Tracking Trophy Bass with John Hope

By Ken Smith

For the vast majority of us, what we know about bass is learned from the fish we are able to catch. We were in the right place at the right time (to the best of our knowledge) and we fooled them with a Senko (or your favorite choice of bait). But that glimpse into a fish’s life is merely that -- a glimpse, an incredibly small snap shot in the 86,400 seconds that make up a day.

Not only is your sample of a fish’s activity small, your sample of the percentage of fish you catch in a given area is actually incredibly small. A quick look at this 2012 Sam Rayburn Survey Report compiled by Todd Driscoll and Dan Ashe (TP&W) reveals that when they surveyed fish by electroshock they averaged between 200-282 fish per hour. If I catch 20 fish in an eight hour day on Rayburn that’s an above-average day for me, but electroshocking over that same period typically produces 1,600 to 2,200 fish which means we are seeing an incredibly tiny percent of the fish in the areas we fish.

So how do we learn more?

What You See Is What You Get, Right?

Scuba gear is an option, but in most of Texas that doesn’t work so well. How about tracking them electronically? A fisherman by the name of John Hope came to that very conclusion. Those unfamiliar with John should know he began tracking fish back in the early 80’s using a radio transmitter he implanted in fish. You might be familiar with the book he wrote about his tracking experiences called “The Lost Bass” which was letter added to and republished under the title “Tracking Trophies.”

I was fortunate enough to spend part of an afternoon with John many years ago. You can read about that experience in a previous article I published, “Double Digits – It Can Happen to You.” I recently sought John out to learn more and he was kind enough to share what he’s learned over 20 plus years of tracking fish.

I asked John about his decision to title his book “The Lost Bass.” John explained that every year during the spawn he and his friends would see and catch all of these trophy bass, but as soon as the spawn was over, so were all the big fish. He knew they didn’t die, and he knew they had to keep eating to survive, but no one was catching them. To John and his friends they were considered “lost bass.”

John wanted to understand what happened to these big fish, and he came up with the idea of tracking them in a manner similar to how trophy animals were studied -- by radio transmitter. John was spending the majority of his time around Houston County Lake, a 1,300 acre lake that at the time was known as a premier trophy fishing destination in central Texas. He reached out to Ken Grissom, outdoor editor for the Houston Post, and asked if he were to track these fish would Ken be interested in writing about it? Ken was definitely interested and so began a twenty-plus year obsession of understanding trophy bass behavior and publishing his findings.

Tracking Trophy Bass

Once John found the correct type of equipment he had to save up enough money to buy it. His initial purchase consisted of three transmitters and the tracker. The first three fish he tracked were Tina, a heavy nine, Wanda, a heavy ten and Sherry a fish just over seven, all of which he tracked at the same time. John’s descriptions of these and all of the other fish he tracked is documented in detail in his book, but reading it a second time produced several questions. So I tracked John down through the Texas Fishing Forum.

My questioning of John began by asking him just how wary were these big fish? Specifically, how often did the big fish he was tracking get caught by other anglers? To give us some perspective, John tracked fish for 22 years and estimates he tracked around 40 fish during that period in three different states. In all those years most of the fish he tracked were caught by other anglers and some on multiple occasions. However, only two of those fish were caught at a time other than on the spawn, and both were unusual catches.

“There was a young guy who had just started guiding at Houston County and he watched me track Wanda, a 12 pound fish I had been tracking for some time,” John recalled. “When I left Wanda he went to where he knew she was, as he had just watched me, and he caught her. Unfortunately, he thought there would be more publicity in mounting that fish than in releasing her so he killed the fish. The backlash from the fishing community was quite severe and he was out of the guiding business within a few months. The other catch was a fish we had been tracking on Lake Brownwood that a guy caught out trolling for stripers.”

The only other time one of these fish was caught and not spawning was when John tracked them, catching them to replace the batteries in their transmitters.

You’re Doing It Wrong …

As we discussed the fact that he was tracking fish that were, in essence, “uncatchable” for 10 months of the year, it dawned on me that our approach to fishing, at least for big fish, might be all wrong. John noted that we have been “trained” to fish a certain way - for years that meant beating the bank and any cover near it. If we weren’t catching giant, trophy bass most of the year, it was because those fish either weren’t near the bank post-spawn, or maybe feeding when we typically weren’t fishing. This notion led to more questions.

