By William D. Anderson

Chasing the Big Ones!

By William D. Anderson

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I'm one of those guys who would rather catch one big fish than 10 little ones. To me, a trip is not a complete success unless I get at least one decent fish. Usually I'm chasing bass but it really doesn't matter what species I'm catching as long as I'm able to find the big ones. Success sometimes means catching 50 smaller ones before the elusive 'big one' winds up on the end of my line. In this article I'll explain some of the things I do that help me consistently find the big ones.

One of the key things is to make sure that you are fishing a lake that is known to contain trophy fish. This usually means larger lakes. If a large lake contains game species and a good population of baitfish such as shad or minnows, you can bet that there are big fish in there.

Smaller lakes require an abundant food supply and adequate cover as a bare minimum to sustain big fish. It's very important to practice 'catch and release' in smaller lakes because even though small lakes and ponds can contain large fish, their numbers are usually limited. A five acre lake can only hold so many large bass.

Once you've found the lake that contains the fish you are targeting, how do you find the big ones? A 2000+  acre lake can be very intimidating. Eliminating unproductive water in a short period of time can be difficult unless you know a few tricks to help you do this quickly. If one is available, get yourself a copy of a topographic map of the lake. Study it. Memorize the areas that might contain fish. A topographical map is often more valuable than a depth finder or locator.

Most fishing maps contain notes, markings, and other tips to help you locate prime spots. Look for points, changes in bottom content and depth, underwater structure, weeds, timber, or anything else that might hold fish. Heavy cover might be difficult to fish, but in addition to providing cover for game fish, it often holds the smaller fish that the larger ones feed on.

Pay particular attention to any area adjacent to deeper water. Big fish like to feel safe and having a quick escape route to deep water is one thing that gives them a sense of security. Bigger fish will stick to structure in deeper water most of the time but you can still find them along the banks, especially if food is plentiful.

Bank with overhanging brush and timber. Bank with overhanging brush and timber.
It can be difficult to get a lure right up against the bank here, but spots like this are prime holding areas for big fish.

Beating the banks is often a productive method to catch a lot of fish. You'll catch fewer lunkers right up against the bank, but there are exceptions. In most of the lakes I know of, the banks contain the most structure. This can be limestone rip rap, timber, drop offs, weed lines, and other structure.

In the lakes that contain rip rap'd shorelines, beating the banks is a sure way to catch a lot of fish. The smaller fish will hide in and around the rip rap and the big ones will either find a place to lie in wait for a meal to come along, or cruise the bank looking for an easy target. In most cases the big fish will stay near the lowest part of the structure. This means you need to get your lure or bait down to where the rip rap meets the bottom and stops. The bigger fish will tend to hide along the bottom line where the rocks stop. Try to picture what this area looks like. Imagine the dump trucks and bulldozers placing this rock as the lake was constructed. Some of the boulders or rocks will roll out a little further than the rest. You can find the bigger fish swimming around these deeper rocks. On occasion they will move up shallower when it's time to find a meal, or when other conditions become more favorable in the shallower areas.

Rip Rap with Weeds present.

Rip Rap with weeds present.
Don't overlook the outside edge of the weed line.

In many of the lakes I fish, there are such high populations of baitfish that the game fish don't have to work hard to find a meal. This means that you have to keep moving. Staying in one place will only allow you to get the ones that are cruising. The biggest fish spend more time in one area so unless you anchor in the right place  your chances are limited.

When trying to fish these areas you need to consider a few things such as what the fish feed on at what depth. Are they eating other fish, crayfish, bugs, worms, lizards, snakes, frogs, or anything number of other things that inhabit a given body of water. Very often a fish will regurgitate his last meal when you get him in the boat. This can be a great indicator of what size and color lures you should be using.

A previous meal. A previous meal.
This fish regurgitated this small shad after it was caught on a jig/fathead minnow combo. When a fish regurgitates a recently consumed meal, try to use something that resembles what the fish have been feeding on.

