October 18, 2016
You can scarcely read a tournament report for a riverine impoundment, such as those on the Tennessee River, without mention of "ledges." Commonly, ledges produce the winning weights outside of the months of prespawn and spawning activity.
What's a Ledge?
Some anglers refer to a relatively shallow piece of structure as a ledge, and a lot of what's said about ledges refers to shallow structures. But here let's define a ledge as a relatively sharp depth break toward a river or creek channel. Often, the ledge is a break from a piece of shallow structure surrounded by deep water, but it can also be the edge of a small point or an expansive flat. And it doesn't have to be the drop from shallow water into the abyss of a deep river channel; the depth break may only be several feet, but it usually is a relatively sharp depth change.
The effect of flowing water on the habitat and the position of bass on this sort of structure can be important. The bottom often is hard, swept clean where the current is greatest. These spots often have gravel or shell beds. Do gravel or shell beds make one ledge better than another? Hard to conclude, but gravel or shell beds are a guarantee of a bottom washed clean of sediment by strong flows, which can make an area likely to concentrate forage fish and bass that prey on them. Ledge fishing is all about concentrations of fish.
The tips and tactics that follow are based on my days on the water with two of the best ledge-fishing anglers in the pro ranks—Ott DeFoe, B.A.S.S. Elite angler, and Randy Haynes, FLW Tour angler. Their tactics differed, though their philosophical approaches are similar. These differences likely were an effect of season and waterbody, but also the intent of each angler on our outing.
My day with DeFoe was his first of 2.5 prefishing days for an early-June Elite event on Kentucky Lake. Although DeFoe has fished Kentucky Lake enough to "know it fairly well," he still had only about 30 hours to solve the puzzle that was worth a 6-digit paycheck. His mission was to find spots and patterns that could produce a winning catch in a 4-day tournament. Undoubtedly, DeFoe had some proven spots that he'd check later in practice, and his patient exploration was as much about eliminating water as it was finding a potential honey hole. His approach is one anglers would be wise to emulate when fishing a new lake.
I joined Haynes on Pickwick Lake when he was enjoying a day off, following a week-long FLW Tour event on another Tennessee River impoundment. He was fishing "home" water, a lake where he's won many tournaments, from local events to FLW competitions, and where he's spent more than 15 years honing his ledge-fishing acumen and knowledge of "ledge bass."
His chart screen was littered with waypoints. And his intent was to show me how to find bass when you already know "about where" to expect them. His approach provides guidance for an angler who wants to find bass under high angler-pressure and learn the nuances of bass in a lake you fish often.
DeFoe focused his search on the upstream ends of shallow structure or gaps between shallow structures. His stops included a few shoreline points but mostly areas of shallower water between shore and the river channel. During our day on the water, he checked about 40 ledges with his electronics. The water temperature was 75°F, and his experience on Kentucky Lake dictated searching mid-depth structure between spawning coves and the main river in this Postspawn Period. At each piece of structure, his search started upstream of the 12- to 15-foot depth, where he expected to find fish. He usually searched at the upstream point of the structure, occasionally maneuvering his boat to cross the ledge at several depths, but he rarely scanned the entire length of a ledge. His approach was all about efficiency.
"Envision how the flow hits the ledge and check the spot where the current is likely to be strongest," he advised. "If fish aren't there, move on." With a few exceptions, he fished only where he marked multiple fish on his Humminbird electronics that he felt were bass. He also noted slight changes in depth, areas of hard bottom, and cover (stumps, brush, rocks, hydrilla).
He checked all spots primarily with Rapala DT 6, DT 10, or DT 16 crankbaits, depending on the depth he marked fish. He caught bass at three of the 15 spots he fished. The one exception to fishing only where he saw bass on his electronics was a unique flat about 8 feet deep with some hydrilla and stumps, and it was here that he quickly caught his best fish, three or four bass over 3 pounds. This was a promising spot for the tournament, so he didn't linger.
Haynes' search pattern was quite different. Like DeFoe, upstream structure points primarily held his attention, but so did small points along the length of a ledge. And Haynes' depth focus was wider—from the shallowest water on top of the structure out to 25 feet. He idled along the ledge, usually in about 12 to 15 feet of water for the first pass.
At every point or irregularity, he criss-crossed the spot several times by both running at least one transect up onto the shallowest part of the structure and at least one transect toward deep water. The transects were carefully maneuvered to be about 60 to 80 feet apart, ensuring complete coverage of the area with his Raymarine side-scan sonar. Haynes checked about 30 spots in our 8 hours on the water. He marked bass at 20 of those spots, and the numbers and concentrations of fish were sufficient to warrant fishing 12 of them.
He caught single bass at four spots, multiple bass at four spots, and bass over 3 pounds at three of those four spots. He did not fish any spot where he didn't see a concentration of fish. He made more casts to most spots than Defoe and always started with his signature Azuma Z-Boss 20 and Z-Boss 25 crankbait, then followed with a drop-shot rig before leaving. The best spot produced six largemouth and two smallmouth bass.
There's a reason for dwelling on the number of spots checked, spots fished, and spots yielding fish. Indeed, it's the first of several significant lessons I learned from these two excursions: Check a lot of promising structure; focus your search on irregularities likely to receive stronger current when water is flowing; invest time fishing only when you see a concentration of bass; and be ready to resume searching if bites don't come quickly.
