Bass Fishing Basics: 7 Lessons Learned My First Time Out

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Chase Fly holding a three pound bass and smiling

Last week I went bass fishing for the first time and it was a blast! 

I’m not a novice angler. I do a lot of trout fishing with tenkara and spinning rods in mountain streams and lakes. I’ve fished for perch, crappie, and some other freshwater swimmers. But bass was new for me.

When my friend offered to take me out on the Snake River in Southern Idaho to fish for smallmouth bass, I jumped on it.

I spent the entire evening before watching YouTube videos on the basics of bass fishing. There is a lot of great content out there for newbies, but I found it all a bit overwhelming. 

The sheer volume of information combined with the minutiae and nuance made me feel even less prepared. It seemed like I needed to get a degree in bassology before I’d be worthy of getting out on the water. Not to mention a literal boat load of gear and tackle.

Here are 7 lessons learned my first day bass fishing that may help a fellow beginner:

  1. Find a mentor, ideally with a boat
  2. Start with a spinning rod
  3. Braided line is worth it
  4. Ned rig and wacky rig are all you need
  5. Bass like structure and cover
  6. Start on a fair weather day
  7. Don’t take bass fishing too seriously

Read on and I’ll explain my newbie self.

1. Find a Mentor…With a Boat

Man fishing for bass from a boat while sitting
My bass fishing mentor and friend.

Like any outdoor pursuit, a mentor is key. Usually the things we love most, we learned from someone else. Bass fishing will be a much more pleasant experience if you’re not on your own trying to figure it all out. 

Whether a dad, a grandparent, a cousin, a coworker, or a friend, do your best to find someone to go with who can teach you a thing or two along the way. 

If they have extra gear to share that first time out, even better. This was the case with me.

Admittedly, I got lucky here. Not everyone has a bass fishing buddy with extra gear and a boat. I didn’t either for the longest time. But last week I got the invitation and off we went.

While you can successfully and happily bass fish from shore, a boat enlarges your chances of success. Boats give you mobility and mobility gives you access to more spots. You can cover more holes in a day, increasing your chances to catch more fish.

Besides better access, boats just enhance the experience. They’re comfortable, fun, and help you avoid crowded hot spots for bank fishing.

If a boat is not in the cards, a mentor still is. Find someone to go fish with from the banks. 

A mentor lowers the barrier to entry for bass fishing tremendously. With my friend I found I could rely on his experience, expert or not, to get started. That way I wasn’t depending solely on YouTube to learn everything I needed to know in advance. There was no need to think of every last bit of tackle or gear I needed when I could borrow a few things. 

Some friendly explanations on why you’re not catching any fish and what to do about it is what makes the difference between someone who quits after day one and someone who sticks with a hobby for a lifetime.

The advice of YouTube gurus begins to make more sense, I think, once you’ve got some basic firsthand experience under your belt.

2. Just Start Out With a Spinning Reel and Rod, or Two

First person view of a Favorite Fishing spinning rod and reelIn my pre-event research it became very clear that there is a lot of debate around bass fishing with a spinning reel or a baitcaster. Both are commonly used, but baitcasters seem to have a certain allure for bass fisherman. I even got the impression I might need one to be taken seriously.

Let me save you some anguish from overthinking it. Just take a spinning reel and rod. 

I didn’t have a baitcasting reel or rod and I still don’t. I know they lend themselves well to heavier baits and farther casting, but I don’t need to jump into one right away. Perhaps I’ll get one down the road.

I’ve also never fished a baitcaster. While I’m sure I could figure it out, there does seem to be a learning curve. I didn’t want to spend my first day of bass fishing untangling a rat’s nest on my reel.

If you have fished with a baitcasting rod, this might be a non-issue.

My buddy had pre-rigged a couple real nice spinning combos for me. He wisely suggested I stick with those for the day. I did and I was glad.

Favorite Fishing Rush 2500 spinning reel up close
I really liked this Favorite Fishing Rush 2500 spinning reel.

