To those who’ve hooked up big, and lost!

The ending to the College Football National Championship a couple nights ago got me thinking about this in relation to fishing. It was a heartbreaker for my team, UGA; couldn’t have been more devastating to have been up by so much, but yet eventually lose at the last moment. As we all know, it happens in fishing too.

How can we prevent this from happening, and how can we recover when it does happen? After all, UGA should be proud because they can at least look back and realize they were in the final game, played very well against a tough opponent, and anyone watching could see that those two teams would split, 5 and 5, if they played 10 times (although, we did block the punt and they were offside’s which the refs blew and it cost us points…just sayin). Back to kayakfishing, though. This is an article about some of my favorite tips that can spare you the heartache that UGA feels right now, and allow you that photo with a trophy you’ve dreamt of!

KEY #1 – Your skill/ability is likely already good enough to catch these monsters, but it’s your equipment that is failing you. 

1.) Do you have any idea why you’re using the rod, reel or line you’re using? Do you inspect this equipment? As an avid golfer I have learned a very cool thing about the game. You can actually get A LOT better by doing nothing but changing to the proper equipment. This means using the proper length clubs for your height, getting them adjusted to the proper lie angle for you swing, using the proper shaft weight, kickpoint/flex (a lot like M, MH, H action in rods), proper grip size, and even the proper ball for your swing speeds as well. Get all of that right and you’ll shoot lower scores than you were before, period. Can the same be true with fishing equipment? In an upcoming episode of Hooked on Wild Waters, I actually delve into this more (airing the last Wed in March), but for now I can tell you the answer is of course YES.

If you’re flipping in thick vegetation and you’re using 20lb braided or monofilament line, a 6.3:1 ratio reel, or a 6.5 ft M action rod, and you lose a citation sized monster, that’s on you! Think about it, the hardest part is getting the bite; you did all that it takes to get yourself to that spot, at the right time, made that proper flip, with the proper bait, and then you let it all go for not because you didn’t have the right equipment? It makes no sense. Why would you have even left the driveway that morning if you didn’t have the proper equipment/tools to get the job done? You really need 50+ lb (preferably 65lb) braided line when flipping in heavy cover, and a 7’6 length or longer rod and a higher speed reel. You would have had that trophy if you had done something so simple, that requires nothing to change from your coordination, skill or ability standpoint; your cast, bait, selecting the proper fishing location etc were all there, and yet the easiest of all the variables to get right was not correct. Yet, many focus on these types of things last, not first, when trying to learn how to catch big bass. Of course the opposite could be true as well, you could be fishing with 50lb braided line in a crystal clear lake or river and never get the 10lber bite that would have come when your jig bounced past that boulder in 14ft. You’ll never know that the lunker looked it over, noticed the odd thick string coming from the bait, and passed.

Similar to your rod/reel/line equipment, your lure choice and its components are key as well. Think about this; in golf the ball is the only piece of equipment that is repeatedly used on every shot. Any golf pro, or anyone who is actually trying to achieve the objective in golf (least strokes), doesn’t play with a scuffed ball; this affects the flight tremendously which could cause them to be further away from the hole, and less likely to make that putt. In fishing, we at least can mix it up and switch to different lures throughout the day, but why are we still throwing that lure with a rusted hook, dull hook point, or weak wire? Similarly, if we’re hunting giants, how do we actually think they will stay hooked if we’re using a roostertail or beetle spin? Smaller baits with smaller hooks possibly “could” bring in a lunker, but your odds are actually decreased given their smaller size (which typically a big bass doesn’t want to waste his energy for) and their smaller hook (if you happen to bring it right past their face and they do bite). The bait itself and how big the hook is, is more important than people think. Most all of my big bass have come on lures with large single hooks – Chatterbaits, Swimbaits, Spinnerbaits, Jigs, Buzzbaits. One last tip in this section, please inspect your lure before each cast. If it is a soft plastic and is bent or slipping off your hook, you’d just be wasting your time throwing it. I see too many people sling lures back into the water that are covered in weeds, mis-shaped, have hooks tangled etc and there is no telling how many big fish they could have hooked up with if all those wasted casts were good casts.

