ADDRESSING STRUCTURE AND MARKING YOUR FISH
by Jim Porter
Outdoor magazines, newspapers, books and even television programs stress 'structure' as THE KEY to repetitively successful bassin'. Many will go on to describe the characteristics of good structure; some will explain how to go about locating it; and, a few will expound on the lures to use.
But, virtually all leave out one very critical step- that being what to do with the structure once you've managed to find it. No, I don't mean just fishing it. That can be a 'hit or miss' proposition unless you apply the 'missing step'.
First off, we need to rationalize a bit. Structure fishing is a seven-step process, each of which is important to being successful. In order, the steps are:
DEFINE. This simply means that we have gained enough knowledge about structure basics to understand what we should be looking for. We must be able to define in our own minds those types of underwater topography that are likely to hold bass. This definition is in terms of shape, soil composition, relation to the surrounding area (deep water, channels, current flow, other structures), available cover, water conditions, and seasonal aspects.
RESEARCH. Generally, this step involves an armchair analysis of the intended fishing waters to determine what structures are available. The expected structure will differ between, say, a shallow Florida lake and a Tennessee reservoir and we can readily fix in our own minds what probably should be available. A study of a good topographical map is essential in this step.
LOCATE. Once we have completed the first two steps and actually are on the water, locating the structure is a logical progression of events. If we have done our research adequately and have a working knowledge of the use of a depth sounder or graph, structure depicted on the map should be fairly easy to locate.
DEFINE. Once our target structure is pinpointed, it is very important that we define it in terms of shape, ledges/drop-offs, deep-water locations, hard/soft bottom compositions and available cover features.
EVALUATE. Now that we have defined the structure, we must evaluate just how it should be fished. This involves the proper lure types, the exact locations which hold the most potential, where we should position the boat, and how best to present the chosen lures. All these factors are intended to maximize our initial effectiveness, without first spooking the bass.
EXPLOIT. This is nothing more than combining all the above factors to catch the maximum number of fish off the selected structure feature.
RETAIN. The final step is to adequately mark our map so that we can later return to this same location and, once again, successfully exploit it. A bit more should be involved than drawing a big circle on the map. The recorded information should indicate enough of the valid evaluation data to tell us where on the structure to fish, from which direction, what depth and what lures apply.
Even unconsciously, nearly all of us carry out the above steps pretty well, I am sure. It is a natural approach. The reason I went to the trouble to spell them out, however, is to call attention to one in particular. DEFINE is where the majority of us are weak, yours truly included. In the haste to 'get fishing', we often do not take the time to adequately develop a good mental picture of just what really lies below the surface. It is a lot like trying to fit a key into a door lock in the dark-we fumble around a good bit.
Since we can't draw lines on the water or mark an 'X' where the stumps are, the next best thing is to lay off the structure and its key features with marker buoys, or floats. In so doing, we will be able to step back and get a pretty good visualization of what the structure actually looks like. Though the use of markers sounds fairly simple, there are some very real factors that can determine whether their use is successful, or detrimental, to our effort.
Let's start off with how to approach defining a piece of submerged structure and the recommended method for laying the marker buoys. First, we need to assess the general depth of water over the shallowest portion of the feature. If it is 10 feet or more, we can be fairly certain that a slowly idling boat passing overhead will not spook the bass. If the depth is less than that, using the trolling motor is probably in order. We want to make a series of passes over the feature, closely watching our sonar device, and try to get an initial 'feel' for the shape, size, location of the drops and any indication of rock-piles, stumps, brush tops, etc. At the same time, we should try and relate significant findings to visual reference points. For example, possibly the drop-off on one end of the feature lines up pretty well with a large tree on the bank. This give us an initial reference for succeeding passes over the feature and also makes it quicker to line up on the target on the next fishing trip.
After this cursory definition of the feature, we should be ready to place the markers in selected locations. These may be along a sharp drop-off, in relation to a brush top, or completely around the perimeter, if appropriate. Here we find that a significant rule in the use of markers comes into play. 'NEVER place the marker directly where you intend to fish.' Place it some predetermined distance away and use it only for a temporary reference point. For example, if you have found submerged brush top, it would not be practical to toss the marker right on top of it. First off, the weight would likely spook the fish as it clatters and bangs its way down through the limbs. Second (and this happens every time), as soon as you hook a bass, he WILL get tangled in the marker's cord. Not only are you likely to lose the fish, but it will jerk the weight around in the limbs and spook off all the others. A good rule of thumb is to place markers at least 20 feet away from the actual feature you are identifying.
How many markers should you use? The answer is to lay out as many as it takes to do the job, remembering to place them so as not to interfere with your fishing. I, personally, carry eight in my boat. Except in unusual circumstances, this number is sufficient. If, for example, we wanted to lay off a portion of a long creek channel edge, I would probably place four to six within a one hundred yard stretch and reserve the remainder for special characteristics that might be found as we worked along. It is very possible that we might happen onto an old treetop, a rockslide, or significant indentations or protrusions along the ledge. This, then, brings us to another rule in the use of markers. 'Always keep one in the boat and readily at hand at all times.' When your lure hits a brush top or the sonar indicated something unusual, you need to be able to quickly toss out one of those portable reference points.
Placing a marker properly must take into consideration how you plan to fish the structure feature, so as to serve as your reference and not become an obstacle. At times, other factors also must be taken into account. If there is a significant wind to contend with, or a current flow, the marker should be placed down-wind (down-current), if at all possible. Otherwise, should the marker unwind a bit or drift, it may well end up right over your casting area.
There are a number of good markers available on the market, or it is easy to fabricate your own. Either way, there are certain positive characteristics, which the marker should have. First, it should be broad and flat so it will stay put in the wind or current. Once it is positioned on the water, we don't want it to be unwinding and floating away from its intended location. A large circumference also makes winding in the cord a lot quicker. Second, it needs to be reasonably big and brightly colored so that it can be seen from a distance. Nothing is worse than trying to spot your small, white marker when there is a chop on the water. A spray can of fluorescent orange or yellow paint is a good investment here. Store-bought markers are accompanied by a weight sufficient to unwind the line from the marker. If you make up your own, be sure to test your weight. If it is too small, the marker may just lie on the water and float away, or the wind or current may drag it along. Finally, be sure that there are about 75 feet of line on the marker. When you are fishing a good ledge and toss the marker out into the adjacent deep water, you need to be sure it will get to the bottom.
Markers can be made up using flat Styrofoam blocks, pieces of wood, or any number of items that will float. The best homemade devices I have seen were made from flat plastic oil bottles. These will often unwind a bit too easily if the wind is blowing, unless you have applied a little trickery to your manufacture. The thing to do is add some weight to the bottle. Do this by putting a handful of old nuts and washers, or other irregularly shaped objects, inside it. Do not use marbles or other round objects, as they will shift too easily and actually help the bottle to roll.
The proper use of markers gives us the advantage of visually defining a structure feature. It precludes that 'fumbling in the dark' and can make the fishing a lot more productive.
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