Some of you loyal readers may know that ‘yours truly’ hosts a TV show titled Fishful Thinker TV. We’re now in our 18th season, meaning we’ve filmed 234 episodes so far and all of them, with the exception of three, were filmed on public water anyone can fish. Not only were they filmed on public water, the vast majority of them were filmed at places I’ve never fished or haven’t fished in many years, without the use of a local guide or even much information other than current conditions like water level or access points. And in an effort to keep it as real as possible, we film our shows in less than six hours of fishing time. Great – but why am I telling you this? Fair question.
I tell you all this so that what I’m about to tell you holds water; we use a system to quickly break down a new lake. Now, in the past in this very column (which you can look up in the Sportsman’s News digital archives), I’ve given detailed analysis of structure, cover, lure selection, etc, etc. Trouble is, I think a high percentage of anglers are looking for more concise information; something immediately valuable. I’ve learned that many of you anglers don’t want to study angling theory on your down time – you simply want to catch a few fish. For those of you with that mind-set, here’s a simple “where and how” to assess and breakdown new water or even familiar water that you haven’t seen in a while.
To catch fish, you must fish where fish are – but where are they? If I know nothing about a lake, I start looking in four distinct places; inlets, outlets, boat ramps and dams. It doesn’t matter what my target species is, what the lake looks like or how big it is, what time of year it is or anything else, there will always be some fish around one or more of those key areas. Since they are near the parking lot, let’s start at boat ramps.
Boat ramps have key elements that make them great places to fish. First, they have access to deeper water. Ramps are typically constructed with access to the main lake basin, so fish have an easy escape to safety. Boat ramps also have bottom content changes, typically from concrete to gravel and hard edges. Hard edges are always a good place to fish (or hunt, for that matter). Lastly and probably as important as any of the rest of those reasons, is that activity begets activity. Busy boat ramps stir the water in their immediate vicinity, creating a feeding opportunity for zooplankton and small crustaceans, thus activating baitfish and larger crayfish, which in turn get the predators we seek feeding. Plus, it’s a noisy environment for the fish, allowing us to present lures undetected. The real irony in boat ramps is that typically the most hardcore anglers launch their boat and immediately run to parts unknown in search of fish when they could probably get the skunk off in a matter of minutes in their own prop wash on the edge of the ramp.
Inlets and outlets have similar characteristics, but fish a bit differently. Both are desirable to fish because running water generally involves a flow of nutrients and is often more heavily oxygenated. There may also be temperature differences between the in/out flow and the main body of water. They are also both neck down spots giving us a small, easily defined area to fish. The difference is that fish, especially the more mature ones, tend to push way up into water running in to a lake in an effort to get to the front of the line as food is washed into the lake. For this reason, I’ll fish as far up into incoming flow as I can as well as fishing any corners, eddies or structure immediately adjacent.
Fish around outlets tend to set up on corners, eddies or structures immediately adjacent to the running water, but not right in it. I believe they instinctually know to avoid the actually outflow, but still take advantage of the current. Ever pour out a bucket full of minnows? They will all swim as far away from the outflow as possible, even if the bucket is partially submerged in water as it’s emptied. And while inlets bring nutrients in to the lake, outlets often pull nutrients, scuds, shrimp and zooplankton typically residing deep in the lake up in the water column and into the littoral zone (shoreline areas) where most fish reside.
The last place I always check for fish on a new lake is the dam itself. Dams obviously have the best deep-water access and are also the least affected by water level fluctuations that are so common in the west. The lake level can move up or down five feet and little changes for the fish that reside on the dam. Dams featuring broken rock or “rip rap” have gillions of places for crayfish and baitfish to take shelter and are often exposed to wind which generates feeding activity in the same way boat ramp traffic does. Generally, you’ll find dams fish better at one end or the other, not the middle.
Keeping these four places in mind as you travel as they will always shorten the hunt for whatever fish you desire!