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Exploring New Waters
By Paul Crawford

If you're a tournament fisherman, or just like to move around a lot, you always face the task of learning about a new lake. When you need to locate fish on unknown water, it can be a surprisingly difficult task. The thing that separates the good fisherman from the great ones is how quickly and how well you can learn new water and find fish. More appropriately, Larry Nixon says, "Anyone can find bass. The trick is to find biting bass." Let's take a look at some of the ways to explore new water and find some guidelines to doing this seemingly endless job.


The tools of the trade are a good depth finder and a good map. Most major reservoirs, and many local bodies of water have good maps available. There is no limit to the amount of time and gas a good map can save you. The local tackle stores will normally keep a good supply. The Corp of Engineers will normally also have good maps for their impounds. The Corp may even have survey maps made of the area before the lake was flooded. These can be a gold mine of information on roads, ditches, house foundations, stock ponds, and other information that would be almost impossible to find after the lake was made. The local library is another good place to look.

Not all maps have the same detail and notations. I like to find as many maps as possible for a new lake. I then select a "master map" as the best one of the bunch. This is normally a good size map so I have plenty of room for my own notes and key finds. I then go through comparing all of the other maps to the master. If the other maps have notations or details not shown on the master, I transfer them by hand. After I've marked up the map, if I have time and access, I'll make a full size copy of my master and file it away in case something happens to the original.

The first thing I always look for is steep slopes. Anyplace the contour lines come close together anywhere near shore has my attention. Deep water access is the thing both the bass and I love. When I locate an area of the lake that has a lot of contour, I now know the first place I'm going to look. The upper 1/3 of the lake is where I'd always prefer except in the spring. I'm looking for aggressive fish so I want a little color to the water. In the spring, the run off will many times make the upper lake muddy, and I prefer stained water, not a mud pack. I also look for major creeks, small connected lakes, sloughs, or ponds, and other areas that could have isolated populations of fish to concentrate on. With a little time and thinking, you can figure out pretty close where you'd like to start your search.

Pro's Pointers

Jimmy Houston in his latest book advises touring pros, when facing a new lake, to stay shallow. His reasoning is the main task is to eliminate unproductive water. By staying under 10', you've got a population of fish isolated and have eliminated 90% of the water. If you only have 3 practice days to learn the lake and find fish, then you don't have time to effectively learn off shore structure and find structure holding fish. If you use a bait that covers a lot of water, (one reason crank baits have become so popular on the tours), you can fish almost every obvious structure on a lake under 10' in 3 days if you start early and stay late. Jimmy says he looks forward to competition days since they are over by 3:00. On his practice days, he's on the water before dawn and puts it on the trailer well after dusk. Hard work, but it's a hard way to make a living.

Dione Hibdon doesn't stop there. He claims to spend at least of tournament days exploring new water. He also believes in staying shallow, but to slow down and concentrate on water containing heavy cover. He always marks his maps with likely areas before hitting the water and will concentrate on areas similar to the places he has success earlier in the day.

This is all well and fine for touring pros who are experts at reading maps and water, and have years of daily experience on finding fish. They also have the advantage of schedule. Most national tournaments schedule their events during prime fishing season for a given body of water. Prime time is most likely to be when the fish are shallow and aggressive. But what if you don't have a good map of the lake or the conditions are less than favorable? And what about all of those fish you keep hearing about in deeper water? How do find the off shore structure and learn it? The pros have a set of problems and schedules that are far from the conditions normally encountered by the weekend angler. We need to look further to find our answers.

Surveying a Lake

If you don't have a good map, there are a lot of times you just have to look yourself, especially on smaller bodies of water. It is absolutely essential you use all of your senses and pay attention if you're going to have good success. A note pad and pencil is handy to have along, and leave the rods in the locker at least for a little bit. Starting from the ramp, sketch out the contour of the visible shoreline for reference. Noting buildings, docks or towers will help later return to a newly found spot. The put your boat on a slow plane and drive around maybe 50 - 100 yards from shore. You need to be really careful here since there may be rocks or timber just below the surface. If you see a stake or pole sticking up out of the water, don't go near it on a plane. Idle slowly towards it just in case there is an unpleasant surprise waiting for you down there.

When working your way around the lake, you're going to be very busy. You need to watch your depth finder to see any breaks that could be edges of points, humps, or ledges. You also need to watch the shoreline. A point on the shore often will have a submerged point running out into the lake. Similarly, a cut into the bank may be the edge of a hole or the turn of the old channel. Creeks and coves likely will have an old channel running out into the lake just in front of them. A clear lane into the woods may signal an old road bed running into the water. If you think you see something on shore interesting, set the boat down and idle around the area a little. A keen eye on the shore can lead to a honey hole in the water. If it's interesting out of the water, it's likely to be interesting under the water as well.

