A lot of the focus of the fishing world is placed on gear selection, strategy, and handling the fight itself. However, there’s another factor that, while it seems natural to some or a minor detail, is just as important.
Detecting bites while fishing.
If you can’t tell when a fish is biting, you can’t set your hook, and all you’re doing is letting bass tear up your lures before they run off; that is unless they accidentally set the hook themselves.
Even if you think that you have bite detection down and mastered, it’s more complicated than it seems. There are a lot of different situations that make bite detection more difficult, and you might have to set your hook faster or slower than usual.
Today, we’re going to break down bite detection into the smallest details to make sure you stop missing bites and start landing more bass.
Understanding the Bite: How Bass Bite Baits
Before we start talking about bite detection, you need to know a bit about how bass attacks their prey, or in this case, your bait. After all, the point of mastering bite detection isn’t just to know when a bass is fiddling around with your lure. It’s ultimately to know exactly when and how to set your hook and initiate the fight.
A lot of anglers are taught at a young age to notice the line or bobber moving and instantly yank on their rod. That’s fine for kids who are just learning because it keeps things simple. However, as you progress, you’ll notice that leaves you with a 50-50 chance of actually hooking the fish. This is because the bass doesn’t just instantly snap down on a lure or bait.
Instead, bass tends to act like vacuums in the majority of situations. They open their giant bucket-like mouths, and they start sucking in water to quite literally inhale their prey. They’re not like surface predators that bite down and attempt to wound their prey. They just pull them whole.
This affects your bite detection. A lot of the time, if you’re just seeing a little bit of activity, you’re not detecting a bite. You’re detecting the bass playing around with your rig and preparing to “bite”.
In most cases, the actual bite is when the lure goes from those little jolts of action to suddenly getting put under tons of tension. That’s because the bass sucked it up and is on the move.
So, that’s what you’re looking for 75% of the time.
Identifying Bites in Various Situations
As we said, in most situations, you’re just looking for a bunch of tension to strike the line out of nowhere.
However, that often looks and feels different depending on a variety of factors.
In this section, we’re going to go over the various situations when bite detection gets a little more complicated.
1: Identifying Bites with a Bobber
If you’re new to fishing, this is where you should start. There’s a reason kids typically start off with a simple bobber and worm rig to get the hang of fishing. However, if you’ve been fishing for any real length of time, you can skip to the more advanced sections.
When you’re using a bobber rig, regardless of what you’re targeting, detecting a bite is easy. The bobber's purpose, beyond suspending bait at an exact depth, is to give you a visual reference for bite detection, after all.
This is simple. If the bobber is wobbling around or twitching a bit, likely, you’re likely not detecting a bite. That’s either the chop of the water moving it around or it can be the prelude to a bite when a fish is nibbling at your bait or bumping into it. Even if it takes a shallow dunk quickly, it's not quite a bite.
The bite occurs in this situation when the bobber fully submerges and starts to pull away from its position. That’s when you yank up and set the hook.
You can mistake regular water movement for a fish preparing to bite, though. As you continue fishing, you’ll naturally notice the difference. A fish setting up a bite will produce more sporadic movements. Whereas regular water movement will tend to be more of a subtle pattern. Also, a sudden and sharp dunk into the water is a sure sign of a bite or the prelude to a bite. Even if it pops back up.
2: Detecting Bites on the Retrieve
Of course, most anglers stop using bobbers for 99% of their rigs once they get into bass fishing. That’s typically more for live bait fishing, teaching kids, or very specific rigs that aim to keep the lure in a specific spot.
How do you detect a bite when you’re doing a basic cast and retrieve with a free-moving lure?
There are several parts to this depending on the exact situation. We’re going to cover the most common situation in this section.
You’re most likely to get a bite on a bobber-free lure-based rig when you’re retrieving your lure. This is because your retrieval pattern is how you entice the fish in the first place, and it takes up the bulk of the time from when the lure hits the water until it’s back in your boat or on shore.
Luckily, it’s pretty easy to determine.
While you’re reeling it in, you’ll suddenly feel a tug. That can be one of three things.
First, you might have snagged something. If the tension builds up relatively slowly, and then stays firm while the line stays in one position, you’re likely just snagged. Fish don’t tend to bite and then sit in one spot.
Then, the fish might have snapped at the lure, but it didn’t take it in. This can be determined if you feel a sudden sharp tug or series of tugs, but you can still reel it in like normal between those tugs.
The actual bite is when a lot of tension hits the line quickly and stays on the line. That’s when you set your hook. You’ll notice the line moving back and forth, the tension won’t let up, and you’re in the fight.
The hardest part about detecting this type of bite is telling the difference between a fish playing with the lure and biting it. A lot of fishermen, especially inexperienced ones, will yank the line the second they get some feedback. You have to wait a second or two to see if the fish actually committed, or you’ll rip the lure out of their mouth more often than not.
