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Pitching and Catching
The Great American Pastime

By Russ Bassdozer

If you want to catch, you better know how to pitch. This article will try to teach you how. It will tell you about heavy gear and about huge bass lording over heavy cover. It will teach you how to get your lure into tight target spots, and how to make big bass blast you! We're not going to talk about minor things like the best lure color shade or anything else dainty in this article. We'll tell you how to hook 'em up. But how will you get them out of such deep cover? That's your challenge. So, screw down your reel drag, brace your feet, and read on!

Heavy Gear. The critical part of flipping and pitching is the selection of the rod, reel and line. These are rugged conditions in tight nasty cover. The most common problem most people face when flipping and pitching is that they underestimate the specialization and the strength of the gear required to do it. In actuality, there are very few rods, reels and especially lines out there that are ideally suited to true flipping and pitching conditions.

Spinning Gear? It is far easier to flip and pitch with spinning gear for all but the baddest bass in the heaviest cover. Of course, you need a highly specialized spinning rod and reel for this. I use saltwater gear that I have landed numerous 40 pound striped bass, and countless 20-30 pounders from treacherous ocean rock jetties in raging Atlantic surf tidal rips. Not bragging, I only mention this to discourage any doubt that the spinning gear I mention here is not strong enough for pulling 5-10 pound largemouths out of shallow, placid lake cover only 2-4 feet deep. The rod is a seven foot one piece Lamiglas model XS71MS graphite with a medium fast action. The reel is a Fin-Nor Captain Ahab model 12 that just melts 20 to 25 pound Berkley Big Game like butter. You can flip and pitch most cover more easily and far more effectively with this specialized spinning gear.

Baitcasting Gear. But if you just can't break the taboo against using spinning gear then start by examining the tackle that Denny Brauer used to win the Classic - the Daiwa TD-X103HVA reel and Denny's TD-S76THFB-B Flipping & Pitching stick along with 20 to 25 lb. test Stren. Find out the specs for this gear, and use it as a benchmark for comparison against your own gear. Make a few phone calls to find a place that sells this rod/reel. You may feel funny, but just ask the salesperson if you can bring your own rod and reel into the store. Explain to the salesperson that you want to do some comparison shopping, that you probably will not buy today, you are just doing your homework. If it is a good tackle shop, they will understand and even welcome your comparison exercise. Take 15 minutes to review the booklet that comes with the reel and compare the specifications against your own reel. Heft the rod and compare it to your own. Try to figure out if there is a difference in your gear and if your gear is deficient in any way. This should be a very educational experience for you, and by the time you leave the store, you should clearly have a better feel for how your gear measures up to Denny Brauer's stuff.

Lines. Getting down to business, have you tried Berkley Big Game fishing line? It's a great line with excellent knot strength, castability and abrasion resisitance, plus easy to find at a reasonable price to boot! For pitching and flipping, 20 lb. test is about average. In lighter cover, you may be able to squeak by with 15, and you may need 25 lb. test for the biggest bass in the baddest cover.

Pitching. Now that you know exactly where you stand with your rod, reel and line, let's look at where and when to pitch to cover.  Either standing or sitting, I just open the bail on the spinning reel, let enough line dangle down to clear the gunwales, which is about 6 feet of line for me standing, less sitting. Then, I hold the rod in front of me and slightly to my rod hand (right) side. The tip is pointed up at about 11 o'clock. I gently roll my wrist and forearm under and back to rock the lure back at me a few feet in a pendulum arc, dropping the rod tip to about 10 o'clock during this brief backward roll. Then I reverse the motion by forcefully extending my wrist and forearm far out in front of me. I roll my wrist/forearm far forward in an underhanded manner to reverse the pendulum arc and accelerate the lure forward so it travels not far above the water's surface in a trajectory towards the target cover. Ideally, I hold the boat about 25-30 feet away from cover and start pitching. I rarely have a problem hitting a one foot target space.

