I still recall the initial excitement of Buck Perry's theories of structure fishing. Changes in the underwater environment concentrate fish: drop-offs, points, humps, river channels -- underwater highways for fish use. Or consider breaklines, breaks on the break, gradual structures in summer, steeper structures in fall. Magical words and concepts that for the first time transformed the mysterious and misunderstood underwater world of fish into logical and predictable location and behavior.
Or so we all thought.
Turns out, Perry's theories, while ahead of their time, were only the introduction to a never-ending, ever-evolving learning process. To give credit where credit's due, he placed our feet upon the right path. Today, nearly 50 years later, we're miles down the road, still plodding along uphill, with miles to go before we peak.
Locating prominent structure is usually the fastest, easiest, and most obvious way to locate some fish, because fish that bump into irregularities tend to linger there. And something that's big and juts out into the basin is bound to stop at least some fish in their tracks. But it isn't just shape that draws them to an area. A structure can be wonderfully complex, with numerous variations in shape and depth and bottom content and cover, virtually screaming "Fish!" But guess what? If it's seasonally inappropriate, the fish may not be there at all. Not even one.
The classic example is a deep 40-foot hump in midlake. At spawning time, walleyes simply aren't there. They're more likely somewhere down the lake, near rock riprap, a natural rock shoreline, or a rocky river inlet. That's where they need to be in order to spawn successfully, and the urge to spawn overrides all other factors.
Later in summer, walleyes will more likely use shallower structures, above the summer thermocline, where the bulk of the baitfish are, and where the oxygen is sufficient. Even if the best combinations of suitable conditions dictate that flats, rather than points and humps and other obvious structures, provide the best opportunities for food and comfort. Or they suspend, if there's open-water forage in the lake.
But then finally, when fall turnover occurs and the deep basin is reoxygenated and fish are able to move deep, that beautiful hunk of deep structure might be paved with walleyes. But then again . . . it might not. Depends if food is available there.
A tough and unwelcome lesson: Just because an underwater structure looks good to you doesn't mean it will hold fish. That's why you need to check different options, obvious or not, to determine what the fish are using, how deep they are, and what it takes to catch them there. As seasons progress, different forage species hatch, grow in size, and diminish in number. Walleyes react by following their food. Weeds, if available, sprout, flourish, and eventually die, with changes in the type and amount of cover also affecting walleye location and behavior.
The nice thing is, in most walleye waters, prominent structures will hold at least some walleyes most of the time. Thus finding and fishing seasonally appropriate structures is a huge key to contacting fish, and generally your best bet, at least to start.
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Look at a hydrographic lake map. Note potential areas at spawning time, for postspawn dispersal, for summer feeding, or for fall and winter refuge. Then look for potential structures that fit the bill. Move out to likely areas and run their deep edges at a slow speed, weaving up onto the structure, and then out over the adjacent deep water, watching your electronics. Note the depth and sharpness of the drop-off, the depth and contour of the weededge, the location of prominent points and corners and unusual features that might concentrate fish. Note subtle changes in bottom content on your electronics, which other anglers might miss. And most of all, watch for life: big hooks indicating large fish, clouds indicating baitfish, and their depth and orientation to the structure.
You haven't even put a line in the water yet. But you're tuned into fish location and behavior. A good start. Now you need to apply logical fishing techniques that match potential areas: livebait rigs along sharp drop-offs in lakes; spinner-crawler-bottom bouncers along reservoir flats; jigs vertically presented in rivers.
"A month prior to the 2003 PWT Championship," says 2003 PWT Angler of the Year Bill Ortiz, "I spent four days just riding around the Keweenaw Waterway system, watching my electronics. I never fished. I knew that if I tuned in to a specific fishing pattern that long before the tournament, the fish likely would change their behavior by the time the event began, and I'd be fishing memories. Instead, I familiarized myself with every inch of the system, noting areas and depths and types of structures where I saw baitfish and walleyes.
"I wanted to be oriented and prepared when the practice period began, with a good background to build upon. Then I could fish kinds of spots, determine which types were producing fish, and immediately go to similar areas I'd previously located, without wasting time. It takes a lot of discipline to 'not fish' under these circumstances, but in my case, I had my eye on the future. The average angler, however, would simply start tuning in to productive spots for that particular time period, and after investing a few minutes or hours looking and familiarizing, would start dropping lines, lures, and baits in the water."
Look before you leap? Not a bad strategy, especially since you can look a lot faster than you can fish, especially in deep water, and quickly detect fish on your electronics, and distinct changes in prominent structures that focus their location. When they're glued to the obvious edges of points, humps, the bases of drop-offs, or other obvious irregularities on prominent structures, well, things are definitely shaping up.
Structure. It's not a begin all and end all. But it's still the first step on the road to fishing success.