Ten-plus pounds — the double-digit — is what most would call the undisputed benchmark of a trophy largemouth.
It is a basser’s dream! However, only a few consistently sack up the double-digit trophy-sized bass.
Different day, different teener
John Liechty, a northern California fishing guide, is one angler who has racked up an impressive list of double-digit catches. To close out 2017, Liechty notched another double on his belt with a jaw-dropping 15.19 largemouth at New Melones Lake, California on November 15.
Yes, locating, hooking and landing a teener of any size is an impressive feat; however, to make this catch even more amazing, Liechty did it on 4-pound test. Yep, a 15-pound bass on 4-pound test!
And no, it isn’t the first time he landed a lunker largemouth on the lightest of lines. His personal best, a 17-pound, 4-ounce largemouth caught on April 6, 2012, also at Melones, tested his light-line prowess with 8-pound test.
If you’re like me, you wonder what his secret is to finessing teeners on the tiniest pound test. I asked, and Liechty didn’t hold back.
First on the list of his big-bass goals is maximizing his opportunity to catch one by targeting areas that are conducive to holding a fish of a larger class.
“You can’t get a big one to eat your bait if you’re not putting it where a big one can find your bait,” explained Liechty.
He described prime real estate for big bass as areas with good cover and good structure.
“What I mean by the structure is the contour of the lake,” he explained further. “The big ones live in deep water and feed in shallower water; so deep-water areas with adjacent shallow water are perfect lake features.”
Examples of this include intersections, bluffs or points that stick out in the lake; an island in the middle of a creek channel; or other areas that have multiple factors that are attractive for bass.
Work with bass behavior
Good cover is anything that offers a place for a bass to hide and ambush prey — any kind of wood, rock, vegetation, docks, pilings, etc.
Liechty uses the good structure/good cover combo to capitalize on bass behavior.
“Hiding places or ambush points give the bass an advantage, and when they feel they have an advantage, they can get arrogant, and those are the fish that bite,” he said. “Bass are creatures of habit, and they work on a risk/reward type of mentality; so, if they have successfully filled their bellies in a certain area or on a certain structure type, they will continue to frequent the area for a meal. If there is a certain island top that they consistently get a rainbow trout on, they will sit nearby, and when they feel the desire to fill their belly, they will move up and pick out another rainbow trout.”
Once the high-percentage target has been determined, Liechty suggests using a “stalking mentality” to access the area. As he nears his target, his approach becomes slower and slower, turning the trolling motor further and further down, the closer he gets. He ensures his ultra-quiet entrance by taking an average of one full minute to slowly approach for the perfect setup prior to the first cast.
“Opening and closing lids, clicking and stomping, even foot tapping sends a pulse through the water [even deep water] that will lessen the chance of catching a giant bass,” he advised. “Your noise will let them know you’re there and once they know you’re there, their mood to feed [or feed aggressively] instantly changes.
“Bass get trained — they get trained to the big motor sound, the wake crashing on their point and an artificial lure that comes splashing in. You can catch some fish with that approach; but again, the big ones don’t get to be big ones by getting caught, and a stealthy, hunting mentality is a huge factor in catching the big fish.”
When Liechty is ready to make the first cast, he considers the angle that would give the bass the best advantage over their prey, putting his bait in an area that he thinks would give the bass the feeling that it’s trapping its meal.
If that doesn’t bring a bite, he may leave, letting the area rest, and return at a later time to continue experimenting with a different approach or a different lure.
Curiosity killed the bass: lure selection
Liechty believes that the larger class of bass aren’t that curious — that the biggest bass get to be the biggest bass by specifically not being curious. Due to their lack of inquisitive interest in a lure, Liechty feels that a lifelike presentation and natural appearance are required of a lure for a big bass to fall to their feeding instinct.
“It just takes a lot to fool a fish of that size, so you want your bait to be an imitation of something that they have successfully fed on throughout their entire lifetime,” he said. “I learned about matching the hatch from fly fishing. If the fish were consistently eating grasshoppers, you threw something that looked like a grasshopper.
“It is the same with bass fishing. If they’re feeding on 2-inch shad, I’m going to throw a bait that looks like a 2-inch shad versus throwing a bluegill. On the same token, if they’re feeding near laydowns or bluegill spawning flats, I will switch to something that has the coloring and the profile of a bluegill.”
Why tempt fate? Why light line?
A fourth-generation angler, Liechty, 37, grew up fishing New Melones in northern California. He worked as a fishing guide from the age of 16, putting in 14 years exclusively as a fly fisherman. For the past four years, he has been a bass fishing guide on the lake.
He believes his success in light-line trophy catches is built on his fly fishing foundation. This foundation supports his theory that small-diameter line greatly increases lure action that heavier line simply cannot offer.
“If you tie a 2-inch fluke — like the one I used on the 15-pounder — to 10-pound line and give it a little shake, that is all it is — it is just a little shake; but if you tie it on 4-pound line, it quivers with a lot more motion,” he said. “Light line makes all the difference in a lure’s presentation, and the presentation is what tempts the bass to bite. You simply can’t land one if you can’t make it bite.”
You would smile, too, if you just landed a 15-pounder. John Liechty has another reason for the Cheshire grin, as he landed this giant on line just a little thicker than human hair.
How to win a finesse line fish fight
For John Liechty, the benefits of light line outweigh the risks; however, it is not a presentation for the faint of heart. Liechty has mastered the light-line fight, and with these tips, maybe you can, too.
“Fighting a fish on light line is all in the hands of the angler,” he elaborated. “Barring no interference from cover [wood, rock, etc.], as long as you use high-quality line and your knots are good, your line just doesn’t break. You are in control of it, and there is no reason to break off. If a line breaks in open water, it is because the angler applied too much pressure.”
He explained a light-line fight is all about give and take — having the right gear and knowing the gear. A rod with less backbone and a good parabolic bend deeper into the rod will work as a shock absorber and help with the fight.
“I also use a fly fishing technique of feathering the spool,” he added. “I adjust my drag so that it’s fairly loose. When the fish pulls, the reel starts screaming and the line pulls off effortlessly, pulling drag without breaking. When the fish slows down or I feel there is an opportunity to stop the fish, instead of tightening the drag, I apply pressure by cupping my hand over it.”
His hand-feathering provides tension on the spool without working the mechanics of the drag and leaves him ready to immediately release pressure with his hand if the fish starts surging.
“Between surges, when the fish rests or is just wallowing, I pick up line,” he said. “I will tighten the line a click or two when I feel I can gain on [it], but if I can see by [its] behavior [it’s] getting hot again, I will go back to hand-feathering the spool.”
He combats fish jumps by “hanging on for dear life” but tries to prevent the situation altogether.
“You cannot really stop the first jump, but sometimes you can talk them out of it with the rod tip down and the line in the water, just really switching a lot of angles as they move,” he said.
If a jump does occur, he opts for a neutral stance. He ceases attempts to gain on the bass by relaxing some of the bend in the rod, lessening the tension on the bass and decreasing the chance of a jump.
“It is a fine line when lightening up on the pressure,” he said. “You only want to let the bend go slightly, not enough to cause slack line.”
He will also “chase the bass” with the trolling motor, using a quick speed and staying on top of its position, giving with the surges and reeling in as it comes up.
“A lot of times, when you land a big bass, it is because [it goes] straight to deep water, and that is what you want them to do,” he added. “If they go shallow, there are many things that can break you off. When they scream their way out to the lake, staying close to them makes it easier to get your line in, and you have to get all of the line in to get the bass in the boat.”