We all crave confidence. Confidence comes when you master enough of the skills to feel you can outperform the competition on any given day. Whether it’s badminton or bass fishing, you want to get to that level where you feel confident that you know enough about it to make a good effort and find success more often than not.
Folks always want to short cut processes to get to that level. Shortcuts never lead to experience. And experience is ultimately what will give you the confidence you crave in fishing. No one likes that feeling or thought in the back of their mind when they are not successful doing something that says, “Do I know what the heck I’m doing or am I just spinning my wheels here.”
But there are methods to improve your success in any endevor. Practice is often one way, but again you have to have some method to know you are practicing correctly to get better and gain experience which will utimately lead to consistent success at something.
In fishing, one thing I’ve learned after the fact is that fishing on small waters actually made me a better fisherman on big waters. Sure there are a lot of fundamentals and more complex situations to learn and gain experience problem solving on big waters that anglers may not encounter on small waters, but there is also a lot to be gained from learning on small waters that can give you a wealth of experience and confidence to fish more effectively on big waters.
I spent most of my childhood and the better part of my teenage and college years fishing streams, creeks, rivers and ponds near where I lived in Arkansas and Florida. I loved to fish the big waters most, but when I couldn’t do that, I was honing my skills and testing theories and techniques in these virtual test labs. Afterall, on a fishery like a farm pond, the bass are basically captive. They have a finite amount of space, limited cover and limited forage. Which makes them willing subjects to study, learn and gain valuable experience from.
Likewise, your fishing on a moving waters like streams, feeder creeks and rivers can yield impressive results and more impressive confidence in a certain technique or adapting to certain fish behaviors.
Here are five key concepts taken from many years fishing small waters that ultimately made for better angling on big waters.
Fish feed on specific prey in their environment
A phrase, “matching the hatch,” gets thrown around loosely but basically the fish are conditioned to eat the forage available to them. That doesn’t mean if they are feeding heavily on shad, they won’t eat your crawfish crankbait. But it does mean that if they are conditioned to look for something swimming rather than something crawling, you might want to pickup that spinnerbait and not that jig. Just learning to experiment and figure out which prevalent type of forage mimicers the fish are relating to can make a world of difference.
Learn to pay attention to whether the bass are reacting better to bottom bouncers or swimming reaction type lures and you can further refine your approach and spend your time more effeciently finding fish on big waters rather than spending all day guessing throwing the wrong type of artificials.
Fish look up or down for food
A successful angler once said that he could pull crappie out of the lake and tell if they were looking up or looking down when they bit his jig and that determined how deep or shallow he fished for them. I don’t know how true that statement was, but he sure had a lot of confidence built up in his fishing. More than likely he had become so accustomed to interpreting when he got bit on certain retrieves closer to the bottom or closer to the surface, that he knew the fish were feeding up or feeding down in the water column.
This is very easy to practice on small fisheries. Varying the speeds and changing between lures you can drag along the bottom and reel up off the bottom can sometimes lead to a pattern that can be duplicated. It may not be the final answer on how to catch fish on a bigger fishery but it can get you a lot closer to catching them better than just haphazardly trying different lures.
Fan casting effectively covers water
I’m still floored with how many anglers still don’t cover water effectively. They make a cast to this one spot on the bank, then shoot down to some other random spot ahead of the boat, then straight out from the boat, landing nearly in the same spot as the boat moves forward. A lot of covering a small body of water is fan casting across one section of the fishery that you can reach from one spot. It’s nothing more than casting at 9 o’clock, then 10 o’clock, then 11 o’clock and so on and so forth until you’ve worked across an area left to right and front to back.
That is very evident and effective on bigger waters when fishing things like ledges. You want to find that one sweet spot on a ledge. That often takes a multitude of casts to different spots on the ledge, trying to cover as much of it as you can from as many angles as you can. Then when you start getting bit, it’s often just a matter of making that same exact cast over and over again to catch fish every cast. A smart angler will often drop a second buoy or mark a second waypoint on his GPS so he has a perfect line on his target every time.
Fish bite on the fall
This is a very basic premise of fishing that many anglers still don’t grasp. It’s not just the change of direction that triggers fish, but often how a bait seems to struggle as it wiggles back to the bottom. Much of how fish feed is based on swiping at a bait, attempting to injure it and then making a second pass to eat the struggling bait as it falls.
This is a great technique to master in smaller waters like a farm pond where those captive bass can often give you lots of opportunities to test the lift and fall on controlled slack line. Snap the rod tip up and then lower it slowly, trying to let a loose but not completely slack bow in your line follow the bait back to the bottom. A strike will often just be a slight bump in the line as it falls, a violent snap of the line, or it will merely quit falling a lot sooner than you thought it should. In any of those cases, simply reel tight and then lean into the fish as you do.
The weight of the lure and diameter of your line can impact how a lure falls so it’s also good to experiment with both. this will help you perfect not only being a great line watcher but also about staying in tune with your bait during different parts of a retrieve.
It doesn’t matter if it’s crappie or bass, learning to watch your line as a bait falls is a skill every good angler has mastered. And many of them probably did it on a small body of water where they had lots of chances to practice.
Slow and steady is often better than erractic action
There are times when the more erratic you make a bait, the more bites you’ll get. To me that’s a lot easier to learn than when they don’t want the lure moving hardly at all. One of the places this became very evident to me growing up was watching fish strike lures in real clear ponds. You would throw your baits and just steady crank them in or hop them up and down on the bottom without much action. Then you’d throw a bottom bouncer out there and just let it sit. Then move it a foot and let it sit. Then you’d notice your line was swimming off.
You could watch bass follow and turn off of baits. Then work a slow bait through the area and watch them inch in on it watch it as it lie motionless on the bottom. Then as it started to ease off again, they’d pounce on it and suck it in.
This weekend we hit a farm pond in Arkansas over Christmas break. The water was cold. The air temps had been cold. The bass weren’t willing to chase. We tried our small swimming baits that had worked just a month ago without any action whatsoever. But if you took a small craw on a jighead and just deadsticked it, occassionally pulling it a foot or two at a time or even just reeled it super slow along the bottom, you’d catch some nice fish.
I’ve seen the same exact thing happen on the big water. We have a tendency to fish fast on big water. An angler will try something for a few minutes, and then it’s on to some other place to see if they are biting there. Before he knows it, the day is half gone, and he’s raced all over the place not catching anything. He finally hunkers down, fishes slow in some productive areas and starts catching fish.
Honestly this is probably why the shaky head is so effective. It’s very subtle, doesn’t have to move much horizontally and looks like an easy snack. I tell every angler that asks how to fish better to really think about your bait lying on the bottom and a fish is looking at it. Then think about enticing that fish to pick it up with subtle but natural movements.
We like to fish bigger fisheries these days in our fancy boats. Plus I’ve always felt you won’t ever figure out the bigger fisheries if you always fish small fisheries. There are a lot more variables, pressure being the biggest, on a larger fishery that is something anglers have to learn and experience to better overcome.
Catching fish out of your neighborhood pond that has very little pressure is easy and it should be. That doesn’t make you a great angler or an authority on fishing. But it can give you valuable experience and confidence to take to bigger situations. There is a lot to be learned fishing on smaller ponds and streams. Take what you learn there and expand those principles on the bigger lakes and rivers. Soon you’ll find you’re able to quickly break down a big lake like it’s a series of small ponds and figure the fish out faster and better every time out.
When you peel back all the layers in fishing, that’s what the sport is all about. Finding the fish faster and figuring out how to get more bites when you find them.
What other small water principles have helped you overcome the puzzle on the bigger lakes and rivers?