Flipping. Flipping is a technique that I generally reserve for extremely heavy cover. You use the same rod and reel for flipping as for pitching...just at closer quarters. Flipping basically means to get right on top of the fish and drop the bait on their head. Some people have rules for when to flip versus pitch, such as the rule that you should flip rather than pitch in dark-colored water. Well, I do not pay attention to anything like that. My only rule is to prefer pitching and avoid flipping regardless of water color or anything else. However, there is some heavy cover that is so difficult to reach that you just cannot pitch to it. In these cases, I will work the boat so far up into the cover that I just have no idea how I will ever back out of it. Sometimes, I am poking the rod through a quagmire of reeds or tree limbs so thick that all I can do is open the bail and drop the lure straight down. Again, specialized spinning gear makes this easier. There are some unreal critters lurking in this stuff. Just one word of caution I want to give you. Do not try to thin out some of this cover to make it easier for you to fish. Remember, the bass are back in that nasty stuff for a reason. Do not break off any branches or uproot any reeds. Most times, you will only ruin the fish-holding properties of the spot if you do that. Besides, you will clue other anglers like me into your honey holes when I see broken tree limbs and reeds there!

Ai Uchi. Some people will tell you to fish the outside edges of cover first and work inward on subsequent casts. To this I say "Ai Uchi" which is a Samurai expression that means "cut your opponent before he cuts you". Translated into bass fishing terms, this means to strike at the nastiest and most difficult spots first. Pitch or flip fearlessly straight into the heart of the densest weed clumps and where the thickest branches of downed tree limbs grow into the trunk. These are the spots that the biggest fish lord over, and they drive the smaller bass outwards to the exposed perimeter of the cover. Contrary to what most people will tell you, I often prefer for the lure to splash loudly or rebound hard off a thick tree limb or emergent rock on my very first cast. This has a triggering effect. It evokes a reaction in bass. Bass are super-agressive animals. Even if your lure actually frightens them, they prefer to stand, confront and bite when scared. They prefer to swat and crush a pesty lure when bothered. As already mentioned, they prefer to attack any smaller intruders that dare to invade their chosen space. And when they are hungy, they will come lunging full speed many feet to take down anything that makes a splash or other loud noise.

Big Bass. Some people will tell you big bass get shyer, slower or lazier the bigger they get. Sorry I don't think so. Big bass are super-aggressive and super-powerful. They get more agressive and more powerful the bigger they get. Do not confuse laziness with superior survival experiences and instincts. They do know and learn to avoid lures. They are not dumb. Otherwise it would be as easy to catch a bass on a lure as it is on a live shiner. It isn't that easy, is it? You absolutely must make that first cast count for big bass. By your second cast, the biggest, most alert bass will be more turned off to your lure's repeated intrusions. It is unproductive to continue casting right now. You really risk turning them off completely. So only make a few casts at the prime holding spots that you can reach by pitching from 20-25 feet. Next, if you want smaller fish, you should start to pick apart the exterior perimeters of the cover where you will mostly find smaller bass. Finally, before you move to another spot, bring the boat into flipping range right into the cover, and make one last silent but deadly drop or two far back into the prime holding spots that you couldn't easily reach by pitching from a distance.

Jigs change your whole latitude. We are going to get deep into the mechanics of pitching and flipping presentation next. A jig is a single hook leadhead lure with a multi-strand rubber or silicone skirt and a soft plastic or pork trailer. A jig is most often applied in cover and works best as a "dropbait." This means you have to change your mental attitude to think of fishing the jig vertically more than you think of fishing it horizontally. You just "drop" jigs into cover and you usually don't try to catch anything as you "retrieve" as you normally do with many other types of bass lures. For example, with spinnerbaits and crankbaits, you often cast them far distances, and then expect to get bites as you retrieve spinnerbaits and crankbaits to cover water horizontally. Not so with jigs. In fact, once you get into the groove with jigs, you will consider the "retrieve" as something you do with jigs only when you are ready to wind in string in order to make another pitch. Confused yet? Read on, and hopefully it may become clearer.

