Bass in the Grass

Clustered throughout northern Wisconsin’s wilderness landscape is a collection of inland freshwater lakes. From infertile, rocky, oligotrophic coldwater lakes to fertile habitat mesotrophic lakes to heavily vegetated, nutrient-rich eutrophic waters, the Northwoods has types for all bass fishermen and their preferred styles of angling.

The diversity of lakes is so huge in terms of size, configuration, water chemistry and biota. Complex factors such as soil, topography, bottom composition and fertility all combine together to help determine the physical and chemical characteristics, which sets up a bass fishery.

Oligotrophic and mesotrophic lakes are common in Wisconsin, and these have distinctive underwater terrain, topography and a food chain of forage suitable to smallmouths. These waters are rich and plentiful with rock habitat and hard bottoms with fluctuating depths and deep underwater structure and are dominated by a biomass of crayfish forage and pelagic baitfish. Their attractiveness on maps and physical features aesthetically appeal to smallmouth fishermen, compelling anglers to fish them prominently. The more topography and better habitat there is, the better the smallmouth fishing. But in midsummer and fall it could be the exact opposite.

While every lake is comprised of unique characteristics, there are many waters dull in topography that lack ideal features. The terrain of these lakes is mostly open-water basins of moderate depth with high consistency, little distinguishable underwater structure and poor contour. Rock habitat may be sparse, sand bottom can abound, and some artificial habitats such as fish cribs and laydowns may have been dropped because that lake might not feature much of anything else. The fishery might be somewhat infertile, but the smallmouths could care less as they’ve adapted to look beyond the obvious for their living quarters.

On the bottom of lakes there is a complex organism serving as the lake’s cradle of life and provider of health and the fisheries’ well-being: sand grass.

Sandgrass characteristics
Sandgrass, commonly referred to as “chara” or “nitella,” is the most advanced form of algae. Often mistaken for a plant, it’s a complex organism that continually photosynthesizes to the sun and grows into short thick mats year ‘round. These commonly blanket a lake’s basin in depths of 15 to 25 feet and are branched with no root system. Sand grass may grow upward into the water column, providing an even greater attraction and appeal for fish. Sandgrass is light green and yellow in color with stems and branches that are hollow with rough ends. When crushed, these emit a musty scent.

In all lakes where it’s established, sandgrass is an integral component to the habitat and health of fisheries. Chara and nitella is a promoter of water clarity and bottom stabilization, prevents sediment buildup and slows the aging process of lakes. It drives the ecosystem and provides food and cover for macroinvertibrates, forage species and predators, produces rich oxygen content for the entire biomass and is the epicenter of an entire lake’s food web.

Lake locations
Many lakes with sand grass rear healthy populations of smallmouths, and fish in these waters quickly adapt with the available habitat for spawning, feeding and homing. Sandgrass is unique in that it grows in deeper water more than any other aquatic plant and often is the only deep-water cover available in lakes.

The peak growth of sand grass is in summer when sunlight penetration is at its greatest. The sand grass pattern begins to take shape in midsummer (late June, earliest) as fish have begun their post-spawn feeding activities and movements and surface temperatures have surpassed 70 degrees. The sand grass bite is fully established now in July and during the summer peak when thermoclines typically form on some lakes, driving smallmouths to seek deeper, cooler depths with structure and cover. These mid-depth ranges of 15 to 25 feet is where the lake’s water temperature is the coolest, the oxygen content is the richest and the habitat is mostly sand grass. Smallmouths and other species gravitate to these locations with many remaining there through fall.

While sandgrass can blanket the entire lake bottom, finding smallmouths on their expansive beds can be difficult. Large sand grass flats will scatter smallies throughout, but thicker clumps with unique features that grow upward into the water column and specific spots differentiating from most other areas of the bed are best. Open pockets in between clumps and grass beds are high-percentage locations too, providing smallmouths with ambush points.

Without scanning, little in terms of sand grass consistency, depth range, size of the clump and its attractiveness and propensity to hold forage and smallmouths, can be deciphered. Charting with Navionics and scanning a lake’s basin and using side imaging and a chirp sonar is huge for this precision-fishing strategy. These tools tell you about a specific region, and if it’s a grass bed or not.

On lakes I know that are rich in sandgrass habitat and poor in structure and topography, I’ll spend time charting its waters and basin prior to fishing. I’ll study my screens and zigzag a section of the lake’s basin nearest to its undefined, unpronounced structure and contour. My scanning will often begin within proximity to a secondary point, a deep hump, along the deep edge of a shoreline flat or extension leading to deep water, and the deeper regions located beyond fish cribs that are commonly submerged at 15-foot depths on clear, infertile waters. I’m generous with marking waypoints over sand grass clumps and whenever I’ve marked schools of baitfish and smallmouths. Seeing baitfish, schools of yellow perch and bluegills on the screen, in addition to smallmouths coughing up partially digested forage, is a sign of a good area. Once my starting points and fish locations are zoned in, it’s time to run some precision boat control and deploy my seek-and-destroy unit of baits. The fishing at this point turns itself into a highly engaging and entertaining video game.

