I think surfcasters are some of the best prepared fishermen on the planet. The surf-fisherman’s routine runs counter to everything everyone else is doing. It’s now a world of buzzwords like “power fishing” and “run and gun,” when everyone is looking to become more mobile (kayaks with motors?) and getting more digital information (e.g. side-scanning sonar). It all alludes to a “deeper-harder-faster-more” mentality, and I don’t like it! But, surfcasters, by nature are different. We are not mobile; we are not obsessed with what’s around the next corner or with hitting every ledge on the chart. The limitations we put on ourselves force us to read the water with greater fluency. We consider all the possible ways a small stretch of shoreline might produce fish, and we strive to wring every possible drop of potential out of each spot.
Thanks to professional bass-fishing broadcasts, many freshwater anglers take a power-fishing approach to tackling a lake. This means they are constantly on the move and catching only the most active and aggressive fish. My friend, Paul, put it best when he said, “Only a small percentage of the guys fishing for bass these days are actually a threat to the fish.” What he means is that using this constantly-on-the-move approach to fishing a lake pretty much guarantees that you will not catch any of the big fish in the pond. These guys are going with the fill-the-livewell mentality of tournament anglers, and lack the patience it takes to target big ones. But why? There’s no $100,000 prize on the line during your Tuesday off work.
After spending my entire childhood obsessing over largemouth bass fishing, I took a long hiatus during which I fished almost exclusively for stripers from the surf. When I came back to freshwater fishing, it was a natural instinct for me to dissect the water using the skills I’d learned in the suds. Because I had become so “spot-centric” as a surf guy, I began to subconsciously rate each place I stopped to make a few casts. I wasn’t basing these ratings on lily pads, logs, and weed beds, I was basing them on bottom structure and the way the water looked that day.
Step Into Line
As a surfcaster, I became obsessed with lines such as rips, transition zones, ledges, the edges of inflowing water, the edge of a gravel bar…etc. Much of the potential that leaps out when I see these types of spots comes as a result of moving water, but in your average New England pond, moving water doesn’t exist beyond the occasional feeder creek or spillway. But my line-obsessed mind began inventing lines formed by the wind, so I started to read the wind as if it were current, and it worked.
The first time I did this, I was wading the shallows of a decent-sized pond and not doing well. I stood still for a minute and scanned the opposite shore. The first thing that jumped out at me was that the shoreline was much steeper than the one I was standing on. This gave me reason to investigate because I guessed there would be a steeper depth transition on that side, something I lean on heavily in surf fishing.
When I got over there, I could see that the shoreline had a crook in it and the wind was blowing a steady 10 to 15 parallel to the first section of shoreline. Where the shore took a sharp turn, there was a line. On the inside of the line, the water was slick and glasslike; on the outside, the wind-driven waves rushed by, looking dark and disturbed. Further, the water was shallower along the wind-blown stretch and dropped off just about where that wind line began.
I fished the spot just like I was fishing a rip in the surf: I positioned myself at the start of the line and fanned my casts out in a way the allowed me to cross the line from several angles, and the results sealed the deal for me. Since that day, I have fished that spot dozens—maybe hundreds—of times, and the results have really depended on the wind. If the spot is calm or with a wind coming over my back, it’s mediocre at best, but with parallel winds or straight in the face wind, it produces very well.
You could say that it’s more about the weather that brings the wind and the spot is a good producer because of its configuration, and you might be right. I don’t think that’s the case. I believe that constant wind has the power to build a light current in a small pond. I have seen evidence of this in another pond where two larger bodies of water are connected by a narrow channel. When the wind howls east or west, a current rushes through that gap as the wind drives water against the adjacent shoreline. As that water backs up against the shore, it rushes through the cut hard enough that it erodes the inside of the gap and bass set up on the edges—just like stripers in an inlet.
A Little Patience
It is true that I have learned to use these techniques from fishing on the shore, but they are just as effective from a boat. One of the most important aspects of surf fishing that works so well for freshwater fishing is focusing on spots. As I was saying in the opening of this story, too many guys keep the trolling motor running all the time. I think they believe they’re being more productive by putting their baits in front of more potential targets, but I disagree. By reading the water and the shoreline, you can focus on more productive water and make more of your casts count by putting the bulk of them into high-probability water.