Every seemingly tiny equipment improvement increases your odds at landing a lunker, but they all add up to increase your odds significantly. Even when it comes to your kayak, paddle, fish finder, anchoring system or kayak rigging. For all those tournament anglers out there, how much would you pay to be allowed 10, 20, 50 or 100 more casts on tournament day compared to the rest of the field? Over the course of the day, having the proper kayak, paddle, and rigged out setup can allow you to be more efficient and get those extra casts. If it only takes one cast to catch a bass, how many more “could” it allow you to catch if your watercraft’s equipment is on point?

What equipment do I use, that either helps me get more casts, be more efficient or holds up to the rigors of a big bass? Jackson Kayaks, Bending Branches Paddles, Z-MAN lures, Hi-Seas line, 13 Fishing Rods/Reels, Gamakatsu Hooks, Raymarine fish finders, Yak Attack accessories & Leverage Landing Net, Power-Pole Micro Anchor, Anchor Wizard, SMITH optics just to name a few.

KEY #2 – What I’ve learned over the years with fighting big bass, and how these physical and mental skills can increase your odds.

1.) Now, part two here is more skill related, and this is where your personal ability can make a difference. Unlike golf, the most important parts of football or fishing can only be practiced in the game, vs a real opponent, or when hooked up with a giant bass that has strength you’ve never had experience handling. You flip that 3lber in the boat like it’s nothing, but try doing that with a 6, 7 or 8+lber and you again end up in heartbreak. UGA couldn’t get better against Alabama without playing Alabama. They can’t 100% simulate or replicate the AL players in practice. However, every play in that actual game they are able to learn more about their opponent, and how to handle the next play better. You need to get more of those big bites (which you will now that you’ve read key #1 above) and have more experience with big fish on the end of the line, to know how to handle them. They are a different animal than fish in the 3lb range and below. You’re dealing with the strongest and most prime years of their lives (4-6 or 7lb range) and then to top it off your dealing with the wisdom of the older bass (7-10+ range). Think about your favorite athlete, in their prime and how dominant they were, and that is what you’re up against.

2.) First off, when I hook up I’m already confident in the hook set because I know I have the proper rod/reel/line setup, sharp hooks, etc. I can then usually already tell how big they are because I have this good equipment, so I don’t freak out and try to bring them in too fast. Bringing a big fish in too fast can lead to chaos before, or at the kayak, where they rip the lure out due to their power and the improper amount of force you’re giving them by pulling too hard. They use that super tight connection to their advantage and literally tear the lure out. Think about it, if you had a hook stuck in you and someone pulled super hard and you jerked back very hard, it very possibly would rip out. However, if they held the line tight, but not super tight, and then when you jerked and ran backward, they also moved towards you keeping the line the same “tightness,” it would be unlikely the hook comes out because the tension stayed equal. It takes two to rip a hook out of a fish’s mouth, you and the fish, and you can control what happens on your end to ensure that it does not happen.

3.) First chance I get, I try to see how well they are hooked. If you can stand, do so, it may help answer this part of the equation. This is valuable information on how you will proceed with this battle. If a fish is barely hooked, you’ll have to play the game of keeping the tension amount as equal as you can; you know that the current amount of tension is keeping the fish hooked, right? So, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it because a fish that is barely hooked needs to barely have energy left once beside the kayak. Along the same lines of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the direction the fish is swimming. If she is barely hooked and moving to the left, try and keep her moving to the left as long as you can. If a fish is solidly hooked, then you know you can use a little more force, if necessary. Now, why would it be necessary? Obviously if the fish is making a run towards a downed tree, or trying to dig under a rock you know you can take the chance of forcing her out or around that obstacle. If she is barely hooked, you’re now in one of the toughest spots in all of bass fishing because there is a chance you’ll lose this fish either way, but whatever path you choose you’ll be saying to yourself “I should have done the other.” If you put pressure on her to keep her away from cover, the hook has a good chance of pulling; if you allow her to go into the cover she has a good chance of getting so deep that the pressure you’d need to get her out is more than the pressure needed to attempt to keep her out of it to begin with. It’s a judgement call, but I play it like this. If I’m around rock, and she is barely hooked, I let her go under the rock while I keep my gentle pressure on the line. I’m still slowly wearing her down and unless I put a lot of pressure on the line the rocks should not cut my line. I can then change my boat angle and get to the side of the rock where I can try to get her out. If she is going into a downed tree, I am more likely to use the opposite approach. An underwater tree or root ball is an underwater labyrinth and however she weaved her way through it, is how she has to come back out! Trust me, if she’s barely hooked you’re now going to need more force on her than it would have required to just put that pressure on her to begin with to try and keep her out of the tree. You may lose either way, but knowing how the fish is hooked is critical to landing these big bass.

