Everyone loves shorefront property, and bass are no different.
Docks and piers are coveted hangouts for big fish. Big Mama Bass loves to play house under the planks and posts of her favorite pier. The way she takes over these on-the-water constructions, you'd think she has her deed locked up safely in a bank vault.
Fishing docks and piers can be addictive. Fishing close to the shoreline to visible cover — sometimes only a stone's throw from the launch — is some of the giddiest angling around, and hard-core dock lovers find it hard to turn down a shot at this action whenever it's available.
But dock fishing can be a frustrating pursuit, too, with more hang-ups and disappointments than a five-time divorcee. Whether you're looking for a limit of lunkers on a populated lake with piers set in sequence like shoreline dominoes or just a kicker fish to put you into tournament money, you'll want to bring some order to your dockin' life. The best way to break down this hide-and-seek game and bring peace and satisfaction to this all-consuming pursuit is a step-by-step approach.
Here's the cure.
Step 1: Admit bad habits, and commit to doing things right and doing the right things. Bad angling habits are hard to break, and bass located on docks and piers are certain to unveil your weaknesses. The dock game demands meticulous attention to detail. From tackle selection to boat control, precision casting to plan of attack, the more you refine your game, the better you'll perform.
Commit to cleaning up and weeding out all the counterproductive habits and preconceptions that are costing you fish. Clear your mind and renew your vow to fix your game, one step at a time, and you will be on the way to full recovery.
Step 2: Become a deadly accurate caster. Pier fishing requires a special kind of accuracy that often entails not just dropping a lure on a flat plane, but delivering it with precise trajectory. Bass-holding areas on low-to-the-water piers frequently require pitches that barely clear the water on their way to a cup-size opening. Master flipping and pitching presentations with various styles of baits and weights.
Denny Brauer, acknowledged as one of the best flipping and pitching experts the game has ever seen, made a virtual casting arcade of his living quarters once he realized the importance of casting accuracy to catching the bass holed up on the docks of his Lake of the Ozarks home.
Skipping is another technique that will put baits where bass hide beneath docks, and this cast demands lots of practice.
"Skipping enables you to access the remote locations underneath the pier that are otherwise unreachable by casting or pitching," says Matt Bichanich, devoted pier and jig fisherman and sales manager for Uncle Josh Bait Co., Fort Atkinson, Wis. "You can hit the shady spots, drop the bait into the fish's home. Otherwise you are left working only the edges for aggressive fish."
Step 3: Gear up for greatness. Don't enter the dock wars without the proper weapons. Fights with big fish at close quarters are won and lost in the opening seconds, and bass can make quick work of noodle-like rods and gossamer lines. Get gear befitting the battleground, gear that gives you a chance in a rough-and-tumble, toe-to-toe fight.
The best flipping and pitching rods have very strong backbone yet sensitivity in the upper 20 percent to detect the faintest strikes. Match line to conditions. For dark or stained water, select a high-quality braided line from 30- to 65-pound test. For clear water, employ 15- to 25-pound monofilament or a manageable fluorocarbon. For skipping, you may need to go as light as 10-pound with certain baits.
Step 4: Consider location, location, location. On natural lakes in the North where water fluctuation is moderate, piers with permanent posts driven into the lake bed predominate. They tend to be found in shallower water than floating docks. "A good fish-producing pier usually has deep water close by, good quality weeds or rock or pea gravel with weeds mixed in," says Bichanich.
Floating docks are more common on Southern reservoirs where water fluctuation can be dramatic and the bottom plummets quickly into deep water.
"Floating docks are particularly good for spotted bass, probably because they are a more deep water oriented species," notes Tommy Jacques of Wetumpka, Ala.
Be mindful of what is under the docks. Brush and vegetation answer multiple needs of bass and make any given dock considerably more inhabitable.
Docks close to creek channels or other access to deep water have an edge.
"I like the first dock in a series coming out of deep or open water," says northern Illinois dock expert John Hynds.
