Summer fishing is a balancing act. An angler must weigh time spent studying offshore ledges versus a see-cast-and-reel tactic for shallow visible cover. It may be easier to fish those shallow targets, but which one has the potential for greatest rewards?
That's an easy question for Elite Series pro Paul Hirosky of Pennsylvania. "Summer ledge fishing can be unbelievably explosive! In many reservoirs around the country, ledges are the best places to catch the greatest number of big bass in the shortest amount of time. It is so important to select lures that allow you to effectively search for fish and interpret the bottom at the same time."
"Give me a ledge!" cries Alabama guide and Bassmaster pro Jimmy Mason. "On any ledge structure, there are certain sweet spots that typically hold numbers of bass sometime during the day. That key area may be no larger than a bass boat. What else provides the potential for making the same cast over and over, and catching one bass right after another? But to be successful, you've got to make wise lure choices."
Bass anglers typically define a ledge as a sharp contour change of 45 degrees or greater. However, Mason and Hirosky point out that summertime ledges should not be equated with wintertime vertical bluff structures. Although the better summer ledges are rather steep drops, it does not mean these are necessarily big drops. A 6-foot river channel lip is a ledge, as well as a small 1-foot drop along an otherwise uniform flat.
Most important is the spot-on-spot, which concentrates the greatest number of deep water bass on the ledge structure. The drawing card may be a group of stumps, a single rock, a high spot, a bottom composition change, etc. Whether that "something different" sometimes holds a mega group of fish can only be determined by periodically fishing the spot with lures that help interpret the bottom and trigger strikes.
As with most serious ledge fishermen, crankbaits are used by Hirosky and Mason as primary fish-finding lures for offshore structure.
"My favorite cranks for covering deep water are Fat Free Shads — either No. 6 or No. 7, depending on water depth," acknowledges Mason. "My top all-around summer colors are Tennessee shad, citrus shad and rootbeer chartreuse.
"I would say 90 percent of the time I position the boat deep and throw crankbaits toward the shallower part of the structure. However, if there is current pushing against the ledge or if I observe bass on the sonar suspended in the water column off the ledge, then I put the boat shallow and throw deep."
Mason alternates steady retrieves with stop-and-go retrieves until he figures out how the bass want the bait on that day.
Hirosky employs two entirely different retrieves, as well. His primary presentation is burning a Norman DD22.
"I'm trying to cover as much water as possible along a ledge, looking for a reaction strike," states Hirosky. "I turn the reel handle as fast as I can. There is no slowing down, no finessing the crankbait. I want the bait ricocheting off logs, stumps and rocks in an erratic manner."
If that tactic doesn't draw strikes, then Hirosky switches to a suspending crankbait and slows the retrieve. With bottom contact achieved, he moves the crankbait ahead at a moderate crawl, climbing over wood or rock, and letting it linger above the obstacles.
"I use the old Suspending Fat Free Shads," explains Hirosky. "These were great suspending crankbaits; unfortunately they were discontinued — but I've got a stash to last me for years!
"When cranking I believe in extremes — very fast or very slow. I always start with the faster presentation first.
When I've been searching for bass on ledges, my wrists hurt from burning my crankbait."
Like Mason, Hirosky chooses shad patterns — unless the water is really stained, in which case he opts for chartreuse/blue back. Regardless of the color, he favors faded cranks. The more weathered the color, the more treasured the bait.
Hirosky's combo is a 7-foot G.Loomis Cranking Rod matched to a Shimano Chronarch reel spooled with 10- or 12-pound Seaguar Carbon Pro. "For grinding crankbaits into the bottom, Carbon Pro is more abrasion-resistant than Seaguar Inviz."
To launch and retrieve cranks, Mason employs an 8-foot medium Kistler Inshore rod and 5:1 ratio Ardent XS reel spooled with 8-pound Gamma Edge. "This rod enables superlong casts and its moderate taper is great for fighting crankbait-hooked bass."
2. CAROLINA RIG: BUMP AND STOP
Hirosky employs a Carolina rig when bass don't seem to want a jig-and-craw. His bait of choice is either a 6-inch Zoom Lizard on a Gamakatsu 3/0 EWG Worm Hook or a Zoom Super Fluke on a 4/0 EWG hook.
I go with a dark colored lizard if the water is dingy because a lizard's appendages put out vibrations. But for clearer water, or anytime I'm fishing smallmouth on ledges, I opt for a baitfish colored Super Fluke."
He uses the same rod and reel models as for jig dragging, but the line is 65-pound Stren Super Braid terminating in a 3/4-ounce sinker and a 3-foot, 17-pound Trilene XL leader. If the water is particularly clear, he increases the leader length to 4 or 5 feet. He uses a monofilament rather than fluorocarbon leader because a shock-resistant cushion is needed when using braid.
