In a word, fishing this past week has been tough.
There are a number of contributing factors, none of which are angler friendly. First, we have had abnormal flows out of both Belton and Stillhouse Hollow lakes since May’s flooding. As we headed into this Independence Day weekend, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had just scaled back flow out of Belton Lake dam from over 4,600 cubic feet of water per second to a still-high 3,537 cfs.
Over on Stillhouse, water had been released at over 700 cfs. Last weekend that was reduced to around 400, and mid-week this week the release was scaled back further to 200 cfs, but this all comes at a time of year when our reservoirs are normally below full pool with no flow at all.
Add to that an atypical upper-level low pressure system which brought rain, clouds and northeasterly winds beginning Sunday and extended into Wednesday, followed up by a cold front which came in late in the afternoon on Friday, thus yielding one of the coolest Fourth of July weekends on record.
Summer is normally pretty tough anyway, but with high pressure making each day’s weather just like the next during a normal summer weather pattern, at least the fish are predictable. Not so right now.
In trying to contend with what I was finding out on the water this week, I had to dig into my bag of tricks to figure out how to catch fish which I found on sonar, but which would not consolidate under the boat thus making them vulnerable to vertical tactics.
Over and over again on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week, I found groups of 10 to 30 white bass on gently sloping bottoms in anywhere from 40 to 68 feet of water using the side-imaging display on my Humminbird Solix 15 sonar unit. Using the touchscreen’s cursor, I would mark those fish, then send the trolling motor to park the boat atop those fish while positioning clients to take advantage of the view of the underwater world offered by Garmin LiveScope technology.
Once atop these fish, we would drop our MAL Heavy Lures down to them and begin catching fish.
Under normal circumstances, the commotion created by working the lures and by catching and releasing fish would be sufficient to draw other fish in from all around us, thus giving us a continuous supply of fish to fish for. Not so this week.
This week we would catch only what we parked on top of, and then the bite would shut down. Even though we were primarily watching Garmin LiveScope, I also kept my Humminbird Solix playing on side-imaging.
Although side-imaging views become grainy when the boat is on Spot-Lock, there is still enough clarity to tell if mobile fish are moving along the bottom on the port and/or starboard side of the boat.
Recognizing that there were fish in our vicinity that would not come to us, I experimented with, and then instructed my clients on, using what I refer to as a lift-drop retrieve or a sawtooth retrieve.
This retrieve allows for effective coverage 360 degrees around the boat when the boat is in a fixed position, as it is when Spot-Lock is engaged.
I prefer spinning gear for this tactic, mainly because many of my clients are not proficient with baitcasting gear. Baitcasting gear can certainly be used effectively for this tactic, as well.
The tactic goes like this. First, make a long cast and, once the lure hits the water, leave the bail open (on a spinning reel) or leave the reel in free-spool (on a baitcaster). This lets the lure sink straight to bottom quickly instead of swinging like a pendulum back toward the boat, and doing so more slowly, as it would if the bail were closed or if the free-spool was disengaged.
Once the lure contacts bottom, immediately take up any slack but without moving the lure. Next, crank the handle once or twice hard and fast to essentially jerk the lure up off the lake’s bottom, but do so without moving the rod tip.
If the rod tip is used, it will be out of position should a fish hit at that time.
Without pausing, continue reeling five or six times more slowly after those initial, hard, fast one or two cranks. You will normally want to do a total of seven to nine complete handle-turns.
Most of the strikes from gamefish will come as the lure rises off bottom during this retrieve.
Once you complete those seven to nine handle turns, open the bail (or put the reel into free-spool) and let the lure fall back to bottom again. The process then repeats until the lure is directly under the boat, at which time you reel it back in and cast again. The rise-fall-rise-fall pattern resembles a sawtooth pattern, hence the name.
A few tricks of the trade worth mentioning here. First, do not fail to work the lure all the way back to the boat. Each time you retrieve, you stand a chance of having fish follow your lure but not strike at it.
These fish will break off their chase right below the boat. As you cast more and more times, you can actually cause fish to accumulate under the boat, and oftentimes, when several are lingering there, one or more will become aggressive and want to out-compete the others, thus the fish is goaded into striking one of your subsequent retrieves, so long as you work the lure all the way back to the boat where these fish have accumulated.
Next, ease off on the massive hooksetting you may be accustomed to doing while using soft plastic lures for largemouth bass. I use 20-pound braided line for this tactic, which is a zero-stretch product. This technique is a zero-slack technique; hence, you are always in direct contact with the bait.
Given both of these factors, you will likely feel a fish cause a change of cadence to your lure before it actually takes the lure in its mouth. This is due to the pressure wave a fish pushes ahead of itself as it propels itself through the water. If you set the hook when you first feel something, you will likely miss the fish, or have the fish get only lightly lip-hooked, only to escape after a short fight.
Further, a hard, sweeping hookset will pull your lure away from other fish following behind the fish which initially struck your lure. This will eliminate the likelihood of a second or third strike from those schoolmates.
Finally, when you get a hit and do not set the hook, but also do not hook the fish, be sure to keep right on reeling and anticipate a second or third strike from following schoolmates.
I choose bright braided line for this tactic as this makes it easier for me to see when my lure has settled back to bottom after I open my bail following one of these seven-handle-turn series. I use Sufix 832 in the neon lime color.
This week I chose the MAL Heavy Lure in white for all of my “sawtooth work,” but using bladebaits, spoons or even slabs can also be effective. All of these are compact, dense, metallic lures which sink quickly and provide positive feel on the retrieve.
One final advanced skill to mention. To ensure thorough coverage of the bottom, I will intentionally work the lure from left to right or right to left on a given side of the boat. Once the lure lands, I will note some object on the shoreline in line with me and the point where the lure landed — perhaps a particular tree or a hilltop. If I catch a fish on that cast, I can use that visual reference point to cast to that same area again until it no longer produces.
Once that area no longer produces, I will then continue work to the left or right, each time noting landmarks in this manner.
As Michael Apodaca, a friend of mine who routinely reads my fishing reports on Facebook said this week, “Tough times never last, Mr. Bob, tough people do.”
This anomaly in the fishing will come to an end, but in the meantime there are a few things we can do to roll with the punches.