By nature, largemouth bass are creatures that favor relatively shallow, almost sluggish waters heavy with vegetation or marked by stumps, bushes, fallen trees or root systems.
Within the cover of these habitats, the adult bass is the hunter, virtually the top of the food chain -- unless one counts man, which has made the largemouth one of its most preferred targets.
George Cochran, who finished third in the 1990 Bassmasters Classic and has qualified for the tournament each of the past 10 years, has some basic advice for making the hunt easier and more rewarding.
"When you go out, pay attention to the weather," Cochran said recently at the Bass Expo in Timonium, "whether the water level is rising or falling, and the area you are fishing.
"Weather has everything to do with how you are going to catch your fish, how they are going to bite."
When the skies are bright, Cochran says, the bass will stay closer to the cover. "If it is cloudy, they will spread out a little more.
"If the lake [or any body of water] is rising, the fish go up shallow near cover or where the water is coming into the lake," Cochran says. "If the water is falling, the fish pull out and move to the cover nearest the deeper water.
"But every day is a different day, and once you know the conditions are right, you need to experiment."
Spring, as water temperatures begin to climb above 45 degrees, one of the best times to start experimenting because the bass are steadily becoming more active, they are hungry and become quicker to strike during the spawning season.
It is, Cochran says, a good time to try different sizes, colors and depth ranges of crankbaits, lures that work at designed depths and can be made to imitate natural foods such as baitfish or crawfish when retrieved.
"In the spring, basically the colors that work good for me are the browns, the oranges that imitate crawfish, one of the bass' favorite foods," Cochran says. "Then I use chartreuse and all of the reds, and basically that is all you have to use as far as colors go. But in the spring, I use the smaller baits, because the baitfish are usually pretty small."
Because every day is different and so is each body of water, Cochran says, pay attention to the color of the crawdads and baitfish in the area you are fishing.
"Go around the pockets on the banks and turn some rocks over to find out what color the crawdads are," Cochran says. "Fish are going to eat what they normally eat and that's why I believe in colors."
Cochran says that it has been his experience as a guide and professional fisherman that although groups of people fishing together start out with lures of different colors, they invariably end up fishing the same color because 90 percent of the time only one type of color will be successful in a given situation.
"When the sun is shining, I like the brighter colors because they give a little more flash," Cochran says. "If the weather is cloudy or rainy and visibility is down, I want my darker colors like the browns, the blacks, the dark oranges or dark reds."
Crankbaits achieve their designed depths because of a bill or lip on the leading edge of the lure. The smaller the bill, the more shallow the bait will run. Choosing the proper depth range is dependent on the weather and the water conditions.
"Let's say the water temperature is getting up into the 50s," Cochran says. "Well, fish are going to be active and they are going to be in the shallows, and I want a bait that is going to run one to five feet deep.
"With a big-billed crankbait in that water, the first time you crank it, it is on the bottom. Of course, you want one that will bump the bottom, but you don't want one that digs in, or when a fish comes to grab it they come on top of the bait. You might hook him, but you won't get him good."
A crankbait that runs more shallow, Cochran says, will go "along the bottom, bump and come up. That is what you want because they will hit it better because it is running a little faster and the hooks are exposed."
Size of line also plays a part, Cochran says, because a lighter line will allow the bait to dive deeper and give it more action.
Water temperature also plays a part in how quickly a crankbait should be retrieved.
"When the water is cold, below 50 degrees, you want to throw your crankbaits and reel them fast so they hit the bottom, and then slow them down to where they just go bump, bump. Then start them up again," Cochran says.
In dingy or muddy water, baits that rattle will attract bass when silent lures won't. Bass will be attracted by the sound even if they can't see the bait.
By the time the water warms into the 60s, Cochran says, he has moved to larger crankbaits because the baitfish or crawdads have grown up. In mid-summer and the fall, Cochran says, bass will often suspend over creek channels to feed from beneath on schooling shad or other baitfish. The object then becomes to select a crankbait that will dive almost to the depth of the baitfish.