April 12, 2022
You have to wonder how often folks with waterfront homes hop in their boats and drive away from some of the lake's best fishing. In many cases, boat dock fishing for bass offers some of the most predictable and dependable bass action you can find.
Places of shelter and feeding opportunity, docks are about the easiest cover to find and they present definitive casting targets. There's also the benefit of permanence—find a good dock today and it's likely to be there next week and next year, though in the North Country, fall patterns sometimes are stymied when dock owners pull them out to avoid ice damage. Dock designs vary in size and complexity, and bass often exhibit favoritism for particular dock features. Some days, for example, the biggest fish seem to hold below boat lifts under the canopy, other days the shallowest end of the walkway is the key zone.
Bassmaster Elite Series pro Greg Hackney prefers lakes with abundant docks because it's usually rather easy to pattern fish. "Once you define the pattern, you can normally fish the whole lake and find bass following that pattern all over."
Learning to identify replicable patterns is essential for consistency. Such deduction demands an understanding of dock dynamics. Here are some key concepts to help you dial in your game plan.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
In reservoirs, water level and current affect much in the bass game, so look for damp wood and aquatic weeds hanging high and dry. This indicates falling water, indicative of current flow. Conversely, dry wood meeting the water line implies stable water—a sure sign of no current on an impoundment.
Dock style—floating or fixed—neither promises nor negates potential. Bass tend to suspend more beneath floating docks and hold closer to the bottoms of pilings on pier-style structures. Hackney prefers old-fashioned Styrofoam blocks under seasoned structures over the plastic flotation chambers used in modern floating docks. These big white blocks, he says, support the basis of the food chain that attracts bass.
"More algae grows on Styrofoam than on the black plastic," he notes. "Shad graze on algae so they seem to hold around Styrofoam more than plastic. I always search for older docks for that reason."
But when the mercury tumbles, Bassmaster Elite pro Mike Iaconelli points to those same black plastic floats as heating blankets for chilly fish. Dark surfaces, Ike notes, absorb more heat than lighter ones, so the docks with black floats make cozy hang-outs in late fall and winter.
Lake of the Ozarks guide Mike "Cowboy" Foree knows that brushpiles attract bass, and many of them are placed near docks by crappie anglers. He notes evidence of crappie fishing—rod holders, deck chairs, lights, and cleaning stations—as indicators of additional habitat. Similarly, California pro Zack Thompson spends more time fishing Cal Delta docks where tides have pushed weed mats into the corners.
As most docks include a walkway and some type of end structure like a T, boat shed, or pavilion, one might assume that the dominant terminus deserves all of your casts. Not at all, says Alabama veteran Gerald Swindle. The dock bite can extend from shore to tip.
"Don't focus on the building and ignore the highway leading to it," he instructs. "Bass use a dock just like they use an entire creek ledge. You need to check all parts of it. They can be aggravating and hard to reach, but they can be productive."
Greater depths at the deep end provide stability to bass and usually are most productive during summer and winter. In fall, though, Swindle looks for bites from a dock's interior and its shoreward quarter. In spring, he focuses on the shallow end. "Docks are fine places for bass to spawn," Swindle notes. "Spawners often nest right up against the poles. There's a mix of sun and shade and plenty of cover that male bass seek in a nest site. And when the eggs hatch, the fry hide under the dock."
When bass get on a chew, Iaconelli advises noting the depths of your bites. Water temperature varies vertically in the water column and bass often show a preference, either for docks sitting over a certain depth range, or for a particular depth below the dock. Also, when water level falls, bass tend to slide toward deeper water. They may remain in the same depth zone, but that zone shifts outward several feet or more.
BIG ON THE JIG
Throughout the seasons, no bait can claim the jig's versatility for dock-fishing. From a full-bodied football head and chunky trailer meant to rumble along the bottom, to a slender shaky-head wiggling by a piling, or a bristly, trimmed-down finesse model that drifts into the shadows to tempt pressured fish, jigs tackle many scenarios.