Four factors you present with jigs

  1. Initial Entry: I often like for the "splashdown" on the very first cast to be loud and dramatic...even startling you might say! If there are tree trunks, thick limbs, or emergent rocks, I cast dead at them and BANG!. Imagine it like you use a backboard in basketball to bank a shot. Even if there are reeds or brush, I kind of like that first pitch to get hung up a few inches above the waterline, giving me an opportunity to rustle the reeds or brush, thereby getting the attention of any big bass lurking in the vicinity. Where weed beds are thick, I like to pitch up onto the edge of the weedbed, and either burn it back over the weed rim or sometimes shake it in the lettuce a bit, and then pop my jig over the weed edge and drop it into open water. Now, that is all on the VERY FIRST CAST to the best-looking "spot on a spot". On second, third, and subsequent casts, I often tone down to a silent, splashless entry. Point here you should remember is that the initial entry is a definite factor that you should use to excite a fish. It is often the most important factor in fishing jigs in cover, and many anglers do not take advantage of the initial entry "opportunity." It really gets the fish excited.
  2. Fall Rate: As soon as your jig breaks the waters surface and until it contacts the bottom, you are in the second or "fall" phase of your presentation. Over a lifetime of jig fishing, you will catch about 75% of your bass during the fall. The rate of fall (or fall speed) is a significant factor in getting reaction bites. A general rule is slower fall rates in colder water, and faster fall rates the hotter it gets. Most anglers change their "fall rate" by using bigger, bulkier trailers (slower fall) or downsized trailers (faster fall). Personally, I do not like to fiddle with the trailer. Instead, I use heavier or lighter weights of jig heads, keeping the trailer the way fish seem to find it most attractive at any given moment. I strongly believe the skirt and trailer are the "attractors" on a jig, and I choose them solely for their FISH APPEAL based on color, size, shape, water displacement, sight, sound, vibration, movement, and action. As I try different skirts and trailers solely to change the jigs fish appeal during the day, I also try different fall rates by varying the weight of the jig head, going to a heavier head for a faster fall and vice versa. I rarely change the lure skirt or trailer as a way to effect the fall rate. Also, the choice of fishing line has a pronounced effect on the fall rate, but line is not something you can change as conveniently as a trailer or jig weight. Nevertheless, thicker and/or inflexible line causes a slower, more arcing fall with more drag on the lure, whereas thinner and/or flexible line results in a faster, more straight down fall with less drag on the lure. This is not to imply that a thicker line is "bad.". For instance, a thicker, billowy line can sometimes give a jig more of a floating, life-like movement, whereas a razor thin superline can sometimes take the same lure plummetting to the bottom with all the life-like movement of a brick. Note the repetition of the word "sometimes" in that last sentence. You have to master line control, guys, and that's an art...not a science!
  3. Touchdown: Look for a good, attractive landing when the jig stops falling and contacts the bottom. Look for it to land as close as possible next to something inactive fish may be resting under...cuts under rocks, under logs, under brush tangles, where big limbs meet the trunk of fallen trees, etc. If it is hard bottom, look to make a "heavy thud" kind of landing. If it is soft or weedbed bottom, look to make a "light" touchdown. In any case, just let it lay there, and DON'T MOVE! Like in the movie, "The Psycho", when a fly landed on Norman Bates' face in the closing scene and he just sat there and did not flinch, right? Just leave that jig sit there in the bass face for at least ten seconds. Just don't flinch, even if a fly lands on your rod tip! Often, the bass can't stand this, and will snap up your jig as it just sits there as still as Norman.
  4. Shake n' Bake: Has your jig rested long enough on the bottom yet? Are you ready to flinch yet? Okay, just shake the rod tip ever so little. If you landed on a hard bottom, visualize that you are rocking the jig back and forth while it stays in place without moving it forward. On soft bottom or on weeds, visualize that you are shaking the jig as if it was a crayfish trying to dig itself down and disappear from sight into the muck or weeds. In either case, shake it up really good for about 5 to ten seconds, just shake it in place and DON'T MOVE THE JIG FORWARD. Next, just stop shaking and wait again for about ten seconds. This is the BAKE part, and also when to expect to get bit!

That's all there is to basic jig fishing! After you go through these four steps on a cast, just wind in your string and make another pitch. But read the next section too, because your "next" cast is not nearly as important as the first one you made to a spot!

First cast or nothing for active bass. Every time you pitch a dropbait into cover, your chance of catching an ACTIVE fish is by far the highest on your first cast. By the time you make the second cast, your chances of catching that fish are pretty slim, and virtually zero by the third cast. The ACTIVE fish accepts or rejects what it sees right away - a reflex or reaction bite. If you don't get bit, there was something about your presentation that the fish rejected, and you are only making the fish more cautious by repeatedly casting. It's best if you can come back later in the day and try again, but you better make that first cast count again! Note that this only a general rule, and the exact opposite rule applies to fishing for inactive bass.

