The gnarly old boat dock has stood on this point in Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks for decades. Beneath its weathered planks are long-forgotten brushpiles. A creek channel swings within spitting distance of its T-section.
It is a natural attraction for both bass and bass fisherman.
On this day, several pros stop to sample the dock's offerings.
Shaw Grigsby flips it.
Gary Klein pitches it.
Gerald Swindle skips it.
Same dock. Same conditions. Same situation.
The scenario described above didn't actually happen. But it certainly could have — and has many times.
It just illustrates that there is not just one-way to exploit a dock, a place where bass congregate and hide in plain sight.
"If you've got a line of docks, you will often have to do all three techniques — skipping, pitching and flipping," eight time BASS winner Shaw Grigsby says. "You'd better know how to do all three if you're going to be fishing boat docks."
"Dock fishing, to me, is very pattern-orientated," adds 21 time Bassmaster Classic qualifier Gary Klein. "And docks are fun to fish, especially on lakes that have a lot of them, because you can develop a pattern within a pattern on boat docks.
"You develop a pattern on boat docks basically based on how the docks are positioned in the coves — main lake, main point, secondary points, way in the back. Then you've got floating boat docks, stationary boat docks, Styrofoam boat docks. And don't forget to consider ladders, pilings, cables, boat lifts, lower units hanging in the water. What I'm describing are all things that I have used to develop patterns within patterns. I've had days where I could only catch fish off of the ladders. I've had days where the fish could only be caught where the walkway attached to the backside. I've had days in tournaments where everything I would catch off of boat docks came off of the lower unit of an engine or off a boat hoist.
"Patterns within patterns. And when I developed a pattern within a pattern then I really isolated that area on that boat dock, and it became my focus point. And then I move on to the next boat dock. And in a course of a day, I'll use whatever it takes to get the bait where it needs to be."
Where bass dock:
1.The innermost sections of docks on the shallow bank area will almost always hold bass. Skipping is the only technique that will present a bait here.
2. If the dock is new, there might just be old, submerged dock pilings that other anglers overlook, and that hold fish. Pitch to these areas, being careful not to get too close and spook the bass.
3. Ladders, boat engines and cables should always be considered when pitching to a dock.
4. Brushpiles are commonly adjacent to docks. Flip to the heaviest portions of the brush, hitting each limb and crevice. That is where being versatile around docks comes into play, according to former Classic champion Ken Cook.
"Boat docks are among the hardest habitats that we fish," the former fisheries biologist notes, "Mainly because there's so many variables. But also with any given style of boat dock there's a number of options where the bass can be. So, you have to employ any means necessary to get a bait to the particular parts of the habitat where the fish could be.
"Everyone fishes a boat dock differently. But most people who approach a given boat dock will make a parallel cast down the right side, a parallel cast down the middle and a parallel cast down the left side. They will hit all of the corners, especially the outside corners. So, if you want to probe those types of habitats more thoroughly, you have to penetrate those outside edges. That's where the different presentations come in."
Selecting the proper technique and approach depends on the type of dock and prevailing water conditions.
There are basically three kinds of docks: those on fixed pilings; floating platforms on poles that adjust to changing water levels; and Styrofoam or hard plastic free-floating docks (usually attached to the shoreline by cables). Each of these has its own specific key features.
These are most often found on lakes or reservoirs where the water level is fairly stable. These docks have the potential to harbor bass throughout the year because they are stable and remain in the same spot. Stationary docks can also be some of the hardest piers to fish, depending on the water level at the time.
"The pilings are key in that case because the pilings the dock is on provide a lot of the surface that attracts bass to the structure," Cook explains. "The surface of the piling or underneath the dock is where the periphyton grows - these little plants are one of the things that attracts shad and other baitfish into the area, which is certainly an attraction for bass."
But according to Cook, not all pilings are created the same, "On those types of docks, I look for old pilings. If the dock has been on a lake for a long time, there will often be an old set of pilings that are broken or have rusted or rotted out. Then you'll have new pilings. It's really important if you can find something that is older and more crudded up, because that's where the periphyton is the best. The old ones are nearly invisible and harder for other fishermen to see and less likely to be fished as hard."
