How to Sustain a Freshwater Pelagic Bite
These pelagics tend to school throughout the year with the largest schools forming during the cool months when a thermocline is not present. Even though these fish school at times in groups numbering into the hundreds or even thousands and generally work together to herd baitfish in a way that benefits the entire school, individuals within the school still compete among themselves.
Although the primary focus of my angling, and the focus of this article, is on white bass, all of the methods I mention here work well for all of the aforementioned freshwater pelagics.
Because shad location can be predicted to some degree, the location of freshwater pelagics can likewise be predicted. The predators are located where there is an abundance of prey. Slow-tapering main-lake points, especially those “pointing” downstream, hold high potential all year. Breaklines formed where deep flats drop off into the river channel hold fish year-round. Expansive humps, especially the sides affected by wind, typically hold both shad and pelagic predators throughout the year. In summer, check the mouths of large coves adjacent to the main basin. In winter, check the outside bends of large feeder creeks.
When considering any of these locations, give preference to the side of the feature being affected by the wind, as that typically is the area on that feature to concentrate fish. I believe wind pushes in on these areas and disturbs silt and debris on the bottom, creating a feeding opportunity where baitfish can find phytoplankton and zooplankton to feed on in greater concentrations than would be found elsewhere.
Once freshwater pelagics are found using sonar, their “mood” determines the size and speed of presentation used to target them. I divide these postures into four groups.
The tighter to the bottom the fish are, the less they’re feeding, which requires a smaller and more methodical presentation. Using Lowrance color palette #13, or the bottom-fill feature on Humminbird and Garmin units, causes the sonar unit to assign a brown color to the bottom and a blue, red, yellow color gradation to fish, based on reflectivity. This allows bottom-hugging fish to contrast with the bottom even when there is no target separation between the belly of the fish and the lake’s bottom. This is Posture 1.
Posture 2, is where you observe a sprinkling of fish along the bottom with definite target separation between the fish and the bottom. These fish are more active than those described in the scenario above.
The next rung on the fish-activity ladder, Posture 3, is where an abundance of fish are seen in the lower 2 to 3 feet of the water column with obvious separation between them and the bottom, and some especially active individuals are seen suspended as much as half-way up off the bottom.
In Posture 4, the most aggressively feeding fish use the entire water column, typically concentrating in the lower two-thirds. Instead of appearing to hold at a single depth, sonar shows “streaking,” both upward and downward, as the fish move quickly within the sonar beam as they chase shad. In the warmer months, this may be accompanied by fish breaking the surface on occasion, or an all-out topwater blitz.
When fish display Postures 1 and 2, I start with a smaller-profile bait. My favorite is a slab of my own design, the Hazy Eye Slab, with a Hazy Eye Stinger Hook affixed to the end of the slab opposite the stock treble hook (check holdingthelineguideservice.com). I use the 3/8-ounce version fished on 20-pound Sufix 832 braid with a Sufix 25-pound fluorocarbon leader about 24 inches long, joined to the braid with a double uni-knot (six turns), and terminated with a #2 VMC snap. The snap provides the desired flutter on the fall and prevents premature line wear.
Postures 1 and 2 call for slower presentations. Snap-jigging with at least a three-second pause between snaps is my preferred tactic for Posture 1.
A slow lift of the slab up off the bottom, taking 5 to 6 seconds to sweep the rod tip from just above the water’s surface to an 11-o’clock position, is my preferred method for Posture 2. To make the most of this sweep, lock your elbow and keep your arm extended during the lift to increase the distance the slab travels off the bottom. I refer to this tactic as “easing.”
For Postures 3 and 4, I start with the 3/4-ounce version of the Hazy Eye Slab (with stinger). Because these fish have already demonstrated a willingness to leave the safety of bottom based on sonar returns, I use a tactic I call “smoking.” After dropping the slab to bottom, I close the bail of my spinning reel by hand (to avoid wind knots and to avoid lifting the slab off bottom unintentionally) and adjust my presentation so the line goes slack only when my rod tip approaches within 6 inches of the water’s surface.
Once adjusted, I begin reeling slowly and steadily until the slab ascends to about 6 feet above the fish holding highest in the water column, as observed on color sonar. For instance, if I see on sonar that the fish holding highest off a 34-foot bottom are consistently showing at 22 feet, I “smoke” the slab upward past these fish to the 16-foot mark, bringing the bait to and past the fish, and giving them time to react, overtake, and eat the bait. If no strike results, I repeat this process over and over again until I get results or find that the fish aren’t interested. If they’re not interested, I try again, this time with a slower retrieve.
Low gear ratio spinning reels with small diameter spools serve to avoid moving the bait too quickly. The Pflueger Supreme in size 25 moves only 18 inches of line per handle turn and is the reel I rely on for this method. Coupled with a Fenwick Eagle EA70ML-MFS rod, this makes a great all-around white bass combination.
Consolidating the Fish
When active fish are located and you catch the first, it’s time to “consolidate”—take several actions to get most of the fish within the school you’ve discovered to come beneath your boat and to stay there so you can continue to catch them.
Step 1: Establish a hover. This is best accomplished using a GPS-equipped trolling motor. If I don’t already have the Spot-Lock feature of my Minn Kota Ulterra turned on, I activate it as soon as I hook a fish. I won’t even wait until reeling the fish in because I don’t want to drift as much as a half boat-length away and risk moving away from the active school.
