Like it or not, there are times in both recreational and tournament fishing when you’re another face in the crowd. Another troller with a quartet of planer boards weaving in and around an armada of weekend warriors or tourney competitors chasing the hot school. Another jigger caught in a traffic jam during a spring river riot.
You could run and hide. Or you could fish smarter.
“Last year I had outstanding success,” says Kim “Chief” Papineau, an In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) pro from Escanaba, Michigan. “The reason is that I responded to pressure and had more patience. I didn’t go half-cocked running all over the place as I used to.”
The most consistent PWT pros have learned–often the hard way–how to prevail when everyone else is keeping up with the Joneses. A case in point is Tommy Skarlis, who in 2001 won the Detroit River event in the crowded Trenton Channel and followed in 2002 with a victory at Lake Erie, despite the mob fishing around Kelleys Island. The right fish were in both places. Getting them to bite took not only savvy but also slightly evasive actions.
Responding to fishing pressure in the right way without panicking is a fine art. It’s also learned behavior that comes with years of experience on the trail or seasons on the water when weekenders are out in full force. Enter the expertise, then, of the consistent PWT competitors who feed off the pressure instead of fighting it. With hard-won wisdom in their repertoire, they adjust location and approach on open water and in rivers by anticipating which direction to head next–even if it’s just a touch this way or that.
Open Water Pack Rats
Whether you’re in a tournament on Lake Erie or joining the fray when word’s out about a hot bite on Saginaw Bay, it pays to know when and where to zag when you might otherwise have zigged.
“Boat pressure tends to push fish tight to the bottom, where they become inactive, or they move out to the sides and keep eating,” says Keith Kavajecz, Kaukauna, Wisconsin. “Sometimes a crowd actually corrals the fish into a tighter area. Typically, the easiest fish to catch are suspended. When they’re up, they’re up to eat. When they’re on the bottom, they’ll eat only if something perfect comes by.”
To stay with the active fish, you can go around, above, or down from the group of boats. “When the crowd starts packing up, you’ll know that the fish have stopped biting,” says Mark Gwizdala. “Nobody will be catching fish. That’s when I go outside the pack.”
When a pack is evidence of fish that had been working an area, Gwizdala sometimes starts trolling a quarter-mile away in deeper water to catch the fish that have moved as the bite died in the crush of boats. Other options are to go farther downwind or to start trolling where everyone else stops. Also pay attention to where the boats have been–and not been–and then find an unoccupied lane for a pass.
In other words, it’s not always wise to abandon the area altogether. “If the fish are aggressive, they’ll move but keep feeding,” Skarlis says. “It’s like a crow eating roadkill. If we drive by, the crow flies away and then returns to keep eating.”
Seasonal movements also enter into the picture and help predict the next direction to check. On Erie in spring, for instance, fish departing the reefs head east on their counterclockwise circumnavigation of the lake, which means the area to check is to the southeast. On Saginaw Bay in early summer, schools of walleyes migrate into the inner bay from the outer bay, heading south. The same school you and everyone else have been working for days likely will slide in the direction of predictable seasonal movements. Do your research on any given body of water for guidance on where to head next.
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