Like it or not, there are times in both recreational and tournament fishing when you're another face in the crowd. Another troller with a quartet of planer boards weaving in and around an armada of weekend warriors or tourney competitors chasing the hot school. Another jigger caught in a traffic jam during a spring river riot.
You could run and hide. Or you could fish smarter.
"Last year I had outstanding success," says Kim "Chief" Papineau, an In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) pro from Escanaba, Michigan. "The reason is that I responded to pressure and had more patience. I didn't go half-cocked running all over the place as I used to."
The most consistent PWT pros have learned--often the hard way--how to prevail when everyone else is keeping up with the Joneses. A case in point is Tommy Skarlis, who in 2001 won the Detroit River event in the crowded Trenton Channel and followed in 2002 with a victory at Lake Erie, despite the mob fishing around Kelleys Island. The right fish were in both places. Getting them to bite took not only savvy but also slightly evasive actions.
Responding to fishing pressure in the right way without panicking is a fine art. It's also learned behavior that comes with years of experience on the trail or seasons on the water when weekenders are out in full force. Enter the expertise, then, of the consistent PWT competitors who feed off the pressure instead of fighting it. With hard-won wisdom in their repertoire, they adjust location and approach on open water and in rivers by anticipating which direction to head next--even if it's just a touch this way or that.
Open Water Pack Rats
Whether you're in a tournament on Lake Erie or joining the fray when word's out about a hot bite on Saginaw Bay, it pays to know when and where to zag when you might otherwise have zigged.
"Boat pressure tends to push fish tight to the bottom, where they become inactive, or they move out to the sides and keep eating," says Keith Kavajecz, Kaukauna, Wisconsin. "Sometimes a crowd actually corrals the fish into a tighter area. Typically, the easiest fish to catch are suspended. When they're up, they're up to eat. When they're on the bottom, they'll eat only if something perfect comes by."
To stay with the active fish, you can go around, above, or down from the group of boats. "When the crowd starts packing up, you'll know that the fish have stopped biting," says Mark Gwizdala. "Nobody will be catching fish. That's when I go outside the pack."
When a pack is evidence of fish that had been working an area, Gwizdala sometimes starts trolling a quarter-mile away in deeper water to catch the fish that have moved as the bite died in the crush of boats. Other options are to go farther downwind or to start trolling where everyone else stops. Also pay attention to where the boats have been--and not been--and then find an unoccupied lane for a pass.
In other words, it's not always wise to abandon the area altogether. "If the fish are aggressive, they'll move but keep feeding," Skarlis says. "It's like a crow eating roadkill. If we drive by, the crow flies away and then returns to keep eating."
Seasonal movements also enter into the picture and help predict the next direction to check. On Erie in spring, for instance, fish departing the reefs head east on their counterclockwise circumnavigation of the lake, which means the area to check is to the southeast. On Saginaw Bay in early summer, schools of walleyes migrate into the inner bay from the outer bay, heading south. The same school you and everyone else have been working for days likely will slide in the direction of predictable seasonal movements. Do your research on any given body of water for guidance on where to head next.
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Tweaks within your trolling spread are another tack to combat pressure and the spooking factor. To give the fish the long-distance runaround, Skarlis lets his boards out hundreds of feet from the boat--200, perhaps even 300 feet--barely visible on the horizon, a trick he learned from friend and PWT colleague John Kolinski, the 2002 angler of the year. "For an old man, it's unbelievable how far away he can see a board," chuckles Skarlis, a chronic wiseacre. "So I add Tattle Flags to help me see my boards."
Other options? When everyone's pulling minnowbaits, put out a shad bait. When everyone's trolling cranks, spike the punch with spinners. In summertime, when the crowd is going slow with spinners, burn Hot N' Tots at twice the speed. Go against--and around--the herd mentality.
Rivers--Hot Pods and Patience
Openings in the pack as well as the outskirts are important stretches on busy rivers, too. Within such drifts, pay attention to the particulars of location and presentation.
Back when Skarlis won in Detroit, he says he committed to memory the underwater rock piles on his best drift with shoreline sightings and their outlines on electronics. He also used tiny minnows on his jigs to provide a different look from anyone else around him. He would, however, poke his boat into an opening on the drift when opportunity knocked, to stay with a hot pod of feeding walleyes.
"Why get in line like everyone else?" Skarlis asks. "You don't need to cut anyone off, but you want to create a good drift by yourself."
At times, when a given drift shuts down, move shallower or deeper--both feasible directions for the fish to move. Keep in mind that presentation will have to change accordingly. In shallower water, Kavajecz uses a lighter jig for a better glide; in deeper water, he adjusts colors to compensate for diminished light penetration and goes larger, but not necessarily with heavier weight. Glow and orange jigs top Kavajecz's list. Then he bulks up the jig with plastic for greater profile.
On Great Lakes tributary rivers such as the Detroit, a wave of fish moving in and setting off a short-lived hot bite is not an indication that the action is over indefinitely. Kavajecz and tournament confidant Gary Parsons say that perhaps only half the sudden flood of fish are in an immediate feeding mood. The other half are apt to remain in the area for awhile to acclimate before starting to feed--a reason not to give up on an area that turned on and then shut off.
"In a river situation, everyone can whack them during a short period," Parsons says. "If 50 fish come up, 25 have had no pressure and are neutral to aggressive. The other 25 have no thoughts of eating--at least not yet anyway."
Compared to Great Lakes rivers where fresh fish inspire fast action now and later, moving water with resident walleyes is a different scenario. Here the key is to seek prime feeding and holding areas--the faces and tips of wing dams, for instance--where walleyes go when they're pressured. Keep the boat in a hot spot even if you catch a fish or two, since another often will slide in once its finned competition is removed.
Another move is to the opposite side of the river. "My saying is that the fish aren't only on one side of the river," says Papineau, who finished second on the Detroit in 2001. "I've done that time and time again. If you break on through to the other side, look for similar current seams and situations that concentrated fish back on the crowded side."
Beyond where and how you approach packed rivers, patience is another virtue. While Papineau in his younger, wilder days gave an area 10 minutes to produce, he started sticking with it for an hour before mustering the maturity to stay two or three hours. He does the same on an open-water trolling bite.
"I get such a headache playing bumper boats," Papineau says. "I've told myself I don't want to get into that mess." That's why extroverts like Papineau, Skarlis, and company are most successful on the lunatic fringe. You should be there, too.
*Dave Scroppo, a freelance writer from Traverse City, Michigan, often covers In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail tournaments for Walleye In-Sider.