Fitzgerald Rods and Allstate Pro Rich Howes knows a thing or two about punching mats – he used the technique exclusively to win the 2013 Bassmaster Southern Open on Lake Toho, earning a spot in the 2014 Bassmaster Classic at Lake Guntersville. The first Southern Open of 2015 is just around the corner, returning to Howes’ home water of Toho, and his mastery of punching heavy mats will again come into play. While many of us have put the rods away and begin the long wait for warmer weather, Howes is already on the water working to reclaim his title. In his first of many articles to come this winter, Rich Howes shares his punching setup for the thick mats of Florida.
Late November means it’s mat punching time here in Florida. Although you can punch vegetation year round, this is the time in Florida cold fronts begin to reach us and bass are thinking about spawning again. The result? The females can get big and aggressive under the thick mats, and it happens to be my favorite time of the year to fish.
When I am talking about mat punching, I am talking about punching into some of the thickest grass imaginable; the type of place that some people might mistake for an island and try to walk across it. Mat punching to me doesn’t mean flipping topped out hydrilla on river ledges on the TVA lakes or hydrilla edges that line many Florida lakes. To me that is just standard grass flipping and more of light punching set up. I will, however, give you the set up I use to do both.
Grass Mat Punching (Hyacinths, Huge Balls of Hyrdrilla, Prop Chopped Grass, Gator Vines, Tussocks Mats)
For this type I use the heaviest rod set up possible, and I use the Fitzgerald Rods 7’10 Heavy or Extra Heavy flipping stick. Your rod has to have tremendous power to take control of the fish and get them out of the mat as quickly as possible – if you don’t control them quickly then you probably will only be left with a fish story to tell your buddies. I use 65 lb. braided line and a tungsten weight varying from 1 oz all the way to 2 oz. The tungsten weight is pegged with a plastic T stopper for heavy mat fishing as opposed to just a bobber stopper (more on bobber stoppers in the light punching set up). A strike King Heavy Cover Hack Attack in 4’0 size will typically hold my Gambler BB cricket in place for punching mats. A quality high-speed reel is also necessary to gather line quickly in between flips. I use a Lew’s Speed Spool 7:1 and a Abu Garcia Rocket 9:1. This is the exact set up I used to win the 2013 Bassmaster Open Championship on Lake Toho.
Light Punching (Hydrilla edges on river ledges, isolated junk mats, Grass lines on shallow lakes)
For this type of punching I use a heavy rod but not as heavy as you would use for mat flipping. The Fitzgerald 7’6 Heavy or the new Titan HD Fitzgerald 7’6 or 7’8 Heavy Flipping rods are perfect for this style of flipping. The new Titan HD series by Fitzgerald Rods are in fact the best flipping rods that I think have ever been made. They have just been released and have already won many tournaments. One of the first Titan HD’s used in a tournament won the BFL Regional Championship just a few weeks ago. I will still use 65lb braided line and tungsten weights. Going up to 2 oz in this environment is probably over kill so 3/4 oz to 1.5 oz is probably the range to experiment with. Now, this is the type of punching where I think the use of bobber stoppers is the right thing to do, but with one huge warning. Make sure you put 2 bobber stoppers in place: one on top of the weight to keep it from sliding but also another one underneath to protect your knot from the abuse of a tungsten weight slamming on it throughout the day. There are some other ways to protect the knot and other pieces that some guys use, but bobber stoppers work effectively and are easy to set up. Another viable option would be to just continue using the T-Peg that you used for heavy mat flipping. I will say that a bobber stopper does a better job in keeping a streamlined bait presentation as the T-Pegs will slide some and cause the bait to ball up. However, a T-pegged bait holds together better going through the super heavy mats. Ultimately it is up to you to figure out how you like it. For light punching the same Strike King Hack Attack 4/0 holds my baits of choice, which range from the Gambler Why Nots, Beaver Style Baits and sometimes even senkos or plastic worms. Using a punch skirt is optional as well. It will provide some extra flare and attraction to your bait but it does provide extra friction sometimes making it difficult to punch through some tightly wound grass. A heavier weight will often remedy that problem. I personally don’t use punch skirts all that frequently while punching but lots of great fisherman do. Finally don’t forget to use a high quality and high-speed reel like the 7:1 Lew Speed Spool
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