Hackney designed the Strike King Hack Attack jig for heavy cover presentations, but he loves swimming it around docks for aggressive fish. Noting that this up-tempo presentation gives bass a different look than the spinnerbaits and crankbaits run by them every day, Hackney fits his 1/2-ounce jig with a Strike King Rage Craw trailer and matches lure color to the local forage. "If they're on shad I use a white jig; if it's bluegill, I go with green or brown," he says.
According to Swindle, the swimming tactic is particularly effective during the postspawn when bass gather in the cooler water off the ends of deep docks. At other times, he skips a 3/8-ounce Arkie jig with a green pumpkin Zoom twintail trailer, which he uses to reach way-back sweet spots while keeping his distance from spooky fish.
He offers this skipping tip: "Use a sharp sidearm cast and aim for a spot about six inches in front of the dock. This way, the bait makes contact with the water and then flattens out before skipping toward the gap between the dock and the water. Aim too close and you risk hitting the dock. That'll stop your bait and alert the fish."
OTHER DOCK BAITS
Ask Iaconelli about his childhood vacations and he mentions two things—swimming at a lake in the Poconos and watching bluegills holding by dock floats. Flash forward to his pro career and he recalls those bluegills when he approaches a dock, armed with a wakebait.
"From when I was a kid until now, I've observed similar fish behavior. Docks are magnets for bluegills and perch, and shad spawn around them as well. I find the shape and profile of a wakebait imitates those preyfish."
Iaconelli typically fishes a Rapala DT Fat 1, a chubby bait that runs on top. In the presence of shad, he prefers a Helsinki Shad hue, switching to Parrot when bluegills are present.
As he approaches a dock, he stays 30 to 40 feet away and casts as far back along the near side as possible. As he trolls forward, the crankbait is pulled parallel to that side. Cast number two passes the dock's face, and the third shot borders the far side. Simple and efficient, the formula gives any hungry bass a good look.
During the cold season, Foree finds a jerkbait's erratic flutter and suspending or slow-sinking action effective at tempting sluggish bass, offering the appearance of an easy meal. Baits like the Rapala X-Rap, Megabass Vision Oneten, or Lucky Craft Pointer 100 sit differently in the water, and each one can offer the ideal action on a particular day. In addition, upsizing treble hooks or adding adhesive lead strips or dots allows anglers to make them sink.
Traditional topwaters like a Heddon Zara Spook or a Rebel Pop-R can interest dock fish, particularly when shad spawn around these structures. Another productive, yet less common dock option is a hollow-body frog. California pro Ish Monroe fishes his namesake Snag Proof Phat Frog around docks coast-to-coast and finds the bait's ability to walk, chug, or float motionless when paused provides great versatility and fine teasing action.
"A frog can represent many things," Monroe notes, "a bluegill, shad, mouse—anything afloat that a bass might eat. For fishing frogs, I favor docks with 6 feet of water or less. I can often get a big bite by skipping frogs into shade far underneath."
Plastics catch plenty of dock fish, too, so don't hesitate to pull a swimbait past the structure or pitch a Texas-rigged worm or lizard into the shadows. When shad are plentiful, Missouri pro Matt Jones likes a 7/8-ounce War Eagle spoon in white, shad, or chartreuse. He modifies it by removing the swivel from the head end and attaching a Gamakatsu G-stinger harness.
"I like a spoon for deep docks because it falls fast. If a school is down there, they start fighting over it," he says. "It's possible to catch five keepers in five drops. I've caught 30 fish in a row from a single dock stall. You often catch a fish on the stinger hook instead of the treble and occasionally get two at once."
No doubt, docks are common in most regions, and steadily increasing on some waters. But like everything else in bass fishing, bites never are guaranteed. Note Hackney's advice on patterning a lake's docks. Practice with multiple presentations and pay attention to what works in which scenario. Before long, you'll be calling your shots.
David A. Brown, Tampa, Florida, is a veteran outdoor writer and photographer and president of Tightline Communications. He has contributed many features to Bass Guide.