And never overlook an isolated dock. "If you see a dock with nothing else around it, you can be pretty sure there will be fish, as long as the water conditions are right," says Terry "Big Show" Scroggins, an Elite Series pro from Florida.
Step 5: Fish high, fish low. Arm yourself with lures that will enable you to reach bass regardless of their position — high or low in the water column, deep beneath the dock or at the edge. "If you're fishing docks, there are only two ways to approach the fish: on the edge or underneath," says Cliff Pace, runner-up in the 2008 Bassmaster Classic. Bass are typically suspended under floating docks. "There may be deep water beneath them, but the fish are generally positioned higher in the water column. In 18 feet of water, I'll throw a square-billed, shallow running crankbait like a Jackall MC60SR that runs only 3 feet deep."
"If the water is dirty, my choice is a spinnerbait," says Matt Reed. "The most common bait for my dock fishing, though, is a jig, usually a Booyah Bed Bug, 5/16-ounce, with a 2 3/4-inch Yum Craw Papi. The dirtier the water, the darker the jig."
Swimming jigs are another option. "You can run a swim jig just beneath a dock," says Bichanich, who favors the Swim Stalker jig in the Bass Stalker line. "The swim jig is also designed to swim through weeds and, if you're good enough, you can skip it under piers, too."
Baits that you can skip effectively are critical as well. Cigar-style worms fished weightless and weedless are excellent. So are plastic jerkbaits rigged Texas style. Kyle Mabry, an Alabama pro, finds a wacky worm indispensible in skipping situations.
Step 6: Learn to read docks and piers. Fishing docks is not a "keep it simple" proposition. In fact, the more complex they are, the better. The best piers have multiple arms and decks, thick posts and crossbar supports, and provide abundant shade. The presence of pontoons, boats and awnings provide additional shade and cover.
Seasoned anglers prefer wood piers with large posts. A wood pier low to the water is an almost certain fish attractor if other critical conditions hold.
"I like old wood piers that are hard to fish," notes Scroggins. "Low to the water and hard to get to. … And I like concrete. You don't find it everywhere, but when you do, you're almost guaranteed to find fish."
Step 7: Find the sweet spot. "I look for the darkest spot under (a dock or pier) on a sunny day," says Mabry, who likes to skip a wacky worm into the bass' lair. "Bass are under there for one purpose only — shade!"
"I like to put the bait on the center piling of a dock — in the middle ... the farthest point you can reach," says Scroggins.
Step 8 Master boat control. Dock fishing is a game of getting the bait in and getting the fish out. Boat control is critical. "Think of all the brushpiles and tires and crossbars ... all the stuff underneath those piers," says Bichanich. "If your boat is in the wrong position, even a good presentation may end up in a lost fish."
Boat position strategy should break down the dock or pier, front to back, taking note of all objects and bass lies. Put your boat in position to reach key targets.
"Don't try to make a cast until you have the boat where you want it," says Pace. "Notice what's under the dock, too. Don't get hung up on a rope or cable. Put the boat at the perfect angle. Then throw."
The principle holds particularly true for skipping baits. "The first cast has to be perfect," says Pace.
One last point: Keep quiet! Dock and pier fishing takes place at close quarters. Avoid sudden footfalls and slamming tackleboxes.
Step 9: Fish the dock thoroughly — until you find the pattern. Don't overlook any potential fish-holding area, at least until a productive pattern unfolds. "There are so many fish to be caught on the very back 20 percent of the dock (especially when there is gravel or weeds)," says Bichanich. "These areas are overlooked. When you have a row of piers, most fishermen don't weave in and out, fishing the front, one side, then the other. And that back 20 percent is almost always underfished."
"Normally I find fish on the corners, but a lot of the time on the walkways, too," says Reed, an Elite Series pro from the Lone Star state. "Walkways get ignored more than any other area. Often you can catch fish in a foot and a half of water on pole docks. ... If I find a ladder, that's about as key a piece of cover as you can find."