One rod he lent me were a brand I’d never heard of before, Favorite Fishing. I loved how light and responsive the Jack Hammer rod was. And the Rush 2500 spinning reel was super smooth with no issues all day long. The other setup was also great with a Shimano Nasci FB reel and a Phenix M1 rod.

Having two spinning rods when bass fishing is better than just one. With different baits on each rod you can quickly switch baits on the same hole, just by changing rods. Less time rigging, more time fishing. 

3. Braided Line Makes Life Easier

When I first started going down the internet content bass fishing rabbit hole I thought, “Man, I’m gonna need a lot of gear!” 

Not only is there tackle galore, but the bigger choices around rods, reels, and line gave me decision overload. The cost differences between something like monofilament line and braided line can be huge. Then the performance arguments for fluorocarbon or against braided line for a lot of use cases just adds to the confusion. Especially when you don’t yet have much firsthand experience to draw on.

Let me make this one easier for you too. Splurge on braided line. It is simply easier to fish with.

Benefits of using braided line when you start out bass fishing are that it is easier to:

  • tie knots (if you only know the uni knot you’re good to go)
  • avoid tangles (spinning reel + braided line = hassle free fun)
  • get unsnagged (jerk on that line without losing your bait)

Yeah, I know braided line might be more visible and heavy so it can scare the fish or hurt your presentation. But when you’re new to bass fishing, you’re gonna suck at it for a while so does that really matter yet?

Two spools of Lunkerhunt sinking braid fishing line
This is the braided line my buddy has had a lot of success with.

Once again, my buddy made this call for me by lending me rods with Lunkerhunt Sinking Braid line on them. He says either 15 or 20 lb test is fine. In all the bass fishing he has done, he just said to me, “You’ll spend a lot less time getting out of a snag and a lot more time fishing with braided line. It’s just less hassle.”

I confirm that I did not have to untangle a single rat’s nest that day. And I got out of the few snags I had quick and easy because I could jerk on that line to my heart’s content without it breaking.

Monofilament is cheap and works, but is more hassle. And you can deal with Fluorocarbon down the road once you know what the heck you’re doing. Spool up your spinning reel with braided line and get fishing!

4. Ned Rig and Wacky Rig Get the Job Done

Now that we’ve addressed the rod, reel, and line, let’s talk about tackle. So many options for bass fishing bait. Too many!

Big table with lots of bags of different bass baits on it
So many bass bait options!

Thanks to my mentor, I didn’t have to overthink about this one either. 

As previously mentioned, he pre-rigged two rods for me. One was setup with a ned rig and the other with a wacky rig

These are both common baits that effectively target bass. They are easy to find at sporting goods stores, big box stores, and even gas stations. 

Ned rig bass bait next to wacky rig bass bait
A pintail ned rig on the left, classic wacky rig on the right.

I fished these two baits all day long and caught at least a half dozen smallmouth bass. Not bad for a first timer!

The biggest fish I caught is the one in the first photo of this article. I caught it on a pintail ned rig. It weighed 2 lbs 15 oz and it put up a wild fight. So much fun! 

It was a sunny bluebird day so at one point when things were slow, I tried a couple topwater lures. I wasn’t getting any hits though, so I switched back to trusty old Ned.

The ned rig and wacky rig are inexpensive, easy to rig, and they pair well with spinning rods and braided line. They’re reliable and it’s also easy to get the technique down. You basically just drag them along the bottom with a little tug now and then to animate them.

There are surely different, and strong, opinions on this bait topic. I know there are a lot of more complicated, but fun baits like a carolina rig. I’m just saying from my first day’s experience that I kept it simple, caught fish, and had fun. 

5. Structure and Cover Are Where You Find Bass

A man holding his caught bass up high and admiring it
We caught lots of bass under the brush, logs, and debris along shore.

Once you’re out on the water where do you look for bass?

Structure and cover. That is what you look for.

Structure refers to changes in the bathymetry. Think about the bottom of the lake or the river bed. Dropoffs, deep holes, cutbanks, confluences, boulders, etc. 

