Electronic Imaging for Panfish and Bass
October 01, 2014
Think of the topography of your lake, river, or reservoir like an underwater treasure map. The surface conceals valuable gems — overlooked oddball cover and subtle, often uninspiring structure. Sometimes the sweetest fishing spots remain obscure, awaiting exploration for years, decades, even lifetimes. Unlocking their treasure requires a secret decoder ring — a cipher that reveals it as clearly as a big red X. Many anglers would be amazed and even aghast at the debris littering the floors of the waters they fish. And in contrast, some of the best naturally occurring sweet spots in your lake have remained untouched by generations of anglers. Every waterbody has them — intriguing yet obscure features that hold pods of bass, walleyes, and panfish. This past winter, I was standing on a dock, admiring the landscape on Lake Lanier, Georgia, oblivious to the fish-attracting objects below. The folks who lived there told us they'd planted dozens of old Christmas trees, tires, and broken dock sections over the years — all within a short cast of their dock. Thanks to these efforts, they could routinely pluck big crappies and bass from lounge chairs. In many regions, planting brushpiles in reservoirs is a tradition. In Wisconsin, Illinois, and other midwestern states, manmade fish cribs add cover in featureless lakes and impoundments. In many southern states, agencies plant brush and other cover, and place signs directing anglers to the hot spots.
In Minnesota and other northern jurisdictions, planting brush is illegal for anglers. Yet it's been largely kept under wraps that several major bass tournaments on Minnesota-Canada border lakes have been won by anglers keying on illicitly introduced brushpiles. Moreover, the presence of such cover in natural lakes is far more common than most anglers realize.
Scouting smaller lakes with side-imaging sonar, I've found countless anonymous trees and brushpiles, as well as discarded landscaping rock, old file cabinets, sunken boats, and dilapidated ice fishing shelters. Guide Brian Brosdahl has waypoints on Leech Lake where a sunken boat and an old tractor tire have coughed up monster crappies. He says these objects are but a sampling of what lies beneath.
Searching for Subtle Structure
Look for subtle, naturally occurring sweet spots — small mussel beds within a weedflat, bigger boulders amid a large rock complex, or even a driveway-sized patch of hard bottom surrounded by silt. Many of these spots rarely get fished because they're hard to find and discern with 2-D sonar. Few such features appear on lake maps. Side-imaging is a game changer. Look at the same locale with side-imaging sonar or an underwater camera, and your outlook is altered.
Despite modern technology and its rewards, however, finding a goldmine is no guarantee of fishing success. A brushpile or crib that's hot right now might not be tomorrow or next month. The best looking rockpile can become a ghost town if conditions aren't right. For a spot to hold fish, it must offer conditions favorable to the foundation of a food chain. On mussel beds, expired mollusks provide provisions for scavengers — small fish, crayfish, and other macroinvertebrates. Wooden cribs house algae and snails, and offer grazers a canopy for hiding from predators. Sometimes, too, spots attract predators for reasons we can't explain.
But even if only one in five goldmines attracts bass, panfish, or other species, time spent scouting is worthwhile. Three separate technologies — digital lake maps, side-imaging sonar, and underwater video cameras — have in recent years mapped the floors of waterbodies with unprecedented accuracy. Digital contour maps populate your sonar screen with precise underwater contours, and provide starting points for educated searches for sweet spots. Side- and 360-electronic imaging conduct widespread reconnaissance and expose potential locations, while an underwater camera quickly turns question marks into waypoints, identifying fish species and revealing critical real-life details of the structure and cover.
Sweeping across a lake or river with side-imaging is like depositing money in an investment now, risk free, with the expectation of dividends down the road. There's a sacrifice of time involved, time you could be casting. But surrender several hours in an 8-hour fishing day, or one of five days of vacation searching for sweet spots, and the rewards can be exceptional.
Summer and fall are fine times for spot scouting, as fish are typically stationed offshore. Even when I'm out taking friends or family for boat rides, I can still hunt with side- and 360-imaging. Idling along shore, just off the first break — while passengers admire lakeside mansions — I've found several secret brush- and tree piles sunk by folks who wanted a fish-attractor within casting range of their dock.
In fall, bass, walleyes, and panfish are even more likely to use offshore locations, particularly deeper structure and cover overlooked by many anglers. Just before freeze-up in November is another choice time to scout spots. Fish stationed on a spot days or weeks before first ice are likely to still be there when you shuffle out across the frozen surface. Scouting in a boat is more fun, and far more efficient than drilling hundreds of holes in bone-chilling cold.
