When I first started targeting largemouth bass, punching grass mats were the first “specialized technique” that I really started to study. I had hacked-around shorelines and bays before, and I knew that I enjoyed fishing shallow water. I had a flipping stick, some jigs, and a handful of plastics and terminal tackle. I quickly discovered, however, that getting baits to the fish was not as easy as it seemed.
I remember drifting along an undercut row of bulrushes and looking at the mats of blown-in vegetation on the edge. “There has to be fish under there”, I thought to myself. The best I could do though was drop my bait through small openings or along the edge. I caught enough fish to keep my interest up, but I knew there had to be a better way. I also knew that if I could get into the heart of those big mats, I’d be targeting fish that few other anglers would.
Fast-forward to the present day, and least half of my big fish have come from under mats. I’ll admit it; I love to pitch and swim my own Left Hook Outdoors jigs everywhere bass swim, but I’ve caught just as many hogs punching grass mats. The key to my success was seeing that punching mats were more than just flipping and pitching. It required bigger gear, heavier tackle, shorter pitches, and even more attention to the details of fish location.
CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON
Rod selection for punching comes down to personal preference as much as it does function. I caught some beautiful fish under mats long before I owned expensive gear. While your rod doesn’t need a big price tag to catch fish, there are a few qualities that are essential;
1) Enough length to do the job – punching rods range from 7’2 – 8’. 7’6 is my personal preference, but you should use the longest rod you can comfortably wield. The extra length provides a serious mechanical advantage in setting hooks, pulling fish in, and making effective presentations. I have used shorter rods with some success, but I found that they were limited in all of the above. Longer rods move more line on the hook set for maximum penetration. As we’ll discuss later, you want to make vertical presentations with this technique. A longer rod, therefore, allows you to make vertical presentations from further away.
2) A heavy action, a fast tip – Since there is no industry standard for rod action, this is one you’ll have to feel out. You need a rod that is rated for about 2oz. baits, and can fish them effectively. What you don’t want is “pool cue”. The rod should flex under a heavy load. You’ll be using heavy braided line, and without some flex, in the rod, you could tear the hook out. Bring the reel you plan to use on this rod to the store. Run the line through the guides and flex the tip. This will give you the best indication of how the rod will load on the hook set.
3) Balance – Balance is important in every rod. It is especially important in flipping/pitching rods. A balanced rod eliminates the fatigue that could cost you a fish. As with all flipping/pitching, you must keep your rod tip around 10 o’clock while you work the bait. If your rod is pointing down or parallel to the water, you’ll never feel a fish bite. This position also enables the lightning-fast hook set that you’ll need when fishing with a heavyweight.
Reels and line for punching mats require a little less attention. A lightweight, low profile reel with a good drag and at least a 6.4:1 gear ratio is will suffice. Given the task at hand, heavy braid is the only option. I use 65lb braid, and I don’t see a disadvantage to using 80lb. Keep in mind that you’re trying to haul big, angry fish through a 3-6” canopy of sopping wet vegetation. Heavy braid has the strength and abrasion resistance to land fish successfully. I doubt very much that any bass can see fishing line under a thick mat, regardless of the water clarity.
Once you have your rod, reel, and line, you’ll need some essential terminal tackle to string together. Start with a bobber-stop or other pegging device to keep your rig connected. An assortment of tungsten weights in sizes ¾-1 ½ oz will suffice. Yes, these weights are expensive. The nice part is that since you’re using such a heavy line, you’ll rarely if ever break off. You’ll also need an assortment of straight-shank, heavy wire hooks. Several companies make hooks for this purpose, and most have the vital feature of a welded line-tie. Without the line-tie being closed off, the snell knot you’re about to tie could slide into the space and get cut.
That brings us to another key point; the snell knot. Very few anglers are interested in learning to tie a new knot. They use what they like, it works, and they don’t see why they should change. Your hook sets, however, will be far better with a snell knot than a Palomar when punching. The straight shank hook will kick out the side when the line is drawn tight. This will enable the hook to start penetrating immediately, as opposed to dragging through the bass’ mouth. A simple snell knot only takes a few minutes to learn, and you’ll put more bass in the boat because of it.
Use a big enough tungsten weight and you can drag just about any soft plastic through a grass mat, however, the key to this whole system is efficiency. The best baits for the job are 3-4 inch creature baits. These baits lack the flapping appendages of other plastics and are less prone to get hung up on the way through the mat.
Gambler BB Crickets, Yum Big Show Craws, and Berkley Havoc Slop Craws are just a few of the baits that were designed exclusively for punching mats. If you feel the need to up-size your offering, you could add a punch skirt or use larger baits like the Reaction Innovations Sweet Beavers, as well as the long-forgotten flipping tube. Colour doesn’t seem to be a big deal, since the mat blocks most of the sunlight I use dark baits with metal flake most of the time, and plain old green pumpkin in clear water.
Now that you`re geared up, it`s time to go to work. You want to use the lightest weight possible but still get through the mat easily. “Easy in, easy out“ should be your mantra. Having to shake the weight down through the mat can be frustrating, and lobbing the bait into the air can spoil your accuracy. You want to choose a weight that falls through on an easy pitch or flip.
Choose your targets carefully, and don`t pitch too far from the boat. Remember; this is a vertical presentation. If you toss your bait 50 feet away and get a bit, you have to drag that fish through all that slop to get it in the boat. This isn`t so scary with small keepers, but hook a 4lb+ fish and you`ll have a good chance of losing it. A better way is to fish vertically and pull the fish straight up and out of the grass, you`ll encounter far less resistance this way and the fish will be in the boat much quicker. If a fish does get stuck, keep steady pressure on it with the rod and bring the boat to them. Bass buried in grass tend to calm down, so if you keep your cool and don`t tear the hook free you should be able to go in and dig them out.
I`ve found that the larger the weight, the quicker you have to be on the hook set. This is because bass can tell right away that what he`s eaten is not food, but in fact a chunk of metal. Flipping mats in no place for a slack-line hook set. If you drop the rod tip when you feel a strike, the bass will feel that big weight and spit it out before you set the hook. Once you get a bite, set the hook immediately. Snap the rod straight upwards, one time, as hard as you can. The big rod and braided line will give you plenty of setting power and the snelled straight-shank hook should penetrate with ease.
PAY YOUR DUES
Punching mats is a great to catch both numbers and trophy-sized fish. Like any other technique though, it requires patience. You may flip 100m of shoreline without a bite, then catch a limit in one small area. Learning what separates good mats from bad ones requires that you pay attention to what the fish are telling you. They could prefer deeper or shallower mats, sunny or shady ones, fresh green vegetation or blown-in debris. Regardless, hooking a big bass under a mat is high-impact bass fishing at its finest. Arm yourself with the right gear then drop a bait right into Mr.Bucketmouth`s living room.