November 17, 2020
You want to know the best offshore structure fishermen at any major lake in the country? The dudes who point their boats away from the bank and never look back? The straight-up hammers who can find an isolated rock in 40 feet of water and milk it for the catch of a lifetime?
They’re easy to find at any boat ramp or bait shop. Just look for the anglers, whether they be 18 or 80, who are hunched over like geriatrics, necks permanently tilted down. They’re irreversibly messed-the-hell-up from staring down at their depth finders all day, wiggling a worm at some pixels. Actually, it’s usually a series of days, and their physical pain is eased by the fact that they’re not sharing the “juice” with the legions of bank-beaters.
Clark Reehm, a guide on Sam Rayburn Lake in Texas who teaches electronics courses through his Elite Angler Academy wears his neck pain like a badge of honor. He wasn’t a video game fiend as a kid. By the time his parents bought him an Atari at a garage sale, that unit was last-decade technology, and by the time he got a Nintendo, all the cool kids had a Super Nintendo. It didn’t matter to him anyway – he was too busy jacking big bass.
A Gamer is Born
Today, Reehm is one of those dedicated “video game” fishermen on the road to hunchbacked glory. No, not sitting in his parents’ basement with headphones, a mouthpiece and a fast track to carpal tunnel, but rather using the most advanced marine electronics possible to identify the location of specific bass or groups of bass, and then fish for them vertically.
“You’re able to take modern technology to actually see fish under the water and see your bait going down to them,” he said. “If you ask just about any angler what superpower they’d want, they say it would be awesome to see under the water. Now we have that ability.”
While the technological advances of recent years – not just mapping and two-dimensional sonar, but also side-imaging and forward-looking sonar – make the process of finding them exponentially easier, it’s still far from a sure thing. There’s no magic bullet or piece of equipment. On lakes that span tens or hundreds of thousands of acres you’ve got to put in your time to dial things in. Indeed, Reehm often spends days upon days when he doesn’t have clients, or when he’s practicing for a tournament, idling around big lakes like Sam Rayburn or St. Clair or Chickamauga without a rod on the deck, just trying to find those one-off spots that draw the fish in. There’s always more to learn, and conditions are always changing, but when it counts, he can make a beeline for dependable waypoints, set up on top, and only fish if his quarry is sitting there.
“Think of it this way,” he explained. “You can throw a basketball up in the air a hundred times, but if there’s no basket, you can’t score. You can drive a golf ball a thousand times, but if there’s no hole, no green, there’s no purpose. Similarly, there’s no sense dropping where there aren’t any fish.”
Windows and Circles
Once you have that fish pinpointed on your graph, Reehm believes it is a race against time to get him hooked.
“You have a window and you have to ask yourself, ‘How long is that fish going to be under the boat?’” he said. In fact, just because your sonar unit shows the fish right under your trolling motor doesn’t mean he’s actually directly below the prop. The transducer signal is not a straight line, but rather a cone that flares out. The base of that cone is a circle, and the deeper it’s hitting bottom the larger that circle will be. When that fish signal is no longer present, you might as well move onto the next spot.
Reehm cuts it even shorter than that. If a single fish doesn’t bite in just a few casts, he’s pulling up stakes and moving to the next one. He’s very conscious of the psychological effect created by fish you can see, whether they’re on a bed in gin-clear ankle-deep water, or holding tight to a rock 30 feet deep.
“It’s a game of attrition,” he said. “You start saying to yourself, ‘I’m not going to get beat by that fish.’ It becomes a mental game.”
As with all fishing situations, subtle differences can make a difference in a video-gamer’s world, but Reehm is a firm believer that most of us tend to overthink these things.
“Eleven months out of the year all fish want to do is eat,” he said. “They’re not picky. They don’t care about minor differences in colors.” Nevertheless, he believes that there are two types of bites: those from fish that are on the feed and others that are pure reaction. “They’re not the same.”
For fish that aren’t ready to chomp on the first baitfish or crawfish imitation that slaps them in the face, his go-to is a dropshot rig, and his default lure choice is a green pumpkin finesse worm. By utilizing his electronics, he can be certain that he’s not presenting the lure substantially over them or under them, and give them time to indulge.
For fish at the far ends of the aggressiveness spectrum – those that are putting on the heavy feed bag, and those that don’t want to eat at all, he likes a jigging spoon, usually a 7/8-ounce model from War Eagle. Most importantly, it gets down to the fish quickly, making good use of his limited window of time.
He also likes another fast-falling lure that most warm-weather anglers wouldn’t consider – a Rapala Ice Jig. Not only does it descend quickly, but its more erratic side-to-side action creates a broad coverage area within the cone.
Finally, his fourth choice is a Ned Rig, but unlike the dainty 1/16- or 1/10-ounce models that he deploys shallow, he’ll go heavier with a tungsten version like those from Woo Tungsten to get it in their face and keep it there.
What are You Looking At?
Reehm runs four top-of-the-line Lowrance HDS Live 12 units on his Skeeter bass boat, and he swears by the 3-in-1 Active Imaging Transducer, but he said that unless you’re going to make full use of all of the features, it’s not necessary to spend thousands of dollars to become a functional gamer.
“You don’t need SideScan or DownScan,” he said. “What you need is time on the water.” Fortunately, even lesser units are now effectively “plug and play,” but until you determine what you’re looking for and what it looks like on the screen, you might as well be shooting the proverbial basketball at the non-existent hoop. In addition to the fish, and cover or structure that’s holding them, he wants to see what they’re eating. “If the bait isn’t there, you’re not going to catch ‘em. That dictates more than anything else, including cover. If their food source is gone, look elsewhere.”
He’s video-gamed as shallow as 10 feet and as deep as 80, only because that’s the deepest he’s ever chased bass. One other selling point for this technique is that it’s not bass-specific. Once you dial it in, you’re good to go for crappie, walleye, even a wide variety of saltwater species. Just remember, “all the technology in the world is no substitute for understanding fish behavior. It’s just one more tool.”
While a mastery of your electronics will turn you away from the shoreline and expand your playground, Reehm does caution that “people become a slave to it.” He’ll see them relying too heavily on electronics at times when instinct and just putting your head down and fishing will produce better results.
“It can rot your brain,” he said.
Therefore, when asked if his 9-year-old son plays video games he’s quick to note that he and his wife limit the boy’s screen time carefully.
“We live on 14 acres,” he said. “That’s his video game."