Punching Mats with Miles “Sonar” Burghoff
Some say fishing topwater is the most exciting way to catch bass.
Some say that the seemingly slow motion visual display of a bass destroying a topwater bait is the pinnacle of fishing action.
I say that I would agree that topwater is an intense angling experience, but to me, nothing tops the heart-stopping action of “punching” heavy vegetation. Punching begins with a hard-core game of hide-and-go-seek and ends with a close-quarters battle between man and monster bass, where anything goes.
Over the years I have fostered a love for searching out the thickest, matted vegetation and implementing gear that could be suited for pulling a grown Alaskan Halibut from the icy depths, and instead turning it loose against good ole’ “mossyback” the Largemouth Bass.
Bass Punching Basics
Essentially, punching mats is a technique that is a variation of “flipping,” where you probe the heaviest vegetation mats by utilizing heavy-duty equipment to get through the cover and pull the bass out.
It was developed with lakes that have no shortage of dense grass cover, like Lake Okeechobee, the California Delta and Lake Guntersville, but can be used on any body of water where these thick mats are present.
Usually, punching requires a very short distance “pitch” to a fishy piece of cover, allowing a heavy weight to penetrate the cover and pull the bait with it into the face of an awaiting hogzilla.
That’s basically the essence of what punching is, but I’m assuming you probably could find that information a number of different places, so let’s talk details!
Judging A Lake By Its Cover
If I were to name the #1 key to punching success it would be, without a doubt, knowing how to read cover.
Everyone can figure out what tackle to use
, or the mechanics of how to punch, but what separates the men from the boys is how they can look at an expanse of grass and know exactly where their next pitch needs to be. This technique is as much about efficiency as it is about getting to bass that are normally inaccessible, so knowing where, and where not, to punch is important.
The hardest part about mastering this aspect of fishing heavy grass cover is the fact that it doesn’t ever stay the same. One day you might be focusing on matted hydrilla, and then the next you are finding more success in hyacinth. The variables you are looking for will always be changing, but the one thing that you must never change is your awareness of what’s going on. Sometimes you will get most of your bites in the thickest cover, while other times you will be focusing on the thinner sections of the grass. It is your job to recognize this pattern and use that information to put the puzzle together.
One thing that I will tell you that I learned a long time ago while fishing the grassy lakes of Florida, is that bass will almost always focus on areas where vertical cover meets horizontal cover. Vertical cover being anything that comes from the bottom and shoots straight through a grass mat, like reeds or a wood piling, and horizontal cover being the grass that forms a dense canopy on the surface, like matted hyacinth, hydrilla or milfoil.
If you are looking at a grass mat and it all looks the same, but there is one single reed sticking out of it, your first pitch better be to that reed, because that’s where the fish is going to be.
I think it all comes down to the fish feeling comfortable. I feel like the fish like to be able to have something to relate to, prop themselves against, or to hide behind, even though they have a suitable ceiling above them. I know that, given the choice, I’d rather live in a house with four walls and a ceiling, rather than a gazebo with just a ceiling and no walls, but maybe that’s just me.
Whatever type of cover they are choosing to be in that day, make sure you pay attention to the little details that resulted in a bite, and then use them against the next fish.
Float Like A Butterfly…
It blows my mind how many dudes go out and completely neglect to utilize the element of surprise.
I’ve fished with a bunch of guys (bless their hearts) who carelessly charge through grass, make a racket in the boat, and throw their shadows over the place they are pitching to. When I finally ask them if they think the fish can hear or see them, they say, “The fish don’t care. They’ll bite.”
Ok, I'll admit, you can still catch some fish while fishing with the finesse of the boxer Butterbean, but I can tell you without a doubt, you WILL catch more fish if you approach them quietly.
Hunters have it down. They know that they can’t expect to down a buck by tapping their boots against the tree stand while humming a bad version of “Gimme Three Steps
.” No, they know that they have to be silent, or otherwise they might never get a shot at their next personal best.
The same goes for bass fishing. These are creatures that know they are being pursued. Though there are some that are over comfortable because they are under cover, there are going to be many more that are wary of your presence, and will shut down.
My advice is to be aware of the noise you are making and try to reduce it however possible. Also, try not to cast any shadow over the cover you are fishing - always face into the sun while flipping in the morning and afternoon.
Punching mats is about finesse as much as brute force, so fish like a Ninja!
Punching Gear & Tackle
Punching tackle is a whole different animal. The equipment for punching needs to be selected with the heaviest cover in mind.
Let’s begin with the rod, because the rod is probably the most important part of the system. The length of the rod is very important, and for the most part I have been punching with a 7’11” model, which gives you good leverage to get that fish heading out of the cover. I wouldn’t ever punch with a rod shorter than 7’6”. As far as the action goes, most guys prefer a rod with the flex of a piece of steel rebar, but I think that a heavy-power rod with a moderately fast action is the key. With the large weights that you will be using, I feel that a rod with a more parabolic bend helps me set the hook without popping the fish’s mouth open with that weight. The rod I use right now is a G.Loomis IMX Swimbait rod, which I have found, has the perfect action.
When it comes to line, I use a braided line 99% of the time. Braid has no stretch, and cuts through grass, which are two key characteristics that I need while punching. I use 65-pound Vicious Braid, which has never failed me since I’ve been using it. I tie the braid onto a backing of monofilament line and then spool it onto a fast gear-ratio reel, like 7.1:1.
The weight is probably the number one component that truly defines a punching rig. Though bullet weights are common for other techniques, punch-weights differ because of their size - generally ranging from 1 to 2-ounces. Using tungsten weights is key since they are smaller than comparable lead weights, so they slide through cover better. It is important to “peg” the weight by using a bobber stop, or a rubber t-peg. Otherwise the weight will fall through the grass while your bait waves at you on the surface.
Finally, I complete the whole system with a proper flipping hook and a small bait. Using a hook with a heavy gauge wire is essential for punching since fish in thick cover can straighten a hook easily. This is why I use a Trokar Monster Flipping Hook, which is a straight-shank hook with a shank that was made for saltwater applications, so it can handle even the biggest fish, in the heaviest cover. As for the bait, it’s all about getting through the grass, so a smaller profile bait is best. I usually just use three baits: a beaver style bait, a Z-man Punch CrawZ or a Z-man Turbo CrawZ. Each of these baits has a small profile, but have different actions, so I will rotate between these three baits until I find what the bass prefer.
For more information on punching, and to see it in action, watch the videos at Sweetwater Fishing
and check out some of our recent episodes in Florida, where we wrestle some big girls out of the grass for your viewing pleasure.
-Miles “Sonar” BurghoffCo-host of Sweetwater TV