Sweet Spottin' Bass
Before hardwater arrives, some of the best microstructure fishing is ready to explode. Randy Dustin, a successful competitive basser from western New York, has fished the crowded waters of Lake Chautauqua his whole life. In Dustin's mind, offshore sweet spots hold more big bass — largemouths and smallmouths — than anywhere else. His best spots aren't necessarily secret brushpiles, deep shipwrecks, or artificial cribs.
"I don't like fishing behind other boats, or in a crowd," says Dustin, who's won numerous local tournaments and regularly finishes high in regional B.A.S.S. and FLW events. "I'm always looking for stuff with electronics. Only about 10 percent of anglers I see use sonar the way they should. Most want to go out and catch fish, not look at a screen. While prefishing, the only time I cast is at the end of the day.
"At a recent FLW event on the Potomac River, I spent eight hours idling around, scouting for isolated rocks on big shallow weedflats. With Humminbird side-imaging I found several remote boulders in clearings the size of a picnic table. One area was a small depression formed by three big rocks sticking a few feet off bottom in 8 feet of water, completely surrounded by vegetation. You can park on spots like these for hours and continue catching big bass. New fish often move through these spots all the time.
"At that last FLW Potomac event, I sacked big bass but lost two other 4-pounders on one of these micro spots. Either one of them would have won the tournament for me. Everyone was saying you had to fish by the tides, but on two of my spots, tide movement was irrelevant, and totally slack when my biggest bites occurred."
Back on Chautauqua, Dustin recently took me to a few of his other honey holes. The lake's southern basin harbors vast shallow flats carpeted by pondweed and milfoil. But he's identified tiny openings where mussel colonies have created a microhabitat.
"Once a waypoint is set, I can head to it and feel my jig slide into that little clearing, and I expect to get bit by a big bass," he says. The day we fished together, Dustin and I landed a bunch of healthy crappies alongside several sizeable smallmouths, proving that a good spot can be appealing to many species.
Although finding these tiny openings in vegetation takes time, these hard-bottom mesas are obvious on the side-imaging screen. Similar gems, such as an isolated log or boulder surrounded by vegetation, can hold several big fish — particularly in natural lakes where submerged trees are scarce.
On a small lake five minutes from my home, a downed white pine rests hidden in the middle of a deep weedflat. You'd never find it by accident. But it pops out on the side-imaging screen. Nearly every time I fish this lake, I find at least one 5-pound bass on that tree, yet no one else seems to know it's there.
Dustin, who once bagged a 25-pound limit of smallmouths off a single rock in seven casts, including a 6.8-pound tournament big bass, says he prefers fishing isolated single boulders to vast rock complexes. And he'll happily fish for hours on a shell bed the size of his casting deck, dragging a football jig through it until something solid jerks back.
Hard Bottom Oases
Joe Balog grew up fishing Chautauqua, too, so he can relate, but these days the Great Lakes bass pro concentrates on lakes Erie and St. Clair. The past few years, he's made compelling discoveries regarding smallmouth bass on subtle micro spots.
"During recent trips to Erie, I've been working little stair-step breaks. They're subtle, like a drop from 27 to 29 feet, where hard bottom ends and silt begins in a transition to the basin. You might have a hard bottom for 300 yards. But along its outer perimeter, there are two or three key places that funnel fish movement. It can be a single rock jutting a foot above bottom, or a slight hard bottom extension, a little point. I believe these areas provide points of entry, like the first place bass that have been roaming the basin contact structure. Fish move through these sorts of spots. When you look at smallmouths with an Aqua-Vu, they're always on the move, as opposed to largemouths that typically sit tight and attack prey from cover."
Balog also believes fishing pressure has in some cases begun to shift bass off obvious structures like major rockpiles or boulders, and onto spots that don't look great. "In the past, you'd have a reef with six or more key spots, and bass would be on all those," he says. "Now, I use side-imaging to search out subtle stair steps and quickly drop a camera to confirm things, such as the presence of sheepshead versus smallmouths, or to dial in the exact spot."
Hard Bottom "Glow Zones"
On inland lakes, hard bottom structure can be equally fruitful, yet no less subtle. Two years ago, while side-imaging a lake I'd fished for almost three decades, I uncovered several seemingly insignificant hard bottom patches surrounded by expansive 22- to 32-foot deep soft-bottom flats that stretched for acres. On each patch, depth rose scarcely a foot above the surrounding topography, but side-imaging displayed a bright colored mass on the screen — a dead give-away of hard bottom.
