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The Deadly Deep | Print |  Email
Written by Bret Hite   
Saturday, 05 March 2011 04:53

Fishing offshore structure other anglers avoid

I would say that, on average, 90 percent of the fisherman who say they're fishing deep structure really aren't. They're fishing 30 feet off the bank, and sure, they're fishing 30 to 40 feet deep, but they're still "on the bank." Instead of fishing within five feet of the bank, they've just moved out a little deeper along the same drop-off.

When someone tells me he or she is fishing structure, I really have to ask myself, "Does this person know what true structure is?" What I call "true" structure is a creek channel you have to find and follow, an outside hump away from the bank, a big flat that comes out with a break on it-stuff you just can't meter down the bank and find. You need to use your electronics to go out and actually hunt these spots down.

Yet, most anglers won't do it, and once you find them, they're gold.

Maximum Metering

When hitting new water, or even water I know well, I fire up the electronics before ever leaving the dock. And as I'm running, I'm always watching the electronics. Always watching. To do this on plane, you've got to have electronics that can pick up the bottom at 30 to 40 mph. That's a big key, because if you can't find structure when you're running, you'll waste a lot of time cruising at low speeds.

In order to read at high speeds, you'll probably have to invest at least $300 and purchase a unit with high-speed reading. If you get a $200 unit that just displays the depth while you're running, it won't pick up the little humps and rises that are so important. In fact, I would rather run a flasher than a $150 to $200 sonar unit, just because the flasher reads in real-time.

One thing that's changed over the past year or so for me is adjusting my ping speed. The new Lowrance X-15s and X-16s let the user adjust ping speed, which controls how fast the puck pulsates. The faster it pulsates, the faster it sends and receives. For my console-mounted graph, when I'm running, I put the chart speed on high and keep the transducer pulsing as fast as I can, coming as close as possible to a real-time picture.

But I don't actually look for fish when I'm on plane. Except for a few rare instances, the only time you're going to see the arches that denote fish is when you're idling.

And speaking of arches, a question people ask me all the time is: "When I'm standing still, why I don't mark any arches?" or "I see arches on the console graph when I'm idling, but when I move to the deck, I don't see any. Why?"

The answer is fairly simple. The faster you move, the sharper and more compact the arch will be. The slower you move-like when you're barely creeping-the more the arch will look just like a line. This is especially true on older units, with slower ping speeds.

Idling Over

When I find a spot-say I'm running out on Lake Pleasant and it comes up 40 feet into a big flat-I'll stop, turn back around, and go right to where it came up on the break. If it's a spot I don't know, I'll idle around that break for maybe 10 minutes. Then, I'll start idling across the flat, trying to get a visual picture of exactly how it's all laid out.

In general, I don't think idling over the fish spooks them. If you can't run over them, you can't fish the structure effectively anyway. So you've got to be able to find the bass first, before ever worrying about spooking them. That's my philosophy. I honestly don't think it affects them.

And as I'm criss-crossing the structure, my goal is to translate the two-dimensional onscreen picture into a three-dimensional picture in my head. This allows me to pinpoint the spot-on-the-spot where I want to start fishing.

When it comes to a hump, for instance, you've go to think in your head, "What are the high-percentage points that a bass hangs on?" Humps are never uniform; there's either going to be a point, or a longer ridge to one side, or a channel rubbing up against it. You've got to focus, visualizing and pinpointing the high-percentage spots.

What I do is, let's say the hump comes up to 30 feet, then after 10 or 20 yards drops down to a basin depth of 50 feet. After idling across and marking both drop-offs, too many people turn right back around, drop their trolling motor and start fishing.

But just like I said, the hump is never uniform. So what I do is, turn right back around and maybe criss-cross that hump from six or seven different angles. I may spend five minutes or more just graphing it-forming a three-dimensional image in my mind and trying to figure out exactly how the whole thing is laid out.

If you just go over the hump once, you may fish around it for a half-hour on that trolling motor and never know things like: "This spot over here has an indentation with a bunch of rocks on it," or "This side drops off a lot sharper than that side."

As you idle over, you need to be thinking, "Okay, I went over it this way, and it just comes up real uniform and drops off on that side real nice, about the same as it did straight across from that. Or if I go this way, it comes up a lot sharper on this side. It's a real long slope here, and has a pure, sheer drop right at the end of the slope into the channel."

By idling, graphing and thinking, I'm going to find the fish a lot faster. I'm narrowing down the whole structure to a few key spots. And you never know, the bass might be in some oddball place, but 90 percent of the time, they're going to be in those high-percentage areas. The spots on the spot.

