FISHING LEAGUE WORLDWIDE
Wolf-pack bass: The Advanced course
Editor’s note: Wolf-pack bass peak in May and June, but with another smaller peak in September plus a full-moon phase drawing near, this article from FLW Outdoors Magazine is timely.
Jacob Powroznik might very well have been the first to coin the term.
It was the fall of 2006, and the Gillette/Duracell pro had just hauled in 15 pounds on the third day of the EverStart Series Northern Division tournament at Kerr Lake to finish seventh. When asked about his pattern, the Prince George, Va., pro told media that he had targeted “wolf packs.”
The following year at an EverStart Series Northern Division event at Lake Gaston, Powroznik brought in another 15-pound bag of bass to the scales, finishing fifth. Again, he used the term “wolf pack” when he explained his pattern.
Fast forward to the 2008 Forrest Wood Cup at Lake Murray. Kevin Vida of Clare, Mich., took an early lead on the first day and described his 17-pound midsummer catch as “wolf-packers.” Vida eventually placed fifth.
Three years, three top 10s and three mentions of wolf packs, which essentially are pods of bass that hunt together. Yet it wasn’t until the 2010 Walmart FLW Tour event at Lake Ouachita that the term really stuck in the mainstream for good.
Not only did National Guard pro Brent Ehrler of Redlands, Calif., win the event by targeting wolf packs, but so did pro David Dudley, who finished third, Ish Monroe, who placed fifth, and Powroznik, who wound up sixth.
Since the Ouachita event, “wolf pack” has become a popular term in the tournament-fishing lexicon. But what does it mean exactly? When do wolf packs form and why? And more importantly, what’s the best way for an angler to go about catching such fish?
Ehrler, Powroznik and Chevy pro Anthony Gagliardi of Prosperity, S.C., shared their thoughts with us. In addition, retired professional bass angler and former fisheries biologist Ken Cook of Meers, Okla., weighed in on wolf-pack bass behavior.
Defining wolf packs
All four experts agree that wolf-pack behavior in bass is nothing new. Furthermore, they agree that wolf packs are essentially schooling bass that, during certain times of year, roam in groups close to a bank where anglers can see them swimming.
“After catching both open-water schooling bass and wolf packs on Lake Murray, I believe they are one and the same,” Gagliardi says. “And I say that because the places I find the most wolf packs on the bank are always near some of the best open-water schooling places.”
Ehrler agrees, but adds that he believes they are open-water bass that are “straight roamers,” meaning they spend their entire lives wandering the lake in search of food.
The number of bass in a pack varies. What defines a wolf pack is not the size of the school, but what the fish are doing.
“If I troll into a pocket and see seven bass hanging out in a laydown, that’s not a wolf pack,” Gagliardi says. “But if I look over and see another group of seven bass swimming in one side and out the other, sort of stalking along the bank, to me that’s a wolf pack.”
Gagliardi believes stationary fish in the tree are resident bank bass, but the wolf pack in the same creek is composed of a completely different type of fish.
Not so fast, says Cook.
“I think it’s the action of the fish that defines wolf-packing,” Cook says. “If a group of bass hangs out in a submerged tree doing nothing, the bass are neutral or inactive. However, if that same group of fish heads to the bank and begins hunting for food together, then it becomes a wolf pack.”
Another defining element of wolf-pack bass is that they will typically all be of similar size.
This stems from a biological premise regarding schooling bass: Bass school together by age class, and therefore size.
“In most lakes, there are a lot more 12-inch bass than 4- to 5-pounders,” Cook says. “So when 12-inchers school, there are usually a whole bunch of them. But when 4- and 5-pounders school, there are only five, six, maybe seven bass to a school, and it looks more like a ‘pack.’ Again, both groups of fish are doing the same thing: hunting food.”
Establishing wolf-pack ranges
The first requirement for an angler who targets wolf packs is clear water. On one hand, you need clear water to see the fish, since catching them is primarily a visual technique. Equally important is that clear water fosters wolf-packing.
“Bass likely spend more time wolf-packing on clear-water lakes than on turbid lakes,” Cook says. “And the reason is simple: Clear-water lakes tend to be less fertile than dirtier lakes. Infertile lakes have less forage, and therefore bass must travel to find their food. For instance, bass in Lake Mead probably wolf-pack a lot more than, say, in Lake Eufaula.”
How far do wolf packs roam? The answer to that question is still open for debate. Ehrler believes that true wolf-packing fish are always on the move; they don’t have a home range and never settle down. Gagliardi, however, believes that wolf packs have a home range and will revisit the same banks on a daily basis, almost like a milk run.
“I know wolf packs will circle back around,” Gagliardi says. “I’ve followed wolf packs down the bank for hundreds of yards and spotted specific marks on particular fish. I’ve followed them out into deep water until they disappeared. But the next day, when fishing that same area, here they come again. It’s the same fish with the same marks with the same group.”
According to Cook, it’s possible that wolf packs stick to a home range, considering that tagging and tracking studies have shown that individual fish maintain a home range over a period of time.
