Every pond, stream and puddle on the way to a big reservoir offers a chance at unmolested bass that may not see in a lifetime as many baits as big lake fish see in a day or week. Part 1 of this 3-part series will dissect farm ponds. Parts 2 and 3 will detail proven methods for streams and municipal ponds with input from pros that cut their teeth on humble waters. For this installment, Elite Series pro and farm pond guru Dustin Wilks offers his best tips for a successful day on the lake ... er, pond.
Before diving right into baits or presentations, a definition is in order. What constitutes a pond? At what point does a body of water become a lake? Since this may vary in different locales, Wilks' rule of thumb is if a body of water is larger than 100 acres, it crosses into lake territory.
Given a choice, Wilks prefers a pond over a large reservoir. While it may seem odd that a top Elite Series pro prefers pint-sized bassin', Wilks says you can reap macro rewards from micro waters. After all, bass that inhabit small waters are the same species that call giant reservoirs home.
"If you can only fish on weekends, ponds allow you to avoid the packed ramp at the lake. I mean, some people like big crowds for some reason, but I like to avoid that whenever possible," he said.
Small waters offer smaller time between catches, too.
"The learning curve on a pond goes straight up because you don't have to spend as long finding the fish. There are only so many places they can be, so you can get a better feel for what the fish are doing."
Not every ditch, pothole and gulley has fish, but barring electric fences and "no trespassing" signs, Wilks will give most any small water a shot.
"I can usually tell if a pond has fish in it within 30 minutes," he said. "I mean, if you try everything you think should work and don't get a bite, there are probably no fish in it. If you weren't getting bit on a reservoir, you'd likely stick it out until you found them instead of leaving and going somewhere else Assuming that most ponds are similar in construction, Wilks has a good idea where bass will be holding. The seasonal habits of pond bass aren't much different than reservoir fish, they just occur on a smaller scale. However, there are some differences worth noting.
Prespawn bass follow basically the same pattern as their big-water brethren. They're aggressive and roaming the shallows looking for a suitable place to spawn and are susceptible to reaction baits.
The deep side is usually by the dam. It may only be 8 feet or so, but it's deeper than the rest," he said. "Toward the other end, there may be a ditch or creek leading into it that runs into a flat that drops off. This is where a gang of big ones hold before the spawn."
Wilks says Daiwa's TD Vibration lipless crankbait in red craw is deadly on this group of fish. He will comb the flat with it whether he's on the bank or in a boat. Once he gets a bite on the TD Vibration, he probes the area more thoroughly with a slow moving bait like a plastic worm.
As the water warms up and spring is in full bloom, Wilks gives plastics the nod and works them slowly along the same flat. He prefers a Culprit Foxy Craw or Water Beetle. The weeks leading into summer after the spawn are Wilks' favorite months to fish.
"The topwater bite really turns on and Pop-Rs, buzzbaits and Culprit's fluke-style bait — the Jerk Shad — are good," he said.
When the dog days finally arrive and water temperatures climb every day, the departure from reservoir fishing comes into focus.
"The biggest thing most people do wrong on ponds and small lakes is to fish too deep in the summer," he said. "Ponds get a thermocline quickly, and the water below 3 or 4 feet doesn't have enough oxygen to support bass. They will be a lot shallower than you might think."
He says the exception to this is if a strong wind whips up the lake or a drain near the dam sucks the bad water out. He looks for heavy cover like logs, beaver huts and thick grass that offer protection from sunlight as well as provide an ambush point. Bass will use these haunts into the fall.
"They'll be suspended over the flats near this cover," he said. "Get a crankbait that runs 5 or 6 feet, and work it no deeper than 3 feet. Later in the day a wake bait can be killer."
The transition into winter sees a return to normal big-lake bass patterns. The entire water column can support bass as it is rich with oxygen, but the cold temperature has their metabolism slowed. These lethargic bass will hold in the deepest water the pond offers, so head down toward the dam, or wherever the deepest spot may be.
"In winter, a spinning reel with 8- to 10-pound-test fluorocarbon and a 3- to 5-inch grub on a 1/8-ounce jighead is hard to beat," Wilks says. "If it's consistently cold, drop the grub down there and work it slowly along to the bottom or just above it. If that doesn't work, try working a jerkbait down there.
"If there is a warming trend — even two days — the fish will move up on the bank or up in the shallow end again, so have those fall baits ready."
Small waters offer more than an escape from the chaos of the big lake ramp. It means you can give the bass rig a break and save some gas. Aside from the peace and convenience a pond offers, small waters can keep your game at its best.
"Getting out on ponds keeps me sharp and in tune to what the bass are doing," Wilks explains. "It helps me most in letting me know when I need to change what I'm doing. If you know the fish are there, but you're not getting bit, you know the problem is your bait rather than not being able to find the fish."