I wanted to know if these giant bass were making some big move away from the areas we typically fish. During all his tracking, one thing John really got an understanding of was where these fish rested as well as where they fed. “If there was an average a fish travels in a given day, week or month it would be 250-350 yards for most fish,” John said. He went on to explain, “If you put a cow in a pasture in east Texas it will probably wander in a 50 yard circle in any given day and eat all the grass it wants. Take that same cow and drop it in west Texas (more cactus and rocks than grass) and it may have to travel a mile to get the same amount of grass. The same could be said for a fish that lives in a hydrilla bed on Toledo Bend, vs one that roams the rock ledges of a lake in Missouri.” John’s point was that range depends to a large degree on environment, or more specifically the availability of food. 

John often used the phrase “just like every other animal” when he described the day-to-day habits of the fish he tracked. That really stuck with me. He was suggesting that large trophy bass could be “hunted” much like we would hunt for any animal. If I’m looking for my dogs, they’ll be in the kitchen by their bowls when it’s feeding time, they’ll be on the couch during the winter when it’s resting time, and in the summer they’ll be lounging on the cold stone floors in my entryway. If I’m eating pizza, I simply look down.

Another observation of John’s was that once a fish reached about 7 pounds its range did not change, but it’s feeding habits always did. “Once a fish reaches 7 pounds it moves from being a ‘flusher’ to an ‘ambusher’,” John explained. “Smaller fish will chase prey and as flushers they usually feed in groups. Bigger bass do not feed this way, they simply ambush prey. They’re usually loners, but will sometimes group up in resting areas”.

Then John said something that at first seemed contradictory. He told me when those big fish get into their feeding mode they never stop moving. He clarified that they will move from stump to stump, grass clump to grass clump, looking for a place to set up for a short time. Whether they are either successful, or not, they move on to their next ambush point. In “ambush mode” they don’t just sit in one place for an hour waiting for food to come to them -- they hunt. 

I was curious to gain a better understanding of a big fish’s daily movements. One of the most interesting things John shares is his belief that big bass adhere to “trails”. His analogy: “If you follow a deer on a day to day basis, you’ll quickly discover they have an area they bed in, and an area they feed in. Every day (or night) they get up from their bedding area and follow a game trail to their feeding area. They seldom if ever deviate from that game trail. They will wander around in their feeding area in the search for food, but the routes to and from are set and they stick to them.”

I don’t know if he heard me chuckling as he gave this example but my back yard immediately flashed to mind. I have a lovely green St. Augustine grass back yard and there are these little tiny trails around the perimeter of it where my two dogs always walk the same routes over and over. 

Are Deep Summer Bass Simply a Myth?

In his books and articles, John talks about “choke points” and how to set up to catch giant fish, but in talking with me that day he got more specific on depth and fish movement. His experience tracking taught him several interesting things; first that most trophy bass live in 8-12 feet of water, no matter the depth available to them. He found this to be true in the fish he tracked fish all over Texas’s shallow lakes as well as in Missouri and in Amistad, both of which can have hundreds of feet of water 50 yards off the bank. Although a fish might suspend out over very deep water, they did so in what he called “relatively shallow” water. 

John made sure to point out that most of the fish he tracked were in lakes that had some depth to them, meaning that it would be hard for fish to spend most of their time in 8-12 feet of water in Florida lakes that don’t have much depth in them to start with, or in Powell where they would get a sunburn 8 feet deep. But in general he was trying to convey that they don’t go out and sit on the bottom in 35 feet of water - these trophies are still all around us.

His additional observations were that fish never varied more than 5-6 feet from their resting depth. He theorized that their swim bladders simply didn’t allow them to vary much over any given 24 hour period. He would observe fish pursuing food in short bursts over larger depth variations, but they would always return to plus or minus 5-6 vertical feet of their resting zone as soon as a given pursuit finished.

Although many people think big fish go deep in the summer John’s experience proved exactly the opposite. “Heat rises, so in the winter the warmest water is usually not very far below the surface, so to a large degree fish are generally shallower in the winter than in the summer and shallower overall than most anglers think.”

In regard to horizontal ranges he says the fish they tracked varied very little in their range over a lifetime, only making big moves with significant fluctuations in water levels. John recalls, “We tracked Samantha, a 12-pound fish that lived back in a cove in about 12-18 feet of water. Over the course of about eight months the lake dropped almost 10 feet and that fish migrated almost a mile and a half. But as soon as the lake level normalized that fish went right back to its old home range of 200-250 yards.  Missy, Dennis Canada’s 15 pound fish we tracked at Fork for several years only ranged about 200 yards year-round, unless a 15 mph plus west wind blew waves into her home area. When that happened she would move out to pole timber (she lived in a large cedar tree) about 400 yards away and suspend at the same 8-10 foot depth she always rested in, but over deeper water.” 

Day vs. Night – Which Time is Best?