I constantly look at the water using quality polarized sunglasses to see what type of baitfish are present. I start with lures that match the baitfish that are present. While it's true that big lures will catch big fish. I try to match my lure size to the size of the food in the water. I have a couple hundred crank baits that I can choose from which allows me to match just about any type of baitfish in the water. Crank baits are very versatile because you can retrieve them many different ways. It's not hard to study how the bait fish are swimming and then match your retrieve. This has been the most successful technique for me. Unfortunately it can sometimes be very hard to get a crank deep enough to place it on the fish's dinner table. This may require casting very far past your target so that you can crank it down into the buffet zone, then start trying to fool your prey. Don't be afraid to try using blade baits or other sinking cranks because they have a different type of action and on very windy days they cast a lot easier than most floating/diving cranks. In clear water where you can see the flash of the baitfish, do not hesitate to tie on a spinner.

Baitfish and Lures Baitfish and Lures
Notice how closely these lures resemble the bait fish.

On any given day, the smaller fish are more likely to be moving around and chasing their prey than the bigger ones so more of them are going to end up in your boat. When fishing a bigger lure, fish it as slow as possible. You don't want the fish to work any harder than they have to hit the lure. Do whatever you can to help the fish out by making your offering as enticing as possible while at the same time moving it as slow as possible. The slower the better, especially with larger crank baits.

If you find a shallower shoreline that has a combination of rocks, moss, and weeds, you don't need to go as deep. If weeds are present, bigger fish will not hesitate to move in closer when chasing a meal. I have a theory that the baitfish know to disappear into the weeds to escape their prey and the predators have learned they have to be quicker and also be willing to charge into the weeds if they want to eat. I still use cranks in the moss and weeds. I don't believe that weeds or moss on a lure will cause a fish not to strike unless the action of the lure is inhibited to the point that it is no longer natural, or the lure has so much green on it that it looks like a big green blob moving through the water. The fish are used to getting an occasional mouthful of underwater salad. If you retrieve your lure correctly, a little green might help mimic a fleeing baitfish.

Weeds along a bank. Weeds along a bank. Fish can hide anywhere in weeds like this.

In areas where weeds are the prevalent structure, anything you can run on top of them will usually get a fish or two, but I've found that there's no substitute for swimming a plastic worm or lizard through them. You can swim the lizard over the weeds and drop it into pockets depending on how you rig it, or use it to make a ruckus that will attract fish. Cranks are still a good bet if the weeds are still a foot or two below the surface. Another good technique is to run the crank slowly across the top and then dive it into the tops of the weeds or into pockets. Remember where the fish are - under the weeds near the pockets. You wont see them most of the time, but they will be there ready to hit anything that swims through the open area that we call the pocket. By staying under the weeds, the fish are out of the sun and away from the eyes of predators. You have to figure out how to get your lure in front of the fish in the given situation. Keep a tight line because as your lure falls into the pocket, the fish will often nail it on the drop. Be aware that during certain times of the year the fish will be in the open pockets sunning themselves. A lure landing on their heads will scare them while the same lure swimming into their immediate area will trigger a strike.

Timber is another story because I've found that fish will use different parts of it at different times. Timber also presents a new challenge because freeing a snagged lure is not as easy. I use a telescopic boat hook or one of those telescopic lure retrievers that you can buy. After I free a lure, I move to a different area because freeing a snagged lure puts a good spook into any nearby fish. The trick is to avoid snagging in the first place. If you find yourself snagging quite a bit that probably means you're retrieving your lure too fast. When you feel your lure hit, immediately stop reeling as you lower your rod. Either your lure will sink down and free or float back and up depending on what you're using. If you're snagged, use short but sharp snaps to free your lure. You don't want to do anything to drive the hooks into the wood any deeper than they already are. In no time you'll learn to feel the difference between a branch, rock, and the strike of a fish if you have a quality sensitive rod.

Standing and SubmergedTimber. Standing and submerged timber.
Try a variety of lures in timber. This area has a good coat of scum on the surface which makes weedless surface baits an excellent choice.

Don't be afraid to experiment with changing the hooks on your lures to make them better able to swim through timber (or anything else) without snagging. I carry a box of assorted hooks and an assortment of split rings. When the situation calls for it, I change hooks. When the fish are in the bottom of the timber or hiding in the exposed roots, it can be a real challenge to get a lure down there and back without hanging up on something. With practice, you'll get better at it. If the timber tops are out of the water, you can sometimes throw just about anything in there but it's still usually best to match what you see in the water. This can be baitfish, bugs, worms, salamanders, frogs, small birds, or anything else the fish usually eat. Try to figure out where the fish are in the timber at that particular time and choose something you can get in front of them with a minimum of difficulty. If they're on top of the wood, it's a lot easier.