Repeated casts rouse inactive bass. In cover, you will also find bass that are in INACTIVE states, where you have to drop a bait on their nose 4-5 times to rouse them out of a stupor. These bass are difficult to "wake up", and it really is best if you can see them first, so you know that they are there and you know exactly where you have to drop your bait. You have to repeatedly get it right in front of their mouth in order to get them to pay attention. Again, the strike seems to be a reaction the bass just flares its gills, opens its mouth and inhales the jig from right in front of its face. If you see this happen, you will probably never feel any hit, any line movement, tick, tap or anything else. If you can make out any sort of movement, such as if the gills flare, the mouth opens wide, then closes...HIT THE FISH NOW, IT'S GOT YOU...even if you lost sight of your lure and you aren't sure the bass took your lure!

Swimming jigs. In recent years, there seems to be some popularity in swimming jigs, which is to retrieve them so they cover water horizontally while the jig stays just under the surface, just ticking the tops of underwater weed beds, or just above bottom. I suggest that there are better lures than jigs for "swimming" presentations, especially SPINNERBAITS. Now if you think of it, a spinnerbait is really nothing more than a punk rock version of a bass jig with a wire arm piercing its nose and a flashy earring dangling over its head. Nevertheless, there is something highly attractive to fish about that throbbing, flashing blade, and it will usually draw more fish much better than a plain old jig fished in a horizontal swimming presentation. The spinnerbait is good because it will bounce and deflect off hard bottom, occasional rocks, posts, wood and brush. The deflection causes the spinnerbait to flip sideways, the blade rhythm stutters...and WHAMMO! Jigs just don't deflect like that! Also, big-lipped CRANKBAITS can be better in horizontal cover where you might otherwise be inspired to swim jigs over distances. Same thing with the cranks...they careen erratically when they hit the bottom or obstructions...and BA-BAM! Jigs just don't careen like that.  

Jig n' Grub. However, there are times when weeds can be so thick that you cannot "swim" an awkward, wire-armed spinnerbait or treble-festooned crankbait through it as easily as you can swim a jig that has a streamlined lead nose. Even if a streamlined jig gets mummified or snagged in weeds, you can usually snap your rod tip crisply a few times, thereby unsnagging and shedding any debris on the jig. These weed-shedding movements also attract fish, and often as you snap the jig clean or pop it out of thick cover, a bass will smash it! For best results with swimming jigs in heavy grass however, I suggest you try replacing the rubber or silicone skirt and pork or plastic chunk trailer. Substitute with a BIG UNSKIRTED GRUB, either a single tail or double tail grub. I use the big, bulky ones made by Gary Yamamoto for swimming big bass jigs in grass. The ones I am talking about are the fat, feisty 8" single tail grubs and the strong, sassy 7" double tail grubs. As mentioned, I use a streamlined, often flat-bottomed jig head with a pointy nose and fiberguard. I just remove the rubber skirt and thread on an unskirted grub with a drop of superglue to hold the grub in place. I rig the tail down on the single tail grubs. On the double tail, I rig it "flat" for more "lift" as I swim the lure. Surprisingly, I also rig it "straight up" which you will rarely see people do with a double tail. I think it more closely imitates a wide-bodied shad, shiner or bluegill when the double tail is rigged straight up! So, burn your jig n' grub back quickly so it stays just under the surface, let it tick the weed tops and rip it when it makes weed contact, or swim it back just over bottom, and either kill the retrieve or snap the tip crisply when you bump itno anything along the way!

Rigged Worms. Okay, we've talked about pitching skirted jigs and trailers into vertical cover. We've talked about pitching grubs in horizontal, weed-infested cover. Now let's talk about pitching Florida-rigged worms into HEAVY TREES. To begin, we're after big bass deep in heavy cover, right? So bulk up a bit on the worms. Would you like to catch some fours to eights? They're big-sized bass and their mouths are much bigger than yours! So go get some BIG worms. We're talking about the classic 10" Berkley Power Worm (#MPWA10) with a ribbontail. We're talking the thin, slinky 11" Mister Twister Phenow Worm (#11P) with a small sickle tail. And, yes!...we're talking about the fat-bodied 8" and 10" Yamamoto grubworms. These three brands of worms have varying widths, shapes, tail actions. As far as weights, only use the Florida Rig weight that has a thin Teflon tube you thread your line through, and a wire corkscrew that holds the weight against the plastic head of the worm. Even still, you may want to put a little shot of superglue to keep the worm and weight together. You rig a big, strong extra wide gap hook into the worm about 2" down from the bullet weight. This 2" space is critical. It gives you a little room to still set the hook even if a big bass has clamped down tightly on the weight itself. Without any distance between the weight and the hook, you would just pull the whole bass forward and you could never set the hook if the hook's jammed snug against the weight clamped inside a big fish's mouth. But because of the sliding Teflon tube and the 2" distance, the hook will still set even with a fish clamped down on it!

