Power Fishing Essentials: Punching for Bass

Meet the Author

Shaye Baker started fishing with his dad in Alabama as soon as they could find a life jacket small enough to fit him. Competing with his father in local tournaments, Shaye quickly found a hunger for competitive bass fishing. He furthered his fishing career at Auburn University helping to establish the Auburn University Bass Fishing Club. While at Auburn, Shaye served as the President of the club and qualified to fish on the traveling team amassing six Top 5 finishes including two 3rd place finishes in consecutive FLW College Fishing National Championships. While beginning to dabble in the world of outdoor journalism, Shaye continued to fish semi-pro events finishing in the Top 5 in the Bassmaster Opens, FLW Costa Series and BFLs. Finding himself at a crossroads, Shaye chose to put down the rod and pick up the pen and camera to focus on his career in outdoor journalism. Shaye has had work featured in Bassmaster Magazine, FLW Outdoors Magazine, B.A.S.S.Times and the Japanese bass fishing magazine, Basser. Shaye has also had work featured on ESPN and Wired2Fish.com,FLWfishing.com and Bassmaster.com. While working with B.A.S.S., Shaye initiated and spearheaded their GoPro division which brought more video coverage to the fans than had ever been done before in competitive fishing. After his tenure with some of the best companies in the business, Shaye identified a need for competitive fishing where participation didn’t cost a fortune. By founding UPLOADED, the Online Fishing Series, Shaye established a free tournament series where anglers could film their fish catches and upload their videos to compete against other anglers for prizes.
Punching for bass in heavy cover is one of my favorite techniques, it may even be my favorite of all time.
Because of the potential. Punching catches big ones. But it hasn’t always been that way for me. I was intimidated for years by the idea of punching for bass.
You have to develop a different mindset to punch effectively.
I would punch for an hour or so without a bite and then move on to something else. But once you get on one good punch bite, one time, you’re hooked. Now I could punch for 8 hours without a bite and go right back out the next day expecting to catch 25-pounds. Your mindset changes.

Chapter 1 - The Importance of Punching for Bass: A Hard Learned Lesson

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The Importance of Punching for Bass: A Hard Learned Lesson

When I first started fishing the EverStart Series (now Costa Series), I had some pretty good days either bed fishing or throwing a Chatterbait on Lake Okeechobee. But without fail, a cold front would blow through and wreck the fishing. The worst experience I ever had like this on the “Big O” came in 2011.

On my first competition day in an EverStart ever, I had 22-pounds, 10-ounces while blind fishing a spawning flat. Admittedly it was my plan C spot because I thought the hole only had about 12-pounds of males on it. But apparently the big females had moved in and I was feeling great about my chances for the week sitting around 15th on day one. I believe there were 21 bags over 20 pounds that day on the pro side.

That night, a cold front blew through with a 29-degree low and my spawning flat was absent from the spawners the next day. I caught 4 fish for 5-pounds, 7-ounces. On day two, only two bags pushed the scales over 20-pounds, both caught by punching powerhouses, JT Kenney and Brandon McMillan. They eventually finished the event in 2nd and 9th on day three while I was driving back to Alabama with a 41st place finish.
That was my first lesson in punching.
If you want to survive the conditions and have a shot at winning a multi-day event in Florida, you better be able to punch. The next season we returned to Okeechobee, the fishing was a little tougher that year but I finished the event a little better in 27th. Punchers again littered the leaderboard. In 2013, I got on a solid ChatterBait bite and registered my best finish on the “Big O” to that point with an 11th, missing the Day 3 cut by one spot. The top 10 once again full of punchers. Enough was enough. I had to learn to punch.

Enter one of my now good buddies and punching aficionado, Rich Howes. I met Howes while I was doing some contract work for Bassmaster in 2013. Howes and Daniel Lanier finished the Bassmaster Southern Open on Toho in a tie, forcing a Day 4 fish-off. Most of the B.A.S.S. crew had flights scheduled so they ended up with a skeleton crew and needed someone from the media to marshal for both anglers. Luck of the draw put me with Howes. We really hit it off that day as I watched him punch his way to an Open win and Bassmaster Classic berth.
I picked Rich’s brain about punching and absorbed as much as I could by watching him. It seemed cathartic to him. Punching that is. Rhythmic.
He was smooth and efficient, his bait slipping through the thickly matted vegetation time after time. I recalled what little ’punching’ I had done and it didn’t look like this.
More like someone running into a closed door time and time again without the prior knowledge of how a doorknob works.
That brought to mind something Randall Tharp had told me the previous year when I was covering him in route to his first FLW Tour win on Lake Okeechobee. Tharp, also a magician with a flipping stick, stressed the importance of keeping your rod tip high as the bait heads towards the mat. The more perpendicular the angle of your line to the mat, the better chance your bait has to make it cleanly through the mat. If you flip your bait out and bring your rod tip back down below eye level before the bait reaches the mat, your line will likely snag on the mat and your bait won’t be able to fall cleanly through. This is one of the reasons a longer rod is key.

