There is something magnetic about a fallen tree. Whether a freshly fallen sweetgum dropped into the water by a beaver, or a slick, decades-old log with only a few stubby branches remaining on the trunk, bass and bass anglers alike are drawn to the wood. They provide all-important cover for fish and visible, identifiable targets for fishermen. Some, however, are better than others.
Oklahoma pro O.T. Fears knows that not all laydowns are equal, no matter how appealing they may look. He credits a single pecan tree for his first place finish in the 2000 Louisiana Invitational held on the Red River. He spent much of the practice period probing fallen wood in other areas of a small oxbow off the main river channel, but none held as many largemouth as that lone pecan tree. By tournament's end, he and his amateur partner boated well over 40 bass from one laydown, many of them large enough to help the four time CITGO Bassmaster Classic qualifier out-fish 330 other anglers and claim the top prize.
Pick 'em apart
Laydowns are appealing for the simple fact that they are easy to fish. Pull a crankbait down each side of the trunk or drop a jig in the submerged branches three or four times. If it produces a fish, great. If not, well, move on to the next one.
That's exactly where most people go wrong, says Fears and Kentucky pro Mark Menendez: They attempt to fish the entire tree with a few casts. That may work once you've established a pinpoint pattern, but when the bass are scattered it's vital to fish a tree thoroughly.
"Instead of casting right up to the trunk where it comes into the water and working my lure back to the boat when I first approach a laydown, I'm usually going to start on the outside and work my way in, hitting all the best looking spots before I end up closest to the bank. If you try to fish the whole thing with one cast you may end up catching a fish right near the bank and spooking the others out in deeper water, or you might get hung and you'll have to go in and get it. That will spook any fish on the outside end of the tree," explains Fears. "Of course, how I work a tree depends on what I'm using, but I'm generally going to pick it apart. I'll make numerous casts with different lures until I'm sure that there are no bass, or I've caught them all."
Both pros agree that it's often possible, even smart, to skip much of the fallen tree if you've already figured out that the majority of the bass will be positioned on a specific section of the cover. Menendez often narrows his laydown pattern to a series of three or four casts, confident he fished it well enough to determine if there is a bass present. Most of the time, however, he's probing a fallen tree with surgical precision, dropping his bait in specific, pinpoint spots up and down the entire log. Fears also takes his time and works a laydown thoroughly, making sure to drop a jig or worm into every opening that looks inviting, even if it's deep within a large, brushy tree.
"One thing I hear all the time from my amateur partners is that they can't believe I put my lures where I put them. They play it safe when they work a tree or they just can't put their lures in the places they need to be putting them. They drop a lure outside the tangle of branches or they drop it on the outside of the larger branches. They are afraid to get hung up," says Fears.
That's exactly why Fears and Menendez — along with other successful professional bass anglers — probe deep within downed trees. Few others are willing to go there. They do get hung occasionally, but in order to put a lure in front of as many bass as they possibly can, it's vital to go where others fear.
"Bass on pressured lakes know where they won't get harassed all the time, and that's often smack in the middle of a thick laydown. A lot of anglers just don't want to risk losing a lure or they don't want the hassle of getting unsnagged from the middle of a big laydown, so they don't cast there. I catch a lot of fish in those places," adds Menendez.
Although lure choice depends largely on seasons, weather and water conditions, not to mention personal preferences, both pros have a handful of baits that always play a role in their laydown equations. Menendez, however, tends to avoid the same baits so many other anglers use.
"This time of year (autumn), the shad will be moving towards the backs of creeks and pockets, so I'm going to use baits that imitate shad. A lot of guys flip jigs or tubes and cast spinnerbaits, and they catch plenty of fish, but I try to use different baits that bass may have not seen in a while," he says.
Among his favorite fall lures for fishing downed trees are crankbaits and white jigs that he swims through and over the branches. Surprisingly, Menendez will throw a square-lipped crankbait, like a Bagley's B3, either across a partially submerged tree or right into the middle of it.
"I try to bounce that crankbait off every branch I can. That really seems to trigger strikes and I catch some big bass on it as well. I don't worry about getting hung up. I'm more worried about putting my lure where the fish are," says Menendez. "If I do get snagged, that just means I'm putting my lure where I'm supposed to."
