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7 Rules for Locating and Patterning Fish

For most of us the most fun part of fishing is catching—it doesn’t matter if you’re fishing for bass, panfish or any other gamefish. Figuring out the puzzle means considering the variables and applying the proper presentation in the best location to catch more fish. Sure, it seems simple, but the first rule is always revolves around recognizing the variables.

There are some basic rules of fish behavior that have been passed down for years and while none are absolutes, they can certainly give you a solid start. 

Rule No. 1: Go shallow with rising water, move out with falling water 

This is a general rule-of-thumb that anglers have used for decades, especially when fishing river systems. Fish have a tendency to seek cover and new food sources and will often prefer current in fluctuating water. 

Drain pipes, levees where water is running over and windblown undercut banks can be dynamite. Overhanging trees, vines—especially multiflora rose and grape vines—and submerged vegetation are magnets to big fish.  

Old bank lines newly covered with fresh water can also be places that fish will stack up in rising water. Using side imaging is a big plus when this occurs. 

When water begins to drop or is pulled down for winter pool, secondary points and channel swings can be best bets. Starting on points leading into pockets or a tapering point in the center of the two are great starting places. The center of the pocket where water starts to drop off can be transition locations too. 

Rule No. 2: Don’t play hopscotch

Too many of us will start shallow, move deep then back shallow again with no rhyme or reason to our approach. Conversely, some anglers will have tendency to die—or sit for far too long— on a spot. 

A strategic plan with shallow, deep and in-between options is ideal. When fish are shallow, fish to them towards the backs of coves and feeder creeks when practicing. Running directly to the backs of coves can be a mistake and can result in missed opportunities for fish transitioning to the bait. When water begins to warm and fish begin to move out, use first-contact locations as a starting place. Isolated cover can be best bets and hold more than a single fish. Fish isolated cover thoroughly. 

I have a friend that calls bites inquiries and when you get the first inquiry don’t just catch the fish—look at the depth, cover and location to help find more fish in similar locations. For example, if the first bite occurs 50 yards into a cove, it just might mean you can pattern fish elsewhere in that same type of location. Being able to recognize the small differences can be huge at nailing down the exact position of the fish. 

In a recent tournament, I located fish on the first 25 yards coming into a deep pocket. The difference between this spot and other locations was depth. There was 8 feet of water along that bank where other areas had 2 to 3 feet and the fish congregated in that deeper water. I was able to repeatedly fish that bank and catch a limit of better quality fish as a result.  


Rule No. 3: Fish your strengths first 

Confidence in a particular technique or pattern certainly has value for a good day on the water. It’s a bit cliché, but knowing your strengths is mandatory. Knowing what you are best at allows you to work on your weaker techniques. 

There are always shallow fish somewhere on any given body of water but I believe they get picked over more quickly than those in deeper depths. Shallow-water targets may be the low-hanging fruit but usually have limited potential. Persistence for shallow water can always work, even when temperatures get super hot but knowing how shallow fish behave is the key. Seek shade, heavy cover or undercut banks as good starting points. 

If you’re a good deep angler, don’t be afraid to expand on what “deep” means. Try fishing more mid-range locations like secondary points and channel swing edges. Keep a keen eye on the water’s surface for bait and blow ups. 

Rule No. 4: Don’t be afraid of clear water 

The clarity of the water is measured in stages from super clear to stained and most anglers find super clear hard to figure out. Scaling down line and bait selection is a good step but transitions to a mix of super clear and clear can pay dividends. 

Wind is your friend on super clear bodies of water and can help with bait selection as well. Windblown banks are a great starting place on clear lakes especially those with cover and rock. Fish will use grass and rocks as ambush locations and steeper banks where the wind is pushing in can be exceptional. 

Rule No. 5: Don’t let water temperature fool you

Water temperature is a fishing variable that can be significant, but they don’t always tell the entire story. 

Spring warming trends can signal gamefish to move to shallow water, in particular in the spring, but length of day and cover are equally important. Water temperature is usually measured by electronics and most times measures only at the water’s surface or just a few feet below if the temperature gauge is mounted on a trolling motor transducer. 

The mixing of water during turnover or on windblown banks may throw a wrinkle into fish positioning and locations. Shade can also influence water temperature by a few degrees and is a great holding locations in warmer months. More on shade in a bit. 

The migration of fish from shallow to deep as water temps rise can be misleading, too. Variables like shoreline vegetation or deep water pockets can have fish holding shallower longer. If fish have cover, food and good water temperatures they may never leave shallow water.

Rule No. 6: Use shade and current to your advantage 

Believe it or not gamefish need very little cover to be comfortable. A vertical stick, a rock or an overhanging vine may hold multiple fish. 

A solitary rock can be excellent cover and how the fish use it depends on sun angle, depth and bottom contour. I have two large rocks on my home lake that hold fish throughout the year. Cast angles, or “lines” as I call them, can be critical for this type of structure. The position of the sun in the sky can determine when and how they position on those rocks. Consider the wind variable and fish position is much easier to pinpoint. 

Current adds another caveat to the shade equation, but it’s not shade from light, but rather from moving water. These current breaks are commonly referred to as eddies. Fish will pin under and behind objects like logs and rocks and use them as ambush points for an easy meal. 

Rule No. 7: Be adaptable and know that no rule is exact

The above rules give anglers a starting place that can aid in finding fish quickly but always know that any rule can be thrown out the window quickly. If it sounds crazy, you’re not alone. That’s what keeps us all fishing; it’s never going to be an exact science.

Fish are creatures of their environment and small changes in barometric pressure, fishing pressure and overnight water level changes can make an enormous difference. Some of my best days were when fish were not where they were supposed to be. Be flexible, adaptable and always have an open mind on the water.