Few things are as intimidating to a bass angler as a reservoir ringed with high cliffs and deep water. Equally frightening are vertical concrete walls or metal retaining walls that seem to offer few visible targets to cast a lure. But bass use vertical structure in lakes throughout the country. And those anglers who know how to fish them can catch some impressive stringers of bass.
The truth is, say two experts skilled at fishing such structure, vertical walls are no different than any other type of structure. While there are certain factors that have to be considered, anglers who can catch bass from a long tapering point or a vast grassbed can do just as well fishing a sheer cliff.
"It doesn't matter whether it's a bluff wall that sticks up 100 feet above the water and extends 50 feet under the surface, a concrete wall that's 12 feet deep, or a wood sea wall that only has 4 feet of water at the bottom — bass will usually react in the same way to a lure," says California pro Skeet Reese. The three time Citgo Bassmasters Classic qualifier captured third place in a Bassmaster event held on Nevada's Lake Mead last March by targeting bluff walls in the backs of creeks.
In the early spring, he says, bass are on these hard, vertical walls for the same reason: warmth. Concrete, rock and steel soak up warmth, and bass will often gather against a wall that radiates that absorbed heat. In the summer, they provide bass with shade, another critical need. And throughout the year, bass utilize walls as a means to trap shad and other baitfish. It's not uncommon to see largemouth, smallmouth or spots busting bait right against some form of vertical cover, and those fish can be the easiest ones in the lake to catch.
"Whether you are fishing a quarter-mile-long bluff or a quarter-mile-long section of a gently sloping bank, there will be specific spots along that structure that will attract bass," says Chuck English, a veteran tournament angler from Las Vegas, Nev.
He looks for variations in the wall, such as crevices, little points, underwater ledges or cuts that offer ambush points or shade. Why particular sections of a wall will hold fish while the rest of it is barren can be a mystery, English acknowledges. But if you aren't catching fish, don't quit too soon — a few more casts and 30 more feet down the wall, and you might find them.
Even homogenous, featureless concrete walls have subtle variations that attract and hold bass. Reese says you may not see a particular feature, but more than likely, it's there. Researchers at Berkley conducted a study with a group of largemouth in a white-walled tank containing nothing but water.
The fish suspended in a random manner, and showed no obvious preference toward any particular area. But when a 6-inch black spot was placed on one of the tank's walls, nearly all the bass grouped around that single mark.
"There could be a piece of wood or metal sticking out from the wall, or the bass might be suspended against the wall over a change in the bottom — some brush or a rockpile on the bottom. Something is going to attract bass, even though you may never know it's there," he says.
One variable to check is the presence of shade. English and Reese target shadowed pockets in the summer, although in reservoirs with clear water, shade can be an important factor all year.
You have to remember, fishing bluff walls is just like fishing anything else," advises Reese. "There will often be a pattern within a pattern. It may take you awhile to figure out exactly what the bass want, but once you do, it's really pretty easy."
All in the fall
Whether or not you catch fish will be determined not only by your lure choice, but how you present it to the fish. In other words, show the suspended bass a 1-ounce jig, and they may flee the object that's about to crack them on the skull. However, there may be days when the fish actually want a heavy lure that sinks like a rock.
What you use simply depends on the mood of the fish, but there is certainly a best choice for any given day.
Some days, I've done better with a 6-inch straight-tail worm rigged with a 1/8-ounce weight, and some days I've had great success with a 1-ounce spider jig," says
Reese. "Generally, I want a slower falling bait when I'm fishing a vertical presentation, because the fish have a little longer to see the bait and decide if they want to eat it. I've had some great days with a heavy jig, as well, so you really have to experiment to determine what sink rate the bass want."
English almost always uses a 5/8-ounce jig tipped with a Yamamoto twin-tail grub or a 5-inch Senko that he splits lengthwise, up to the egg sac. The walls he typically fishes have enough shelves and outcroppings to stop a lure several times before it hits bottom.
"I think a lot of bass will follow a lure down until it stops, and then they decide if they want to eat it," he explains. "The bluff walls here on Lake Mead are full of little bumps and crevices, so the lure stops several times before it hits bottom. I'll pop it off each little shelf, and that's usually when I get bit."
Watch for falling rock
One extra caution is worth noting about fishing high bluffs: Beware of falling rock.