Get out on the water. Start out the same as you have been doing, which is to pitch the rigged worm into heavy trees and let it fall down through the wood and onto the bottom. At this point, you kind of have to finesse your worm back through the wood ever so slowly and so gingerly. Do not take it out quickly. Do not jerk the rod tip if it seems stuck. Above all, do not take a "free swing" to set the hook if you are not sure whether you have a fish. What I say in the next sentence is probably the opposite of everything you have ever heard, and I shout: "SWINGS ARE NOT FREE! IN HEAVY WOOD, YOU WILL PAY A HEAVY PRICE FOR EVERY WRONG SWING YOU TAKE." Why? Because you will get stuck and you will alarm all the fish in the area while you try to get unstuck. Rather than do that, fish in fear of getting stuck. Not fearful that you will lose your measly worm, but fearful that you will blow your chance of getting any fish off the cover. You really have to hesitate to pull it forward ever so inquisitively. When you feel the slightest resistance of an obstacle, just back off - slacken up and tentatively probe that obstacle by banging the rig into it a few times ever so gently. If you hit something like a big limb and you feel like you can't get the rig to go over it, don't try to force it to over. Just back off, slack off and drop the rig back down, then pull it back up to the obstruction and KNOCK into it. Still doesn't bounce over it? Just drop back and KNOCK into it...over and over again. Eventually your rig will bounce over whatever was holding it back. No, you never pull it hard and you work at it very gingerly and patiently. As you do this, your worm will be making itself the center of attention down there! You are banging into something repeatedly, and calling bass to you better than any worm rattle ever can! Don't be surprised if a big bass obliges you by picking up your rig and carrying it over that obstruction for you!

That's it! That's what I do in with rigged worms in wood. So just gain confidence in this slower, probing style of rig fishing in wood, and master your ability to KNOCK and BOUNCE your rig out. That's all you need to do.

Finally, when you get your worm all the way out of the wood and it just comes into the open water, the very bottom right there is a prime "transiton zone" where you can expect to get bit. Just get your worm onto the bottom as it comes out of the cover, and swim it slowly and steadily across the bottom for a ways before winding in for another cast.

Detecting Bites. Just one thing about what a bite should feel like. People seem to have a lot of problems with this. It's not easy, but you need to detect if it feels alive or not alive. You are feeling the line, the slight tension (or load) amplified in your rod, and you keep your fingers on the line (index finger crooked around the line with spinning, or held under your thumb and over your index finger with baitcasting). You are trying to detect a vibrancy, an energy or vitality of some sort that is down on the other end of your line that's alive. Sometimes you get tricked here, and set the hook into some springy green limbs, but that's all part of the game!

If you are unsure whether a fish has picked you up, don't brutely haul back and set. Instead, just give the line a little jingle, put the slightest little tension on it, with a jiggle or two. Believe me, that fish will think it's meal is trying to escape, and it will not let go no matter what! The bass will either greedily bear down on it and you will feel the bass trying to crush it, or the bass will start to rapidly swim out of the cover and make a beeline towards open water for fear that the bait will work itself loose of the bass' grip and get away. The bass would rather lose its grip on the bait over open bottom than in the cover. You will know FOR SURE you have a fish when that happens! Sometimes you can even lead them and get them coming your way! You just kind of delicatley reel them out of the cover without even setting the hook. But at a certain point, you need to screw down and set the hook...then use brute force to power her out of there before she can start to bulldoze her way into the cover. Even if that fish swam all the way out of the cover into the open, it will turn and power itself back deep into the cover when you set the hook. You gotta get her and keep her out in the open and up near the surface within a few seconds...otherwise all is lost.

That's just part of it that I have time for now. Hope this helps you solve a part of the pitching and flipping puzzle.

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