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Tips on How To Find Fish

We’re going to tell you how to find fish in unfamiliar waters, because for many anglers, “home waters” become wet security blankets over time. The anglers fish the same spots on the same lakes, rivers, ponds or streams because they know what to expect. They know where fish will be – and how to cast to those consistent holding spots to make the best presentations possible.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that – unless the security of home waters keeps an angler from trying other great fishing locations. It happens. “Why should I go fish that new place and run the risk of getting skunked,” they ask themselves, “when I know where to go and what to use – when I know I can catch fish on my home waters?”

Faced with that very question many times in the past, I’ve always answered it the same way. First – and perhaps most important – I know that on any new spot I’ll find the same kinds of places I prefer to fish on familiar waters, and those places also will hold fish. Second, I may learn something at the new place that will help me do even better on my favorite waters.

No matter where, when or how you fish, the primary goal never changes. You set out in search of opportunistic predators, and you attempt to trigger their urges to either feed or defend -the latter usually during the spawn.

One of the first times I ever actually approached an outing with this fundamental concept occurred many years ago when an editor called me late on a weeknight needing specific photos of a specific type of fish for a feature article in his magazine.

“I can have them to you by the first of next week,” I said enthusiastically.

He liked the answer.

I didn’t have those photos in hand. I had to shoot them, and my best option on the short notice involved water I had never fished before -a small public lake covering about 300 surface-acres.

Over the next day or two, I asked myself some questions about the pending outing.

“Where will the fish be at this time of year? Are they in deeper water, or are temperatures right for them to have moved up? What kind of structure should I focus on? And, given that structure, what kind of bait(s) will give me the best chance to catch the fish I need for photos?”

Given what I needed – photos of some nice bass – I knew that conditions likely would have the fish still relating to deeper structure. On the water I planned to fish, rocky structure predominated on the points and along much of the steeper shoreline.

Structure like that is perfect for fishing a crawfish imitation of some type. Bass love crawfish, and crawfish love rocks. I decided to start out with a fairly bulky jig-and-pig, but to fish it around and through the rocks like a plastic worm – that is, to cast it and use a slow retrieve.

A co-worker/angling buddy joined me because he too had never fished the water in question. He was as anxious to try it as I was. We both hoped to find and catch some fish; I needed them in photos! After launching the boat, we took a quick drive around the lake to get a good feel for spots that might be holding decent-sized fish.

Settling on a sharp-edged main-lake point as a good starting point, I shut down the outboard and, as I was getting the trolling motor down to begin fishing around the point, I made a long cast toward the tip of the point. The bulky jig-and-pig plopped into the water a few feet in front of the point. It took several seconds to orient the boat so that each of us would have casting access to the rocky point.

When I reeled up the slack line, I felt weight, and so I set the hook hard. Just minutes later, I was shooting photos of a 4-pounder. Over the next few hours, more keepers modeled, and the photos went off to the editor on time.

The moral of this story is simple.

Even if they fish the same waters incessantly, anglers learn a lot that can help them find and catch fish anywhere. I hadn’t seen that lake before, and I never talked to anyone who had. I simply used what I’d learned about catching bass at that time of year to solve the mystery of the new water.

You can do it, too. Anyone can.

Take some time to think about different spots on your home waters that always produce. What’s unique about each one? What’s similar to other waters?

The second question is easy to answer. Every spot you regularly find and catch fish offers some kind of structure they like. I characterize them in two very basic categories – ambush points and cover. The two aren’t always the same, and fish don’t always use one or the other.

Look for and fish ambush points during times when conditions suggest that the fish species you’re after will be most active and aggressive. Look for and fish cover when conditions leave fish more neutral or negative. Weather fronts are good examples. Cold fronts can shut fish down and cause them to lock into the heaviest cover they can find. Warm fronts generally have the opposite effects.

Falling barometric pressure appears to trigger fish and wildlife activity. From here, even slight drops can put fish into a feeding mood. For more than two decades, I lived in a part of the country that enjoyed long warm-weather periods of consistency. Weeks passed between fronts, and days were consistently warm and humid, with bluebird skies. Watching the weather on TV, I noticed a pattern in that consistency.

From mid-afternoon through sunset almost every day, the barometric pressure dropped slightly. It didn’t signal the approach of a storm or a long-duration cold front, but it did turn fish on. During those weeks from mid-summer through early fall, I learned that outings when the sun was falling toward the western horizon held much more potential that any other time of day.

Tying that into the basic structure types mentioned previously, I always fished ambush points on my late-day outings. Earlier, however, even during periods of stable weather, I’d start out fishing places that provided fish with cover.

Apply these concepts to your own fishing. Ask yourself: What times of day have I had the best success (early morning, mid-day, afternoon/evening or at night)? What kind of structures are my honeyholes? Are they more oriented toward providing cover, or are they ambush points?

