They wave from all sides of the bridge supports in the slightest breeze, like the unconnected legs of a spider web — they're the broken lines of crappie fishermen, who have learned in frustration what bass enthusiasts often don't realize.
Fish — including big bass — live around bridges. They hide in plain sight.
"Bridges are traditionally places that hold fish," eight time BASS winner Shaw Grigsby emphasizes. "Bass will stay on bridges year-round, but a lot of fishermen dismiss them because they are so obvious."
"I never pass up bridge pilings most places I go," North Carolina pro Randy Howell adds. "There is usually going to be a good fish or two there. Believe it or not, you don't see as many people fishing them as you would think. A lot of people pass by bridge pilings. On the (CITGO Bassmaster) Tour, a lot of people fish them, but in most places the locals don't fish them much."
"I've fished every bridge on every lake that the tournament trail has gone to the last seven years," reigning CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle admits. "I love them. The way I approach them is to pull in there and fling like a madman."
For two time BASS winner Marty Stone, bridges often serve as starting points in the spring for locating bass on a lake or reservoir. He stops on these structures to quickly catch a fish that might offer a clue as to what stage resident bass are in. For example, a plump, healthy bass tells him that the population is in the prespawn phase. A thin, emaciated fish indicates that postspawn is in session.
Three time Angler of the Year Mark Davis points out that bridges provide three important elements that attract bass: shade, cover in the form of pilings, and current breaks. That is the primary reason these structures harbor bass throughout the year. But the pros have favorite seasons for pitching to pilings.
All-time BASS tournament winner Roland Martin prefers late summer and fall, a time when the water level has dropped on most reservoirs, leaving very little flooded cover in the backs of coves and around shoreline docks. Bass tend to relocate to the slightly deeper bridge supports (especially if they are located in coves or creeks).
Former Angler of the Year and Alabama guide Tim Horton scores particularly well in the fall, when bass spend much of the season following shad into and out of shallow water habitat.
"Bridges are really good areas to fish when bass are migrating because they bottleneck down," he notes. "And usually the areas of bridges where the riprap comes to a point and it bottlenecks down, is your best spot to catch fish.
"That's going to be a scenario where you're going to have bass coming and going at all times when they're migrating. So, it's a place you can fish all day long because fish are going to be coming through," Horton believes.
Swindle's favorite season is the spring, when shad are most likely to be present around the watery overpasses.
Obviously, the concrete, steel or wood pilings are the main attractions with bridges.
Knowledgeable anglers seem to agree that the proper approach is to position the boat downstream of the target, casting upstream and bringing the lure in the direction of any current — making sure to bang, bump or hug the sides of the pilings.
"I don't typically try to fish near the bottom of the pilings," Swindle says. "I'm fishing that first 10 feet from the top. The fish will tell you if they're there. If you pull up downstream and start throwing parallel to those columns, if there are fish on that bridge in 30 feet of water, one will bite your bait in 10 feet of water. You can bet on it.
"Then you will know to slow down and fish deeper. So, I'll take off all the way across the bridge, fishing maybe a jerkbait or a small
1/4-ounce spinnerbait. But if they don't bite something fast moving through there, they're not there and you need to move on," Swindle believes.
"The whole key to pilings is you have to be close," Stone adds. "And if there's wind, always throw into the gusts and bring your bait back, because of the back eddy. Then if there's no wind, always be conscious of the shady side."
Don't make the mistake of thinking that these supports are the only productive spots on a bridge. The rocky foundation of this structure is always worth checking.
"Wind can position fish on a long stretch of riprap, but if you don't have that wind, you need to find a few irregularities, like corners, tips of the riprap, dips on a long stretch, and even rocks that have fallen a little bit farther out," Stone advises. "You need to pay attention to keys like that. But you can get certain days when the wind, for whatever reason, has moved the baitfish around or the crawfish around, and it makes the bass actually come up and feed a little bit heavier. The whole riprap can be good then.
"It seems like when you're catching them on riprap, you'll find areas that are more productive than others. For whatever reason, one certain stretch of riprap will be better than anything else in a lake for that day. When they really move up, there will be plenty of fish there to last for that day — until some condition changes.