3: Detecting Bites on the Drop
While you’ll usually get a bite when you’re retrieving your lure, a lot of lures are pretty good at garnering bites while they’re dropping to the right depth you’re trying to reach. With this type of bite, it can be difficult to detect. You’re not putting any tension on the line yourself, and that means you can’t feel it. Vibrations don’t even travel up the line since it has slack until it reaches its depth and you wind it up.
Instead, you have to watch the end of the line as the lure descends. If there is plenty of slack in it, and then it suddenly jolts and tightens, it is most likely that you just got a bite without even having to work on your presentation.
This is more common with some lures than it is with others.
Soft-tail paddle baits that are weighted at the head tend to garner these bites, some trick worm rigs can do it, etc. If you’re using a bait that vibrates a lot and will sink with the profile of a descending fish, there’s a decent chance you’ll get a bite on the drop.
These can be fun bites to get, and when you do time your hook right, you feel pretty accomplished. However, it’s something that takes time to learn, and you won’t get the chance to practice it too often.
4: Detecting Bites with String Vibrations
This is an ultralight fishing technique for the most part, but it does wonders when you’re bass fishing in conditions where the bass are extremely lethargic.
Bass are extremely aggressive, but when they’re super cold, or too hot, they can bite very subtly. This makes it hard to detect the bite, and it’s easier to pull the lure out of their mouths if you don’t notice and just keep reeling. A lethargic bass might try to strike again, but it will likely swim off to conserve energy.
To make it worse, most lure retrieval patterns require your rod tip to be pointed down. So, you can’t just look at the tip and notice the rod bending.
To deal with that, you slow down your retrieve, but you also use one of your fingers to lightly feel the line above your reel. You’ll notice that you’ll feel vibrations as you hit rocks and limbs, and of course, when a fish is messing with it.
It’s easiest to tell the difference between normal line movement and a fish striking when you’re not reeling and you have plenty of tension on the line. Otherwise, your reel will cause it to vibrate, and you’ll need to be able to notice vibration patterns to determine if it’s just the reel or if it’s likely a fish.
A good way to do this is to wait a second or two after you first notice the vibration. If it keeps vibrating, or it jolts a bit, stops, and keeps going, then you likely have a subtle bite, and you can set the hook.
5: Detecting Topwater Bites
Topwater bites are extremely easy to detect, but almost every angler messes up their reaction time at first because of how dramatic these bites are.
A lot of the time, you’ll see the bass come up and suck the lure in. So, you don’t have to mess with any subtle cues or other complicated nonsense. Sometimes, you’ll even see the bass breach the surface and fly through the air a bit.
This is not the time to set the hook. Even though your lure has disappeared, you need to wait two seconds after that moment for the bass to fully engulf the lure and start to make off with it. If you act too soon, you’ll rip it out of the fish’s mouth.
Things to Consider When Detecting Bites
That covers most of the situations you’ll encounter while bass fishing and how to react to them, but there are a few factors to consider.
1: Water Movement and Rig Movement
Water movement and rig movement will throw you off at first. You might think you have a subtle bite, but it’s just the waves moving your rig around in the water or jolting your line. Luckily, this often happens in a rhythm due to how water moves. Your reel and the tip of your rod do this too since you subtly move the rod while reeling in. Again, there’s a rhythm to it.
Activity that breaks up that rhythm is what you’re looking for, and unfortunately, it will take a little practice before you get used to it.
This is one of the biggest challenges for younger anglers as they move on from bobber rigs and lose their visual aid.
2: Rig Performance
Next, the rod you’re using for bass fishing can affect your ability to detect bites. Stiffer rods have slower reaction times, or they can be too strong for smaller fish to move.
Let’s say you’re using an ultra-heavy rod and a freshly spawned bass bites on your lure without committing to it too aggressively. You might not notice it until you see your line swimming back and forth.
3: Bobber Size
If you’re using a bobber, particularly a larger bobber, you might sabotage your ability to detect bites. Bass are typically aggressive enough to sink any bobber you’ll use on a lake, but if a smaller fish bites, you might not notice it until your bobber starts drifting sporadically, because it’s too big for the fish to sink it.
Find New Practice Spots with BassForecast
Detecting bites while fishing is a skill that comes from practice. We can give you guides all day, but it has a lot to do with feeling and picking apart small details.
Luckily, we can help you find the best practice spots.
Check out the BassForecast fishing app, and you’ll find fully detailed maps of every fishery in the US and plenty of weather data to help you plan out your next trip.
The app also features a spot-on solunar, which is accurate within one minute of the US Naval Observatory gold standard for lunar positioning.