It's surely happened to every fisherman who's ever cast a topwater chugger along the edge of a lily pad field: a huge splash, the plug disappears, but then, no bass. A clean miss.
It's happened to Elite Series pro Dave Wolak more times than he likes to remember, so over the years he's developed his own strategy for dealing with missed strikes. Quite simply, he gives the bass an immediate second chance with a different lure. That isn't anything new, of course, but Wolak's second-chance tactics have been developed through years of strike analysis, trial and error experimentation, and yes, empty livewell desperation. Today, when a bass hits and misses one of his offerings, this veteran angler is totally confident he can catch that fish on the very next cast, and he usually does.
"When a bass strikes and misses, it tells you that fish is aggressive and ready to bite," says Wolak. "Plus, the bass gives away its position. That's critical information you didn't have a moment earlier, but you've got to act on it immediately to have your best chance of getting another strike.
"My best success has come when I throw a completely different type of lure, preferably something that sinks and looks as if it may be injured by the first strike. The second strike I'm looking for is purely by instinct, but I want the bass to see my lure falling to make sure he does strike again. Some pros I know say they don't want the bass to see their second lure so they use either a moving bait or a fast retrieve, but I do just the opposite."
Therein lies the secret of Wolak's second-chance strategy: Not only does he use a different lure with a completely different action, he usually wants a slow-falling bait the bass can see to help trigger a reaction strike. He may have as many as six or eight of his rods rigged with tubes, finesse jigs, wacky worms and other similar lures, all intended for possible use as follow-up baits.
Still, uncertainties remain. "I'll be the first to tell you I don't know exactly which follow-up lure bass will hit on a given day," Wolak emphasizes, "but I do know the types of baits that normally bring a second strike. Bass may change which lures they're hitting from one day to the next, or even from one hour to the next, which is why I have so many ready to cast. If they don't hit the first lure, I can still try a different one without losing precious time digging out another rod."
Speed plays a major part in Wolak's second-chance success because, as he points out, the very fact he gets a strike tells him the bass is hot and in a biting mood. Because the strike is probably already out of reflex rather than feeding, however, that mood may not last long, so it's critical to take advantage of it as quickly as possible. At the same time, Wolak normally does not know if or how far the fish may have moved to make the strike, nor does he know if the bass is retreating again after the miss.
"The bass will hear my second lure hit the water, and hopefully, he's still close enough to see it," continues the North Carolina pro, "and because it's falling much slower than the first lure, he races back to grab it just out of instinct. That's what I envision happening. The majority of follow-up strikes I get happen very quickly, almost immediately, so I don't think the fish move away very fast, if at all. I almost think they sit there a few moments waiting to see if they injured their prey."
Wolak has a number of second-chance lure combinations he uses regularly. Here are some of them, along with the reasons he likes them.
Topwater chugger/wacky worm "Topwater lures probably make bass excited faster than any other category of lures," Wolak notes, "which may be why we all have missed strikes when we're using them. By following with a wacky worm, I'm giving bass a smaller lure that presents an injured appearance immediately. I don't think the bass even looks at the worm's appearance, but rather, how it falls, so it just strikes again involuntarily."
Crankbait/jig "I saved my tournament at Lake Guntersville one year when bass on the shellbeds stopped hitting my crankbait by switching to a small football head jig," he continues. "I'd drag it into the shells, then pop it high off the bottom. The big crankbait was chartreuse, but my jig was smaller and a darker black and blue color. The action was totally the opposite, from a horizontal to a vertical presentation, and the bass reacted immediately."
Buzzbait/spinnerbait "The spinnerbait I use for this is much smaller, and I fish it slower and perhaps a foot under the surface. Again, I'm changing sizes, retrieve speed and lure action."
Surface frog/shaky head worm "When bass miss a frog being skittered over a mat of vegetation, it often leaves an opening in the greenery, so I use a shaky head that will sink vertically into that hole," Wolak says. "I can yo-yo it up and down in the water column, as well as shake it on the bottom if it gets there. I usually use a 1/8-ounce head to slow the fall, too.
"I may also try a different frog. I put BBs inside some of my frogs for both noise and a little added weight so the frog sits slightly lower in the water. I slow my retrieve or, if the missed strike came on a slow retrieve, I'll try a faster pace."
Plastic worm/swimming jig "Several years ago at Lake Kissimmee during a Bassmaster Elite (Series tournament) I was flipping lily pads with a big, straight-tail worm, but when bass missed it, I changed to a white swimming jig," remembers Wolak. "The jig became my main lure after I caught several fish this way on it."
Wolak admits white jigs are among his all-time favorite lures, and he uses them in an unusual way in his second-chance strategy: He fishes them as "search baits," trying to tempt bass out of hiding places where they simply flash at the jig instead of really striking. In this case, actually catching fish on the jig is a bonus, although it certainly happens.
"I use white jigs a lot around boat docks," he says, "and I particularly choose the white color so I can see it in clear or dingy water. The jig is silent and nearly weedless, and it's not an intrusive lure. I think it draws bass out of hiding places because they're curious. Again, even if a bass just flashes by the jig, I know it's present so I can throw back with a small finesse worm, a wacky rig, a shaky head or possibly even a drop shot."
The majority of Wolak's second-chance baits are single-hook lures because he says they offer a better chance of getting a good hook set, but this isn't always the case. The most unusual one-two combination he ever remembers using occurred during the 2006 Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on Santee Cooper when spawning bass were just going on beds. He'd never fished the lakes before, and because he missed all but one day of practice, he started by pitching a tube at fish he could see. When that didn't work, he changed to a wacky worm, and then a shaky head, but still he was only getting half-hearted interest.
Out of desperation, and because he was out of finesse lures, Wolak tied on an 8-inch Osprey swimbait and heaved it out, dragging it slowly into a bed. A 7-pounder hit the lure instantly, and Wolak ended up catching all his fish the rest of the week on the big lure.
"I guess it was just something different," he says, laughing. "Normally, a second-chance lure is one that is smaller, quieter and less intrusive, but that swimbait broke all the rules."
There are times, he says, when simply changing the size or color of a lure may be all that's needed to generate solid second strikes. This is especially true with both diving and lipless crankbaits, such as switching from a 1/2-ounce Rat-L-Trap, with all its rattles, to a PRADCO One Knocker, with its heavy single rattle. Sound can be an important element to consider when bass are hitting and missing fast-moving lures; changing from a noise maker to a silent runner may work, too.
The type of strike he gets, even though the bass misses, can also tell Wolak what kind of follow-up lure to use. A hard, very aggressive strike, for example, may not require a lure change at all, only a different retrieve speed. When he does get a smashing hit like this, Wolak usually casts back immediately and slows his retrieve rather than speeding it up.
The time of year and the primary forage choice during that time also helps Wolak choose his second-chance lures. During the summer shad spawn when bass are hovering very close to the small baitfish, for instance, he knows his follow-up lure still needs to look like those baitfish, whereas on other lakes, his lure may need to more closely resemble a crawfish or a goby. Overall, however, his follow-up lure color choices lean to more natural hues such as green pumpkin and watermelon.
"Bass miss lures for a lot of different reasons," Wolak concludes, "but giving them an immediate second chance with a different lure or presentation works throughout the spring, summer and fall months, and I think the only reason they don't hit follow-ups during the winter is simply because the fish are not as active.
"You certainly can't depend on finding bass in an active feeding mood every time you're on the water, so you have to generate a spontaneous reaction, an opportunity the bass can't turn down, and you can make it happen almost every time with a good second-chance presentation."