Docks that adjust to water fluctuations by moving up and down stilts have begun replacing Styrofoam docks and others buoyed by barrels in recent years. Cook advises targeting the docks of this type that are partially covered with "green stuff" on the base and poles, indicating the presence of the microscopic food that attracts shad.
Free-floating docks are cabled in place on the bank. "Those floating docks are probably the hardest to get to because usually you'll have an area that has a dock and a space, then another dock and then there's a space. A lot of times, those spaces are crisscrossed with cables, which makes it really hard." Cook adds.
"And that's where your casting skills — flipping, pitching and skipping — really come in handy."
Two time BASS winner Marty Stone's favorite docks are the piers that have the least amount of clearance between the waterline and the bottom of the platform. Those are the docks where a polished technique will likely reach unmolested bass.
When it comes to dock techniques, top Texas pro Kelly Jordon emphasizes that most anglers pitch or skip to a dock rather than practice the close-quarters method of flipping. Fellow Texan and BASS record-holder Dean Rojas' basic approach involves staying as far away from the dock as possible.
But the experts insist that flipping has a place when it comes to dock fishing.
"There are definitely times where you should be flipping docks," Grigsby says. "If I've got stained or dirty water, I'm flipping it. I like being able to get close and do the job right in there. Stained and dirty water allows you to use heavier line and baits, like a jig or a tube with a big flipping hook where you can rip them right out of there. And you don't worry about line size or break-offs. Also, the cover can dictate what you should do. If you have a lot of brush or other stuff underneath a dock that you can get into without spooking them, then I'll flip it."
Pitching plays an obvious role in probing docks by allowing the angler to stay well off the cover and still quietly present a lure with the same precise, quiet delivery inherent in flipping. But some of the pros blur the line between the techniques of pitching and skipping.
"My main thing is probably pitching docks, but to me pitching and skipping docks is the same thing," Stone suggests. "I always want the lure to skip in. I like that extra two or three bounces. I think it generates bites — giving a baitfish sound up under a dock because that's not something normal that a fish hears.
"I skip with a pitching motion. With a 7 1/2-foot rod, I've become very adept at making a jig or tube bounce three, four, five times back up under a dock. That takes a lot of practice. I learned how to do it in the garage on slick, finished concrete. If you can make it slide there with the right presentation, you can do it as well on the water."
Stone describes his pitching/skipping motion:
"The rod and reel is in my left hand. The lure always comes to my right hand. I start pretty much with the rod at about a 2 o'clock, and then I just bring it down and then load everything up. When I want the bait to skip, I keep my presentation very, very low to the water — lower than normal. And I accelerate the rod. There's a lot of speed in that wrist. Then at the last 4 to 5 feet of the presentation, it's hitting and skipping like a flat rock across a pond. I load up more than I would for regular pitching. With regular pitching, the lure is coming up in the air and then down in the water. With this deal, it's more of a speed thing, where the lure is coming in at an accelerated rate and a flatter trajectory."
Rojas reminds us that the goal with both pitching and skipping docks is to put the bait in places where bass rarely see a lure — the spots that most fishermen miss.
CITGO Bassmaster Angler-of-the-Year Gerald Swindle's dock philosophy is simple.
"If I'm fishing docks, I solely skip them," the Alabama pro says. "That's my technique. That's what I do best. I think I can put a bait in a better area and be farther away from the fish and cause less noise than I can otherwise. A lot of guys have to get right against the dock to throw under it, but I do it way away from it. I just think you get more bites, and you can fish a dock better. You can cast all the way in and fish it out, and do it quieter."
Of the three dock tactics, making a lure skip across the water with both distance and accuracy is the most challenging. It is a combination of brute force and finesse. It is the ticket to reaching the shady interior portions under the platform that serve as a sanctuary for unsuspecting bass. According to Stone, Swindle is the best dock caster he's ever seen - a guy who can get a bait to make as many as 15 to 18 bounces across the surface as it covers 20 feet or more.
Swindle prefers skipping floating docks because they are "more aggravating" to flippers and pitchers.
