If you want to catch big largemouth bass, you first need to understand their diet.
Last updated: April 3, 2023
By: Brandon Sanders
Looking down the aisle at your local sporting goods store at the plethora of largemouth bass fishing lures may leave you completely dismayed at what to use. What do bass eat? What are they eating right now? What lure does the best job at enticing a bite?
And to be honest, the answers aren’t so simple! There are a variety of factors at play here, including season, water temperature, body of water type (lake, pond, river, etc.), other competition, and more.
But - learning about the local bass diet is the number one key to catching big largemouth bass. So let’s dive into some learning here, so that you can level up your fishing skills.
Here we will explore what, when, and why bass eat what they do so that you can be a better fisherman. Ready? Let’s get to it!
Bass are ambush predators that want to eat low effort, high reward meals. This can come in the form of other baitfish, snakes, eels, crustaceans, and even unsuspecting ducklings. The common thread between all things that largemouth bass eat is being high in protein and easy to catch.
Yet, there are several different factors involved which will determine specifically what bass eat in one particular body of water. Let’s learn about these different factors—and how they influence bass diet.
Several types of fish are a primary staple for bass as they are high in protein and plentiful in every habitat. Shad and bluegill are the two most common fish that bass will feast on, but there is no limit on what other fish could be on the menu. Ultimately, the baitfish that a bass will seek out is the one that is the most easily ambushed. Bass will always tend to seek prey that requires the least amount of effort to catch it.
Insects and crawfish present bass with an easy meal that they will rarely turn down if they have a mind to eat. While they do not yield the same amount of energy or protein that baitfish do, they require only a small amount of effort to catch. This fact alone makes them attractive to bass. Insects falling off of trees or crawfish milling about on the bottom of a waterway will always be an enticing meal for bass.
While bass are fairly predictable in what they will eat, they do tend to eat things that would surprise the unfamiliar. Bass have been known to eat small mammals, ducks, baby alligators, snakes, lizards, worms, or anything they feel they can get in their mouth. If bass detect another life form that meets their size criteria and seems interesting to them, they will often strike it. While this may seem strange, the guiding principle of acquiring easy calories stands true. A bass will seek the protein that is most easily acquired regardless of what it is.
As opportunistic predators, there isn’t much that bass won't eat. Bass have been known to eat exotic things like snakes, baby alligators, and ducks. If it is anything other than a plant, has a scent, vibration, or looks curious, a bass will attempt to eat it. This can play to an angler’s advantage as scented baits, bread balls, and even corn can entice a bass to bite if the more conventional artificial baits are not available for whatever reason.
Ultimately, a bass is on a never-ending quest for easy to acquire protein its entire life—always keep this in mind when learning how to fish for largemouth bass. Whatever protein is most easily acquired in a particular largemouth bass habitat will have the majority of the bass’s attention. In some environments, this may be baitfish or small sunfish. Yet in others, crustaceans and invertebrates will attract the bass. In certain seasons it may be insects falling off the trees during hatches. No matter the habitat, the bass will always seek to find an easy meal that is rich in protein.
As ambush predators, bass will always seek the advantages of cover. This consequently dictates what they are most likely to eat. In shallow swamps, they will be focused on things falling out of the tree or feeding around them. This could range from crawfish eating the algae that grow off the roots of the trees or the small panfish that eat other invertebrates around them. Yet in river systems, it will almost always be schooling baitfish due to the constant current of the river.
Another factor that will dictate what a bass feeds on is the clarity of the water they inhabit. A bass has two main ways to detect prey. First and foremost are their eyes. They will always look for color and flash to locate prey. Most importantly, they rely heavily on their lateral line system to locate the vibrations caused by prey. The water clarity will largely dictate what system the bass is relying on the most and consequently, what prey they tend to find.
In rivers, bass tend to focus on schooling baitfish like fry of white bass or shad. Due to the excessive and constant current, bass often do not focus on prey that requires more static environments to thrive in like insects, crawfish, or worms. Shad are the most common target of bass. They are widely dispersed across the bass’s range and generally stay small enough to always be the perfect meal for bass. For this reason, the angler seeking success while fishing a river on a kayak should use baitfish imitators such as crankbaits, spinnerbaits, and flukes to their advantage.
Large lakes and reservoirs are the ideal locations for bass. Given that they have access to a variety of conditions, depths, and variations of habitats, bass will choose the food that best fits the conditions they find themselves in. Given the choice, they will gravitate toward smaller sunfish, but in a large lake, anything goes. However, bass will prioritize their feeding to the prey that requires the least amount of effort and produces the highest reward.
