Mike Long of San Diego, California in the U.S. has spent more than 45 years in search of giant bass and is arguably the most famous of all really big bass anglers. He fishes nearly 250 days a year and has filmed as much big bass behaviour as his hard drives allow. News editor Duncan Murfin managed to catch up with him, and even though he was on his way to one of his favourite lakes during the height of the post spawn, he happily shared some valuable lessons about big bass he has learned over the years.
“I’m going on 53 this year,” he says, and points out that he has been observing bass behaviour for the better part of 45 of them, spending parts of every month of every year out on the water on big lakes and on small ponds. “I have always been interested in how they behave, from peeking through holes in the dock to interacting with big bass underwater with a camera. Most people think these mega bass are super smart, but simply put they only ever do three things: they eat, recover and they spawn, and that’s it. You don’t find them off playing or relaxing – their entire behavioural pattern is dictated by instinct and natural drivers such as the moon, sun, weather, water quality, time of day and bait they’re feeding on. As these drivers change so does their behaviour – catching these fish is like playing a game of chess”, he says.
“If you’ve ever watched bass feeding on schools of bait there’s always those few individuals in the group that make the right decisions at exactly the right time, veering around cover or adjusting course when the bait pivots -these fish’s instincts are far more dialed in” he explains.
“Nature is quite diverse and not everything is created equal, otherwise the whole world would be a bunch of Einsteins,” he states, “and it applies to the bass world too. These bass start out in smaller schools where they find safety in numbers, but the bigger the get they more they tend to be loaners which often the bigger ones are. They just have better instincts than the rest and there is no other way to describe them than very territorial.”
Over the years and countless double digit (75 bass over 15lb) catches Mike has devised a methodology regarding bass awareness levels that he scores on his “on guard” system. It factors several environmental conditions such as barometric pressure, overhead conditions with water clarity, season and time of day. On bluebird, wind still days, on crystal clear lakes with 30ft-plus visibility, those big bass are on a level 5 on-guard, almost uncatchable, but should the conditions or light penetration change, so will their attitude, dropping them to a two on the “on guard scale” that ranks the potential of triggering a bite.
“Being such visual sight feeders a bass’ eyesight is a critical part of its survival,” he notes. “Just like humans their eyes consist of rods and cones in their retinas but bass have more rod cells which allow them to see better under low light conditions. Their sight is attuned to their environment and the bigger they get the bigger their eyes grow and that means the better they can see, it also means they are affected by light penetration so much more. On some of our lakes bass have physiologically grown with their eyes shifting to the top of their heads based on how they look up when feeding.
I’ve witnessed this phenomenon on trout stocked lakes. Those fish feed on trout most of their lives so are continually looking upward from under a dock. On lakes where bluegill and craws form the majority of their diet their eyes are situated more to the side of the head. These fish are used to looking downward to spot prey and likely rely more on their peripheral vision to chase down a carp or a catfish”, he adds.
The forage Effect:
Why are bass growing to such gigantic proportions in southern California? Mike Long believes the longer growing season (bass spawned in February this year) combined with the protein-rich trout forage is the key. “You won’t believe how quickly an 8lb fish can transform into a double digit or even bigger fish – it takes only 5-trout plants to gain almost a third of their weight. I film a ton and have seen fish on camera in specific areas with identifying marks and scale patterns that weighed maybe eight pounds, but just 5 weeks later they’re almost 12lbs with big hanging guts. The trout are super digestible with their incredible high protein these fish can jump weight classes by eating just a single trout. I’ve even seen 3lbers trying to eat a 1,5lb trout and that fish will jump to a 4lb class fish overnight!” he exclaims.
“There are a few lakes here that don’t have trout in them and the bass don’t get as big as the bass at Lake Dixon for example. Their diet is different, feeding mainly on bluegill, crappie, shad, and crawfish; they’re big-boned fish with massive frames but they don’t have that hanging belly. When you catch one you find they have boney mouths from the high calcium intake from the craws, but what they’re eating requires a lot of energy to catch and intestinally break down so they don’t pack on as much weight,” pointing out that a hatchery trout has almost no scales as opposed to a bony panfish.
My lake doesn’t have big bass?
“Bass size is relative to geographic location, but you’ll be shocked how many private pond owners I’ve consulted across the United States who believe they don’t have big bass in their lakes and then I prove the opposite. The “Bass Professor”, Doug Hannon talked about the potential for any lake to hold big bass; he broke it down into a pyramid to reflect population density of big bass. In Californian lakes and other record fisheries you might find a single 20lb class fish at the top of the pyramid, below it two eighteens, then four 16lbers and so on. These bigger bass are super special fish that operate on a different network, its also the reason you don’t catch one every day because the lake just isn’t filled with them”, he says.
