When You’re Not Sure? Where Do You Start?

Recently I was loading my boat after one of my bass fishing guide trips, when two young anglers pulled up beside me on the ramp in their bass boat. We exchanged hello’s and then the normal ramp question popped out from one of them. “How did you guys do?” One of my clients said “we did great”, and then in his excitement began to tell about all the bass he and his father had caught.

Automatically I could see the look of despair on the two young guy’s faces, which told me instantly how their day had gone. And again before I could step in my client asked “How did you do?” I believe their answer was, “it’s our first time on this lake, and we didn’t do nearly as good as you!” Then, in typical fashion, the very next question from them was, “What were you throwing and what color was it?”

In over 50 years of bass fishing, I have been on both sides of that ramp conversation. I’ve been the guy smiling and I’ve been the guy frowning. I’ve been the bug, and I’ve been the windshield. And I’m sure that you have also.

So let’s go back for a minute and start over with the original question. When you’re not sure, where do you start? First of all, I don’t believe it starts with what you’re throwing or what color it is! To me the most important question these young anglers should have asked was “How deep were the fish holding?” You see if you have a fix on their depth; then everything else will eventually begin to kick in.

But let’s say for a minute that you’re getting ready to fish a lake that you have never been on before. You don’t have anyone to ask about fish depth or to give you good fishing information. You don’t have any prior lake specific information passed on to you, and now you’re at the ramp. What now? Well, I’ve got some bad news for you. If you have waited until arriving at the ramp, to ask the question “what now”, you may be in for a very long day. You may have set yourself up for sure failure. Where did you go wrong? Let’s try to answer that question.

Lack of Prior Planning = A Long Day At The Lake

Many people work off the idea that bass will be shallower in the Spring, deeper in the Summer and Winter, and somewhere in-between during the Fall. The truth is, “that’s not always true!” Relating the time of the year to the depth of the fish can be deceiving. There are so many contributing factors (no matter what season it is) that will help determine how deep fish will be holding. Factors such as

(1) Light penetration
(2) Oxygen Content
(3) Recent Rains
(4) Recent Snows
(5) Wind Direction And Velocity
(6)Water Clarity
(7) Current or Lack Of
(8) Cover
(9) Rising Or Falling Water
(10) Food Availability and much more.

My suggestion on where you start actually happens before you get to the lake. Not everyone can afford a GPS with specific lake mapping capabilities that most certainly help you on a new lake. But most of us can afford a good contour map of the lake we intend to fish. A good and let me say that again, a good map will give you a detailed view of what the lake is all about. Please beware that lake maps vary when it comes to contour line depth designations. For instance, some map makers will use 20 foot intervals between contour lines, but I have always liked the maps that use either a 5 foot or no more than a 10 foot contour line separation, this will give you more detail. Maps that use a lot of contour lines will help you define subtle shallow water changes that many times will hold the key to a successful day. Good maps will show old house foundation locations, flooded cemeteries, old ponds, hidden road beds, sunken bridges, culverts, shallow points, stump rows, shallow ledges, shallow flats, coves, creeks, boat ramps, marinas and much more.

So the first place, I start is with my map and a highlighter, marking the key areas that I want to fish in water 10 feet and down. Shallow areas that might be closer to well defined channels that have as much cover as possible. Since I haven’t been to the lake, I expect that some of the areas I mark won’t pay out. So concentrate on the ones that have cover such as grass, wood, chunk rock, bank transition areas, current, shallow outside bends of main channels, points of major and minor creek entrances. Also check out the current side of visible and underwater islands in that 10 foot or less range. One sure area to key on is boat ramps and marina areas. I catch a lot of fish around boat launch areas. Many of these ramps will have a chunk rock wall that will butt up against the sides of the concrete as it descends into the water that provides a current break and ambush area for bass. At the end of many ramps, there will be a “blow out area” which is a hole that has been created at the end of the ramp from the constant loading and unloading of boats that can hold multiple fish. Other ramps will have a definite drop or ledge area on either side and at the end of the ramp itself. Ramps are always a good place to start instead of running somewhere right away. Another plus with ramps is that many of them are lighted. At night, this light will draw bait fish in and consequently bass. I very seldom crank my outboard when unloading my boat. I always float it off and then use my trolling motor to get to an area to tie up so I can park my Tahoe. Most times if there are active fish on or near the ramp you still have a good shot at them if you start out being as quiet in the beginning as possible.

