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
One of the key things
is to make sure that you are fishing a lake that is known to
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
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. 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
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
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. 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
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 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
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. Fish can hide anywhere in weeds
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 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. 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. 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
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
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!