Howes and I kept in touch after our day on the water together. Later that year, we arranged a fishing trip and I was able to get another punching lesson in, this time with a rod in my hand instead of a camera. That was one of the most educational and perception altering days I have spent on the water… in my life.

I was able to put to practice a lot of the things that I had observed over the years from anglers like Tharp, Kenny, Howes, and McMillan. We had probably 20 bites punching that day with around 25-pounds for our best five. It was as addictive as a drug, and I was its newest victim.

I took advantage of the first opportunity I had to punch my way through an event again in Florida. It was the Bassmaster Elite/Open Wild Card later that same year. On Day 1 I took the lead with 29-pounds, 8-ounces with four 5-pounders coming from punching mats. Day 2 I put together 19-pounds, 6-ounces, again leading with four 4-pounders coming from punching. I stuck to my guns on the final day but my event ended poorly as I fell to 3rd bringing in only 10-pounds, 10-ounces, all punching. Fellow flipper Chad Morgenthaler won.
Again, the top 12 littered with punchers like Greg Hackney and Russ Lane. But this time, I was one of them.
But I was still green in one of the most fun, frustrating, and fulfilling techniques out there. Looking back, there’s so much I should have done differently. Because I was running a GoPro, I have footage that I was able to watch and critique. I got very lucky time and time again in that tournament to not miss or lose fish by ‘dropping and popping’ them as you can see here.

Chapter 2 - Punching for Bass: The Proper Punching Technique

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Punching for Bass: The Proper Punching Technique

So let’s dive into proper technique. What is ‘dropping and popping’? It’s the instinctive hookset that an angler delivers when he feels the thump of a flipping fish. It’s built into our muscle memory from fishing jigs and worms and it’s completely wrong for punching.
Here’s why.
Typically when you’re punching you need a tungsten weight in the 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 ounce range. If you feel a bite and drop your rod to set the hook, that weight has the tendency to force a fish’s mouth open. Then when you set the hook, the bait and weight are snatched out of a gaping mouth. Especially on smaller fish which you’ll usually need to fill your limit because often times you don’t get a lot of bites punching.

The proper technique is more of a pulling hookset. When you feel a bite, take your rod from whatever position it’s in and pull back hard. This does two things. It prevents the fish’s mouth from dropping open so you get a better hookset and it gets the fish started up out of the mat immediately before it really knows what’s going on and can begin the fight.

The necessity of this style hookset is one of the reasons you should never work your bait with your rod straight up in the air. It should always be out in front of you somewhere so you have room to pull back. Worst case scenario you find your rod too far back, you can try to reel down and set the hook but there’s a very fine line between doing this and not letting the weight drop by reeling too fast and the fish feeling you.
So try to keep your rod tip out in front of your body. Think somewhere between the 45 degrees and 90 degrees vertical.
You can see an example of a good hookset (1:58) and bad hookset (0:39) below and the results of each. I had to go get the fish on the bad hookset and got lucky to get it in the boat but was able to pull the fish right out of the mat with the good hookset.
We already mentioned that you want to have your rod tip high in the air on the pitch to allow your bait to break through. Because bites often come as soon as the bait goes through the mat, you want to quickly get your rod into a hook-setting position by following the bait down on a semi-tight line. This brings your rod tip down and the tension allows you to feel the strike, which is sometimes very subtle. But you want to make sure your line isn’t so tight that the fish will feel you if it really slams the bait. Again, as soon as you feel the fish, pull.

Chapter 3 - Punching for Bass: Fishing Matted Vegetation and Breaking Through

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Punching for Bass: Fishing Matted Vegetation and Breaking Through

As aforementioned, getting through the mat cleanly is integral when trying to get bit and be efficient with your time. You can easily make 2000 pitches in a 4-hour stretch if you’re averaging a flip every 7 seconds on one continuous hydrilla line. Fumble around getting through the mat every other pitch and it’s detrimental. When you hit the right stretch, you can put 5 bigs ones in the boat in 5 pitches. Literally. I caught 4 of those big ones in the Wild Card on Day 1 in about 20 pitches.
So when you talk about sacrificing 1000 pitches or more in a day by not being efficient, you are going backward in a hurry.
By keeping your rod tip high, the bait drops cleanly through the mat. No hanging up, no grass wrapped around your bait and line. That’s how you get a clean break through. If you feel like you’re not getting through the mat in an efficient manner, up your weight. It’ll only improve your breakthrough and might even trigger some more explosive reaction bites!

