Knock ‘em out with the Punch Rig
By Steve Basinger
As we all sit here in our homes (or at work in my case) and watch this massive cold front get ready to slap the central U.S. with some unusually cold temps, I can’t help but think about one of the new techniques that I had the opportunity to learn over the 2013 season. That technique would be punching. And boy have I fell in love with it!
Pioneered in Florida’s weedy lakes, but applicable coast-to-coast, “punching” draws its name from the brutish action of driving a bait through a dense conglomeration of aquatic plants such as hyacinth, hydrilla, pennywort, milfoil as well as that slimy yellowish-green stuff. With this vegetation either free floating, or anchored by narrow roots, spacious caverns of moderate temperature and shady seclusion offer cozy bass digs below. Harboring baitfish and crawdads, while keeping the area well oxygenated, matted vegetation offers an almost perfect safe haven for largemouth bass.
What was very surprising to me was how well this technique worked on lakes that had matted vegetation. McDowell Dam, Fish Creek Dam, and Sheep Creek Dam were all great punching lakes, just to name a few. I can only imagine that this is going to work on any other lake thatprovides the same type of cover scenario as those lakes.
The Set Up
As much as I try to shy away from “gimmick” fishing tackle or just stuff that I think is expensive for no reason, I must say that a tungsten weight is a must for this approach. The reason for that is because tungsten is more dense than lead and, therefore, smaller than a lead weight of equal size. You want a heavy yet small, compact weight that is able to push through the thick mats of vegetation. The size of the weight that you use is dictated by the thickness of the grass. But as general rule, the lightest that I’ll use is a ¾ ounce with a 1 ounce being the most common that I use.
The choice of hook is also very important. First and foremost, you will need a straight shank hook. This is going to ensure much better hook sets. You’ll find that nearly every fish that you catch will be pinned right in the top of the mouth. I also prefer that there is some sort of a bait keeper on the hook. Because the bait is constantly coming in and out of thick grass, the bait will tend to want to fall down the hook. The keeper will stop a lot of that. Lastly, you want a strong hook that doesn’t bend much under pressure. When you set the hook on a bass that is under a carpet of grass with a flipping stick and braid, a flimsy hook will bend and will cost you fish. I personally like the Trokar flipping hooks. They are very sharp, strong, and have a keeper on them.
Braided line (something at least 50 pound test or bigger) is a must as is a heavy action flipping stick. While I’m sure that you could get by with a 7 foot rod, I won’t go with anything below a 7’6”. For nearly all of my punching over the summer, I used a Denali Jadewood 7’11” Custom Flipping rod. The extra length of the rod will not only help with leveraging fish out of cover, but it also will keep from wearing you out when you are pitching a 1.5 ounce bait all day. As for a reel, any high speed reel that free spools well should work fine. A bobber stop is also very important. If the weight is not pegged to the bait, the sinker will separate from the bait on the mat and then the bait will never penetrate the cover.
The soft plastic of choice is dependent upon the thickness of the grass and the mood of the fish. The thicker the grass, the smaller I like to go with the size of the bait. I personally like the Gambler BB Cricket. It’s barely 3 inches long and slips in and out of cover easily. If the grass isn’t too thick or if the fish are aggressive, I like to go with the bulkier baits like sweet beavers.
What To Look For
I think my favorite part about punching the mats is that I don’t have to wake up early to have a good day. With this technique, the brighter and hotter it is, the better the fishing will be. As the sun gets higher and temps climb, the bass are going to push farther and farther under the mats. Thus, the best part of the day is right around that hottest part of the day. When I have these conditions, I look for the thickest mats that I can find that have at least a foot or two of water beneath them. If feel that the fish are in an active mood, I like to fish fast moving baits like a hollow bodied frog over the top to see if I can eliminate unproductive mats. Once I start to get a few bites, whether that’s from punching or on the frog, I try to pay attention to what the grass was like where I got the last bite. Or what the depth was like or the bottom composition. Some days, nearly all my bites will come in one type of grass. Then a week later, they might be in the type of grass that was void of fish the week before.
No matter what type of cover I’m fishing, whether its docks, grass, stumps, etc., I first imagine where the fish would be if there were no cover. This would normally mean that points and deeper shorelines would be a good place to start. The same holds true when you add cover such as mats. Instead of just picking a random spot on a lake full of grass, you have immediately upped your odds of success by eliminating potentially fish-less areas.
When I’m actually fishing the mats, I look for irregularities in the mat itself. Anything that could make a good ambush spot or even more shade than the rest of the mat.
-Type of irregularities-
Points:These are just little spots where the grass just out at least a foot from the main bed.
Cuts: This is spot in the bed that creates a small “cove” in the bed.
Thick Spots: These create just a little more shade than the rest of the mat. Even the spots that are no more than a square foot in size are not to be overlooked.
Wood Cover: Anytime that there are stumps or laydowns in the mat, it is a bonus. With the heavy weight punching through the mat, it works like a rattle when you knock it off the wood by hopping it around.
Adjoining Vegetation: Whenever there are two or more types of grasses in the mat, I’ve noticed it work one of two ways. Either there will be random clumps of the “extra” grass mixed in or it will be where another type of grass bed is growing and forcing the original grass that I was fishing out. When it is the second scenario, I find that the bass use that second form of grass like a weed line and will stage there. It’s also important to note that a change in types of grass almost certainly means a change in bottom composition.
Lanes: These are lanes in the grass that are created from multiple sources (beavers, boats, etc.) and the bass often use them as highways to travel through mats.
Holes:Along with the obvious choice of flipping a bait into the hole, these are good to notice because this is often a hole that is made from a fish that has blown through the mat in pursuit of a meal. It’s a pretty dead giveaway that you are in a good area.
The Wind Up &The Pitch
When flipping/pitching an ounce or heavier bait, it can be a bit awkward. Experience has told us that to be effective at flipping, the bait needs to enter the water as quietly as possible. Preferably without making a ripple. While that holds true in most flipping presentations, that’s not necessarily the case when punching.
Bass that live in and under thick mats use sound as one of their main sources to find prey. They can “feel” frogs move across the top of the mat just as they can “feel” when you punch through it. Which is a good thing because to get a bait to punch through that carpet, it is necessary to launch the bait high into the air and then allow it to smack down through the canopy. I know that completely goes against logic as a shallow water fisherman but that is the best way to get the bait through and even calls the fish to the bait.
For the retrieve, the standard lift and drop will work most of the time. Be sure you vary the aggressiveness of the hops. Since the weight is so heavy, a slow fall is nearly impossible so it’s important to understand that if you are getting bites by fishing it on the bottom, those fish are aggressive. There is not a need to do slow, small hops.
If the fish are not aggressive, they will likely suspend higher in the water column and almost directly against the mat. When this happens, the bait moves by the fish too quickly. By hopping the bait around on the bottom, it is not in the strike zone. In this case, I will pull the bait up to the bottom of the mat and then shake it and bang it off of the bottom of the mat. This will draw in any curious bass plus it keeps my bait in the face of any fish that was there on the initial drop.
As you can see, this technique has me pumped up. Looking outside at all of this snow is not helping that fact. So next summer when the sun is scorching, go give punching at try. You never know when your next personal best largemouth may be hiding under a jungle of grass.