By Neil Dootson (a.k.a. Sinista) -
I can remember fishing local ponds and lakes that were completely choked by vegetation and thinking to myself, “there is no way that bass could be in vegetation that thick, and if so, there is definitely not a lure in my arsenal that could extract them from such heavy cover.” This was all of course before I had learned the essential art of punching mats and heavy cover for giant largemouth – “Boxing For Bass.”
Mats and Matted Vegetation
Mats are best described as isolated patches of floating vegetation that have been pushed together by boat traffic; not to be confused with matted vegetation, which occurs when grass or vegetation grows so thick that it begins to double over on itself – forming a layer on the surface which appears thick enough to be walked across. Depending on which region of the country you are fishing, this vegetation could consist of coon tail, hydrilla, lily pads, water chestnuts or whatever tends to grow in your neck of the woods.
Bass stack up in heavily matted cover for a number of reason; cooler water in the heat of the summer, an abundance of forage, protection from birds of prey, the list goes on and on – regardless of why they are there, your job is only to find them and wrench them out.
The Set Up
For those of you who may not be familiar with this technique the set up is comprised of a few readily available tackle components; a bobber stop, heavy tungsten (for the best sensitivity) flipping weight (ranging from ¾oz up to as much as 2oz – depending on the thickness of vegetation or cover you are attempting to punch through), a punch skirt (available for purchase from Tackle Grab and Boag Hog Baits), a heavy wire 4/0 to 6/0 straight shank flipping hook ,and lastly a soft plastic bait of your choice.
This set up should be fished on a heavy or extra heavy rod – I prefer a 7’2” extra heavy rod – a quality bait caster with a high retrieve speed that doesn’t compromise drag strength (when in doubt lock the drag down completely to prevent bass from getting deeper into the vegetation), and, most importantly, a minimum of 50 lb. braid (I prefer 65 lb. braid).
The act of punching mats is quite simple; a series of short flips or pitches are made to the designated target, allowing the weight of the set up to “punch” through the cover in order to reach the bass lying below. Some cover is undoubtedly thicker than others, hence the wide range of weight differences listed above. The bait is allowed to fall to the bottom on a controlled slack line, and then the bait is worked.
Here is where things get tricky – the definition of “worked” will change depending on a multitude of variables; thickness of cover, current conditions and fish activity. There are days that the bait is inhaled by the bass before it ever has a chance to hit the bottom, this happens frequently so be prepared, while on other days it requires a hop or two, a series of short to long lift and drops, or a banging of the bait against the underside of the mat or cover to trigger the strike.
Being as quiet as possible can be a critical factor although is at times of little importance. There are times where a subtle presentation, picking out a very small opening to squeeze the bait through is necessary to avoid spooking the bass as your bait enters the water, while on other days a bait pitched upwards 15 feet in the air – generating enough force to penetrate extremely heavy vegetation such as water chestnuts –creates a splash, ringing the dinner bell, thus alerting the bass to the location of the bait. It is all trial and error, and time on the water is the only way to determine what works and what doesn’t.
understanding bass and why they bite is a major factor when it comes to any style of fishing. Since a bass doesn’t have hands to grab and observe their prey, they are forced to bite it and hope for the best. When employing this technique, in my experience, the strike is based on reaction almost 100% of the time.
Punching heavy mats requires the upmost concentration; the slightest misjudgment or hesitation in your ability to sense the strike and set the hook could undoubtedly cost you the fish of a lifetime. “ALWAYS WATCH AND FEEL YOUR LINE” for changes in speed or direction. The strike could be as subtle as a change in the speed of the bait’s descent, a small bump and stop in the bait’s fall, or a strike so violent it nearly rips the rod from your hand. The first thing to remember is, “WHEN IN DOUBT SET THE HOOK” Worst case scenario, you and/or your partner will have to dodge an 1.5 oz tungsten being expelled from the cover at speeds in excess of 90 mph….tell me that won’t keep you on your toes!
Once you set the hook, your primary purpose becomes what I like to call “breaking the fish’s will.” In other words, you need to show her who is boss. This is accomplished by setting the hook hard and getting the reel cranking as fast as possible to get her head coming towards the boat, and for the love of god – once you do, “DONT STOP!” You would be surprised how easily a second of hesitation can allow a bass in heavy cover to gain the upper hand. If for some reason the bass should get the upper hand and ball up in the vegetation, don’t try to rip her out –“GO IN AFTER HER!” Some vegetation has sharp enough edges to fray even the strongest of braid; a knick in the braid, plus the force of the tug-of-war between you and the bass, could easily spell “YOU NOT CASHING A CHECK” in that day’s event.
For those of you who think 50, 65 or even 80lb braid can’t be broken – I’m here to tell you that it can, and I’ve experienced it more than once! Finally, after you get the fish coming in the direction of the boat, the next decision is whether you are or are not a net guy. This comes down to personal preference and the size of the fish. More times than not, I’m using the momentum of the fish coming forward to lift and swing her into the boat.
There are many other factors that often affect the outcome when punching heavily matted cover; bait style, size, and color, wind speed and direction, and water clarity and temperature .I’ve caught bass in 80 degree water while punching, and I’ve caught bass in water as low as 34 degrees, punching through the branches of newly fallen trees in the middle of a snow storm…true story!
There is no substitute for time on the water; the only way to really determine what works and what doesn’t is to get out there and start punching. I hope I have provided you with enough information to understand how, where, and –most importantly – why this technique works. Good luck, and remember – when in doubt….”SET THE HOOK!!”
Neil is the owner of Dark Side Reelz, a custom reel service center.
This article first appeared in Tackle Grab’s tips forum.