There is no great variation to what bass eat in ponds. However, there is one notable difference in behavior. In ponds, bass will aggressively attack things that are new and different. In a pond, there are very few chances for variation in food sources. Therefore, if a bass detects a potentially new food source they will attempt to exploit it. This is a fact that can be leveraged by fishermen by presenting lures or techniques that are successful in other bodies of water that have not been tried on the pond in question.
There are many things that different seasons bring to bear on the diet of a bass. One of the greatest influences is where the bass is with the spawn. The spawn demands the bass expend a considerable amount of resources and therefore greatly informs the diet of the bass. Pre-spawn will demand the bass prepare their bodies for the challenges that lay ahead and post-spawn feeding will demand its recovery. As with most living creatures, reproduction becomes a decisive factor in behavior and bass are no different.
Another key seasonal attribute, especially in the south that is plagued with shallow water, is water temperature. Since bass are immersed in the water and their metabolism is highly reliant on the surrounding temperature, this can be the single biggest factor in determining diet. Higher temperatures will enable the bass to be more aggressive and active, but lower water temperatures will limit the bass to slower moving prey.
However, if the water temperature gets too high it will force the bass into deeper water with more oxygen and dictate they feed on food available there. A successful angler will know and understand the implications of water temperature on the bass’s diet.
Just as no two bodies of water are the same, no two seasons are the same. Each one brings about opportunities and challenges for each species. Some seasons will experience a greater availability of one food source over others. Therefore, bass will find themselves feeding on different things at different times of the year depending on what is available.
It would be easy to look at a frozen lake or river and believe that nothing is happening below it. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Bass may have a slower metabolism during this time, but they must still eat. The lower water temperatures become the guiding factor in the bass’s culinary choices.
Since wintertime dictates the bass preserve energy to the best of their ability, slower, more easily caught prey becomes the prey of choice. This can include crawfish, worms, or any other protein-dense meals. The key distinguishing feature of a wintertime meal for a bass is that it requires little effort to catch. While winter may look like a time absent of activity, it can be very productive if exploited correctly.
Fishermen can use soft plastics for bass to take advantage of this dietary habit of the bass. Fished slowly, soft plastics represent a high payoff target that requires very little calories to catch. An angler is best advised to target cover that can be conductive to the sun’s heat. Very slow presentations of large soft plastics to these tree’s, docks, or other structures can be productive in cold winter months.
The spawn is the dictating factor in the springtime. As bass begin to make the transition from a winter pattern to their pre-spawn mode of operations, their appetite becomes insatiable. When water temperatures start to increase, bass prepare for the spawn in early spring. Females need to put on as much mass as possible to accommodate the large number of eggs they will produce. While males stock up on calories for the time when they will be building and guarding their nest.
During this time, bass often find themselves in travel corridors from the warmer, deeper waters to shallow spawning grounds. Schools of sunfish and crawfish crawling across rocky bottoms provide the high protein, calorie-dense nourishment for the upcoming events. However, though they may be very active during this period, they are limited to being opportunistic. Bass primarily focuses on getting to the spawning grounds during this period and not food. This should be an important consideration for the fisherman. Success will be found in matching lures to the food that is available in the travel corridors that the bass will be traveling during this phase.
During the spawn, most females will be unresponsive to any presentation at all. However, males can be caught by intruding into their nest with nearly any slow-moving lure. Once again, Texas-rigged soft plastics are king. However, slow-moving crankbaits, spinnerbaits, and even some topwater presentations have been known to be successful during this time of hyper aggression. The key fact to remember is that the males are defending, not feeding during this time.
Summertime is some of the best bass fishing that an angler will get all year. The bass is done with spawning and begins feeding on protein sources that they can hunt effectively. They truly become ambush predators during this time of year and will often be found in places that facilitate that type of predation. Correspondingly, the bass also feeds on prey that they can ambush effectively. This can run the gambit of crawfish on the bottom to ducklings on the top of the water.
A bass’s typical day during this season will consist of moving into the shallows during the early morning. There they stalk frogs, ducklings, bugs, and other shallow-water creatures around aquatic weeds. A highly effective technique is to run a buzz bait around lily pads and other wooded structures to entice the bass into biting. This will work until the sun has been on the area long enough to heat the water until the oxygen saturation begins to decrease; usually around 75 degrees.
After this, the bass will move to deeper water and take a less active interest in feeding. However, if an opportunity presents itself they will jump at the chance on an easy meal. Bass will often give light-hearted pursuit to bottom-dwelling creatures such as crawfish and aquatic worms. However, slow-moving schools of baitfish that find themselves taking advantage of the cool depths will also fall prey to a bass’s efforts during this time. This is where Texas-rigged soft plastics, jigs, slow and deep spinnerbaits, and slow-rolled crankbaits can be effective.
