Been there, done that.
At one time or another, the average bass fisherman has encountered a situation in which there is so much cover that it's impossible to decipher where to go in the hunt for his quarry.
The encounter might be a lake full of standing timber, or one dominated by large hydrilla beds, that causes us to sweat. Or, maybe a fishing nightmare unfolds on an older reservoir, where hundreds of boat docks and boathouses serve as fish-holding cover.
The question remains, where does one begin? The first step is to determine which cover not to fish.
Three accomplished professional anglers share how they eliminate potential cover from a seemingly endless sea of opportunities. They offer timely tips for finding productive cover when fishing hydrilla, reeds, lily pads, standing timber and boat docks. Although each form of cover has its unique opportunities and challenges, a few principles apply to every situation. They provide the foundation for fine-tuning a productive pattern.
Cutting through grass
Hydrilla and milfoil beds, similar to a flooded forest, are difficult for novice anglers to understand and fish successfully. Texas pro and professional bass guide Richard McCarty approaches grassbeds the same way Ty Thomas analyzes timber: "When looking for fish in a grassbed, it still boils down to structure fishing," McCarty says. "You fish hydrilla as if it were structure, looking for the subtle points and depressions in the grass. That's where the concentrations of bass will be."
McCarty focuses on irregularities in grassbeds, especially along the inside and outside edges of the beds — depending on the seasonal pattern. He targets points, pockets, inside corners, ditches and depressions.
"Some bass are scattered throughout the grass," says McCarty, "but usually they gather on subtle points or in pockets in the grass. The pockets, depressions and irregularities along the edges reflect the changes in contours beneath the grass. It all relates back to structure."
The only way to determine where in a grassbed active bass are holding is to fish each type of hot spot. The location determines McCarty's choice of lures.
"There are two ways to fish the grass: along the edges, and in the grassbed itself," he says. "If I figure bass are on the deep, outside edge of grass, I use a crankbait or spinnerbait. If they're on top of the grass, then I use a topwater bait, spinnerbait or a lipless crankbait, which lets me cover water relatively fast."
McCarty recommends fishing the subtle structural changes thoroughly, because bass are often stacked on them. His favorite targets in summer are subtle depressions where the plants have matted over, creating a hidden pocket or tunnel. Sometimes these depressions and ditches may only have a depth change or 2 or 3 feet, but they frequently hold plenty of fish.
One key to refining a grassbed patterning is duplicating the presentation that triggered the first bite. It's important to note the characteristics of the cover where the bite occurred, he says. Be aware of the depth and thickness of the grassbed, and determine the structural feature that held the bass. Find that same combination of conditions elsewhere, and you're in business.
Reading reeds and pads
Lily pads are different from reeds in that — during spring especially — bass will swim well back beneath a lily pad field. During that time, McCarty fishes a variety of "search baits," making long casts and covering as much water as possible. In the thicker lily pad fields, the Texan uses a buzzbait or a rat, but if the pads are really sparse, he uses a soft jerkbait.
The Texas targets the sparser reeds and pads during the low light conditions of overcast days, when the bass' strike zone is larger. He enjoys best success in those conditions with spinnerbaits and soft jerkbaits, which trigger bites from fish cruising out in front of the cover.
On bright, sunny days or after a cold front, he recommends concentrating on the thicker pads or reeds, especially if there is deep water under the cover. Reeds and lily pads growing along points are often very good, if they're near relatively deep water.
One situation he loves to find is a stand of lily pads or reeds on a windward shore with baitfish working the edges.
Most of the year, McCarty likes to concentrate on the outer edges of both forms of aquatic vegetation.
"The best way to approach the cover is to get on a stretch that has several irregularities," he suggests. "I continue down the edge, flipping my bait into the most likely structure, whether it is a point, a pocket or an inner edge. When you get that first bite, observe where the bite came from and then try to repeat that presentation."
Other high-percentage areas are clearings inside the weeds where broken plants have formed a canopy over the opening. Likewise, plants broken or blown over, creating a mat in front of the reeds, provide excellent fish-holding cover. McCarty also recommends that anglers spend time fishing any ditches or drains that cut through a lily pad field or a stand of reeds.
McCarty follows a systematic approach to eliminating potential cover. He considers the seasonal pattern and the current weather and water conditions in deciding which part of a lake to begin his search. Once he's in the appropriate area, it becomes a matter of fishing the irregularities in the cover.
Put another way, find the spots in cover that stand out from the rest, and you'll have outstanding success.