Step 2: Thump. Thumping involves making a continuous, low-pitched series of sounds/vibrations by striking the floor or gunwale of your boat rhythmically in order to pique the curiosity of fish, give them something to focus on, and keep them in your vicinity. This tactic is especially effective as the water temperature cools below the mid-60s, and up until it again warms into the mid-60s, but it works to some degree all year.
I first thumped using a rubber mallet, then changed to a tennis-ball capped pine rod of about 1.25 inches in diameter and 4.5 feet in length, and eventually built my own 12-volt powered device so I can keep the “thump” going while unhooking clients’ fish or untangling lines. Having fished with a thumper for six seasons, I would feel handicapped without it. I’ve even made a spare thumper in case my primary one goes down unexpectedly.
Step 3: Reel a few fish in slowly to get and keep the commotion going. Schoolmates are strongly attracted by the frantic motion created by a hooked fish fighting, in addition to the commotion you’re creating by jigging and thumping. This is particularly effective after the fish have been fired up for a while, but then seem to begin losing interest and begin slowly dropping deeper in the water column toward bottom.
Step 4: If fishing solo, keep one or more baits in the water and suspended up off bottom as a “deadstick” rod in a rod holder if your state’s regulations allow for this. As with thumping, this gives fish something to focus on and keeps them in the area as you unhook fish.
Sustaining the Bite
Once you’ve located, caught, and consolidated the fish, the final step is to sustain what you have worked to generate. Take these steps to keep consolidated fish biting as long as possible.
Step 1: Chum. Saltwater anglers targeting ocean-going pelagics like striped bass, bluefish, false albacore, and other species routinely use chum to lure fish in and keep them in range, yet chumming is rarely done for other than catfish in freshwater. During the annual threadfin shad spawn, which takes place from late March through late May on my native Texas waters, I often have leftover live shad following trips in which I use livebait to target jumbo hybrid stripers. I freeze these shad in plastic bags with about 25 to 30 baits to a bag.
Before use, I slowly thaw them in a cooler without ice. I use a pair of shears to cut them into pieces (about 1/16-inch-thick cross-sections) and let the pieces fall into the water while on Spot-Lock and while fish are beneath the boat. The routine regurgitation of the cut shad by the fish my clients catch tells me the fish are drawn to the chum and consume it. Use only shad frozen once; leftovers don’t work as well.
Step 2: Avoid breaks in the action. When fish are biting, keep catching them without breaking the momentum. Don’t break for photos, snacks, answering nature’s call, and avoid time-consuming tangles and knots. As long as individuals from the school are being fought back to the boat, they typically make enough commotion to sustain the bite. These fish not only give off flash and vibration, they also regurgitate recently swallowed shad, which sink toward bottom and act as chum. Hooked fish also defecate as a response to stress. These silver-gray ribbons of waste are shad-colored and fish-scented and also serve to enhance the chum program.
Step 3: Jog. My Minn Kota Ulterra features a jogging function, which, with the push of a button, allows me to move my boat directly forward, directly backward, 90-degrees left, or 90-degrees right in 5-foot increments. A single push of the button on the handheld remote mounted in a cradle on the dashboard of my Maritime center-console accomplishes this. When the action wanes, I use side-imaging sonar to the left and right of the boat with the range set to show 20 feet out to the side (example: range set to 40 feet in 20 feet of water). I then jog to whichever side appears more heavily populated with fish. This allows access to sluggish fish that weren’t drawn to presentations prior to jogging, then to catch them and get their schoolmates feeding heavily.
Step 4: Just as when we were trying to consolidate the fish, if the bite starts to wane, reel a few fish in slowly to keep the commotion going. Again, schoolmates are strongly attracted to the frantic motion created by a hooked fish fighting as it’s reeled in.
Step 5: Change cadence. When the fish start to grow weary of your retrieve cadence and slink back down toward bottom, racing lures to the surface often renews the school’s interest. Many times, before realizing the effectiveness of this maneuver, I watched a bite slowly fade to nil, then instructed my clients to “reel ‘em up” in preparation for moving to a new area, and had one or more of them catch a fish as they did so. I realized that this change of cadence was a triggering mechanism. Once a fish or two is caught this way, revert back to the tactic that was working previously.
Eventually, no matter how well you’ve consolidated fish and sustained the bite, the bite dies and you have to start the process again after searching out a new area.
While engaged in fishing a school that’s been consolidated, I never hesitate to leave if I see fish more active in another area. If I‘ve been on a school of fish for 45 minutes to an hour, for example, and they’re still biting, but I can tell the catch rate is decreasing, and about that time I see a flock of gulls or terns begin to work over a patch of water some distance away, indicating aggressively feeding fish, I don’t think twice about leaving the fish I’m on for more aggressive fish.
I rarely, however, “leave fish to find fish.” If I’m catching fish, even if they’re small or the bite is sparse, unless I have a compelling reason to do so, I fish that group until the “sustain phase” has run its course. It took effort to get those fish to that point and I’m loathe to cash out early in hopes of finding something better.
Using these tactics, it’s not uncommon to stay on a school for two hours or more. I’ve noted that the Coolwater Period (when the surface temperature falls below 70°F in the fall and until it reaches that temperature again in the late spring) typically provides the longest spans of “consolidate-and-sustain” fishing. Once the thermocline develops and fish begin to scatter horizontally above it, school sizes are reduced, young-of-the-year baitfish are abundant and easy prey, and fish metabolism is approaching an annual peak, hence, they move often and feed often and are more difficult to locate.
*In-Fisherman Contributor and Guide Bob Maindelle owns and operates Holding the Line Guide Service, 254/368-7411, holdingthelineguideservice.com.