Bass in a Bowl

    Most largemouth habitat in the Dakotas comes without classic structure to target. Meet the realities and rewards of bass fishing a dishpan lake.


    — By Tom Carpenter

    It was that magical window of time between night and sunup — those extended, quiet minutes that a summer dawn holds onto as long as it can. Teal quacked from some pocket of water back in the cattails. Wisps of steam rose from the lake’s surface, where morning’s cool air met yesterday’s sun-warmed water.

    The boat hummed along quietly under electric power, carrying my boy Ethan and me slowly down a grassy shoreline. For reasons both aesthetic and practical, the regular motor stayed silent — the noise would have ruined the mood and scared our quarry.

    I shut the motor off when we reached a weedy flat. There must have been some wisp of air moving, because the boat lazed along ever so nicely as we fished. Long casts arced out from our rods, and a chartreuse spinnerbait and blue floating Rapala worked their way back to the boat.

    “Got one,” was all the boy said.

    The fish never jumped, choosing instead to bulldog for deeper water. She came to the net under protest, and I lifted her in the boat. We laughed. Three pounds of fat and sassy largemouth bass stared defiantly back at us. Her colors were beautiful.

    Ethan slid the bass back into the water, and we went back to work.

    Fishing in Bowl

    When the last glaciers scoured most of the Dakotas and then receded northward 10,000 years ago, they left a treasure chest of “glacial scoop” lakes that dominate the middle to eastern thirds of our states. You can find similar waters elsewhere across the Dakotas, too.

    These lakes range in size from several acres (you might call them ponds or sloughs) to hundreds of acres. Because there are so many of them, these small lakes, as a whole, represent an important bass fishery.

    They share several traits. Scooped out by glaciers, they are basically round or oblong-shaped dishpans with sand or gravel for bottom. There is little classic structure. These lakes are usually rimmed with cattails and weeds and then drop off into more water, but they may never get more than 20 feet or so deep.

    I like to call these lakes bowls, because that’s what you visualize when looking at a lake map. They typically have a shallow shoreline shelf, a steady drop-off, and then a more or less flat bottom all the way to the other shore, where conditions reverse themselves.

    TV and tournament bass anglers hate lakes like this. You can’t rev up your hundred-plus horses and race to new spots, and your electronics give you little advantage because there’s not much for bars, humps, saddles, points, ledges, inside turns in the weedline or other “classic” bass structure.

    In addition, the slow, patient and painstaking approach necessary to catch largemouth bass here doesn’t always jive with today’s kinetic fishing styles. The simpler you keep things, the more fish you will catch.

    Those are precisely the reasons I love fishing for bass in a bowl, and here’s how to do it successfully.

    Fish Early

    In summer, your best chance to catch bass in a bowl comes during that magical hour or so before the sun comes up, and then for maybe an hour afterward. That’s when largemouth bass roam the shallows and shorelines in search of prey and when they are most vulnerable to your fishing efforts. Getting on the water at the crack of dawn isn’t always easy, but you will find fish during the day’s first couple hours that you would never otherwise dream existed.

    Early mornings are the bass angler’s best friend, when hungry fish roam the shallows and shorelines in search of prey. Courtesy photo by Traditions Media

    Techniques are simple, and early in the morning the night-cooled, forage-filled shallows are just right for a hungry bass. Stay quiet, and keep disturbance to a minimum, because it doesn’t take much to spook cruising bass. Row, drift or hum along under electric power, fishing those 3- to 5-foot depths that will soon be lit up and boiling away under a hot sun.

    Choose baits that will work through or over the top of weeds. Weedless spinnerbaits are perfect, with floating Rapalas and other minnowbaits a close second where you can glide them above the vegetation.

    My other favorite lure is the trusted Johnson Silver Minnow, tipped with a double-legged piece of pork rind. Go with the 1/4-ounce size spoon, and toss it softly to minimize splash and disturbance.

    Frog the Pads

    Many bowl lakes offer lily pads, some more than others. Pads offer shade and will often hold good-sized fish throughout the day.

    Fishing frog imitations on the surface for lily-pad bass is exciting. Your frog baits must be weedless (hooks facing up) so you can work them through and across the pads. Cast to openings, and let the ripples fade. Skitter the bait across pads and weeds, and rest it in the next opening as you work it back.

    Frogging for bass is fun, and remembering a few tips can go a long way to landing more bass. For starters, add a small curly tail grub to each of the frog bait’s two hooks. Let the two curly tails hang down in the water, simulating a real frog’s dangling legs.

    Also, bend the frog’s two upturned hooks slightly outward. You’ll be more likely to hook up with a fish. Bass often hit a frog from the side, and this way you get the hook points closer to home.

    It’s hard to beat topwater action using frog baits such as the Z-man LeapFrogZ. With any soft-bodied frog bait, gently bend the upturned hooks slightly outward to increase your odds of hooking up when a fish hits. Courtesy photo by Traditions Media

    It also doesn’t hurt to cut a slit in your frog and add a little rattle. Extra casting weight is the big benefit, but the rattling noise is an added attention-grabber.