One of his favorite tactics is to kill the retrieve as soon as the sinker encounters an object. "Too often when anglers encounter resistance with the sinker, they immediately pull or snap it over the object, then stop and wait.
What happens is the bait goes sailing a ways past the object. Instead, when I bump a rock or stump with the weight, I immediately stop the retrieve. Now the bait is drifting down almost beside the object, giving any bass a better chance to hit it."
3. JIG: A DRAG, BUT EFFECTIVE
"Once I've located a group of bass with a crankbait, caught a number, and the bite slows, it's jig-dragging time," exclaims Hirosky.
"I like a 5/8- or 3/4-ounce skirted football head matched to a Zoom Speed Craw or Super Chunk. I've tried different jigs but when introduced to the Jewel Football Jig my hookup rate went up — perhaps because of the single-strand wire guard."
Hirosky says he is not into ripping or stroking a jig on deep structure. Instead, he pulls it across the bottom just like a crawfish. He will present the jig from several angles to give bass a different look at the bait.
His jig rod is a 7-foot medium-heavy Shimano Compre with a 7:1 ratio Shimano Curado reel and 15-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon line. "Many times you hook a bass on a ledge with a jig, and the fish makes for the surface rather quickly. It is important to have a speedy retrieve reel to keep up with the fish."
4. SPINNERBAIT: SATURATING THE STRUCTURE
"Once I've found fish, I throw a big spinnerbait a lot," explains Mason. "A heavy spinnerbait is great for covering deep water, and is more resistant to hang-ups than a crankbait. I take a 1-ounce Booyah double willow, remove both blades and install a single No. 5 willow. A single willow holds the bottom pretty well. I like a big profile in deep water, so I add a 4-inch Forktail Dinger in pearl silver flake as a trailer. I rig the Forktail vertically so it offers a shad-like profile."
For ledge fishing, Mason uses a much stiffer rod than he normally does for spinnerbaits: a 6-foot, 9-inch heavy action Kistler Helium Rod. Gamma Edge in 12-pound test is his line.
"Once my bait reaches bottom on a controlled slack line drop, I begin a slow steady retrieve. Sometimes a bass grabs the spinnerbait on the fall, but most strikes occur when the lure bangs cover. I keep the rod tip down as I reel. When the spinnerbait encounters something, I do not move the rod tip to maneuver the bait over or around the obstacle. Instead, I keep reeling to bring the spinnerbait through the cover. In doing this, the rod loads from the encountered resistance. When the bait breaks free from the obstruction, it does so with a burst of speed — that triggers strikes."
5. TEXAS RIGGED WORM: FOR THE SENSITIVE TYPES
Mason typically uses a football head and a Carolina rig for finding crucial hard bottom areas along a ledge.
After isolating a holding area, Mason often goes to a Texas rigged worm. In keeping with his big bait preference for ledges, his worm is a 10-inch Yum Big Show Paddleworm with a 4/0 XCalibur TX3 hook.
"I want an extremely sensitive setup for worm fishing in deep water," explains Mason. "I use 10-pound fluorocarbon line and a 5/16-ounce tungsten sinker. My rod is a 7-foot Kistler Helium II — an ultrasensitive rod. This is one supersensitive setup that helps detect the lightest bites."
Mason fishes the worm with a lift-and-drop presentation, raising the rod tip 10 to 12 inches to pull the worm off the bottom, and then holding the tip up until the worm swims back. Then he lowers the tip, taking up slack for the next lift. "The paddle tail coupled with the narrow midsection of this bait results in a very tantalizing slow-fall."
This summer, take the dare. Go out on a ledge!
C-RIG VS. JIG
Last June when fishing with Jimmy Mason on Wilson Lake where two feeder creeks merged, we each started off with a different presentation. I repeatedly missed fish on a Carolina rigged lizard while Mason hooked one bass after another on a 3/4-ounce Booyah football head jig with a Gonzo Grub. After tying on the football head he handed me, I started connecting with bass after bass.
"If you are feeling strikes but continually missing fish or hooking them in the side of the body with a C-rig, that's a clue to switch to dragging a football jig," says Mason. "Some days, bass want the bait smack on the bottom. Other days, they want it drifting and darting about just off the bottom on a Carolina rig. Don't ask me why. But if you want to catch 'em, you had better listen to 'em."
Paul Hirosky noticed that working a ledge-banging lure from shallow to deep often ends up pulling bass off structure. Several fish might follow each hooked bass back to the boat and then disappear into the depths. In short order there is loss of the active bite, apparently with fish suspended off structure rather than on the ledge.
"I fish it differently now. Upon discovering the key spot on the ledge holding a bunch of fish, I position the boat so I am parallel to the structure," explains Hirosky. "This way I am able to cast at several angles, working a bait parallel along the dropoff, at a slight downhill angle or at a slight uphill angle. You really don't pull the fish off the ledge, and therefore sustain the bite longer."