“These fish are definitely older. I regularly take scale samples for aging and the oldest fish I’ve caught was aged at 15 years, which is pretty old for a bass although I caught a fish in the low 17lb range that was aged at 13, so I think growth potential varies from lake to lake when it comes to age vs. size.”
“They’ve evolved – what we used to regard as Florida Strain isn’t correct anymore and they’ve adapted to the body of water and local climate. Like in Lake Hodges, they’re Hodges strain bass and not Florida stain any longer. The geographic location, weather, length of warm water growing season, forage, habitat, water quality and overall ecosystem make up what that breed of bass will adapt and become in any part of the world.”
“A lot of big bass are caught around the spawn and I believe anglers see it as an opportunity to target a big female, but most of the time those true giants in the 16-20lb+ class are passed their prime and don’t come up to spawn. I don’t think they can produce eggs any longer – a lot of big fish I’ve interacted most likely have calcified eggs so they maintain their weight throughout the year. Small males often try to love drug these big females with it’s pheromones onto their beds but most likely the male gets eaten”, he reveals.
Night Time Giants
“With big bullfrog eyeballs – as big as yours or mine – these fish have adjusted their feeding patterns and predominantly feed at night. There’s a lake close to me where if you catch a single 10lber in a year it’s regarded as a great achievement! Most people believed there wasn’t a big population of big fish, or so we thought. Then the California Department of Fish and Game started trout plants and it’s as if these big bass came out of nowhere. They’d always been there – the only difference was that these night feeders had changed up their feeding patterns into the day chasing trout. This single fact might also be the reason another fish in the 25lb class might never be caught in California. Lakes like Dixon that are very small with 30 feet on average water clarity is where Dottie was famously caught is off limits at night most of the year, so unless you’re poaching you will most likely not be interacting with these giant bass during prime feeding times, and when these bass are at their peak weight. Last year I hooked into an 17lb bass and while I was busy bringing her in another giant bass that was thirty plus inches in length and nearly twice as wide, was biting it on the head. How big? I reckon every bit of 25lbs, although I have seen a completely other class of fish I estimate to be close on that 28lb mark, but I don’t think they’re even catchable,” he says.
Targeting these big bass
“Over the years I’ve filmed and interacted with hundreds of big bass with a few terabytes of footage. Two of the keys I’ve learned is that being stealthy is critical and imitating exactly what they’re feeding on is a must for triggering a bite. I spend roughly 250 days a year out on the water and will film as often as I can, and I can tell you these big fish spook easily. You can’t run into an area, make a few casts and then leave, you need to edge your way in, be quiet and stay off prime targets. The longer you wait before making the first cast helps you blend in until they move down the on guard scale, from say a 5 to a 2. The area also needs to offer a combination of prime habitat and ambush opportunities. When I’m targeting these big fish I just get a gut feel of where to be at what time and how they set up on cover or structure, but start fishing prime areas and don’t be afraid to put baits where nobody else does.
“The swimbait craze is massive over here in California, but in the world we live in where nobody can sit still, MSG in your food and A.D.D I see a lot of youngsters hoping for instant success. But you have to put in the time, and 80% of my days on the water I blank. These fish are so in tune with their environment anything amiss will put them off, like a bait moving too quickly or becoming conditioned to an angle of approach.”
He has this advice: “When you’re out on the water follow Nature’s cues and always have an open mind. Some guys like to think you can only catch giant bass on a swimbait, but they’d be wrong as I’ll catch them on anything they’ll eat, from a Senko to a crank, as long as its imitating the forage. What keeps me chasing these big fish is figuring out things about them I didn’t know”.
The big bass veteran shares this additional advice when putting in the hours chasing after big bass, namely, “Get proper sun protection and eat and drink properly!” As an endurance athlete he can’t emphasize enough the importance of maintaining focus, and being conditioned for fishing long periods and many days in row that require the utmost focus when a big fish does bite.
* Follow Mike Long’s big bass exploits on instagram: @mikelongoutdoors, and be sure to check out YouTube video “Largemouth Bass XL”, the definitive short film on big bass behaviour that includes never before underwater footage of monster bass feeding on trout, and his website: www.mikelongoutdoors.com.