Elite Series pro Tim Horton targets slight depth changes during the postspawn. These are oftentimes the first stops for bass after they leave the shallows.
Photo: Gerald Crawford
Mark Davis easily recalls the days when his bills were paid entirely by guiding. Putting his clients on bass was what kept his family fed.That basic principle — locating bass on a consistent basis —still applies today, even though the Arkansas pro has enjoyed an illustrious tournament career that has put more than a million BASS dollars in his bank account.Something else that hasn't changed is one of his fundamental secrets when it comes to finding fish. One of his favorite discoveries is a drop in depth so subtle that other anglers never detect it."I love finding a subtle break," the three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year says. "It doesn't take much of a contour change to hold bass — and a lot of bass at that."Davis found one of his most productive examples of this while he was guiding on Lake Ouachita.
"The depth change was so subtle I had it to myself," he recalls. "I think it was an old field, a pasture before the lake was filled. In the middle of this pasture there was nothing there. It was just a flat 5 feet of water. But there was one little area out there that had about a 12- to 18-inch drop — best I could tell on my depthfinder.
"A 12- to 18-inch drop, you won't even see it on a flasher. You'll just go right over it. You won't even realize there was anything there significant enough to fish. To be honest with you, I can't say that I found those fish because I saw that drop. I actually saw those fish out there chasing shad. The first time I caught those fish, I noticed that little break. And I thought, 'Surely, that's not what's holding these fish.' I suspected they wouldn't be there in days to come. I went back there the next day and the fish weren't schooling, but I fished a Carolina rig on that little break — and they were there.
"And it was bare. There were a few scattered pieces of trash — I don't know if they were stumps or little pieces of driftwood. I caught bass off that little break for years and years and years."Davis points out that subtle breaks are most often found on dishpan-shaped lakes like those in Florida or in an expansive flat where there aren't many contour changes.One such spot is the Swans Creek area of Lake Wheeler, where Marty Stone won his first BASS tournament.
"It's a huge flat, probably 100 acres, maybe even bigger," the North Carolina pro says. "There were two very subtle breaks — and when I say subtle, there was a foot-and-a-half difference in water depth.
"I realized that one side was a shell bed, and the top of the shell bed was probably in 1 to 2 feet of water. But the key was right off the edge of that. My boat would be sitting in 3 feet of water. Every time I brought a lipless bait up to the top of it, the fish killed it right there at the subtle drop. It was distinct. Also, on the other side of the flat there was a 100-yard stretch of weeds that were in the only 4-foot depression in the whole bay. The rest of it had a depth of 2 feet."
Louisiana pro Homer Humphreys guides on the massive Atchafalaya Basin and one of his most reliable patterns involves targeting subtle drops of a different kind."In the Atchafalaya, you've got to find the drops," the former Bassmaster Classic qualifier notes. "Finding the real subtle drops is the whole key. I don't mean 5-foot drops; I mean subtle."What happens with a lot of subtle drops is the bottom changes and it goes from a silted bottom to a hard bottom. That is usually a dynamite spot in such a shallow fishery."Alabama pro Tim Horton emphasizes that such subtle breaks are at their best during the postspawn period when bass start moving out away from the shallows. This is the time when they depart the spawning areas, but haven't reached their deep summertime spots.
In the Southeast, this typically occurs in late May. The bass will actually group up on these slight breaks before moving out to the main river channel.Subtle breaks can be productive in deep water as well.
"I don't think depth is the deal," Davis explains. "It can be shallow or it can be deep. I think the common denominator is that you have a lot of flat water around. You can have a lot of flat water that's 50 feet or you can have a lot of flat water that's 5 feet. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that there's a lot of flat water surrounding a slight depth change."And it doesn't have to be a huge area. It might only be 5, 10, 15 acres, but if the fish are in that area for whatever reason — usually following baitfish — a subtle break can be tremendous."
FINDING SUBTLE BREAKS
Many subtle breaks (like Mark Davis' pasture ditch) are so understated that even the best depthfinders can't disclose their location."I think you find those more by fishing and catching fish than you do just going out and watching your depthfinder," Tim Horton says. "You most often find them with your lure."Anytime you have a drop, you're usually going to have a firm bottom. So always fish there and check them out."
1. Edge Of A Flat: The first depth change from a large shallow area to deeper water.
2. Change In Bottom Composition: Where the lake's bottom composition changes from silt to sand, clay or rock.
3. Hump On A Flat: A shell bed, hump or other slightly elevated structure in the middle of otherwise shallow water.
4. Channel In A Flat: A small creek or channel winding through or adjacent to otherwise shallow water.