"Boat positioning is absolutely critical. I like to make quartering casts where I'm almost paralleling, but maybe 15 feet off the rocks, making long casts and staying in the strike zone for a longer period of time. To me, invariably, all the big stringers I've ever caught have been from the rocks to about 6 or 7 feet out." Stone says that if they're up there feeding, he's going to catch them in that particular zone.
Florida tournament angler and Rodman Reservoir guide Ron Klys stresses that one of the most productive elements on some bridges is largely ignored — the cross supports that connect the pilings. These underwater braces provide important horizontal cover for bass.
Swindle has found that not all bridges are made the same when it comes to providing shade. Bridges with a concrete roadway provide more shade and are most productive. The old mesh-type metal top bridges aren't worth fishing."
A wide variety of lures will work around bridges.
Randy Howell has enjoyed some fast and furious shady topwater action with a Frenzy Popper in the postspawn and summertime. Mark Davis' favorite method involves fishing a 4-inch smoke or chartreuse grub on a jighead and spinning tackle (allowing it to free-fall along each piling).
Marty Stone's primary bridge tools are a shallow running crankbait for riprap and a chartreuse or chartreuse-and-white 1/2-ounce Gambler Pro Series spinnerbait sporting tandem willowleaf blades.
Shaw Grigsby has found that drop shotting can be a terrific method of exploiting bridges.
"Drop shotting is a deadly technique on bridges," he says. "You can adjust the depth of your drop shot real simply by adjusting how far down you position your lead — so you can fish for suspended fish. The other thing you can do is fish nice and slow with it.
"Usually, I'm using a new, little 4-inch 3X Finesse Worm from Strike King. It's salt-impregnated so it sinks well for drop shotting. Most of the time I'm using a 1/8-ounce weight, but it depends on the current. I can go up to 1/4 or 3/8 when the current is real heavy and you want to get it down there quick and then work it slow on the bottom. The main thing on any bridge is getting it right up next to the piling."
"A lot of times when you're fishing a bridge and catching fish, it's a good idea to use your depthfinder and idle around looking at the bottom," Gerald Swindle adds. "You might find that the left corner has a channel running through it. That will key you in that that is the best side of the bridge. But generally, you have to fish the whole thing and then idle around it to figure that out."
While the remainder of the Classic field scattered around 12,455-acre Lake Wylie, Martens targeted select pilings on the bridge to catch five bass limits weighing 13 pounds, 3 ounces, 10-9 and 12-6 and finish second to Takahiro Omori, with 36-6.
His runner-up performance centered around catching suspended bass with a Roadrunner-type lure called a Horsiehead, that he poured and painted himself. The shad-colored leadhead, which had a smoke- or shad-colored Zoom Super Fluke for its body, sported a spinnerbait-type arm with a silver No. 2 1/2 willowleaf blade.
That lure proved to be particularly effective around the pilings. Martens caught more than 25 keepers on each of the three competition days.
"They were eating it like mad," he notes. "I had probably 150 bites the first day — I mean good hits where they knocked the snot out of it. I had about 80 (each of) the next two days. A few were crappie. But most were largemouth.
"I had days in prepractice where I caught 16 to 20 pounds on it. I had some 3- and 4-pounders. I don't know why I didn't catch any more of the big ones during the Classic."
Martens worked the lure in retrieval speeds ranging from slow to "medium-fast," while concentrating on keeping it close to the bottom. Most of the strikes came in 15 to 20 feet of water.
"The fish were hanging around the bridge pilings," he adds. "There is nothing on them. The pilings are smooth and the bottom is smooth. I fished them all, but some were better than others. There were two sections that were way better. One was close to a channel and the other was close to shallower water."
The veteran bridge fisherman offered a few tips for exploiting such structures.
"There are a lot of real subtle things with bridges that if you don't do exactly right you won't get a bite, because the fish are suspended," Martens explains. "Like using fluorocarbon and letting your line sink before you work your bait in. Angles are probably the most important thing in fishing bridges. Sometimes it's vertical, which is where drop shotting comes in. But casting a spinnerbait, crankbait or something like a hair jig or Horsiehead, angles are probably the most important part — trying to figure out on which side of the pilings most of the fish are sitting. Even though they may be sitting all around the pilings, there is always a sweet spot on them."