Ponds: Bassing basics; bassin's best

I was a tadpole of a boy, and she was a sow of a bass.

We lived across the road from each other, me with my parents, and the fish in my neighbor's pond. I'd seen her (or another bass that looked like her) during my frequent trips to catch the crappie and bluegill that shared her water. She'd be cruising like a submarine — a dark shadow pushing a slow wake. Every now and then I'd see her annihilate a frog or insect or some other unsuspecting critter.

Then one spring afternoon I spotted her finning lazily in the shallows next to the bank. The bass didn't see me, and I quickly ducked back out of sight. I was carrying my crappie pole and a bucket of minnows. I fished around to select the biggest minnow, hooked it on, and crept back to the water's edge. Then I lowered my bait almost on that bass' nose.

To call her reaction a strike would be an injustice. It was more of an explosion. She engulfed the minnow in a rush of swirl and spray. When she did, I snatched back and held on for dear life. I don't remember what pound-test line I'd rigged with, but it must have been strong, because in a few seconds I'd dragged the 5-pounder into the grass at my feet. I immediately scooped the flopping fish up and raced home to show my parents. The bass stayed that night for dinner — literally.

This personal story is typical of thousands (perhaps millions) of similar experiences across America each year. Many farm ponds offer fantastic bass fishing. They are scattered from coast to coast. A big percentage are overlooked and underfished. They offer a huge, readily available opportunity for anglers who don't have access to big lakes or who just prefer the quiet solitude of pond fishing. Truly, farm ponds are Everyman's waters.

Dennis Hamel and Harry Robertson are bona fide experts at catching pond bass, and other anglers should borrow from their know-how. This is especially true for beginners looking to break into this sport. It's also right-on for veterans who'd like to get back to "simple fishing." For both these groups — and many others — there's magic waiting in a pond full of bass, a few basic lures and an afternoon to try their luck.

Dennis Hamel: Pond-Fishing 101

Dennis Hamel grew up fishing for pond bass near his home in Plainville, Kan. In later years he switched to big reservoirs and competitive circuits, including the Bassmaster Tournament Trail. However, Hamel still returns to pond fishing from time to time because of its simplicity and its consistent good catches. He says, "Fishing ponds isn't very complicated, and it doesn't take a lot of expensive gear to be successful. This is something anybody can do. I think it's also the best way to learn the basics of bass fishing."

Hamel says ponds will produce from early spring through late fall, and the same patterns apply as in bigger waters. "The fish go on a prespawn bite a few weeks before they spawn, then they go through the spawn/postspawn cycle. Pond fishing slows down a little during the heat of summer, but picks up again in fall, when the water temperature starts sliding back down."

Hamel says whatever the season, pond anglers should remember one important point: most bites will come within a few feet of shore. He says, "Many bank anglers make the same mistake. They cast as far as they can into the middle of the pond. Or, anglers in a boat cast straight toward the shore." He continues, "In ponds, most bass hang no further than 15-30 feet out from the bank. So instead of making long perpendicular casts from or to the bank, fishermen should cast as parallel to the bank as they can, almost like cutting a thin piece of pie. This keeps your bait in the strike zone longer. A bank angler should lean out and cast down the bank. A boat angler should ease in close to the bank and cast down it instead of straight into it. This is true whatever the season."

In spring, ponds warm up two to four weeks faster than bigger waters in the same area, and this causes pond bass to bite earlier. These fish typically gravitate to wind-protected shallows that catch direct sunlight. In the prespawn, the best action is usually in the afternoon, when water temperature reaches its daily peak.

"This time of year I'll fish spinnerbaits, jerkbaits or small crankbaits," Hamel explains. "I'll orient my casts to whatever cover is available. There's no moss or weeds this time of year, so I'm mainly casting to brush, stumps, cattails or any other objects that a bass can nestle up next to. This is the same as fishing in a big lake, except the water and fish are more confined."