When the shoreline structure isn't producing I wont hesitate to turn on the locators and look for open water structure such and humps, drop offs, or whatever else is available. Big fish often prefer structure in deeper water if there is a food supply. Anytime I'm running from one place to another I'll keep an eye on the locator in case I should run over a school of baitfish. When I do, I make a mental note of the bottom contour. I may also run back over the school at a different angle to get a better picture of what the bottom looks like. This helps me determine how the fish might be positioned and how I should attack them. I'm not convinced that a fish will always face the same way on a given piece of structure but I do believe they will relate to it the same way most of the time. In open water around humps and drop offs, you can fish your lure a little faster because you want to imitate a fleeing meal. No matter what direction the fish is facing, if he's in the least bit interested in eating, he'll move on your lure if he thinks it's running away from him.

A school of baitfish on a locator screen. A school of baitfish on a locator screen.
Notice that there are big fish below and mixed in with the school. This may indicate different species are feeding on the school of fish in this deep trench.

If the fish are not actively feeding you want to try to imitate a wounded or dying fish. Sometimes this is too much for a fish to resist - especially if it moves close enough to your target.

When you find a school of baitfish, try to determine if they are moving and if so, in what direction they are moving. Once you figure that out you can try to stay up wind from them so you can take advantage of the winds ability to help carry you lure farther on every cast. Another thing that works occasionally is to move ahead of a school to see if there might be something down there that the school is heading for such as shelter from the bigger fish that are feeding on them. A forward-looking real-time sonar unit is the best tool you can have to help you stay on a school of moving fish. You can easily stay behind them and still know when they change direction just by keeping an eye on the unit and keeping the front of the boat pointed at them.

You also have to consider any snags that might be present. If you snag and expend a lot of effort trying to retrieve an expensive lure, you might scare some of the fish away. After you retrieve a lure you might find that the fish have stopped hitting. Before you leave the area, try a different lure. Either way, be sure to return later if you know the spot is capable of holding fish.

When fishing rip rap, there are a million ways to snag no matter what type of lure you're fishing. My favorite lures are crank baits. Most of the time they come free very easily with just a few snaps of the rod tip however sometimes you need to drift just past your lure before pulling it free. Whatever you do, don't pull hard or you risk wedging your lure in further and breaking off. Whenever you free a lure be sure to check your knot and the last few feet of line. Rocks are your lines enemy and one small abrasion can turn your 10 lb test line into 1 lb test or less. Whenever fishing rocks, I check my line and knot every few casts.

You should also be aware of any obstructions in the water you are fishing. Anyone who spends a lot of time fishing wind blown shorelines knows it doesn't take much to push a boat into the bank. Safety first. When I hook a fish I make sure my trolling motor will pull the boat away from the bank. I don't want to worry about hitting the bank or bottom when I'm fighting a fish so I make sure that all I have to do is hit the pedal to stay out of harms way.

Marked underwater obstructions. Marked underwater obstructions.
Not all obstructions are marked. A few casts toward any obstruction can sometimes yield a fish or two. These markers warn of a shallow bar that is adjacent to very deep water. Fish often hold in the deep water between the bar and the opposite bank. Many times they can be found holding tight to the slope right below the drop off.

Fishing the windblown banks is often more productive than the other shorelines. This can be tricky on windy days and I don't recommend it for inexperienced boaters because it can be dangerous. You need the proper equipment and a good deal of experience to be able to fish in a strong wind and rough water while at the same time keeping yourself out of harms way. Just remember to keep your life jacket on.

When fishing the windblown shores, the waves crashing on the shore can help cover any noise you may make as well as cloud the water a little to reduce light penetration. Waves also stir things up to get the baitfish feeding which in turn gets the bigger ones feeding. The downside to fishing in rough water is that you lose more lures because you can't always safely maneuver into a position that will allow you to retrieve them when you snag. Still, there will always be more fish on a windblown bank for a couple reasons. The first is that there will be more food available.  The second is that the warmer water will be blown to the windblown shores. Because fish are cold-blooded, this helps with their activity level. The exception to this might be a power plant cooling lake. Fish will often move towards cooler water regardless of where it is when the water temperatures are excessive.

