Everything you decide about a bass lure - everything from shape to color choice to the action you give it - determines its effectiveness. And since the vast majority of lures are designed by companies that do real-world research, most work pretty well.
And common techniques - the erratic, bumpy ride you give a good crankbait, for instance - are also hard-won reflections on the behavioral patterns of hungry bass.
In short, the better your lure and technique stimulate a bass’s senses, the more likely they are to result in a strike.
Pretty obvious, right?
That’s why it’s important to understand the senses a bass uses to hunt, to really bear down on the details.
Today, we’re going to discuss the largemouth bass’s sense of sight.
Keep reading if you’d like to catch more fish!
Table of Contents (clickable)
Experienced anglers know how sensitive the bass’s lateral line is, and in murky or muddy water, vibration is king.
But in clear water, the largemouth bass hunts primarily by sight.
In water like this, bass hunt primarily with their eyes.
How do we know?
When biologists take a close look at a bass’s brain, they find a direct correlation between the relative size of its parts and their associated senses. As Chris Horton at Bassmaster reports, “The ocular lobe of the bass is huge, relatively speaking. This means that the fish invests much of its neurological resources in its ability to see.”
Their dependence on sight is so profound that even in prey-rich murky water, bass struggle to reach trophy size.
They can’t see well enough to get their fill.
For the avid bass angler, this should reflect what they’ve already come to sense: bass prefer clear water to cloudy, low-visibility habitats - a fact that’s reflected in our list of America’s best bass lakes.
Now, a bass’s brain is hard-wired to process a lot of visual information. And the eyes connected to that biological processor are big, protruding, and placed to create a very wide field of view.
The largemouth’s big, protruding eyes placed on either side of the head work to scan for prey items.
Located on either side of the head, these eyes perform much of their work in monocular fashion, gathering single-eye views from as far away as 30 feet. Essentially, they’re placed to spot prey items in the distance, scanning a wide field of view to either side of the fish as well as above.
When they locate something that’s potentially a meal, the bass will turn to bring both eyes to bear. This binocular view allows for precise focus, and the bass is looking for a few very particular things (more on that in a moment).
When a bass sees something that might be dinner, it turns both eyes to look, using binocular vision to assess details like shape and size.
This eye placement does create a problem for the bass: while it can see very well to both sides and to the front, it can’t see below it or behind it. With its body in the way, there are large blind spots, and it’s pretty clear that bass find food in a wide side, forward, and upward zone, feeding forward and above after a quick binocular check.
When largemouth bass evaluate potential prey, they’re looking for a few, more-or-less well-defined things:
I’m going to put movement at the top of this list for a good reason: even without the confirming information supplied by their lateral line, bass cue on movement just as you do.
If you’ve ever gone hunting, you’ll notice that movement attracts your eye even more than color or pattern. When a deer takes a step, a bird flutters to another branch, or a squirrel shakes its tail, your eye notices.
That’s just as true for bass.
Certain kinds of movement, especially those resembling injured prey items - quick starts and stops, fluttering falls, erratic turns - draw their attention like a waiter approaching your table with a thick, juicy steak.
With both eyes trained on what might well be lunch, bass will very quickly assess an item’s shape. They’re not looking for small details like fins but rather at the general contour and outline of the prey item.
Long, narrow shapes that resemble minnows, lizards, and crawfish are given top priority, and even the long, thin bodies of plastic worms ring their brain’s dinner bell.
And the overwhelming success of plastic worms tells the savvy angler something important: exact matches with actual prey items can be a good idea, but they’re far from necessary.
Worms aren’t aquatic creatures, and bass don’t eat them. It’s the shape that helps trigger a strike, not the resemblance to an actual food item.
All animals are, by nature, lazy.
That’s not an insult but rather an energy-conserving truth.
They want to maximize calories for a given expenditure of energy, and big bass will often skip small fry as a bad solution to this life-preserving equation.
On the other hand, a prey item that’s too big can threaten the bass during the struggle or cause problems when it takes it into its mouth.
That means that, generally, largemouth bass are looking for a big meal but not a huge one, and this assessment is always relative to their body size.
Some anglers doubt that bass distinguish color well.
Don’t believe them.
As Horton, himself a biologist, explains, “Now for the most popular question we biologists get about bass vision, do bass see color? Without a doubt, yes! Not unlike humans, bass have cellular structures in the retina called cones and rods. Rods allow an animal to see black, gray, and white in low-light conditions, while cones allow an animal to see color. The exact kind and quantity of cones in bass is uncertain, but the plentiful existence of cones, along with related research, indicates that color selection can be important, depending on the conditions.”
Water clarity certainly affects a largemouth’s ability to see color, just as it does for you. But depth is also an important consideration.
As you move deeper in the water column, more and more wavelengths of light are absorbed, starting with the higher wavelengths that create colors like red, orange, and yellow. Greens, blues, and blacks last the longest, and these dark colors register until light gets pretty scarce.
Bass target things they can see, but they’re wary, too.
In clear water, unnatural colors can spook them or cause them to shy away from your lure. That’s why it’s best to match the hatch.
But in murky water, bright colors stand out against the background, allowing bass to see them.
Add to this that as you go deeper, dark colors are the only things that are still visible, and you get a general idea of the forces in play.
What should you take away from this?
First, bass have a wide arc of vision starting roughly to each side and ranging forward and above. But they can’t see anything in a zone to the rear and bottom.
You need to get your lure in that “hunting” zone, or they may not respond to it at all, and perhaps chief among your concerns should be fishing above them.
Bass don’t typically hunt down - they can’t see below themselves very well. That’s why working the bottom with a drop shot rig or popping your worm or chatterbait into the water column and letting it settle are effective: these techniques place the lure in the bass’s hunting zone.
Second, you need motion that mimics prey items, even in clear water. Vibration matters, even when the lateral line is the secondary hunting sense.
Third, you need a shape that triggers a reactive strike. That doesn’t necessarily mean matching the hatch, as plastic worms demonstrate. Instead, think oblong, teardrop, or long and thin.
Fourth, size matters. A big lure will result in fewer strikes but more big females when a strike does happen. Conversely, sizing down can increase your catch rate and total numbers. This knowledge, used in conjunction with careful scouting, is a tournament-winning secret.
Finally, color matters. Choose bright colors when visibility is poor and natural hues for clear water. The deeper you’re fishing, the darker your color, explaining why dark blue worms work so well in most lakes.