Chapter 4 - Punching for Bass: Shaye’s Punching Gear Setup

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Punching for Bass: Shaye’s Punching Gear Setup

Punching Rod Selection

What makes a good punching rod? You want a rod with a lot of backbone but it needs to have a parabolic bend at the same time. If the rod bends all the way through, it loads up and can help spring the fish through the mat. It has to be strong and able to withstand a heavy load of bass and grass without breaking.
But you still want a little bit of a tip so that you can feel some of the more subtle bites before they feel you.
And you need a longer rod so your bait doesn’t hit the water on the pitch, so you’ll have leverage on the fish and so you can get the bait through the mat cleanly by elevating your rod tip as high as possible.

Punching is also a lot of work and it will wear you out. If you make 2000 pitches with a 1-1/2-ounce weight in a day, you’ve picked up nearly 200 pounds by day’s end. Just counting the tungsten weight. Factor in a heavy poorly balanced rod and you’ll be begging for a break after the first half hour. A good punch rod is also well balanced and as light as possible while maintaining integrity in the other characteristics we talked about.

I use a Fitzgerald Rods Big Jig/ Mat Flipping 7’8” Heavy and it is the bomb. It embodies all these characteristics because it was designed by flippers, for flippers. Both Trevor Fitzgerald and Rich Howes have won Bassmaster Open’s punching, so they know a thing or two about it and know how to build a great rod for it.

Punching Reel Selection

To go with the strong but flexible rod, you need a strong but fast reel. I use a Lew’s Super Duty in 7.5:1 gear ratio to punch and have been since the Wildcard when I first really got into punching. You need a strong reel for obvious reasons, but you need a little bit faster reel to retrieve line quickly between pitches.

Punching Line Selection

I always punch with around 65-pound test braided line. I usually use Sufix 832 65-pound test braid but have also experimented with Fitzgerald’s Vursa braided line in 70 and 80-pound test and have also been pleased with that.

Punching Weight Selection

I prefer a tungsten weight without an insert but you must be certain the bore is clean so that your line doesn’t fray and break. The paint will also chip on cheaply made tungsten weights. The two I use are the VMC Tungsten Flipping Weights and the Fitzgerald Fishing Tungsten Flippin’ Weights. The Fitzgerald weights actually aren’t painted at all but have an oxidized finish so the color lasts longer. There are several schools of thought on painted versus not painted punch weights and if painted, what color to go with.

In my fishing personally, I’ve never noticed much of a difference on what color paint performs better, but I do prefer painted over non-painted. I stick with black weights all the time just to keep it consistent. Some really good flippers say that the flash of an unpainted weight will actually trigger some strikes and I don’t doubt it. But for me, it all goes back to the fact that most punching fish hit right away and the number of bites that non-painted weights might trigger is probably offset by the number of bites that non-painted weights might deter if you were to use non-painted weights always.
Since I like consistency in my setup, I just stick with black weights.
The other way to up your chances of breaking through cleanly is by adjusting your tungsten weight size. The threshold between pitching and punching seems to come around the time you have to move up to a 1-1/2-ounce weight. That seems to be the gold standard for flippers. But at times you may have to work your way all the way up to a 2-1/2-ounce weight to get through. I believe I’ve even seen tungsten weights heavier than that, though I’ve never used them.

In the Wild Card, I was punching some really thick stuff to try to fish fresh water that some of the other anglers weren’t fooling with. So I was having to use a 2-1/4-ounce weight with the BB Cricket to break through. Definitely test out the extra thick stuff if you’re ever fishing a tournament against a lot of other flippers. In the Wildcard, some others may have been doing the same thing but the only two of us that brought it up to reporters were the winner, Morgenthaler and myself.

Punching Hook Selection

My hook of choice is a VMC Heavy Duty Flipping Hook but I’ve also had good luck with a Strike King Hack Attack Heavy Cover Flipping Hook. All hooks are not created equal and I have broken several other brands. These two I have a lot of confidence in. I always use a 4/0 straight shank hook when I’m punching. The 4/0 size gives you a plenty enough hook to tie into any size bass and is still small enough to slip through most mats and fit most flipping baits well. The straight shank is needed for the Snell Knot to do it’s thing. We’ll talk more about that later.