"I first read the target," he advises. "If the shade line is the longest part of the dock — say it's 20 feet — I'll try to get one cast to skip all the way through there and then actually fish the bait back. Where a flipper may just flip it in and then jerk it out and move to the next spot, I'll actually skip all the way through it, let the jig down and then just fish it back out like a worm.
"(How he approaches a dock) depends on the depth. If the fish are holding more on the deeper end, I'll just skip a long shot through there. If the shade line is back against the bank, naturally you'll get more bites against the bank. That's where I would skip the bait. Shade is the key year-round. I'm not saying you won't ever catch any in the sun, but I just always like to skip into the shade and fish it back out."
Unlike Grigsby, who prefers to skip with spinning tackle, Swindle utilizes a 6-6 or 7-6 heavy action American Rodsmith baitcasting rod. He describes his skipping method:
"I don't have a lot of body motion. I just do it with my wrist. It's a real quick roll-cast. Not a lot of shoulder action. If you put that much action in your shoulder, it is too much movement. You're going to dig the bait into the water and it's going to hit short. You just kind of have to feel the bait. You don't throw as hard as most people think you do. I just make a roll- cast and release the bait as it literally starts to parallel the water. It's like landing a plane. As it hits the water, you bring it in real soft and bring your rod up, and it just kind of walks right under the pier. But the harder you try to throw it, the less it's going to skip, the less it's going to slide. When it's done right, it's almost like it's sliding, it's so smooth. It's almost like it's floating on top of the water.
Swindle offers a warning to anglers who skip docks with frequency. "Another thing about skipping: you have to be ready the whole time. You can't skip it under there and turn around to talk to your buddy, because you're going to miss a lot of strikes. A lot of times you don't even get the reel engaged before they've got it."
Skipping, pitching or flipping. Gerald Swindle and friends know there is more than one way to skin a dock.
The pros' favorite dock baits
Kelly Jordon. "For skipping, flipping or pitching, a tube or jig is just perfect because they're bulky and they skip very well. You can do all three things with a tube or a jig. They work well in a swimming presentation, and they also work with falling down a piling or into a brushpile that is under the dock."
Gerald Swindle. "I skip a lot of different baits, but primarily it's a 3/8-ounce Arkie jig with a Zoom Super Chunk or Speed Craw. The all-natural (pork) chunks also skip well, but the Super Chunk and Speed Craw skip very well."
Dean Rojas. "One bait that is real good around docks that people might overlook is a soft stickbait, like a Tiki Stick. It skips real well and has that great fall."
Marty Stone. "Jigs with short-shanked hooks like the Ninja Jig are my main choice. I like twin-tail-type trailers like (Gambler's) Dion's Classic because it's more compact. I will also use a plastic chunk, but you have to be careful with those because they will grab the water. I also like 4-inch tubes, but you have to make sure the weight is pegged to the tube because if it separates, it won't skip very far. Another key is I never add a rattle on anything. That's just more stuff for the water to grab, and it's all about the bait being compact as much as possible and having enough weight that you can skip it across the top of the water."
A neat dock trick
With dock fishing, the primary goal is usually getting the lure as far back under the platform as possible. Toward that end, some of the pros have developed a neat trick for using the dock itself to get more distance.
"With flipping and pitching docks, you can use a lot of leverage," veteran pro Gary Klein explains. "Leverage means that if you have a board that is 18 inches off of the water, I make a pitch or flip and use that board as my lure goes underneath it as leverage to fire it farther back in the back of the dock. I can use a standup piling to flip around behind because I'm using that piling to actually swing my line. There are a lot of little tricks to it."
Florida's Shaw Grigsby adds, "If you get a board that's laying over and you're close to it, you can use it to make your pitch go under that board even farther. Let your line hit it and it will lift your bait and let it keep sliding back up underneath it farther as you feed it line.
"It's a cool technique to do, but it's something that you have to practice. It's not something you're going to be able to do the first time. Sometimes, if you wait a little too long the bait will swing up and hit the dock. If you don't wait long enough, you will drill it into the water. You're letting the pole of the dock itself kind of pull your bait off of the water and let it slide farther back in there."