In marinas, I like to concentrate on not only the ramp area but, when I can, the water that is between the dock and the bank. Some of these areas will have concrete sea walls that vary in design and depth that offer fantastic fishing at times. Others will have cables and huge sunken concrete anchors that are used to stabilize portions of the dock. These concrete blocks provide great ambush areas for bass. Some will have vegetation like grass or lily pads. Others might have a chunk rock finger or jetty that is used as a wind break for the marina. Marinas always have an abundance of shade, structure and food available for bass all year long. Older marinas many times will have remains of old docks, work barges and other debris and building material located in shallow water areas that can be like magnets to bass. Actually marinas are almost like a lake within a lake when it comes to potential places to find not only several bass but also many quality bass.

So where do I start on a new lake that I have no outside help or information on? I start at home with a good map planning session that will lead to a well-defined shallow water game plan for when I get to the lake. Now, do you remember the question that the two young anglers asked me first? You know the one. “What were you throwing? Let’s try to answer that now.

Shallow Water Search Bait of Choice

My personal search bait of choice all year long is a crank bait. In my humble opinion using a crank bait is an excellent way to locate fish. You can cover a tremendous amount of water in a short period of time and still be very thorough in your search. If there are two of you in your boat this works out even better; you and your partner can use different depths baits and vary your color selection until you hit on the right combination.

Now I can almost hear someone say “but Rick, it’s winter where I live” you don’t throw crank baits in winter do you? Let me answer that this way. Only a frozen solid lake will prevent me from starting with a crankbait. I was born here in Tennessee and moved back home almost 20 years ago. For several years before that, I worked for a corporation in Indiana. We couldn’t wait until “ice off” day. Not three weeks later, but “the day” the ice came off many of our Northern Indiana Lakes. You would find me throwing a crank bait in the old lily pad fields, in three to five feet of water, killing the bass and there would still be chunks of ice floating.

Here in Tennessee we have been in the midst of winter just like you have. Our water temperature last week on the lake I guide all winter was 45 to 46 degrees and the bass are slamming a crank bait and have all winter long. Sometimes you have to slow or pause your retrieve. Sometimes the “slam” turns into a “soft weed like feeling” but either way, bass will attack crank baits in cold water. I have proven it with my clients every winter.

Keep in mind that this article is based around fishing a lake that you haven’t been on before. A lake where you have had no outside help or information about. A lake where you don’t know at what depth the fish are holding or what they are hitting. If you’re fishing your favorite lake you may know that they are hitting a jig better than a crank bait, but that is a whole different set of circumstances. If you are contemplating a trip to a brand new lake that you have no information on, there are some ideas to start with:

– At home with a good contour map that breaks it’s depth intervals in 5 foot increments if possible. One that shows all the various structure I have already listed.

– Lay out a good game plan for what you are going to do and where you are going to start when you get to the lake.

– Use a crank bait as your search bait that lines up with water color and depth conditions. Don’t hesitate to switch colors, depths of baits and very your retrieve until you hit on the right combination.

– Be meticulous in searching out the best shallow water areas. Leave no rock unturned. Chunk the crank bait where anglers fear to tread. You might get your arm broke.

– Wear a good pair of polarized sun glasses (even on cloudy-rainy-dreary days) and be constantly aware of what is moving around you under the water. I sight fish a lot when the water is clear enough to do so. Many times you will see just a slight flash near a log, rock or some other type of structure. Keep in mind that if the water is real cold or the fish are sluggish, you may have to make repeated casts before you’ll get a strike.

– If the bait fish are active in the areas you’re fishing, try to get a close look at them and match their size and color as close as possible.

– When you establish a shallow water pattern, stick with it and don’t waste your time on unproductive areas.

I hope this has helped you and given you something to think about as you plan that next trip to uncharted waters. This is part #1 in a series of articles that I hope will help you answer the question “Where do I start Now?”

Rick McFerrin Owner/Full Time Guide

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