The ongoing quest for big bass
This fine 20-inch largemouth bass was caught by Alvie Sickle on a wacky-rigged finesse worm. A big fish, it didn't quite make the grade for a catch and release award for state or regional contests. (Jim Gronaw photo)

When I was about 10 years old, my family used to vacation down on the outskirts of Norfolk, Virginia at my grandmother’s house.

During those years back in the mid 1960’s, we would sometimes fish some of the tidewater lakes … small waters that held big fish of all species. On one particular visit to the state-run “fishing station” at Lake Smith, a local angler had kept three large bass in a holding tank to just show off, I guess. It was a sight my eyes have yet to see again.


The smallest bass was just under seven pounds, another was eight and a half and the big girl weighed in at 9 pounds, 13 ounces — the biggest largemouth bass I have ever actually touched or seen with my own eyeballs.

Yes, any one of those would be considered a trophy in many parts of the nation, but to actually see three of them at one time was quite something.

The term “big bass” can be relative. In Maryland, it takes a 21-inch largemouth to acquire a state issued award. In Virginia it takes a 22-inch, or an 8-pound largemouth to make the grade.

For the nationwide In Fisherman Master Angler Awards Program they break it down into regional catagories to even up the playing field a bit. Deep South and California waters require a 24-inch or 10-pounder for an award patch. Elsewhere the standard is 22 inches or 6 ½ pounds.

But I think for the majority of anglers today in our area any bass that exceeds 5 pounds would be considered a “big” fish.

I will be quick to admit that I personally seldom pursue bass with the expressed intention of capturing a large one. At least 60 percent, maybe more, of the largemouths that I have caught that exceeded 20-inches were “accidental” catches while fishing for other species. In a lifetime of angling, including catches by my wife and son, we have collectively taken but a dozen bass from 22 to 24 inches, all released. Some were taken on live baits, some on plastic worms and some on spinners and crankbaits.

My two largest bass of 2017 both came from small public lakes, one being 22 inches and the largest was a 23 ½-inch giant that I caught on cut bait while fishing for catfish — unbelievable!

Most of my “numbers” bass days are at the hands of plastic worms of various types. Stick worms like Senkos, Stik-O’s, Stank-X and Yum Dingers are easy to fish and seem to attract bass of all sizes, in many waters. Fished wacky-style with the hook in the middle, these are deadly on bass throughout the season. Plastic and hollow-bodied surface frogs will get a lot of attention for the shallow water/early morning bite throughout the majority of the summer.

This "accidental" bass catch occurred while I was seeking spawning bluegills in clear waters. It was a nice surprise!
This "accidental" bass catch occurred while I was seeking spawning bluegills in clear waters. It was a nice surprise! (Jim Grownaw photo)

Where applicable, noisy surface lures like the Pop-R, Whopper Plopper and classic Jitterbug will still draw strikes, especially early and late in the day. For reservoir fishing in our local water supply lakes deep-water tactics with drop-shot rigs and plastics and jig and pig combos can be productive to anglers who are skilled at locating big bass on structure from 15 to 30 feet below the surface. And yet, tidal waters have specific applications for fishing through those heavy matts of hydrilla and other weeds with heavy jigs and plastic trailers that punch through the salad down to hunkered hawgs.

In and around our area there are numerous small public lakes and park ponds that often go unnoticed and are brushed over by the bulk of the bass angling crowd — don’t be that guy!

Private farm ponds may seem to be the answer to finding and catching big bass, but my personal records indicate that in 114 private waters I have fished in my lifetime, only one in four produces bass over 20 inches. In public waters, of all sizes, I have found 20-inch bass to show up in one out of three of the 66 total lakes I have fished. I am sure there are many that hold 5-pound plus bass that I struck out on, as my bass-angling skills are not the sharpest.

It’s important to keep your eyes and ears alert and be ready to jump on a localized “hot bite” if the opportunity presents itself. Keep in mind, too, that big fish, especially those exceeding the 7- and 8-pound range, are rare fish even in most good waters.

To catch a 9- or 10-pound class fish in Mid Atlantic waters would have to be considered a “fish of a lifetime” by all but the most skilled and adept bass anglers.