Spot Clinging

After you find one of these key spots, you somehow have to mark it, and stay right on top of it. I've seen it a hundred times on crowded local lakes-people are all around me fishing and I'll catch 20 or 30 fish. But other boats either blank, or pick up a fish here and there. It's because I'm fishing the absolute best spot. To achieve this kind of success on deep structure, you need to couple the precise graphing I just explained, with precision boat control. A lot of the time I don't use a marker buoy, because it draws too much attention, but if you're just learning, a marker buoy is a must. Whenever you get some wind out there in no man's land, it's so easy to lose your position. To combat the loss of position, I use a lot of land markers-trees, rocks, a cactus, etc.

I'll generally mark a two-point bearing-one land feature to the side and one straight ahead or behind me. This gives me a pretty good idea of the position.

Another good tool, especially if you're just beginning, is to watch your line. For most deep-structure fishing, you'll want to use a vertical presentation. You can sit there on your good spot, drop your line straight down, and if your line starts moving at an angle, you'll know you're drifting. And having your line straight down is also the biggest key to interpreting what you see on the graph.

Pretty soon, it all starts clicking.

But boat control is so crucial, because I've found that a good spot is usually about as big as the boat. The bass just will not bite until you get the bait right into that spot-especially this time of year, when the water gets down below 50 degrees. The fish really seem to stay on one rock, or one little dip or indentation in the channel, and stay there.

Other times of the year are different, because you'll find a key spot, pull a few fish off, then nothing. Well, the spot isn't really "burned." What happened was, the shad moved, and the bass moved with them. But this time of year, the bass are much more sedentary.

Onscreen Spotting

I believe a lot of the anglers out there don't recognize the majority of fish that appear on their screens. For example, with a lot of partners who go out with me, I'll say, "Oh, there's a good one." And they'll look and ask, "Where?" The evidence was right there on the screen, if you knew what to look for.

The toughest fish to find is the one that's on the bottom. By far, it's the most difficult, and no matter how good the graph, if that fish is on the bottom, it'll look more like a rock than anything else. But the new graphs, like my Lowrance X-16, display different colors, depending on bottom hardness. This way, I can differentiate. The fish will look like a little hump coming up, or a rock, but distinctive enough to recognize.

If you're moving slowly, the fish looks like the bottom coming up maybe a foot, then tapering down. If you look closely on a black-and-white unit, it's going to be a lighter shade of gray than the actual bottom.

The color graph is similar, but a little easier to pick out. If you're reading bright-yellow hard bottom, and you see a little orange come up there, it's either a mud hump out in the middle of a rock flat-and how many times do you see that?-or it's a fish. There's never a guarantee, and you're always kind of guessing, but I've narrowed it down so I can guess correctly about 90 percent of the time.

The way I determine whether the mark is actually a fish, is to sink a dropshot right down on that hump. I'll usually see the mark come up off bottom. It might only come up a half foot, but once you get that separation, you know it's a fish. Do that enough times and you'll have a lot more skill and confidence in marking bottom-hugging fish.

Rock Talk

Once you learn to interpret bottom marks, you can start focusing on another crucial aspect of deep-structure fishing: bottom composition. In particular, the transition zones: hard to semi-hard bottom, sand to gravel, peastone to chunk rock.

For a long time, it was hard to distinguish a big rock from a bush. But now, with more sensitive electronics, color or grayline is your guide. I can drive over a cover element and, if it looks kind of bluish and red in the center, I know it's a tree. If I idle over a big rockpile and it graphs in yellow, I know it's a rockpile and not a tree or thick bush. In black and white, it all depends on the grayline. The thinner the top of the grayline, the harder it is.

You really have to focus on color or grayline when you're moving over pieces of cover and varying bottom types. A lot of the time, with the little rocks, you can see some of them, but if they're right on the bottom-say we're talking about little hand-sized boulders-you won't really see these on the graph.

This is where I kind of draw the line, and transfer focus over to my fishing equipment. Sensitive tungsten weights and graphite dropshot rods are measuring instruments, as well.

For example, I can find the big boulders with electronics, but to find those little chunk rocks that bass really like, I have to drag the weight around and feel them out. Which is another reason the dropshot is so effective for fishing deep structure. Plus, the most active fish will usually be anywhere from six inches to three feet above the bottom, and the dropshot works that entire strike zone perfectly.

But if you can afford it, use a tungsten weight. With a lead weight, you really don't feel much down there, unless you get hung up. But with tungsten sunk down even 50 feet, you can really feel the bottom, and I've learned to determine, for example, what hand-size boulders feel like, versus smaller rubble.

Couple that tungsten with a sensitive dropshot rod, like the one I use from Evola, plus fluorocarbon line, and you've effectively got a whole second set of electronics.

And I can promise, if you work a metering program like the one I've described in this article, and work on developing a mental image of what's below you, there will come a point when it comes full-circle, and you suddenly "get it."

Fishing deep structure really isn't a mystery, but there are crucial tools, and skills, you need to possess. Practice them, develop persistence, gain confidence and very soon, your deep-water success will see a dramatic improvement.


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