Fears typically uses a one-two combination, which allows him to work a log with two different techniques. For instance, he'll work a tree with a Norman Deep Little N crankbait and then follow it up with a Zoom worm. The fast bait picks up the most aggressive bass, while the slow moving worm entices those fish unwilling to chase a lure. That combination is exactly how he caught so many fish off that pecan tree in the Red River a few years ago. He also uses a spinnerbait/soft jerkbait combination - and he even likes topwater baits if the conditions are right.
"The specific lure you use is less important than fishing the tree thoroughly and quietly. Just use the right bait for the conditions and fish it with confidence," says Fears.
All trees are not created equal, and bass tend to favor one laydown while they avoid another that seems identical, at least on the surface. Fears recalls a line of fallen trees he discovered during the 2004 Elite 50 on Arkansas' Lake Dardanelle. He counted eight within a 75-yard stretch of shoreline. At a glance, they all appeared to be about the same age, the same general length and they were scattered over a similar depth and bottom.
"On the first cast to the first tree during practice, I caught a 3 1/3-pounder on a square lipped crankbait. None of the others produced a bite, even though I fished them hard," he says.
The first day of the tournament, Fears returned to that line of laydowns and immediately plucked a 4-pounder off the first tree. He again fished the others without a bite. A few hours later, he caught another off the first tree. Similar results happened for the entire tournament.
"Two other trees produced one fish each throughout the whole tournament, but that first tree produced five or six real nice bass," he remembers.
Fears knows exactly why only three out of eight fallen trees produced bass. Or more specifically, he could tell what was different about the productive logs.
"The one that I caught almost all the fish off of had a couple of forks. The two others that gave up one bass each were crisscrossed, but all the others were straight trunks with no large limbs sticking off them. I don't know what it was about the limbs that the bass liked so much, but they obviously preferred that tree over the others," he says. "I see that quite often, and I always try to return to a tree that produced fish earlier in the day or earlier in a tournament. A lot of times, new bass will move up, or the fish that were there all along will be willing to bite after you let the spot rest."
Menendez has had similar experiences and says that bass often favor laydowns with similar characteristics, shunning others that look almost as inviting.
"A lot of times, you can fish an entire line of trees that all look identical, but you'll only catch fish off one or two, and not just a bass off each, but several bass from one tree and nothing from the other laydowns," he says. "There is clearly something different about those that held fish, even though you may not be able to see it."
In other words, after years of experience and hundreds of bass caught from fallen trees to their credit, neither pro can look at a laydown and tell for certain it holds a bass. There are, however, certain characteristics that stand out as time-tested ingredients. Menendez favors trees that extend into deep water, or at least have deep water close by. Deep, he adds, is a relative term, and that can mean as little as 2 or 3 feet of water in some lakes. The root ball of the pecan tree that gave up so many bass for Fears lay in 4 feet of water, but the top was in 18 feet of water. That gave the fish freedom to move up and down as their moods changed.
Both experts favor isolated laydowns for the simple fact that bass have fewer places to hide. Shorelines with an endless supply of trees may hold more bass, but those fish can be more difficult to pinpoint. Trees that are adjacent to or within another type of cover, like grass, are even better. Fears and Menendez also like laydowns that are up off the bottom 2 or 3 feet.
"Older logs always seem to be better, and logs with few branches seem to hold the biggest bass, but they need to have some branches. Straight, bare trunks aren't nearly as good as ones with some branches. I like bushy trees in the spring because bass fry tend to use them for cover and the male bass will often be right there with them. But this time of year, I seem to do best on slick logs with just a few large branches coming off of the main trunk," says Menendez.
O.T. Fears generally prefers older laydowns, but says there is a brief period, right after a tree with green leaves falls into the water, when it is loaded with fish. Then, as the leaves begin to decay, bass and other fish abandon the tree until the dead leaves have rotted away and the smallest branches have begun to decay. He figures the rotting leaves either rob the immediate area of oxygen or they give off some sort of chemical that the fish dislike.