By ~ Yannick Loranger
“Watch this” I told the client, “28 feet”. The depth shown on the fish finder was slowly decreasing as we approached the magic mark. 31 feet – nothing. 30 feet – nothing. 29 feet – a few specks. 28 feet – a screen full of baitfish and arches, 27 feet – a few specks, 26 feet – nothing.
There is a magic depth on the Ottawa River, but revealing it would be entrepreneurial suicide. It’s not 28’ (nor 31’ like on the photo, except for that day), but for the sake of this article, let’s say it is. I firmly believe that on any given day, there are hungry fish somewhere on a given body of water. For me, I know I can bring clients to 28’ and rods will be bent. For you it might be the weedline in the northwest corner of the lake, or the rockpile in front of the green cottage, but to find these spots you have to be willing to expand your comfort zone and fish to learn instead of fishing to catch.
The old adage says 90% of the fish are in 10% of the water. I think that’s BS. It’s more like 99% of the fish are in 1% of the water. Fish in the 99% of the water that isn’t “really” holding fish and you’ll probably catch a few, you might think you had a decent day, but odds are you spent all day fishing where the fish weren’t and you got lucky. Making fish eat is relatively easy, finding them is the challenge, especially on big bodies of water, or highly pressured areas. Spending time eliminating water has increased my fishing success exponentially and left me to wonder if what I was doing before was even considered fishing. Here’s how you can minimize the effects of luck and find your 28’.
Put the rod away, and go do some learning before you go do some fishing. As a guide I spend 100 days + a year on a relatively short stretch of the Ottawa River and I still treat every day as if it were my first on the River. Go to your go-to spot, check your sonar, if it’s not full of fish, go to the next spot, and the next, and the next, until you find a spot that’s holding fish. By spending time eliminating water, I’m maximizing my fishing time and my clients’ as well. You can be using the perfect bait, at the perfect time, but if you’re on the wrong spot, you’re just washing lures. A screen will tell you right away if the fish are around, dropping a line and waiting will tell you nothing more than either you’re on the wrong spot or you’re using the wrong bait and you are learning nothing.
Not all 28’s are created equal, and actually, the quality of a 28’ can vary from one day to a next but I know that if the fish aren’t on 28’ #1, then they should be on #2, #3, or #4, all marked on my GPS. Some days, they are on 28’ #1 but 10-15 minutes into fishing, nothing has come out of the water yet. Then I know that the fish just aren’t feeding here. Finding fish and finding feeding fish are two completely different things. If you find fish but you just can’t get them to hit, don’t despair, move around a little bit, the fish are certainly feeding somewhere nearby. Throw high confidence baits, or even live bait to locate the feeding fish and make sure you mark that waypoint, especially in open water!
Fishing to Learn – An Investment
Whenever I get the opportunity to fish without clients, I go learning instead of fishing. I scout out new areas, I tweak presentations and at the very least, I figure out where the fish aren’t and what they don’t want. I am now at the point where I’d rather get skunked than have a mediocre day. I know I’m doing it wrong when I’m not catching. Catching a few fish is not telling me if I’m on the wrong spot, nor if I’m using the wrong bait. In reality, I spent the better part of the summer in 2010 learning where the largemouth weren’t and which plastics didn’t work. On 20 or so dedicated largemouth trips, I got skunked at least a dozen times. But I learned! Did I ever learn! In 2011, I was getting quality largemouth on most trips, and on opening day 2012 I partnered with a relative stranger and we won a small friendly bass tournament fishing against teams that were for the most part comprised of experienced tournament anglers.
Fishing to learn means sacrificing a few trips. You will have tough days, but you will also hit some jackpots. On average, for me, 1 in 3 scouting trips yields a Eureka! moment. With largemouth, often times electronics are futile given the cover the fish prefer, but for smallmouth, walleye, and trout, a big part of learning is looking at your sonar. Try fishing without a line in the water. Force yourself to drive around until you find fish with your electronics, even if this takes an hour. If this is too painstaking, then knock out one of the variables. Either fish a spot you know holds fish with a presentation you are looking to learn, or use a trusted presentation on a spot you don’t know. Eventually, instead of spots, you will recognize patterns, for example 28’ in front of bays and rivermouths, or 8’ weedflats adjacent to deep water hold fish. Do you know that more experienced anglers regularly catch big fish flipping docks or cranking? Then spend some time and money learning these techniques. It might take a few trips to find a winning combination but once you get a knowledge base established, you’re on the fast track to becoming a better angler and never forget, there’s no losing in fishing, you either catch, or you learn.