Way better than a PlayStation
When hosting my guests for the day, I fish and instruct from my Ranger’s rear casting deck. This affords me the luxury of paying attention to my screen at the console. I’m able to control the Minn Kota Terrova trolling motor with the remote control and its foot pedal when necessary. As I see clumps of sand grass and indentations of fish on the side imaging, my Lowrance Elite 12 TI at the front deck will produce the same picture. I can then instruct my guests in which direction or what distance to flip their drop-shot rigs and jigging plastics away from the boat. On the sonar and down imaging, I can instruct them when we’re parked over a school of active smallmouths. Now, they’ll be able to see the same detail from the networked screen I keep at the front deck as well.

Smallmouth schools are commonly wolf packs of 10 to 20 fish, sometimes more if they’re active and feeding heavily. When we are on top of the schools, I park the boat with spot lock and we all jig and drop-shot different styles of soft plastics within range of the boat’s transom and bow-mount transducers. Fishing and navigating from the back of the boat, while paying attention to the big screen in front of me, I can see everything that’s going on around us underwater, including strikes.

Fishing grass in sand isn’t all too tricky. With some type of a vertical jig and plastic combination or a drop-shot rig, my seek-and-destroy unit is an unbeatable combination for these open-water basin smallmouths. Soft plastics and finesse offerings fished with fast-action rods and light lines dominate. Not once is anything ever casted far off into the depths; we fish our targeted sand grass clumps as vertically under and near to the boat as possible.

Drop-shot rigs are unquestionably the easiest presentations to coax sand grass-dwelling smallmouths with. The ability to read electronics and have a magic touch and feel for the rig surely makes a difference. With a skinny 3/16- to 1/4-ounce drop-shot sinker and minimally exposed hook, the vertical format of the rig enables you to work the plastic offering through the grass without snagging branches. The drop-shot rig is the most weedless, favorable presentation, putting sheer numbers of bass into a boat. Rigged with a worm hook presented weedless, any finesse soft bait can be successfully fished through the sand. If the hook does catch tiny branches, give the rod a quick snap to free the rig from interference.

Most of these waters don’t have crayfish, so the lake’s forage is driven by a biomass of juvenile yellow perch, bluegills and shiners. In the vicinity of sandgrass clumps, smallmouths often chase the baitfish against the grass walls. They’ll also cruise around in wolf packs looking for them.

Minnows imitating smallmouth snacks are the most ideal. Minnow-profile favorites for drop-shot rigging are the 3-inch Stankx Bait Company DS Squirtz, the 3-inch Bass Assassin Shad Assassin, any clear, translucent 4-inch stick worm or jig worm or anything resembling a juvenile minnow and baitfish. Due to high transparency, matching the hatch on these lakes is a good strategy to follow.

Use a 7-foot, medium-light to medium-fast-action rod and reel spooled with super-thin braided main line at 10- and 15-pound test. Cortland Masterbraid and a 3-foot section of 10-pound-test Seaguar fluorocarbon attached by a blood knot or Seaguar knot will help you feel the sandgrass bottom along with the pounding of the drop-shot sinker, and bites will then be detected.

Fished with the same light-spinning tackle, jigging a minnow-style darter head paired with a 3- and 4-inch Fluke minnow in front of fish is another option. While one angler is working the drop-shot, another should hover a minnow down below the boat. Additionally, a 3-inch Strike King Coffee Tube rigged with a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce internal tube jig insert is good for backup, as it can glide and pop throughout the water column to trigger more aggressive fish. It’s also fairly grass resistant as well.

Besides these offerings, a number of other presentations can work including weedless jigs, live-bait rigs, Carolina-rigged plastics and vertically jigged blade baits and spoons. But those tactics are best reserved for the fall and under different circumstances.

Fished entirely with light-action spinning rods and reels, midsummer bass-in-the-grass tactics have saved many scorching hot afternoons from futility with rod-benders aplenty. Trips of enormous numbers, unparalleled excitement and some occasional giants are to be had. The style of fishing isn’t too technical, other than the requirement of precise boat control in conjunction with the ability to map and pinpoint smallmouth-holding sandgrass locations.

Savvy smallmouth anglers seldom hesitate to try the habitat and natural structure of sandgrass that provides a major source of food and cover. Even if it seems that it’s not normally associated with smallmouths, it’s been proven to be a fish magnet and the cradle of life in many northern Wisconsin lakes.