Hamel says during the spawn, anglers can frequently see beds with bass guarding them. One of his favorite lures for bed fishing is a plastic lizard with the weight pegged at the head. Hamel casts beyond a bed, hops the lizard into it, stops it, and then twitches it from time to time to trigger a strike from irritated bass that are watching.

Hamel adds, "Spawning time is when vegetation starts growing in ponds. If moss and grass have grown up so you can't see the beds, rig your lizard with enough weight to work it down through this cover - 1/2 to 3/4 ounce. Then just work the bait through the grass, and pay special attention to little openings and places where sunlight can get to the bottom. This is where the beds will be."

By postspawn, vegetation is typically growing thick in many ponds, and Hamel says this is where anglers should concentrate their efforts. "Most of the time, regardless of water depth or clarity, if there's vegetation in a pond, this is where the bass will be. They love to hang in grass or moss or weeds, and anglers must use baits that will penetrate this cover effectively."

Hamel says one good way to do this is with a rat or plastic frog that will slide over the vegetation. Pay special attention to small holes in the cover where bass might lie in wait for prey.

Another favorite technique for the postspawn and summer casting is a weightless lizard on a spinning outfit. Hamel coaches, "Cast this bait over moss or weeds, and just creep it back in. When you pull it into an open hole, twitch it with the rod tip, then let it sink. Bass can't stand this. They'll come up through the junk and blast it."

When the weather and water get hot, low light periods of dawn, dusk and night are favorite times for pond bass to feed. Working a buzzbait or topwater crawler (Jitterbug) over and around vegetation and other cover objects can produce some heart arresting strikes.

"Here's one more tip for fishing ponds," Hamel adds. "If the water's clear, you definitely want to fish ahead of your shadow. As you move around the bank on foot or by boat, cast well ahead of your shadow to keep from tipping the fish off to your presence. If they know you're there, they'll move back into the cover, and you'll think there's not a fish in the pond."

Fly fishing for pond bass

Harry Robertson of Hanover, Va., describes ponds as "a wonderful place to cut your teeth on fishing with a fly rod," and he should know. Robertson is a partner in a fly shop in nearby Richmond ("Fly Fish the World"). He leads fly fishing expeditions around the globe, and he also guides local pond fishing forays for bass and bluegill. "Ponds are everywhere," Robertson continues, "and many of them offer fantastic fishing for bass that are relatively easy to catch. They are great spots for learning to cast and hook and play fish."

Robertson offers some valuable advice about finding and gaining permission to fish private ponds. He recommends studying county maps for pond sites, then locating their owners through local tax records. "Many landowners will give you permission to fish if you approach them correctly and they haven't had a previous bad experience with guests. When you approach a landowner, you must look and act like a gentleman. Underline that! You must convince him that you will respect his property and that you're a sportfisherman; you won't take advantage of his kindness."

Robertson says fly fishing in ponds is good year-round for those who know how to match equipment and techniques to the season. However, his favorite method is casting a topwater bug, which he says works "from early spring until the first hard frost of late fall."

To fish popping bugs for bass, Robertson recommends a 6-weight fly rod, weight-forward floating line, and a 4- to 5-foot leader (8-pound-test monofilament). His favorite bug is an old pattern called "Mr. Bob's Popper," but he adds that any durable cork or synthetic popper will work. His favorite color is light blue.

"I'll work my popping bug around any trees, bushes, logs, weeds, etc., that are close to the bank. A bug landing next to some cover object looks like an insect that's fallen into the water. This is a very natural presentation."

Robertson continues, "When my bug hits, I won't move it until the rings have spread 3 feet away from it, then I'll twitch the bug ever so lightly with my rod tip. I try not to move it more than an inch. Then I'll wait for the new rings to move out a couple of feet, and I'll twitch it again. You've got to give the fish time to find it, to hear the noise and see the bubbles. This style of fishing takes a lot of patience, but it's very effective at goading inactive bass into biting."