Lures that resemble baitfish on wind blown shores are very productive. You can use larger lures because the fish will usually be a little more active. Rattling lures can help you get a few more in the boat too, although in clear water I almost never use them. Spinners are good too because they throw off a strong vibration that will help the fish key on them if the water is stirred up more than usual. Because the waves are causing a disturbance, you don't need to fish your lure as close to the bank as usual. The rough water will have things stirred up enough so that the baitfish will not be able to stay in the rocks, and when they do get into a hiding place, a crashing wave can easily push them out. Erratically retrieved crank baits are my favorite in this type of situation. It resembles a disoriented baitfish that most predators find irresistible.

A windblown bank. A Windblown Bank.
This is a prime example of conditions that are conducive to having a good day on the lake. There is a good cloud cover along with a strong breeze to create waves that will pound the bank.

When fishing a windblown bank, you will sometimes notice that the water closest to the bank will be stained and there will be a distinct line where the clearer water starts further out. If it's safe to do so, keep your boat inside the stained water and concentrate on this line. Game fish will sometimes use this line as structure. Fan cast this line. Don't just lob casts towards the bank. The active fish will be moving around looking for disoriented baitfish and you want them to find your lure. It's tough to see bait fish in cloudy water, but if you're fishing a wind blown rip rap'd shore, you will often see fish floating on the surface that have been slammed into the rocks by a crashing wave.

Sometimes a lake may be closed on very windy days to keep the boaters safe. When that happens you can  either bike or walk to the wind blown shore and fish it. A rain suit is a must because the crashing waves will drench you in no time. It's well worth it though although the trip back to the parking lot against the wind can seem like forever after a long day of fishing.

The last area I will talk about will be drop offs. When fishing drop offs, fishing parallel to them will be the most productive method in most situations. Fan cast as you move forward making sure you cover the shallower water above and the deeper water below. The more your lure comes in contact with the bottom the better. Keep trying different levels of the drop until you figure out where the fish are holding on it. They can be at the bottom of it, at the top, or suspended anywhere in between. Bigger fish will often be at the bottom and out a little further away while the most active fish might be chasing baitfish in the shallower water above the drop.

One of my favorite lakes has a 3 foot drop that surrounds one side of an island. This drop has turns, straight lines, and one large area that resembles a point. Between the drop and the island bank, the bottom depth becomes gradually shallower and is full of weeds in the summer and fall. Both the shallow weeds and the drop hold fish. If the fish are very active, I stay out over the deeper water and cast towards the island. When I get the lure back over the drop, I let it dive or sink as much as possible before I bring it back to the boat. When the fish are not as active, I will slowly hammer the entire drop off.

An island point.

An Island Point.
This area has it all. There are rocks, steep drop offs, a flat just on the other side of the point, brush along the shore, and a few weeds here and there along the bank.

Slow is the key word here because when the fish are not active in this lake, they wont chase anything. This same lake also has several spots where water runs into it near shoreline drop offs - especially after a good rain. I'll get as far out as I can from the spots where the water comes into the lake while still being able to hit the bank with a good long cast. I'll land a lure right above where the water comes into the lake and let the water carry the lure into the lake before I begin my retrieve. Accurate casting is essential because if you miss, you're not imitating a meal being washed into the lake naturally.

To illustrate how fish respond to natural looking presentations I can give the example of a trout farm I once visited. The proprietors told us that only 5 fish had been caught all week and wished us better luck than everyone else who had been there before us. We limited out by simulating natural food. If we dropped a worm right in front of a trout (and we could see them perfectly in the crystal clear water) they would not touch it. However if we dropped the worm in front of a pipe that carried water in from a creek and let the worm get carried by the current out to the drop where the trout were holding, they'd nail it every time. This worked with red worms, small spinners, and the trout pellets we got from the machines. Let the bait fall in front of their noses and they wouldn't touch it, but let it get carried to them naturally by the current and they'd take the bait every time.

To sum up very quickly what I've said above, try to fish the deeper parts of structure for bigger fish. Use lures that resemble what the fish are feeding on and don't be afraid to adjust the size of the lure. Think about what the structure looks like under the water and try to figure out where the fish are holding on it. When the fish are not active, use slow moving lures that you can easily imitate an injured or disoriented meal with. Also, don't be afraid to try different things. This will teach you more about fishing than anything else. Trying different things leads to new ideas and new revelations about the underwater puzzle we are constantly trying to solve. You can see some of the fish I've caught by using the above methods here!

Herman Brothers Pond Management