Jon Howard used his fishing rod as a pointer, like an elementary school teacher standing at the chalkboard, illustrating the salient issue to a student.
"Right there," he said, showing his fishing partner a smallmouth bass hovering in the water column in about 4 feet of water maybe 20 feet away. "Throw it about 20 feet past him and about 5 feet to the side and bring it back."
Howard's partner fired a sand colored tube jig where he was directed and began dragging it back toward the boat. The fish darted toward it and inhaled the lure; Howard's angling buddy was immediately attached to 2 1/2 pounds of muscular bronzeback.
Common as rain, eh?
Sight fishing is a popular technique used by bass anglers across the country for both smallies and largemouth throughout the spring when the fish are shallow and getting ready to spawn. But in this case there was one significant difference: It was August, hot as a jalapeño, with a cloud-free, bright sunny sky. The spawn had concluded a good two months (or more) ago, and most smallmouth anglers that day were out fishing deepwater structure.
Sight fishing for bass may be most often associated with spawning, but Howard, taking a page from the saltwater anglers' bible, says there's no reason to stop doing it just because spawning season has passed. Just about always some fish are up on shallow flats, and bass move in and out regularly over the course of the day, Howard says. He boasts of regular 25-fish days (and at times, significantly more) all summer long and well into the fall, just by cruising along a breakline, and looking for and throwing at smallmouth bass he spots in the shallows. He's been doing it for 15 years and, frankly, is puzzled that more anglers haven't caught on to it.
"I just started seeing fish in the shallows, and I found out if you use the right techniques, you can catch those fish," explains Howard, who has built an outstanding reputation by guiding anglers for smallmouth in the small rivers in southern Michigan and southern Indiana but actually spends a good deal of his summer fishing in northern Michigan lakes.
"And I found it more gratifying to catch a fish you can see than a fish that you can't.
"I've done some bonefishing over the years, and there isn't anything much more exciting than cruising the flats, spotting fish and throwing at them. It's you against the fish, and you've got to outsmart them. Cast too close and you spook them, or cast too far away and you're not going to catch them. It's like leading a duck — you've got to do it just right."
Howard sight fishes anywhere the water is clear enough for him to spot fish — small lakes, large lakes, even the bays on the Great Lakes.
Lakes with lots of vegetation can be difficult, though he says he can often spot fish on the edges of the weeds. But sand or rocky bottoms are all good — and lakes with a combination of those elements are even better. And he really likes lakes with downed timber in the shallows because the bass are drawn toward the cover and can often be spotted holding off the tree branches.
But the pattern is weather dependent, he warns. Too much wind will kill it, although a little bit makes the fish less spooky. Howard prefers waves to ripples on the surface, as long as the waves aren't breaking and making white water.
And sun? It's a sight fisherman's friend, as long as you're not looking into it.
"If the sun's not good, you've got a problem because it cuts down your field of vision," Howard says. "But if the sun's in the right position behind you, you can see forever."
The middle of the day, when the sun's overhead, is often best, Howard says, because the shadows help him distinguish fish from logs or other debris on the bottom. Overcast skies make it more difficult to spot fish, but they also make it less likely that the fish will spot you.
Unlike many sight fishermen, Howard prefers to cruise with his outboard motor running. He has a kill switch rigged on his front deck, and he uses the trolling motor on low to steer the craft. "I can cover more territory with the outboard and move at a faster speed without burning up my battery," he explains.
One of the steepest learning curves beginning sight anglers face, Howard says, is figuring out when to set the hook.
"When fish come over and approach the lure, they have a lot of different motions that they make, and some of them are false — they'll just come up and put their nose on it and then swirl away from it. A lot of people set the hook right then and they don't catch the fish. But if you watch closely, you can actually see them take it, see their gills flare. And sometimes you can see the white on the inside of their mouth when they open it to take the bait. Then you know they got it. I see those gills flare, I set the hook."
Howard says that if an angler casts too near a fish and it darts off, he shouldn't give up on it. The fish will usually depart in a straight line, so reload, figure out where the fish is going, and cast again.
"About 50 percent of the time I can get them to bite."
Being able to cast a long distance helps, especially on those days when the fish are spooky. Howard recommends a fairly stiff rod and he prefers Fireline, though he wouldn't think about not using a leader. He prefers fluorocarbon, which he attaches to the main line with a surgeon's knot, but never spools up his reel with it.
"Obviously if you're sight fishing, you're in clear water," he says. "Fluorocarbon's invisible, but it's a heck of a lot harder to handle than say, Fireline. And Fireline's a lot more sensitive. With the fluorocarbon leader you don't spook any fish and you have all the advantages of the Fireline."
Water depth is rarely an issue to Howard. If the water's clear enough, he can easily spot bass out in 10 feet of water, he says. And there's no such thing as too shallow for bass fishing, regardless of the heat or sun.
They get as shallow as a foot and a half, right in the middle of the summer," he says. "They're right where the outdoor writers say they're not supposed to be. And if you see them up that shallow, you know they're up there for one reason and one reason alone: They're up there to feed. Those are fish you can catch."
BEST BAITS FOR SIGHT FISHING
Howard has a minimal arsenal of just four baits when he goes sight fishing — a tube, a grub, a soft-plastic jerkbait and a conventional floating/diving minnow.
"I'd say 80 percent of the time I use a tube," he says. "Sometimes when you throw a jerkbait, like a Rapala, they'll just attack it. But other times they'll turn and run from that thing like they're seeing the devil. They don't do that as much with a tube.
"If I see the fish are active and moving aggressively for the bait, I'll go to a Fluke. A Fluke's more visible because of its size and motion.
"There may be a fish I don't see. I might throw at one fish and another fish will charge it and get it before I even see it. A Fluke is just a more visible bait, a better target for fish that are chasing bait," Howard says.
"I use a grub when I want to move it a little faster — a grub swims better than a tube. There are times they just prefer that action. I can't pinpoint exactly when that is, under what conditions, but if I get fish going on a tube and they nose it or nudge or swirl around it and swim off, I always have a grub rigged and ready to go. I'll throw that grub and sometimes they'll just attack it. It's that little bit of different action that they're looking for."
Sometimes, when the fish are being contrary, Howard prefers the grub to the tube.
"With a grub, you can fish it faster, and you often get more of a reaction strike out of them than I think you do with a tube."