A couple of years ago, my fishing partner, Dave Daluz, and I hit a remote Massachusetts pond. It was our first time there and there was a lot of water to cover. We had success, but we both left feeling as if we had only scratched the surface. But, as any fisherman does, I had a solid map of where the best hits had come from and I knew where I wanted to concentrate on the next run.
This year, we went back and, after a short standoff with an unfriendly male swan, we treated the pond as if we had never been there. We fished the side that hadn’t produced much the first time and it proved to be just as mediocre the second time. As we motored upwind, preparing to drift the opposite shoreline, we mapped out the hot zones from the prior trip. Our biggest fish had come from this one spot that really didn’t look like much, but that first trip had been very windy, which made it harder to decipher what we were fishing. (I should add that there are no electronics on the boat.)
This time, the wind was light, and as we drifted into the area, looking down through my Costas, I could see one of those lines. The water came up a few feet over a very short distance and the vegetation changed. The mats of coontail gave way to patches of standing weeds, some that almost reached the surface. In between the patches were open holes, and a small island marked the end of this unique stretch of bottom. As I stood there, looking down into the holes in the weeds, I saw that the area was bustling with life. Perch schools meandered through the curtains of weed, tiny baitfish held nervously in the shadows, and a few small sunfish materialized—seemingly—from nowhere. My first cast with a Real Prey 7-inch Golden Pond Shiner in perch color was hammered before I could even put two cranks on the reel. My fish came off, but Dave hooked up right away, and I dropped the anchor so we could cover the spot more thoroughly.
We stayed on that piece for more than a half hour, and we had over a dozen hits, with five or six landed between us. A “power fisherman” emulating his favorite bass pros in the Bassmaster Classic would have puttered by that spot in 5 minutes, maybe catching one or two of the active fish in the area. I believe that our baits continuously swimming through drew in some interested fish from peripheral spots because the bites were spaced out by several casts after the initial flurry. Vibration and action in a small area calls more fish in to investigate. I have seen this in the surf and even more often in freshwater—but so many freshwater guys move too quickly to ever see it.
Surfcasters are sticklers for position. We look at spots, come up with a scenario that seems logical, and then try to find that perfect position. The goal is to be standing on the spot that offers casting access to the zone we believe (or have determined) holds the highest probability for producing consistent results. This might be casting across a rip in a certain way or it might mean getting on a rock that allows us to make casts parallel to the shore, shadowing a sharp drop-off or ledge. It could be that corner of a bowl where the full volume of each incoming wave drains back to the ocean, or any one of a thousand other scenarios. What I’m trying to convey here is that there is real value in trying to make sense of the inner workings of a productive piece of bottom or structure. At face value, it may be tough to tell what makes one phenomenal location stand out from the 20 others that look just like it. Don’t be satisfied with the mystery. Look at it on a deeper level, and try to get inside the mind of a predator.
Something I have learned in the surf is the value of a defined drop-off, particularly those that run parallel to the shoreline for a good distance. I have found great success fishing along these ledges and my results suggest that striped bass travel along them like a highway. Why do I think this? Because the bites are often spaced out over several hours of fishing—the fish are passing through and on the hunt. But, the thing that really gets me excited is when I can identify a change in that ledge—a bump-out, a hard corner, maybe a large obstacle on the edge. I know of a few freshwater locations that seem to set up in the same way and, lo and behold, they’re great spots too.
One of these is in a particularly hard-to-access back cove. The water is shallow at the bottom of the cove, but there’s a distinct edge—a drop-off of about three feet—that shadows the entire shoreline. In one corner, the edge curves and becomes less pronounced and more gradual, then ends at a very large boulder with a pile of rocks below it—the water beyond the boulder is very deep. This spot has produced several good-sized bass for me, with a handful over 5 pounds. I believe that the boulder and rock pile act as an ambush point. The shallow flat is used by sunfish in the pond, then as the edge turns toward the boulder, the flat rapidly diminishes. I figure the baitfish are coming off that edge right at the corner and the predator fish move up out of the deep water and wait for the bait to come around that rock and into their faces. I’ll never know if I’m right, but I know that spot produces good fish.
I am far from the best largemouth bass fisherman in the Northeast, but I do believe in my ability to read water and structure, and I think I have a good understanding of how predator fish use water and structure to their advantage. The limitations of surfcasting have forced me to analyze these things on almost a microscopic level, and I’m certain this has made me a better angler for all the species I fish for. If you’re a blue-blooded bass guy and are looking to up your game, let the water speak to you and don’t be afraid to drop anchor once in a while!