As evening pushes the heat of the day into history, the bass will move back into the shallows to prepare for another day of feasting on the riches offered there. The same that is true about the morning is true for the evening, but the bass will be far less active as the water temperature is still high and they are digesting a day's worth of food. However, as will all other parts of the day, if an easy meal presents itself the bass will take advantage of it. An effective way to exploit this is to jig trees and holes in lily pad fields presenting the bass with a slow-moving target that they can’t resist.
Fishing for bass in the fall can be very rewarding. Like all other animals, the bass know that winter is soon approaching. Food and heat will soon be in short supply. The greatest return for the calories invested in hunting that a bass can get is with other baitfish.
Where the summertime is great for grazing on easy meals presented by bugs and other shallow-water residents, the fall is all about preparing for the winter. Bass have a high level of interest in capturing smaller fish. These smaller fish represent a calorie dense target of opportunity that will help prepare for the slower months where their metabolism will not allow for spirited hunting activity. Unsuspecting bluegill, shad, suckerfish, small carp, and shad are all slow-moving, but high payoff prey.
The bass, during this season, will only go after meals that are either easy or high payoff. Spinnerbaits with large blades presented very slowly are the rule of thumb for this reason as they imitate baitfish. Other baits will work as well such as crankbaits, stickbaits, and even some topwater options. So long as the lure imitates baitfish in some way, the angler will find a degree of success all other things being equal.
Bass are always available for an easy meal. However, there are times of day that bass are much more likely to be actively feeding than others. Typically early in the morning and right before sundown are the peak feeding times for bass. In the middle of the day and the middle of the night, bass typically find themselves taking a break to let the food digest. This is not to say that they will not feed during other times, but rather all things being equal they prefer early mornings and evenings.
One of the things that make bass unique is the large lateral line system that gives them the black coloring down their side. This lateral line allows them to feel vibrations during low visibility conditions that are common to the environment they inhabit. Consequently, it also dictates what they find themselves eating on at night. Anything that tends to make robust vibrations in the water will attract a bass at night.
This sort of vibration producing prey is typically baitfish. However, it can be other things as well. Due to their superior stealth, with an appropriate setup for fishing, kayaks can be exceptionally effective at night fishing. Leveraging a stealthy approach helps maximize the distinct vibration of lures meant to imitate baitfish.
Next time you find yourself standing in the dizzying array of bass fishing lures at your local sporting goods store, you will know how to exploit their daily diet. Bearing in mind the time of year and what the local habitat offers the bass, the extreme diversity of choice in lures is shrunk to a much more manageable amount. The key will always be to match the bait to the water temperature, clarity, season, and habitat that the bass finds itself in. It is an art that takes a lifetime to master.
Now, you only have one thing left to do: get out there and catch big bass!
Bass eat small baitfish the most. Bass are predators with a high appetite for protein. Therefore, bream, shad, and small perch are highly sought after.
Bass love to eat anything that is both high in protein and easily captured. This can come in the form of injured baitfish, unsuspecting crustaceans, or other unsuspecting prey. Frogs, minnows, and insects are often easy meals for bass.
Bass eat anything that invades their nest during the spawn. Females will primarily be uninterested in feeding during the actual spawn but will be ravenous before or after. Males will strike anything that could potentially threaten the nest and fry.
Baby bass eat plankton and other forms of plant life. This will sustain them until they grow large enough to begin to prey on other creatures. Insect larva is also a fundamental protein source that fry require as they grow.
A household food item bass will eat is white bread. Surprisingly, bread slightly wetted and rolled into balls work quite well at catching bass. While it is not their preferred food, it will trigger a strike if presented in the right place at the right time.
Bass eat worms and other creatures similar to worms such as snakes and freshwater eels. These easily preyed upon creatures supply the bass with a calorie-dense, high protein meal. This is advantageous for the fisherman that can fish Texas or Carolina rigged soft plastics to imitate this food source.
Bass eat crickets and are a good bait for use in ponds and other small waterways. This is due to the bass being smaller and prone to target insects. Crickets are relatively cheap, easily handled, and very effective at catching fish.
Bass will eat corn under the right circumstances. Corn is primarily useful in environments where the bass do not have a varied diet like ponds. The new scents and aesthetics pique the bass’s curiosity resulting in a strike.
About the author: Brandon Sanders, who goes by BBSanders, is a freelance outdoors writer that enjoys hunting and fishing across the world. He is a combat veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other smaller deployments. He lives in East Texas in a small cabin with his wife and two dogs. You can learn more about him on his own website, here.