    Be prepared for a strike at any time. When the hit comes, don’t get excited about setting the hook immediately. Instead, keep a fairly tight line and wait until you feel the weight of the fish, then rear back.

    Because most frog baits are soft and pliable, bass will hold onto them longer than hard-bodied artificial baits. You will get a good hook set more consistently if you’re a little patient.

    Apply steady pressure to keep bass from tangling up in the pad stalks. It’s a jungle out there, and you won’t win a finesse fight.

    Live-Bait Solutions

    As morning wears on and the shallows brighten and warm, bass head to deeper water. Even some lily-pad fish may vacate the shadows and head down the water column to escape the sun’s rays. Early morning’s easier pickings are gone. But you can still catch fish. This is the time to turn to live bait and slip bobbers.

    Leeches are great summer bass bait. Use jumbo leeches, the biggest ones you can find. Fished beneath a slip float, you can work down to those 10- to 12-foot depths where the weeds end. Anchor up a long a weed edge, cast parallel to it and work your bait slowly back along the fringe.

    Leeches have one drawback: Bluegills might pester you. If the sunnies are big, I’m perfectly happy catching them instead, with maybe an occasional bass. But if pesky little buggers are bothering you, it might be time to switch to minnows for bait.

    Big shiners work wonders, if you can get them. Their flash and form really attract bass. Five- to 6-inch-long sucker minnows work well, too. Bass will pound a good-sized baitfish with gusto. Hook a baitfish through the nose so you can set the hook immediately and prevent the bass from swallowing it.

    For shiners or suckers, you’ll need a large slip bobber. Drift slowly along the deep edge of the weeds, fishing from 6 to 8 feet down. Be prepared for bass to run into the salad with your bait.

    Jig ’Em Up

    Weedless jigs, featuring cone-shaped heads that slip through weeds easily, and wire or bristle weedguards to protect the hook point from hang-ups are must-haves for every bass-bowl angler.

    Best dressings include lively rubber skirts, but fat curlytails also do well. In clear bowl lakes, opt for dark colors such as black or red. In murky, muddy or stained waters, use bright colors such as chartreuse, yellow and neon green. A pork frog presents a fine third option for dressing a weedless jig.

    Row, troll with an electric motor or drift slowly along, working the weed edges as you go.

    Night Bite

    Some bowl lakes feature water that is dark or stained. Bass in these lakes stay active longer during the day and might not travel as deep.

    On the other hand, clear lakes can be tough to fish much after dawn or before dusk. In this situation, night fishing is often worth the effort.

    Drift over a shallow flat or along the shore, casting minnowbaits and plugs, or use surface lures that make some noise. Under cover of night, you’re not as likely to spook feeding fish. And the gurgling, churning lure action gives bass something to home in on.

    Favorite nighttime bass baits in the topwater category include prop baits such as a Smithwick Devil Horse or Bagley Tailspin. Good chuggers include the Storm Rattlin’ Chug, the Pebl Pop-R and the venerable Arbogast Hula Popper. Buzz Baits work well in the dark, too.

    Night is also a great time to fish because the lake has had a chance to settle down from daytime pleasure-boating activity. Plus, if it’s tough getting up early enough for the dawn bite, staying up late can be a good option for finding active fish.

    No Rainy Day Blues

    Most of these bass-fishing tips focus on conditions related to sunny summer days. But, of course, the season also sees its share of cloudy and even rainy conditions.

    Cloud cover keeps bass shallower and more active throughout the day. And a mist or light rain — though uncomfortable to fish in — really flips a switch in bass and can make them active and accessible all day. The point is to simply get out there and fish.

    Realities and Rewards

    The last round of glaciers blessed our Dakotas with thousands of small “glacial scoop” lakes that support largemouth bass populations.

    The realities of fishing structure-challenged waters are simple. The best way to catch bass all summer long is a no-nonsense but flexible approach that focuses on largemouths’ key feeding times, their daily movements up and down the water column, and their relationship to weed cover.

    And the rewards of fishing for bass in a bowl are great.

    As Ethan and I fished along, a couple chunky 2-pounders came to the boat before the bite slowed down with the rising sun. So, we rigged up a couple slip-float rigs and drifted along outside the edge of the weeds with sucker minnows. My bobber plunged, and I quickly set the hook into another nice fish.

    After a couple more fish came to the boat and were released back into the green-clear water, pleasure boaters started plying the lake. No problem. We had enjoyed the water by ourselves and needed a nap anyway after our early morning drill. But all the effort was worth it … and the quiet of the summer evening would see us out here again with the teal and the bass.

    About the Author: Tom Carpenter is editor of Pheasants Forever Journal and an accomplished outdoor writer who focuses his outdoor year on the Dakotas and northern plains.