Chuck English recalls at least two instances when rumbling sounds above him were followed by a big rock smashing into the water. Fortunately, he was far enough away that there was no danger. Skeet Reese also has seen rocks fall off high bluff walls. Apparently they were knocked loose by desert bighorn sheep scrambling up the side of a steep hill. And like English, he was well out of harm's way.
If you're uncomfortable with putting your boat directly under a wall, don't do it. Follow your instincts and fish somewhere else.
— David Hart
The great thing about a straight wall, says Reese, is that it allows a bass to move up and down the water column without having to travel. In other words, no matter what depth that fish is holding, it will still be right against some form of structure — in this case, a natural or man-made wall. That's a help to anglers who can be confident that bass won't be scattered up and down a long point or across a deep hump.
"They don't have to travel to change depths. They just rise or sink, so they'll always be on that wall somewhere," he says.
Where those bass are in relation to the surface has little to do with their moods, both experts agree. Although bass in a typical lowland reservoir may sulk in deep water after the passing of a cold front, those fish in a lake loaded with bluffs tend to rise and fall as the amount of sunlight changes.
"The depth that bass will hold is affected mostly by the water color or the sunlight. In stained reservoirs, the fish usually won't be more than 8 or 10 feet deep, no matter how much water is below them. In ultraclear lakes, they could be anywhere from right up on the surface to 60 or 70 feet deep, depending on the angle of the sun," says Reese.
A great tactic for fishing any vertical structure is to pull a lure parallel to it. Crankbaits, spinnerbaits and surface lures are all great choices for fishing walls, but to increase your odds — and to cover the structure efficiently — it's vital to keep the lure right against the wall. One of Reese's favorite tactics is to work a Lucky Craft Pointer Minnow parallel to any type of vertical structure. He'll pause it for several seconds before he moves it again.
"Running a lure parallel to the wall is a great tactic if bait is present. Shad will run up and down it, and bass will tuck back in the crevices and wait for something they can ambush. They'll also herd bait back into little pockets, or even right up against the wall if there are no pockets," says Reese.
He also likes to parallel the walls with 1/2- or 3/4-ounce Terminator spinnerbaits with double willow blades. Great topwater choices include Lucky Craft Sammies, Zara Spooks and Pop-Rs. What works best simply depends on the mood of the fish.
Tight is right
Reese won a local tournament on California's Clear Lake last year by pitching a Terminator Snapback creature bait to vertical retaining walls. The key, he quickly discovered, was to present his bait in such a way that it almost scraped the structure.
"If my bait went down 3 feet away, I wouldn't get bit. My bait had to be within a foot of that wall, or I wasn't going to catch any fish," he says.
"That seems to be the case most of the time, but if the fish are really aggressive and willing to chase a bait, they may follow a lure all the way back to the boat before they take a swipe at it. However, I'm going to fish as tight to the wall as I can, because that's where the fish are."
To keep a free-falling lure such as a worm, jig or grub close to the wall, it's vital to allow the bait to fall on a free line. Otherwise, it will simply swing away from the structure and the all-important strike zone. Both Reese and English will pay out line to eliminate any tension, and they keep a close watch on their line. If it stops, that means it's either resting on a ledge, or it has been inhaled by a bass.
"You want your bait to land on any little ledge or outcropping that sticks out from the wall. A lot of my bites come when that lure lands on a ledge and I start to pull it off," says English.
Keeping a bait right against that bluff wall or concrete abutment isn't a problem if you position your boat close enough to the structure. Reese will often get right up against the wall when he's fishing a worm or a jig. But if you have a partner to consider, or if some obstacle prevents you from nudging your boat right against the structure, English suggests keeping your boat at about a 70 degree angle from it. That gives you enough of an angle to keep your bait close to the wall — where the fish will be — and it allows the guy in the back a shot at the bass, as well.
"If you are just fun fishing, I'd suggest having your friend come up to the front so you can put the boat where it should be," says Reese. "Whatever you do, avoid casting directly toward the wall, particularly if you are using reaction-type baits, like spinnerbaits or crankbaits. Your lure won't be in the critical strike zone for more than a few feet if you cast from 40 feet away."
Bluff walls, concrete abutments and wood or metal retaining walls are nothing more than other types of structure. Catching bass off them is no different than catching bass off a point, a shoreline littered with fallen trees, or a long bank of gently sloping riprap. You just have to adjust your tactics and, above all, get up against a wall.