These structure changes provide rest areas, feeding areas, different water temperatures, and other interesting features for bass. They’ll hang out in different areas at different times, but they rarely hang out in flat boring areas with little to nothing happening.

Cover is also critical for bass. They want to be hidden. They’ll lurk in shaded areas when it’s sunny. This is often close to banks under overhanging trees or brush. It can also be in marshy areas, under logs, and undercut banks.

Or on my first day there were a lot of weed mats floating down the river and getting hung up on debris. This is where we caught a lot of our fish that day by casting as close to the cover as possible and letting the bait drift underneath that cover.

Look for structure and cover combined. That is where you find bass.

6. Fair Weather Makes a Fine First Day

Man removing a lure from a smallmouth bass' mouth
Nothing but blue sky on my first day bass fishing!

This probably goes without saying. However, foul weather doesn’t usually deter me from doing something fun outdoors. So I thought I’d make a point of it here for like minded fellows.

Going bass fishing for your first time on a fair weather day will make for a great experience. This might be especially important for those of you trying to coax a reluctant loved one to come along. Think teenage daughters, videogamer sons, and non-outdoorsy friends.

Picking a warm, but not hot day with little to no wind is ideal. And maybe do an afternoon to evening outing instead of setting out before dawn for the sleepy heads.

My first day we met up at noon on a bright sunny 75 degree day with no wind and grabbed lunch on the way to the river. We fished all afternoon and got into a nice hole early.

No wind meant little to no tricky casting or frustrating encounters with trees on shore.

The goal of the first day should be to want to go again. Good weather will play in your favor on that front.

7. Don’t Take Bass Fishing Too Seriously

Man reaching down for a bass he just landed on a boat
I fumbled all over the deck trying to grab that big ole’ bass. Review on my fishing shoes FYI.

My last lesson learned and tip for you is to not take bass fishing too seriously. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

One of the things that kept me from bass fishing until now was that the people I knew who did it were VERY into it. Seriously into it. The competitions, strict boat rules, unspoken fishing etiquette, copious amounts of expensive gear, and vast knowledge of bass behavior just seemed more stressful than fun.

I had the impression that bass fishing needed to be approached more as a professional pursuit than one of leisure. False!

Bass fishing is tons of fun and very forgiving. You can stumble your way through it, make lots of mistakes, and shoot the bull with your buddy all day. You may or may not catch lots of fish, but you’re going to have a great time!

And don’t forget to carb load before you head out on the water. My buddy emphasized that you’re gonna need a lot of calories because we’re gonna be on that boat a while. We got the bacon cheeseburger combo with soda AND a milkshake. Besides the proverbial snacks on board the boat, that was my only real meal and it was a great day! 

I hope you, my fellow aspiring bass fisherman, can take these tips and simplify your initial approach to bass fishing. The gear tips I gave translate to more time with line in the water. As it turns out, that’s how you catch more fish. And fishing makes you happy.

And I hope you have the good fortune of having a friend or family member as a mentor to help you figure it all out like I did. After all, the outdoors taste best with good company. Fish on!

Bass splashing in water next to a boat

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Starting in 2021 Chase stepped in as General Manager of Outdoor Empire following many years in sales, marketing, and international business. Native to Idaho, Outdoor Empire's new home base, Chase loves nature and being outside. He's always wanting to try new things outdoors and will pick a night in the woods over a night on the town any day of the week. He's never been regarded as a sharp shooter. In fact he unabashedly raves about his "armed hikes" and doing his part to perpetuate the species. He enjoys fishing alpine streams and lakes, hunting chukar in the Owyhee desert, ducks on the Snake River, and deer in North Idaho. But he's never ashamed of coming home empty-handed. He chalks those days up as good ones, grateful to have spent a day outdoors. Chase's desk faces the window so he can day dream looking outdoors even when at his computer. He cares about conservation and multiple use of public lands. And he most enjoys his time outdoors with his wife and three kids.

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