Punching for Bass: Peg vs Bobber Stopper

I prefer a rubber peg like the Top Brass Jumbo Peg-It to secure my weight when punching over a bobber stopper for a couple reasons.
One, I’ve never found a bobber stopper that won’t eventually move up my line throughout the day allowing the weight to separate from the bait making it less efficient at entering the mat.
Two, I like to keep my weight ever so slightly above my bait so that the weight doesn’t hammer on the nose of the bait over and over throughout the day causing my bait to move and tear. But don’t peg it too tightly because then the weight won’t be able to move and take advantage of the Snell Knot, which again, we’ll talk about in a minute.

Punching for Bass: Bait selection

The bait is something overlooked by many novice punchers. You don’t want to punch something like a Strike King Rage Craw with big flapping appendages because they hang on the vegetation. At least in particularly thick mats, you want a bait that is more streamline like my favorite bait to punch, the MISSILE Baits D Bomb. Or something even smaller in super thick mats like what I was pitching in the Wildcard, a Gambler BB Cricket.
In all honesty, there are times a fish sitting under a mat is so aggressive it would likely hit a bare hook if you could get one in front of it. So one of the reasons I like the BB Cricket is that it barely covers the hook and can get through almost anything.
Then there are times where the fish need a little more convincing, that’s when I go with the D Bomb or even the Baby D Bomb if I need to put what I consider a little better profile bait in front of the fish. You’re typically mimicking bluegill or some other baitfish under a mat and the D Bomb’s body style is a little more along those lines than a Cricket.

Again, the full-size MISSILE Baits D Bomb is my go-to. I use 3 basic colors. Bruiser Flash in tannic water and mix it up between Candy Grass and Green Pumpkin Flash in clearer water. And again I’ll back down if need be to a smaller bait like the Gambler BB Cricket or MISSILE Baits Baby D Bomb but I’m rolling with the full-size D Bomb 90% of the time.

Punching for Bass: Punch Skirt vs No Punch Skirt

If I’m on a fishery with a lot of punching potential, I like to have at least one rod rigged up with a punch skirt on it to where I can alternate between that setup and a similar setup with no skirt to see if one or the other yields more bites.I don’t really have a preferred punch skirt but something like this is what I typically go with. Punch skirts also seem to work best in hydrilla, milfoil, or coontail that’s topped out but not forming a super thick mat.

Punching for Bass: The Snell Knot

Okay, so let’s talk about this Snell Knot I keep mentioning. It’s basically a knot that allows the hook to pivot perpendicularly to the pull of the line. Most people use a Snell Knot when flipping and punching. I do too. That being said, Brandon Palahniuk makes an interesting argument for its necessity here.
Still, I believe in a Snell Knot and have caught a lot of fish using it as have many other anglers, so I don’t really see where it hurts to use it. It takes a little longer to tie so that might cost me a little time there, but if I use a different knot and miss a fish, I’ll have it in my head that not using a Snell Knot cost me.

See how to tie a Snell Knot here.

Chapter 5 - Punching for Bass: Let’s Look at Getting Bit

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Punching for Bass: Let’s Look at Getting Bit

So you get the bait through the mat and then what?
If the fish doesn’t bite on the initial fall, ‘yo-yoing’ your bait by pulling it back to the underside of the mat and letting it fall again on a semi-tight line 2 or 3 times is the common practice. But there are times when I feel like I need to cover a ton of water to cross paths with a few fish and in those situations, I’ll just make pitch after pitch and not work the bait at all.
Then there are times when I have confidence in an area and slow down.
Sometimes I’ll have had a few bites in an area and slow down to see if I can work the bait a little to catch more. Sometimes a cold front or fishing pressure will slow the bite down. Or sometimes I’ll just find a particular mat that I have extra confidence in because it has all the right characteristics.

In some situations like this in the past, I’ve worked the bait a dozen or more times before getting bit. It always amazes me because the water will be clear and shallow and I know the fish is just sitting there looking at the bait. I mean if it’s me, I’m not going to just sit there and look at a Big Mac. But I’ve never been snatched back through the drive-through window of McDonald’s either, so I guess the psychology is a little different.

Here are examples of a fish biting as soon as the bait breaks through the mat at (4:40) and one taking a few more yo-yos to draw a strike (2:20).

