By Jonathan LePera
Special to BassFan
For anglers wanting a shot at catching a bass over 10 pounds, MLF pro Ish Monroe learned that the best opportunity, without fishing live bait, was to fish a swimbait that exactly matched what the bass were eating.
Nothing earth-shaking there, but Monroe began fishing trout lakes when he was 4 years old and it fascinated him how big bass would roll up and crush a trout measuring more than half its body length.
Lake Perseid, Lake Berryessa and San Pablo Reservoir all become regular haunts for the Californian. During Monroe's childhood and formative fishing years, every lake in northern California was being stocked with 8- to 14-inch trout.
“When they stocked these trout, they were the dumbest fish in the world,” Monroe said. “They just swam around without any fear and these giant bass were eating them. You’d catch a trout and watch a bass eat it. As you landed the bass, it had three or four trout sticking out of its throat.”
Monroe started targeting bass with swimbaits when he was 16.
“It was cool to just go fishing and try and catch a giant bass with a swimbait,” he recalled.
The beauty of one of the first swimbaits, the AC Plug, was that the action was totally imparted by the angler.
“If they just planted trout and they were swimming on the surface and getting blasted, then you waked it,” Monroe said. “If there weren’t many trout around and you needed to draw up a strike, you jerked it to create a commotion on top like it was dying. It was all about figuring out what the fish wanted.”
The turning point in the evolution of swimbait fishing occurred with the introduction of the 3-segmented bait that had a more natural swimming action. Monroe remembers the Triple Trout as being one of those innovative baits before he designed the S-Waver for River2Sea.
“It was a hand-carved three-piece jointed bait that were really expensive and hard to get in Southern California. Those guys started the craze,” he said.
Monroe fondly recalls the craze that overtook Lake Casitas, Lake Castaic, Lake Hodges and Otay Lake. Anglers there converted from fishing big worms to big swimbaits in search of the next world-record bass.
For Monroe, February and March is prime time for big swimbaits. During the pre-spawn, the best he could ask for is a warming day with a cloudy, light breeze on the water as largemouth begin to move up.
“They’re not in spawn mode, they’re just moving out of the deep to fatten up for the spawn,” he said.
A flat calm, sunny day where bass can get a good look at the bait is a worst-case scenario. Once they realize the swimbait isn’t real, they won’t eat it.
If the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, responsible for trout-stocking efforts, are stocking 12-inch trout, Monroe stresses the importance of throwing the exact same size of bait. It’s imperative to match the size of trout that have been stocked.
Spare No Expense
Some swimbait anglers will pay up to $1,000 per swimbait. Monroe has his own collection of premium baits made by GanCraft, Roman Made, and baits that never see the light of day except to a privileged few who have gained the trust of those who craft them with the sole purpose of catching the next world-record bass.
When Monroe helped River2Sea to create the S-Waver swimbait, his goal was to create a bait that was consistent and priced under $100.
The S-Waver is a bait you can expect to see on the deck of most boats during tournament mornings on the West Coast.
“Big fish eat them consistently,” Monroe said. “Whether you’re chasing hitch or trout patterns, they’ll eat them. In team tournaments, you always have that guy on the back of the boat chasing that 7- or 8-pound fish throwing an S-Waver all day while the guy on the front targets the limit fish.”
Making the Right Tweaks
Many West Coast swimbait anglers shun split rings to rig treble hooks onto their bait. Instead, they’ll tie the treble hooks onto the bait with braided line since it’s flat and doesn’t transfer the weight as easily as split rings. Monroe just doesn’t have the time to tie all his trebles up and he changes his hooks during the day. Add braided line into the mix instead of split rings and what took him 30 seconds will now take him several minutes. But he’s witnessed where split rigs cost anglers monster fish.
Anglers obsess about color patterns and pay premium dollars for custom paint jobs on factory runs of commercially produced swimbaits. While Monroe relies on someone who does custom painting for him, he admits the finish is more of a “confidence builder” than anything else.
“When Steve Kennedy broke the record for bass on Clear Lake, he was throwing a trout pattern Huddleston,” Monroe said. “There are no trout that swim in Clear Lake; it’s one of the few lakes in California that never had trout planted in it. Matching the proper size and achieving the proper action is more key than anything else.”
Monroe shaves the sides of the S-Waver with sand paper to change its swimming action and make it “180” much better.
“With sand paper, I can hand-sand it the way I like, knowing exactly the number of passes I made on each side to keep it swimming perfectly,” he said.
Monroe never uses a loop knot to tie on the bait – they can’t be trusted, he says. Instead, he opts for a snap or a split ring.
Achieving a “180” means to get the bait to swim in the complete opposite direction of where it was facing during the prior cadence, but remain in the same place. Monroe explains the two ways to achieve that.
“When you are winding the bait and you can see it swimming, stop it and make a full turn of the handle really fast, and point the rod back at the bait. That’ll make the bait do a 180,” he said. “Or, if you’re winding it and you snap the rod and point the rod back at the bait to create the slack to allow the bait to pull the line backwards, it’ll cause the swimbait to do a 180-degree turn.”
The result, Monroe says, is that the bass has no choice but to eat the bait.
“When a bass is following it, they’re either going to run into it and its either going to hit them in the face and hook them or its going to run into their mouth and they’ll engulf the bait. Usually when it does a 180 and comes back at them, it’s almost like force-feeding it to them,” Monroe added. “Bass usually hit these baits head-first anyway. Now that swimbait is swimming away and it turns around like something spooks it. That bass thinks there must be another bass or predator that wants to eat it, so that fish instinctually eats it due to the competition factor.”
Just Don’t Stop It
There’s no one particular trick to get a bass to commit every time, Monroe says, but he warns against completely killing the retrieve.
“If you do kill it, let it sit for a half-second and then crank it really hard,” he said. “It looks like it died and the fish loses interest in it, but you start burning it and the bass realizes that it’s been tricked and the bait is trying to get away from it and they’ll eat it.”
He’s had fish holding on rocks and upon winding it by them they committed to the bait, but once he stopped reeling, they swam away. A 180 didn’t produce on that same fish. Yet, once he threw past the rock and reeling it as fast as he could, his bait got crushed.
The bite is a thump or the line goes tight; once that happens keep reeling and lean into them.
“When he eats it, you don’t want to hit it really hard or you’ll blow its mouth open. When you reel, he grips on it harder and those hooks bury in,” Monroe said.
When heaving the biggest swimbaits, Monroe pairs an 8-foot heavy-action Daiwa Tatula Elite Ish Monroe Swimbait rod with a Daiwa Tatula 200 casting reel (6.3:1 ratio) spooled with 20-pound Maxima Green monofilament line.