The stats from two days on the water with a couple of the best ledge fisherman in the business suggest that you can expect to find bass on half to two-thirds of promising spots, expect to find concentrations of bass that warrant fishing on about one-third of the spots you check, and expect to catch bass on half the spots you think are worth fishing. I'd add that these odds are probably high—remember that these are the results for two experienced and highly skilled anglers who have well refined "search images" for worthy ledges, have keen eyes for detecting bass on their electronics, and have mastered the presentations needed to draw bites.
The wild card is how many bass you need to see before fishing a spot. That varies among lakes, day-by-day, and hour-by-hour. Finding a piece of structure with a sharp drop-off, a few bass, and some character—little points, pockets, or gaps—is enticing but doesn't mean big bites are only a cast away. Rather, you need patience, perseverance, and confidence that you eventually will find the right ledge or ledges. Experience helps disclose how the position of bass and preyfish can provide a clue about the bass' activity level, but these nuances can be lake- and season-specific.
While DeFoe was very "point focused" on his first day of prefishing on Kentucky Lake, he emphasized thoroughly checking everything. "Look for what others don't find," he said. Obvious spots are fished heavily. DeFoe asserted that you need to spend at least 20 percent of your time looking for new territory.
Haynes spent a higher proportion of his time searching more subtle spots, but he was fishing his home lake and knows well the heavy pressure the easy spots get at Pickwick. His time on the water there has also taught him how fishing pressure moves pods of bass away from what might be their primary location, so he was willing to invest time searching less obvious structure, like a shallow ditch or a 2-foot depth break, near some of his waypoints.
There are no secret presentations for ledge-fishing. Both anglers relied heavily on crankbaits—they cover water quickly and precisely and, as noted by Haynes, "They win tournaments." Other productive options are drop-shot rigs, football jigs, Carolina rigs, soft swimbaits on a jighead, flutter spoons, and hair jigs.
Bass position dictates presentation. Crankbaits, for example, work well when bass are up on the structure. but they're less effective for bass positioned part way down a ledge. Bass hugging the bottom call for a jig or Carolina rig. Those up off the bottom may be better triggered with a drop-shot, spoon, or swimbait. Although DeFoe made only a few casts with a presentation other than a crankbait, during tournaments he works through a rotation of lures before leaving a productive spot.
Both anglers believe you can "fire-up" a school. Angle of retrieve can be important in this. The default presentation is retrieving a lure with the flow, but depending on the position of the bass and your lure choice, your retrieve may be quartering to the current. You're not fishing blind. You know where the fish are, so experiment with angles. Switching lure colors, sizes, or styles also can ignite action.
DeFoe usually marked fish seen on his side-scan sonar with a waypoint. Haynes relied on where his boat trail crossed a contour line to create a mental waypoint of where he marked fish. DeFoe was fishing in moderate current, while Haynes was fishing in weak current and whitecaps. Both anglers effortlessly (so it seemed) held the boat to make multiple, precise casts to the marked fish.
These pros were not fishing a piece of structure or ledge, they were fishing the exact spot that held bass. DeFoe, at times, relied on his Humminbird 360 to guide his casts. Both anglers occasionally fan-casted an area after they had saturated the primary target with several different presentations. But I repeat the second important lesson learned—you are casting at fish, not a ledge or piece of structure. Twice, Haynes and I each caught bass on successive casts. My "three-in-a-row" came on exactly the same cast angle and the same distance from the boat.
The Importance of Flow
When the current is moving, bass turn on, so you want to be in the right place when the water starts moving. But bass can be caught without current. Water was moving all day on Kentucky Lake, while Haynes enjoyed only slight flow for part of his day on Pickwick. But he caught fish with and without current.
When current flows, bass often reposition, moving up onto the structure, grouping up, and becoming more catchable. But ledge fish can be caught without flow, as Haynes demonstrated. DeFoe offered some advice: "If the bite stops when the flow stops, fish ledges where the bass aren't as affected by current, like in a large, off-channel embayment."
Time of Year
Offshore structure fishing is not just a summer deal. DeFoe and Haynes agree that the ledge bite starts immediately after the spawn, but the effective depth range and distance from spawning areas varies among lakes. On Kentucky Lake, experience has taught DeFoe to look for structure that tops out fairly shallow (6 to 15 feet) and is located between spawning areas and the main river channel. Haynes noted that postspawn bass in other Tennessee River reservoirs move directly to deep structure and ledges close to the river channel, then move shoreward as summer progresses.
Haynes foresakes ledges in the fall on Pickwick (late October to November) when the shad head to coves. DeFoe differs. He says big bass seek big shad, and he's found that at least some big shad remain on offshore structures throughout the fall. He adds that fall shad movements vary among lakes. He and Haynes agree that ledges are productive throughout winter.
Ledge-fishing is a productive, big-fish system. In pre-GPS days, catching bass on ledges was fairly easy after you found a good ledge and concentration of bass. Now, it's on the screen in front of you, and every angler can see what you're seeing. Most anglers wouldn't follow another guy down a bank. Ledges are no different. With modern electronics, a good ledge is as easy to see as a weedbed or laydown on shore. Used water is used water, shallow or deep.
Success comes to those who keep searching until they find a concentration of bass and fish the fish, not the structure. Experience helps you refine your search and increase your efficiency. But with so many anglers fishing deep structure, ledge-fishing today presents a steep learning curve.