the most activity and wait for the action to return. The second you see minnows leaping, cast just beyond the pod. Many times a fast retrieve with a momentary pause or two right in the thick of things brings a jolting strike the second you pause the bait. You can cast around when no fish are showing and catch an occasional bass, but it is much better to sit still with your thumb on the release trigger and wait for a visual clue.
Don’t just fish for them, hunt them. Quick and accurate casts the second a jump begins are most productive. If you cast about impatiently, many times a jump will begin, and sometimes it will end, before you can crank the bait in to make another cast in the right place.
Bass pursue and attack these pods like a pack of wolves. During the attack, it’s a helter skelter scene of carnage and confusion. Literally anything about the right size that comes near them will get smashed, but the more it looks and acts like what they are after the more likely they are to take it without hesitation.
It’s actually the easiest and most productive fishing of the year. You don’t need electronics, years of fishing experience or a boatload of different baits just a baitcasting outfit with 10 to 14 pound test line (from recent tests I’ve conducted, I think Sufix line is best) and some lipless crankbaits.