“Again, I think it’s dependent on the lake’s fertility and availability of forage,” Cook adds. “Brent is probably right in that packs in Mead have to roam long and far just to keep themselves fed, whereas a school in Guntersville hardly has to move. At times, the current does the roaming work for them, bringing food to them.”
We all know that bass are efficient hunters. If there is plenty of food in a system, it does not take a bass long to feed up. So in lakes where there is plenty of food, a bass might hunt or join a wolf pack for a shorter period of the day compared to a bass that lives where there is very little foraging opportunity.
You can then draw the conclusion that if wolf-packing is more common and more pronounced in clear, infertile lakes, then highland-type impoundments would be the best suited for such behavior. Lakes such as Mead, Ouachita, Table Rock and even clear-water Eastern lakes such as Buggs Island, Murray, Hartwell and Lanier all fit the bill.
Locating wolf packs
As for seasonal considerations, May through September seems to be the best period for locating wolf packs, with a peak in May and June and another smaller peak in September.
The answer: It’s all about the forage.
In most lakes, bass are the first fish to spawn. Once they’re finished, other fishes such as bream, shad and herring begin their procreation process. Bass inherently know that when their spawning activity is finished, much of their forage base is just starting to spawn. Instincts tell bass to gang up on bream beds, spawning shad and spawning herring. They want to find prey that is not paying attention, and they inherently “know” that spawning prey is preoccupied, thus lowering its guard.
Touring pros have seen this bait spawn-wolf pack relationship throughout the country. Bream were the catalyst for Ehrler’s 2010 Ouachita win, but he says he has also observed bass wolf-pack on trout out West.
And before herring took a stronghold in Lake Murray, Gagliardi remembers watching wolf-pack bass gang up on hoards of white perch that were spawning on the ends of boat ramps.
With this in mind, the places to target wolf packs are around forage spawning locations – especially when they are adjacent to big main-lake areas – at times when bait is grouped in the shallows. It seems a common trend that most of the wolf-pack activity is also focused in small, short pockets off the main lake with particular cover types.
“Bushes are a big key for me,” Powroznik says. “Not bushes way back in long creeks, but bushes on flat points and flat coves right off the main lake. It’s the same way at Buggs or Gaston: Find bream beds around bushes in the main lake, and just sit there and watch what happens. Before you know it, a pack of bass will show up out of nowhere and raid the bed.”
Catching wolf packs
When it comes to targeting wolf-pack bass, there is good news and bad news.
First, the good news: Since wolf-pack bass are hunters, they are aggressive and they will eat.
The negatives, however, are that wolf-packers are extremely wary. Also, they are sight-feeders usually looking for a certain type of forage, which means the concept of “matching the hatch” is important. Finally, catching more than one bass out of a wolf pack is difficult to do.
Therefore, fishing for wolf packs is an acquired art. You must be able to see the fish, detect the direction they are going and make a careful presentation. The specific presentation falls under one of two scenarios:
Cruising packs: Where most anglers mess up on a pack of bass cruising down a bank is by casting over the pack instead of waiting for the right cast out in front of the pack.
“If you keep a long distance out off a wolf pack, they usually won’t spook,” Gagliardi says. “You can literally follow them down the bank. But once you draw your rod back, fire a cast or have a lure splash down on them, they disappear like ghosts.”
A long cast way out in front of them is mandatory. The lure must splash down and be in a position to work properly long before the pack gets to it.
Attacking packs: The exception to the long-cast rule comes when the pack actually attacks the prey. Once they’re excited, bass will bite anything that lands, splashes or moves around them for that frenzied few seconds.
Obviously, the most ideal situation for an angler is to position himself within casting distance of the forage, such as a bream bed, and wait for a wolf pack to move in for the kill before launching a lure into the fray.
Arming for wolf packs
As far as our four expert wolf-packers are concerned, wacky worms and topwaters are the top lure choices (see sidebar). A wacky-rigged soft-plastic stick bait cast low to the water on spinning gear can go a long distance and touch down with minimal splash. It also sinks slowly, so the worm will still be in front of a cruising pack once the pack gets there, assuming the cast is timed correctly. The worm also does a good job of mimicking a bream “sulking” inconspicuously on the bottom.
As for the topwater lure, it too can be launched from a long distance away. It’s essential to keep it low to the water to avoid excessive splash. And topwaters should suggest the same basic profile as the baitfish being targeted – short and squat if imitating bream, for example.
When it comes to the best lures to fool wolf packs, wacky-rigged worms in natural colors such as watermelon or green pumpkin, as well as topwaters in color schemes to match the forage, are the top picks.
Here’s a closer look at the specific lure choices of our wolf-pack panel.
Primary: Lucky Craft Gunfish 115 for covering water
Secondary: Lucky Craft G-Splash for casting at particular targets or bream beds
Primary: 5-inch wacky-rigged Berkley PowerBait Heavy Weight Sinkworm
Secondary: Rebel Pop-R P70
Primary: 5-inch wacky-rigged Berkley PowerBait Heavy Weight Sinkworm
Secondary: Rapala Skitter Prop
Primary: 4-inch wacky-rigged finesse worm
Secondary: Brian’s Bees Prop Bee #3