You could say I’ve been a bass fan since my first encounter with a largemouth at age 6 or 7. Once summer vacation arrived, our family vacated our apartment in Manhattan, where my parents were college English professors, and headed north.
My brother Tom and I were turned loose upon Adirondack lakes in upstate New York, where we taught ourselves to fish. We enjoyed catching a variety of species, but tossing plugs for largemouth bass inspired both of us to spend our lives studying and pursuing fish.
In the ensuing 60 years, I’ve chased largemouth across 36 states. I’m hardly alone. The most recent angler census points to some 13.5 million adults who pursue this species, making the largemouth one of America’s premier gamefish. And it is the undisputed king of the Micropterus clan, the genus designated for all species of black bass. This group now numbers 17 members, thanks to recent genetic research. The largemouth is by far the largest, with a maximum weight more than 10 pounds greater than the next largest member, the smallmouth bass.
Though largemouths can grow big and are exciting to hook, they’re outdone in those regards by many of their freshwater neighbors and an ocean of gamefish. What really sets the fish apart is its remarkable versatility and adaptation to so many natural and man-made habitats. From their aboriginal home in the marshy haunts of the Southeast, largemouths have found waters to their liking in 49 states, four Canadian provinces, major sections of Mexico and more than 50 countries on four other continents.
In this country, they thrive in miniature man-made ponds of the prairie and southland, irrigation canals of California, vast natural lakes from Okeechobee in Florida to Lake of the Woods in Ontario, arid desert impoundments, steep-sided reservoirs of the Ozarks and many more. In each, they’ve carved out a niche, consuming whatever fits in their namesake maw. For me, it’s these varied waters that make chasing bass so intriguing.
Few things in fishing are as exciting as firing a pin-point cast to tempting cover and being rewarded by a big boil and a huge mouth engulfing your lure. Newbie anglers may be so startled they neglect to set the hook. In lakes, rivers and ponds, “bassy” cover includes fallen trees, boulders, old stumps, water lilies and the like. But even in less pristine environments, I have fond memories of lunker largemouth that had taken up residence in a shopping cart discarded in an urban pond, and in a massive tractor tire rolled into a water-supply reservoir in California.
Casting to visible targets requires skill and practice, but there’s much more to largemouth fishing. Using one of the latest side-imaging sonar units, I’ve been able to count big bass lined up along the railing of an old bridge in 23 feet of water on a big Texas lake. Deep-water discoveries aren’t new, but with today’s tools we can so clearly see hidden bass habitat and tell whether anyone is home that some call it cheating. But as we’ve so frequently found, locating bass is one thing; getting them to take is something else. Despite their looks, largemouth aren’t eating machines, but rather discerning predators that carefully weigh the risks and rewards of an attack, no matter how tempting the target may look to our eyes.
Check the results of a pro tournament. Top finishers typically collar some impressive fish. But scan down toward the bottom of the scorecard, and you’ll find anglers who have devoted decades to studying this fish and have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment, only to catch three or four small ones over several days of competition. Largemouth are both simple and complex creatures, which makes pursuing them over a lifetime so rewarding and humbling.