Completing that exercise helps anglers understand more about the dynamics of the fishing patterns and situations they find most productive. As a result, any angler can apply them to unfamiliar waters and have a good chance of repeating the kind of results he would find on his home waters.

Here’s a look at some generic kinds of structure that fall into each of the categories mentioned so far. Let’s break them down by flowing and standing water.

Ambush Points: On rivers and streams, ambush points usually involve structures that provide current breaks. Mid-stream rocks that break current are great examples. Eddies along the edges of current tongues near the heads of holes also are great examples. On large rivers, the downstream sides of wing dams are ambush points.

On lakes and ponds, little cuts in weed lines and shoreline weeds are good ambush points.

Others include the shallow limbs and branches of a tree that has blown into the water or that has been placed there on purpose – with its trunk still on the bank. Small secondary points also are outstanding ambush points, and anglers sometime overlook them.

Use Google Earth, sonar and charts to find cover, ambush points and breaks on the new water that look like the locations that work on your own water.

Use Google Earth, sonar and charts to find cover, ambush points and breaks on the new water that look like the locations that work on your own water.

It took a fish to teach me this lesson, too. The fish only had one eye. When I got it in the boat and got a good look, it appeared that it had been born without a right eye. There was no eye socket, and the skin/scales across that part of its head were smooth and undisturbed.

It had exploded from a really small tip of a secondary point, where it had set up on the left side (if looking at the water from the bank) of the structure. The lack of a right eye provided no issues with that kind of ambush point. After encountering that fascinating keeper, I started paying more attention to little spots like that. I tried to “see” them through the eye of a gilled, swimming predator. You should do the same.

Other ambush points in ponds and large lakes include submerged rocks and stumps, dock pilings and ledges along bluffs and steep banks.

Cover: If you approach a spot and think, “Dang … I might lose my lure if I fish that,” then you’re looking at cover. The choked tangle of brush and debris that builds up along the outsides of channel bends in streams and rivers are perfect examples. Others include undercut banks with exposed root wads or other obstacles, and the deepest parts of holes – where the current flows in and then begins to swirls and move around.

On lakes and ponds, it’s the same deal. If you see a spot that will challenge you to keep from losing lures if you fish it, you’re looking at cover. Dense brush in shallow to medium depths, holes in rockpiles, the very backs of docks – all of those places provide more cover than they do ambush opportunities for any species.

Unique Situations: There are other great places to fish that are directly related to water level and clarity. Chances are, you know what I mean. When water levels get low, you often discover great ambush points that are either exposed or that become visible in the low, clear water. Primary examples include old trees and other debris that are located in places you might not expect them.

When heavy rain raises water levels and reduces clarity, other unique fishing spots appear. Conditions produce new or temporary ambush points and/or cover spots that will hold fish until levels and clarity return close to normal.

Windy days also produce some great fishing spots, especially on lakes. If you can find windblown banks, you should expect to find fish. Winds can blow wads of baitfish into areas where the resident predators can ambush them. When I head out for a lake-fishing outing on a windy day, I’ll often look for and fish windblown banks right away.

General Guidelines: Here are some elements that hold true for some of the situations already discussed.

The lower and/or clearer the water, the longer your casts should be and the lighter your baits. Possibly the most important consideration at times like those is doing whatever you can to keep from spooking fish.

When water is higher than normal, you might consider using a slightly heavier lure. That is especially true when current is present. High-water periods often create eddies and other kinds of slack water that aren’t available during periods of normal water levels. Look for places like those, and fish them thoroughly.

When water is off-color, your primary lure options should have some color, and some action and/or sound. You want to fish baits that, because of their design, will help species home in on them in murky water. You also might consider opting for live bait because its natural scent and movement can lead to more strikes.

On days with lots of sun and high, bright skies, make longer casts and opt for subtle, natural shades in lures. Those kinds of days are great for using the most realistic forage imitations you have in your tackle box.

Cloudy days allow you to get a bit closer to any kind of cover because you won’t be casting shadows that will appear unnatural to fish. Bright colors also can be more effective in low-light conditions.

What time of year are you fishing new water? What is the species you’re after generally doing (spawning, holding in deep water, cruising shallows) at that time of year? What is the weather like? What has it been like lately? What is the water level? What is the water clarity? Is it bright and sunny or overcast and drab?

Answer those questions, and apply your answers to your home waters. You know the conditions you’re facing. How and where have you caught fish on your favorite waters? Did you focus on ambush points or cover spots?

Answer that second set of questions, and you’re almost “home.” Just start out with the baits and techniques that have worked for you, and use them in spots on unfamiliar waters that are most like the areas you’d be fishing on your own favorite lakes, rivers, ponds or streams.

More quickly than you might expect, you’ll be catching fish.