I've come to call these little hard-bottom patches "glow zones," as they literally light up the side-imaging screen relative to surrounding soft bottom, which shows darker. Identifying these subtle structures with 2-D sonar is tricky and requires a trained eye. But side-imaging shines a virtual spotlight on them — which can be a curse or a blessing, depending on your perspective. Moreover, Humminbird's AutoChart Pro program — an add-on to LakeMaster mapping — also indicates hard versus soft bottom overlays in contrasting colors, further aiding the process of identifying glow zones. The program also offers "side-imaging mosaics" — amazing overlaid 3-D visualizations of any area over which you've previously run side-imaging.
Although some of these spots show up on LakeMaster maps with 1-foot contours, they rarely attract angling attention. Perhaps few folks recognize the importance of hard bottom, or overlook them because they lack tight parallel clusters of contour lines.
I've scanned many of these zones with an under-water camera and believe some of the best ones consist of packed sand, sparse rock rubble and the occasional mussel shell. Other good ones house low-growing vegetation, such as Elodea or occasionally, Chara. They're not always classic rockpiles or obvious humps, but subtle rises surrounded by silt. Some of these spots seem to be extensions off obvious points connected to shore. Other glow zones can be more isolated and serve as a subtle hump rather than a point. One of the best zones I fish lies a few casts from a heavily fished walleye community hole. It's the size of a large bedroom, yet I've never seen another boat on it.
These subtle spots are appealing to preyfish, such as small perch, shiners, sculpins, and other critters. And they can hold numbers of sizeable walleyes, nearly all year long. In summer and fall, these areas attract pike and big largemouth bass. When I found the first of these areas two Novembers ago, it was buzzing with walleye activity. I returned in early February to drop Jigging Rapalas. The fish were still there, and equally eager to bite.
Power Searching Pre-Ice
Earlier that same winter, I met Shawn Bjonfald and Kevin Fassbind, top-performing anglers on the North American Ice Fishing Circuit (NAIFC). Working with several other successful teams, Bjonfald and Fassbind had been scouting panfish spots on tournament venues, running vast lake sections with side-imaging and zooming in with underwater cameras prior to freeze-up.
At the December 2012 NAIFC Championship on Mille Lacs, Bjonfald and comrades took three of the top four positions. Bjonfald won big-fish honors with a 2-pound crappie. The key to the anglers' collective success was taking an extra day in late October to probe hundreds of acres of shallow flats, less than 15 feet, in a boat armed with side-imaging and a LakeMaster digital lake map. Whenever they spotted something different — a clump of thicker pondweed, a dense mixture of pondweed and coontail, or a clear spot surrounded by heavy vegetation, they entered a waypoint.
During December pre-fishing, having transferred waypoints onto handheld GPS units, the teams checked each spot with an Aqua-Vu Micro camera. When the first day of the event arrived, each angler understood what every spot looked like and knew the exact location of the biggest crappies and bluegills. The rest is history — consistent dominating performances during the 2012, 2013, and 2014 tournament seasons.
At most of these NAIFC events, Bjonfald and crew employed pre-ice scouting methods to unearth tournament sweet spots. "In the boat we can cover a whole lake in less than a day," Bjonfald says. "Coupling LakeMaster maps with side imaging and an Aqua-Vu Micro, we can identify every piece of unique structure in the lake — weedbeds, cribs, rockpiles, and other subtle spots. Before launching, though, we spend days gathering intel. We tap every possible resource — DNR lake maps, satellite imagery, Google maps, and LakeMaster contours — to expose all those subtle, often overlooked goldmines."
Among Bjonfald's more intriguing findings are artificial cribs, which can be a conglomeration of logs, wood pallets, brushpiles, root balls, rocks, and old tires. He says the best cribs aren't necessarily the biggest ones, but rather the structures stuffed with the most brush, branches, and other canopy-creating cover. Isolated cribs can be better than colonies of cribs if they're associated with a drop-off, weedbed, or a rockpile. He adds that larger panfish favor the corners and edges of cribs, while smaller fish often get pushed to the top and outsides of the edifice.
"The best cribs create a micro food chain," he says. "Panfish feed on small crustaceans and invertebrates that cling to or hide in the crib. Often, bass, walleyes, and muskies patrol the perimeters. You've got to go in with a Micro cam and probe every opening to identify the golden spots; see how to approach each one and where, exactly, to drop your lure once ice has formed."
Every waterbody has hidden gems — classic spots, ugly spots, and spots that "don't look that good." But beauty is indeed in the eye of the aquatic beholder. What's plain to us can feel just like home to fish.