Do largemouth bass learn from experience or are they just naturally cleverer than us? Discussions with other anglers have confirmed that the experience I describe in this post is a common occurrence, but no one has come up with a satisfactory explanation. I invite your speculations.
My unplanned experiment in trying to outsmart the bass began when I decided to spend a morning at a local lake, practicing my casting and, along the way, catching a few bream. The water had finally cleared up, after a few days of turbulence stirred up by big rainstorms. Thus, it was easy to spot the bream, swimming in a few feet of water. Fingerlings, recently hatched, were also clustered in schools at several points near the shore. I started out by casting short distances with a green, yellow, and white popper with little rubbery legs that evidently looks like a disoriented but tasty frog to the fish. I found that the bream hit the fly either almost immediately when it landed on the water, or else they ignored it.
As I was doing a retrieve after a cast, I noticed a dark shadow cruising among the bream, about 15 feet from shore in water that couldn’t be more than three feet deep. Next to the bream, it looked huge, and I knew it wasn’t just an overgrown blue gill. Instead, it was a big largemouth bass – at least a foot and a half long. If I could see it, could it see me? It didn’t seem at all concerned. The bream didn’t seem afraid of it, either. They just scattered as it cruised among them, taking their time getting out of the way. I tried casting my popper directly in the path of the bass, but it didn’t even both altering its course to investigate. I briefly considered trying something else, but the bass looked like it was just out for a recreational swim.
By contrast, the bream actually seemed to be fighting among themselves, at times, to eat the popper. I forgot about the bass. Then, as I was bringing in a small fish I had hooked, I saw a flash in the water and whoosh – not wham – the bream was gone. Only silently spreading ripples marked where the fish had been. Suddenly, my line straightened and I felt it being pulled out toward the middle of the lake. My first thought was, wow, this little fish really puts up a fight for someone its size. My second thought was, that damned turtle is back (the one I scrimmaged with a few weeks ago). My third thought, however, was that no turtle swims this fast and tugs this hard – I was holding my rod with both hands.
I quickly realized that the bass I’d seen previously had grabbed the bream and was taking its prize to deeper water to eat. I kept giving it line and held my rod tip up, hoping that the bass had actually eaten the bream & thus might be snagged on the hook. It pulled about 25 yards of line off my reel, with no sign of stopping, and I had a brief vision of watching my backing get burned up by this run. (Ok, a dumb fantasy.)
Regrettably, the bass eventually figured out that its lunch came with a string attached. After what seemed like an eternity but must have been only about 30 seconds, it was over. The line suddenly slackened & I was once more just “fighting” a bream. I reeled it in and when I netted it, I saw bite marks on its side and tail. However, they were superficial and it didn’t seem much worse for the wear. I released it and it swam off.
After reflecting on what it happened, I abandoned my original goal of catching a few bream & began to think of something bigger. Revenge? I tied on a black and green woolly bugger – my fishing club friends have shown me the way – and started casting where I’d last seen the bass. After 10 or 15 fruitless minutes of this, however, I snipped off the woolly bug or and went back to the bream, only this time with a bead-head copper john. The bream seemed to enjoy the change of pace.
I hooked another one and began stripping it in. I had pulled it to within five feet of the dock when once again, a dark form shot to the surface. This time, I not only saw the flash of the attacking bass but actually watched it grab the bream in its mouth. As it swam away, the fly popped out of the bream’s mouth and my dreams of landing a largemouth vanished once again. I don’t know if the bream got away, as both disappeared in a few seconds. I felt like I’d just seen one of those Animal Planet videos of a killer whale nabbing a seal off an ice floe.
Now, I know there is probably a scientific explanation for the phenomenon of bass stealing bream off an angler’s line. When a bream is hooked, it starts darting about frantically, sending out a signal of “fish in distress” which the bass probably interpret as “easy kill coming up.” However, I’m considering another hypothesis. Namely, these largemouths are really clever and are just hanging around offshore, waiting for us to serve up their meal for them. If my 5-wt rod could throw a big fly that looked just like a blue gill in distress, I think I’d hang out a sign “dinner served” and try winning this battle. In the interim, I’ll just enjoy the show.