I kept pressing John with more questions. I was curious as to why I always seemed to catch bigger fish when I fished at night. John had confirmed early in our conversation that most of the very early fish that he caught to track were caught night fishing. He strongly believes that there are two types of fish; those that feed only at night, and fish that feed only during the day. In general, as fish grow past that magical 7 pound mark, they all become nocturnal feeders.

However, there are several caveats here. First he shared that in his tracking experience, all fish eat 12 hours a day and rest 12 hours a day. His observations are that this is done in about two-hour increments, so they feed two hours and then rest two hours netting about six hours of feeding activity in any 24 hour period. In general he observed that day feeders will feed well into the night on full moons (remember at any given time he was tracking as many as 20 fish at once) but that nocturnal fish fed the same no matter the moon phase.

In the past I had heard John make the statement that if you wanted to catch a trophy fish you should find a choke point and sit on it an hour before and an hour after sunrise and sunset. If you did that for three days in a row you were likely to get the biggest fish that travels that route to bite in one of those six fishing sessions. I asked him to clarify. “Since you have the ability to catch both day and night feeders,” John explained, “the best time to fish is an hour before to an hour after sunup and sundown. There are simply more fish feeding during those times than in the other 20 hours of the day.”

I pressed further, specifically asking him if I were to catch a fish at 2am, would there be no chance I would ever catch that fish at some point in the future during the day? John replied, “It was my observation that at any time, 25% of the fish we monitored apparently did not get enough to eat during their respective feeding hours so they would feed into or during the normal resting period. This means that generally you are not going to catch a nocturnal feeder during the day, but it can and absolutely does happen.”

The one big outlier to the day vs. night feeder rule he noted was a smallmouth he tracked on Whitney that was caught by Elite Series Angler Alton Jones. “Every other fish we tracked was a day or nocturnal feeder until it reached 7 pounds when it became a nocturnal feeder. Alton caught the fish pre-spawn down near the state park on a pea gravel point. That fish fed during the day fall, winter and spring, but when the weather got really hot the fish became a nocturnal feeder. Everybody thought those smallmouth disappeared. They didn’t, they just all became nocturnal feeders in the summer which is why the smallmouth guides all switched to night fishing in the summer.”

I had heard another rumor about that fish, and John confirmed it for me. “That fish spawned on a pea gravel flat near the state park, but the rest of the year it lived, with a pretty good school of similar sized three-pound smallmouth, on a shallow willow mud bank,” John said. He also noted that the fish had the largest feeding range of any he tracked, sometimes traveling as far as ¾ of a mile to a mile in an evening to feed, which probably explains why tend to think of smallmouth as fickle - catch them here today, tomorrow they won’t bite. Well, maybe tomorrow they are biting, just a really long ways away.  

Tracking Trophies after Tournaments

I think we are all curious about what happens to fish released at tournament sites and I knew John had the same curiosity. There have been some studies done that are larger than John’s sampling, some of which Todd Driscoll of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department references in his article “Movement of Largemouth Bass Following Tournament Release”. There he writes that the TPWD estimates as many as 31,000 fish were displaced to a weigh in site at Sam Rayburn over the study period (almost 5% of the entire 14” plus fish in Rayburn) and they estimate that “up to 40% of released fish return to their capture site.”  John tracked several and his summary is that most fish, if not overly stressed by capture and handling, will migrate back to the area where they were originally caught and that many do it very, very quickly.

“We tracked a fish that was caught across from Jackson Hill Marina and released at Twin Dykes (about 18 miles apart). That fish was released late in the afternoon and we found her the next day back where she was caught. That was the quickest return we found. The longest was a fish that was transported 27 miles and found its way home within a week.”

How Big Fish Behave During the Spawn

Since John’s original curiosity was sparked by spawning fish, I wanted to know a little more about how often fish actually spawn and the behavior they observed during the spawn. “This is the time we see big fish vary from their normal pattern of behavior, but usually they stay within their home range. Once the length of day gets right, which from my studies seemed to be the biggest driver of spawning behavior, a big fish will move shallow and spawn, usually between three and five times over a period of as much as 45 days. They will always spawn with a different male each time and usually on different nests to better the chance that some of their offspring will survive.”

I asked if John could add validity to the “fall spawn” so many guys claim to observe. “We never experienced a lake that had a fall spawn and a spring spawn. At Amistad the fish would start spawning very early, or very late in the year, but that was just an early spring spawn and those fish spawned only during that one period each year.”  

John can be found these days on his ranch down in south Texas near the town of Brackettville. His book is available on his website, and he is kicking around some projects to further his underwater video work. Let’s hope he kicks that into gear and shares with us all.