It’s impossible to know exactly why a bass decides to eat something. But, through years of research and countless hours spent on the water, bass expert and Mississippi State University professor Hal Schramm has a pretty good idea of how bass eat. By picking Schramm’s brain and taking a look at these underwater photos, we can get a better understanding of how bass turn their prey into calories. The more savvy anglers among us should be able to convert this knowledge into a few more hook ups. All photos by Eric Engbretson
Fast Food
Bass are built for flashes of speed. Just how fast do these fish actually move? Schramm says that in bursts, they can exceed 3 body lengths per second. This means that in 1 second a 20 inch bass could travel 60 inches or about 5 feet. What does this mean for the angler? If a bass really wants to hit that crankbait you’re ripping over a weedbed, he’ll be able to catch up to it no matter how fast you reel.
2 Ways to Eat
Both largemouth and smallmouth bass feed in two ways: ambushing and chasing. Ambushing consists of a bass concealing himself in cover and then waiting for prey to swim by. Chasing bass cruise open water and run down their prey.
Trapping Prey
When bass aren’t able to conceal themselves to ambush their prey, the next best option is to try to trap them. This is exactly what surface feeding is about. Bass try to trap their prey at the top of the water column, cutting the three dimensional world to two, and only offering a horizontal escape.
Mouth Like a Vacuum
Bass create suction with their mouths when they open up to devour prey. By dropping their lower jaw and flaring their gills, bass are able to create a vacuum that draws in prey. “It’s like sucking something up in a shop vac,” Schramm says. This suction mechanism gives bass a little bit of leeway in their strikes. If they slightly miss their prey on the strike, there’s still a good chance they’ll be able to suck in that unlucky shad or bluegill.
According to Schramm, research has proven that bass eat prey fish headfirst. If they’re not able to eat their prey headfirst, they might grab their quarry, smash it, spit it out and then ingest it headfirst. This means that you shouldn’t be afraid to fish that 10-inch worm with a single hook. When a bass hits it, he’s going to start with the head.
Smash and Grab
But what about all those smallmouths you’ve caught on trailer hooks and all those largemouths that have t-boned your topwater baits? According to Schramm, most of the time these fish aren’t necessarily trying to digest your bait, they’re just hitting it. Maybe they’re mad, maybe they’re curious, maybe they’re defending their territory, or maybe they’re just having a bad day.
Feel the Vibe
Anything that moves in the water creates displacement. Through their lateral line and less evident but better developed canals located on their head, bass are able to detect these vibrations in the water. They use this ability locate prey and navigate. This is perhaps why bass are willing to eat alien-like creature baits that look like they belong in a Ridley Scott movie and not a bass pond.
Another Way to See
It’s hard for anglers to comprehend how important vibration is for fish because we don’t interpret pressure waves the way they do. But Schramm offers this example… In a northern pike study, researchers gave pike the opportunity to hit a moving prey target that was located above them in the water column. A pike’s eyes are located high on the front of his head so the bait was put in a perfect location for him to see. The catch was that the researchers “blindfolded” the pike so they had to rely only on vibration to hit their target. They were successful about half the time. When researchers allowed the pike to see but blocked it’s ability to sense vibration, successful strikes dropped below 50 percent.
Color Matters Too
Research has proven that bass are able to see about the same colors humans can see, Schramm says. After fishing all across the country, he’s noticed anecdotally that certain colors work better in certain situations, but he hints that color isn’t always the most important factor for catching fish. Imagine that you and your buddy are fishing together and he’s crushing you. You’re both using similar baits, but he’s got a different color. Naturally you would switch to a bait that has a color pattern matching your buddy’s. But Schramm suggests that it’s also worth looking at how you’re working your lure compared to your friend. How fast are you reeling? Do you have the same line weight? Is your bait running true? Color plays a role, but the vibrations your bait is creating sometimes matter more.
Think Like a Bass
“Put yourself down 20 feet in the water … how much can you see?” Schramm asks. His point is that visibility is not great in deep murky water, so don’t over estimate sight when it comes to bass feeding. “We think with our primary sense, which is vision. But we’ve got other senses and so do bass,” Schramm says.
Scent and Strikes
“Fish have extremely good chemical acuity,” Schramm says. In English, this means that bass have a good sense of smell and taste. But how much does it factor into feeding? Schramm says that when it comes to strikes, smell is not an overwhelming factor for bass. This is because bass hit so quickly. Chemicals take a long time to disperse in the water, much longer than it takes a bass to strike. As a side note, Schramm says that scent definitely plays a role in strikes for other species, like catfish for example.
Why Scent Matters
But don’t rule out scent for bass fishing either. Schramm says that he thinks scent helps determine how long a fish will hold onto a bait. When bass are in a hit and spit mood, scents and attractants could mean the difference between a hooked fish and a swing and a miss. And it might trigger a tentative bass to commit at close range.
More to Learn
The take away? We’ve got a lot to learn about bass behavior. “Just 20 years ago all we knew was that bass live on the bottom and bass live in cover,” Schramm says. But as research and technology improve, who knows what we’ll find out next.
For more great underwater photography visit Engbretson Underwater Photography.

Bass expert Hal Schramm explains exactly how bass ambush, strike, and eat their prey. Use this info combined with some incredible underwater photography to boat more fish.