Chapter 6 - Punching for Bass: Establishing a Punching Pattern

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Punching for Bass: Establishing a Punching Pattern

What I have on Deck

Anytime I’m looking for a punch bite I like to have four punching setups on deck. I’ll have a 1-1/2-ounce setup which will be my bread and butter. If you only have one punch rod, start with that. Then I’ll have the same exact setup with a punch skirt. The same setup again with a 1-ounce weight for thin stuff and a rod with a 2-1/4-ounce weight for the super thick mats. All with 4/0 hooks. All pegged. All with 65-pound braid. Typically all with a full-size D Bomb with the exception of the 2-1/4 ounce weight with a Cricket at times.

In practice situations, sometimes using a dummy rig with a Hitch Hiker instead of a hook is a great way to see how many bites you can get without worrying about hooking a fish that you might be able to catch later in the tournament. The problem with this is that you don’t know what size the fish are from the bites and if you find two or three areas where you can get multiple bites, you don’t know where to start.

So I typically just roll with loaded ammo and bury the hook up to where I can shake some off and inevitably hook one or two that won’t spit the bait. Then I know what size fish I’m working with after I’ve been able to shake a few other bites off and I move on.

What to Look For When Punching for Bass

This is a vast topic because you can catch fish punching all over the country in a wide array of cover. For instance, I once asked Randall Tharp if he had ever fished without a punch weight in the boat. He admitted that he had taken his punch box out one time on a highlands reservoir and then crossed paths with a few sawdust mats way up a river. He wanted to punch them badly but had nothing to work with. He returned with his punch setup the next day and plucked a few good fish from the unconventional matted cover.
Never did he again make the mistake of leaving home without his heavyweights.
That being said, there are certain characteristics that make up an ideal punching situation. For starters, you need clear water with some sort of overhead cover. Primarily shallow in the 1-to-5-feet range, though there are places like Lake Seminole where hydrilla mats up in 25-feet of water and you can punch up fish that suspend in it. But again, that’s not ‘typical’.

Typically, bass like to haunt these shallow cavities under matted hydrilla, milfoil, and coontail or under floating vegetation like hyacinth. On some fisheries, the best spots are obvious because there’s not a lot of cover like this. However, on fisheries that abound with habitat, just finding a place to start can be a daunting task. And sometimes, you just have to pick a place because everything looks good.
Pay attention to everything that leads to a bite and you’ll start to piece together a pattern.
If you’re fishing a hard edge, vary the depth into the grass line that you pitch. You’ll start to see that most of your bites are coming right on the edge or 3 feet over into the mat for instance. Sometimes you’ll get bit where two types of vegetation converge and that will be an indicator on what to look for. Sometimes, hydrilla is everywhere and hyacinth is in short supply, or vice versa and the fish are holding more to the less plentiful cover. All of a sudden you’ll look across miles of vegetation and see indicators that will lead to the next bite.
When trying to punch fisheries with massive amounts of vegetation, you’ll find that certain areas are key. For instance, look for areas that are protected from heavy wind. When the wind blows on a mat, the vegetation is compressed, making it harder to penetrate. Protected areas are also less likely to muddy up and the mats are less likely to blow away. Also, look for points and the mouths of ditches where the fish will funnel in and out of spawning flats. And be sure to check around reed clumps where broken reeds and floating vegetation will get caught in the standing stalks and create mats.

Chapter 7 - Punching for Bass: Takeaways

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Punching for Bass: Takeaways

Punching epitomizes the mental game that makes bass fishing so much fun and such a challenge. It’s one of the most monotonous and exhilarating techniques out there. It’s hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror. It’s awesome.

But it takes a whole new mindset. Punching takes reprogramming, both mentally and physically. That takes conditioning, again both mentally and physically. But with the right setup and the right mindset, punching puts you in a position to put together some monster days on the water.

Don’t go bear hunting with a switch. Pick your rod, reel, line, weight, bait and hook carefully. Master the pull hookset and dispose of the drop and pop them mentality. Get in, get out and get on with it.
You’re going to need to be efficient and make a lot of pitches to punch effectively.
Don’t be intimidated by vast fisheries with boundless cover. Look for something different, while retaining as much info as you can about each bite. As productive water becomes more apparent, eliminating water will become much easier. And lastly, just remember to have fun with it. Fishing is supposed to be fun. And punching is some of the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

For a final video, you can see how I break down a section of Lake Seminole while fishing a frog, but when I see a section of matted trash vegetation, I went right to punching it. It wasn’t long before a big ol’ girl decided to take a swing at the D-Bomb!