However, if this technique comes up short, Robertson changes to a more active presentation. "If they don't like the slow retrieve, I'll speed the bug up and make little short hops with it. You just have to experiment to see what the fish want on that particular day."

When he's working a popping bug, Robertson always keeps his rod tip pointed at the bug, and slack line taken up with his left hand (since he's a right-hand caster). He explains that fly casters must be ready to set the hook in an instant. Strikes come very fast.

Robertson also offers this trick when bass are swirling around his bug but not taking it. "I'll tie an 18-inch leader to the bend of my popping bug hook, and I'll tie a Wooly Bugger or some other sinking fly on the end of the leader. Now, fish that won't take the surface bug have an underwater option to consider. Many times they'll eat the Wooly Bugger when they'll pass on the popper."

Pond-fishing tidbits

Many ponds actually suffer from an overpopulation of bass. This is particularly true when all bass caught are returned to the water alive. In this case, the population builds from year to year, and less food becomes available to an ever increasing number of predators. The result is poor growth and stunted bass. The fish are literally starving.

The answer to this problem is to harvest some of these bass each year to hold the population in line with the food supply. Most state fisheries agencies offer management assistance wherein a biologist will analyze a pond's bass and forage populations, then make recommendations on how many bass (in pounds) to remove each year to maintain a healthy predator/prey balance.

One good way to increase a pond's fish production (up to five times or more) is by regular fertilization. Adding fertilizer to a pond increases production of plankton and insects, which stimulates the whole food chain. In contrast to the situation above, more available food translates into more, bigger bass in a pond. Again, a qualified biologist should be contacted about the type and amount of fertilizer to be applied.

Anglers might consider establishing fish attractors in ponds where natural cover is sparse. Hardwood brush weighted and sunk near the bank will be a magnet for bass. A half-dozen attractors scattered around a cover-bare pond will provide amazingly consistent fishing action.

In warm months, wade fishing can be a good strategy for fishing ponds that have thick vegetation growing along the bank. Wading is a stealthy way to access areas that are unreachable from the bank. However, wade fishermen should always be alert to dropoffs and holes where they might step in over their heads. Wearing an inflatable life vest (like SOSpenders) is highly recommended when wade fishing.

A surprisingly accurate way to gauge depths in a pond is by using the countdown method with a bare 1/4-ounce jig tied on a spinning outfit. Cast the jig out and begin counting as it sinks: "one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two," etc. Quit counting when the jig hits bottom. Each count will represent approximately a foot of drop in bottom contour. By casting different distances from shore, an angler can get an idea of how the bottom slopes, and he can find contour changes where bass might be holding.

When pond fishing, pay special attention to the downwind side of the pond. As in bigger lakes, waves and wind washing onto shore pushes prey species into "kill zones," where bass will concentrate to take advantage of the easy pickings.

A well-stocked pond is the best classroom for teaching a young angler the finer points of bass fishing. Casting and retrieve methods can be easily taught from the bank, and pond bass that don't get much fishing pressure will bite more readily than their larger-water cousins.

When taking a youngster to a pond, Dennis Hamel is adamant about one point. "For heaven's sake, don't outfit kids with a Snoopy rod or some kind of gimmick tackle. They'll be handicapped from the start. Instead, get 'em some quality tackle, maybe a 5 1/2-foot casting rod and a good closed-face spinning reel with premium line. The idea is to do everything you can to help 'em catch fish, and providing quality tackle is the first step in doing this. Usually when you're pond fishing, the bass will do their part if you'll do yours."

Perfect pond boat

Any old aluminum johnboat will get you into the action on your favorite pond, but most are heavy to launch, tippy and tough to tote. If you want a small craft to take from pond to pond that you can load and unload all by yourself, consider the Bass Pro Shops Pond Prowler. The boats can be bought in 8-, 9- and 10-foot lengths. Weight capacity is 500 to 600 pounds, depending on the model you select. The small boats can handle outboards up to 5 hp, although a trolling motor is all you need. For more information on the Pond Prowler: www.bassproshops.com.

Also By This Author