4.) Adjust your drag properly, and if you’re comfortable with it play them on the reel (if you’re using a baitcaster). I prefer to hit the release on my baitcaster and play them with my thumb on the spool. I can enforce less pressure on them quicker when I bow my rod and release my thumb pressure giving them line when they run. Likewise, I can also put my thumb down hard and pull back on my rod to horse them away from something if I have to. This is essentially like owning a $1000 digital camera and then for some reason only using auto focus instead of manual. I mean, you can get some “nice” shots on autofocus, but you can never control things the way you can on manual, which equate to “great” shots. More control over your situation is what you’re getting. You’ll never be able to adjust your drag quick enough in the middle of a fight for it to help you unless you are in open water. I fish a lot of rivers and shallower water, so there is always structure around. To me, I set the drag mainly for the hook set and the beginning of the fight, then switch to manual to control the situation and bring her to hand!

 

5.) Don’t let them jump if you can help it. Being in a kayak, and low to the water, is a nice advantage for us. If you have to dip your rod tip further down in the water to ensure that you keep her down, when she appears to be rising, do it! I know, I know, we all love the jump, but don’t you love landing the fish more? I’ve lost a lot of fish due to jumps, and many times while filming Hooked on Wild Waters, because I am purposely letting the fish jump for the cameras; it’s not worth it! The lure is free to swing around in the air, whereas underwater it has little force when their head shakes due to the water’s resistance on it. When they do jump, all you can do is continue to angle your rod down, lessen your tension some (not completely) and say a prayer!

6.) Close quarters combat at the boat; to net or not to net? I have to admit, I like the challenge of bringing a big fish in by hand, and with a huge mouth it normally isn’t too hard. However, if you are in a tournament or are comfortable with a net, and have a good one like the Leverage Landing net, it is helpful for kayak anglers. Many big bass do get away right as your trying to get a grip on them at the boat, but with a net they’d already be in the boat. If you choose to bring them in by hand, here are some tips. Take what the fish is giving you, meaning if the mouth isn’t open or easy to grab, just throw your hand under their belly. Likewise, for a fish like a smallmouth, you can sometimes grab them with one hand on the top of their back to pick them up. If a bass has treble hooked in its mouth, it’s smart to use one of these alternative methods anyway.

The second part to close quarters combat is to remember to leave a lot of line on the rod, and be ready to “bow” to the fish when they make their multitude of boat side runs. They are going to give it everything they’ve got and if you wind up too much you’ve got no slack left to give them and it will either break your line, your rod tip or simply have too much pressure where they rip the hook loose. People notice that my reel often hangs off the other side of my kayak, even into the water, as I leave so much line loose to be able to give it back to them if they run. I don’t like the fact that my reel gets wet, but I’d prefer landing the fish first and foremost and I can always re-grease and tune up my reels before the next trip.

To sum it up, it’s not worth it to play this game, any game, with the wrong equipment – you may make a play or two, but you won’t win the big one. Georgia and Alabama had the equipment, facilities and the players with the skill to win the big one, and that is how they got there. Even if you can “get there” or “get the bite,” taking home the trophy is tough and it still doesn’t always happen. So, whether you’ve had more days like Alabama or days where you’ve come up just short like Georgia, stay positive because unlike in football where they get one shot, every single day can be a day you hold a trophy for a bass angler.

PS, the title of my post reminds me a lot of my dad’s message about “Those Who’ve Loved and Lost” referring to when we’ve lost a loved one, or something of great value. I felt it appropriate to add a link to this in case someone out there has recently lost something a lot more important than a big bass, and may need help understanding it. Hope this helps! https://www.sourceministries.net/go/2010/11/to-all-whove-loved-lost/

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