Step 10: Be aware. Adapt. Think like a fish. Stay alert to activity around the docks, and pay particular attention to each strike. The faster you can put the pieces together and make adjustments, the more bass you will take during your pier foray.
Butcher looks for signs of bass or baitfish activity, and tries to anticipate the docks bass are likely to select. "I may be looking for shad spawning on docks. I'm looking for docks where bass may stage coming out of a spawning area," he says.
Zell Rowland cruised to an easy win at the Bassmaster event on Lake Guntersville in February 2005 when 6 inches of rain put a series of docks at productive prespawn depths. "I realized that bass had moved to the docks with the deepest water beneath them," recalls Rowland, who took 46 bass over 5 pounds on the final day. "They had to move to the first structure at the 5- to 6-foot level where I had found them the day before."
Step 11 Make seasonal and weather adjustments. Seasonal needs may trump otherwise preferred dock conditions or characteristics.
"I don't necessarily look for deep water nearby in spring. I target piers near spawning flats," says Jacques.
"And, around here (central Alabama), bass start going back into creeks in fall almost like they do in the spring."
"In spring, it's usually the first or last docks in an area that are best," says Reed. "I'll stop at the first docks on the way in with the spring migration."
Anglers like the fact that pier and dock patterns often produce best at midday and under bright conditions when bass are seeking shade. Sometimes the dock pattern is the best gig going after a cold front has pushed through.
But a mix of sun and several days of stable conditions likely will produce a more aggressive bite.
Step 12: Find a dock pattern. Once you have identified a pattern, you can fish docks more quickly and eliminate most unproductive water.
The location of bass on a dock can change day to day. Elite Series pro Terry Butcher tries to determine preferred depth first, and then the preferred parts of the dock, whether it's the front, a ladder, or an area of more shade.
"It's like fishing a good piece of structure. You have to pay attention to every detail," says Pace. "If I find they are hitting on the back of the dock or on a ladder at a certain depth, I can work each dock in just a few minutes instead of taking the 10 or 15 minutes it may take to fish an entire dock."
WHAT'S MY LINE?
The general principle in dock fishing line logic is to fish the heaviest line you can get away with. But performance counts, too. So does personal preference. Some dock lovers will not fish with anything but 30- to 65-pound braid; others only 25- to 35-pound mono.
"Most docks in my area typically don't have enough cover to warrant braid. I use Hi-Seas 100 percent fluorocarbon, usually 15-pound, because of its great abrasion resistance," says Elite Series angler Cliff Pace.
"When you're fishing around posts and pilings, it's very important. There's less stretch with fluorocarbon, so when the fish pulls you around a piling, you can pull him out."
Matt Bichanich opts for Seaguar fluorocarbon, favoring 15-pound on his Northern lakes, but stepping up to 20-pound when facing heavy cover. For clear water and a tough bite, he throws smaller profile baits on a spinning reel with 10-pound fluorocarbon.
MATCHIN' THE HATCH
Though almost any jig dropped into a bass' kitchen may trigger a reaction strike, a match-the-hatch approach tips the odds in your favor.
"Typically on docks, bass are feeding on either shad or bluegill," notes Cliff Pace. "These are very different forage species, and the species present greatly affects how and what I fish there." For the shad bite, he usually opts for a crankbait or a light colored swimming jig. For bluegill, he selects a perch colored jig. "I'm a big believer in getting the skirt color exactly right. I think it's critical. With clear water, it's even more important."
Crawfish are another important item on the pier menu. That opens the door to a broad array of jig/trailer combinations and soft plastic creature or craw concoctions.
To Help Get Your Fix
100% fluorocarbon lines,
MC60SR (shallow) and MC60MR (mid-depth) crankbaits, 562-493-0300,
Uncle Josh Bait Co.
Bump N' Run series and Swim Walker, 866-244-2277,
Seaguar fluorocarbon lines,
Yum Craw Papi, Booyah Bed Bug, 479-782-8971,