That depth finder has a lot more information than just how deep you are. Most of the better depth finders have an indication of bottom hardness. This could lead you to a silted in creek channel or an isolated rock outcrop. Was there a few suspended fish just past that last ledge? Why were they there? Mark a school of bait fish? What was holding them in the area? Isolated weed clumps can be dynamite. Isolated stumps normally tell me to move a little deeper and slow down just in case one might jump out of the water at me. Weed beds are always a favorite. And I've never found an isolated brush pile that wasn't worth at least marking on the GPS. There is a lot of information there for you if you'll just use it.

Don't forget that sense of smell either! Old time crappie fishermen have always had a knack of "smelling them out." This is actually true. It turns out a shad's swim bladder is filled with oil which is released into the water when they are eaten. If you run across that "fishy smell", then there is at least bait in the area. It may not be bass that's feeding right now, but if there is bait, the bass will be some where close by.

When you find something interesting, stop and explore a bit. Idling around an area may uncover isolated cover or structure that holds fish. Make a notation on your map or sketch of what you found. If you have a GPS, jot down the coordinates and if it's special, save a way point for later exploration. You're still surveying the area, so now is probably not the time to fish an area, just remember exactly where it's at.

As you work your way around the lake, try to keep in mind what types of weed returns you get. Not all types of weeds grow in the same depth all over the lake. You may find a different type of weed bed isolated to a small area. Even in a lake full of hydrilla, the only eel grass bed on the lake can be a hot spot. If the water is clear enough, keep notes on the types of weeds you see. If you later find fishing holding in a particular type of weed, you'll already know other spots that has the same type.

Start Fishing

After you've completed looking over the lake, it's time to choose a likely area to start actually fishing. How you go about this will depend on what you've found in your survey. But the common denominator here is to cover water. You want to either verify it or eliminate it, and at this point, you really don't care which one. Exploring new water is fun, but catching fish is more fun.

If you still don't have a clue, and just can't find anything interesting, then I'd say it time to go trolling. Yes, trolling. It may be a dirty word for tournament day, but you're likely not in a tournament right now. It's effective and it works. Depending on the average depth of the water, select a lure that will run a couple or three feet off the bottom. Banging the bottom with a crank bait is great when you have them located, but you're still looking. If the water is shallow or there is a uniform weed bed over all the lake, a Rattle Trap is a good choice. You don't need all the line in the world out, just enough to effectively get the lure down behind the boat. Remember you're more looking than fishing. Start you're trolling in the best area you can find and work a zig-zag pattern over the area, keeping your eye on the depth finder. When you do get bit, spend all the time necessary to figure out just why he was there. Bass are very rarely just roaming the lake. There has to be some reason for the fish to be in an area. It's your job to figure out why. It could be a very subtle change in depth, bottom hardness, a temperature break, or cover near by you haven't found yet. If you didn't know where to fish before, the fish just told you. Listen to them.

Chances are you will have found something more interesting that the rest of the lake. Again a crank bait has become the lure of choice for the pros. I personally prefer a single blade spinner bait since I can get it through about anything and fish it at a variety of depths. Another good choice is a Carolina Rig with a 1 oz sinker. If you believe they should take a top water, a Pop-R can cover water with the best of them. And don't forget about those hard jerk baits. Many times they will trigger a strike when nothing else can and they cover an area quickly as well.

Don't spend too much time in any one area. Let the fish slow you down. When you get a hit, it's again time to figure out why. If it's a point, fish other points. If it's a weed bed, where did you find other weeds of the same type. Always look for a pattern. As you catch more fish, you'll be able to refine the pattern. Maybe it's only points running East/West. Or maybe the ledge has to have stumps on it, (or the stumps may need the ledge near by.) Keep refining the pattern and it will tell you what to seek out on this trip and ones in the future.

Getting Off Shore

OK! Now we've found a few areas near the bank that hold fish. But what about that other 90% of the water Jimmy Houston was talking about. All the structure fisherman keep bragging that's were the big ones are. How do you find those fish?

Again being observant helps. The number one thing I keep my eyes open for is off shore schoolers. Whether or not I'm interested in fishing for schooling fish, they always lead me to something I want to know about. Most of my best spots on local lakes were first discovered by following the schoolers. To understand this point, you have to keep in mind how fish school. When a school of shad meet up with a school of bass in open water, the bass are likely to herd the shad into shallow water before feeding in earnest. The bass will use the shallow water to congregate the shad against the surface and then attack. It's simply a matter of conservation of energy and getting in an easy meal. Since this means, by definition, the bass are using a structure of some type, it's likely they will use the same structure time and time again. Now numerous studies have shown bass to be somewhat of home bodies. This means when the schooling stops, it more likely the shad have moved on than the bass. So, even if you come back months later under totally different conditions, the bass will still be close to where you found them schooling. You'll just have to look around until you find them. A rule of thumb for fishing off shore is that if you're in a spot the fish should be, and they aren't, it only means there is some even better near by. It's surprising how often this rule proves true. Find that magic spot and the fish could be stacked up like cord wood.

There are other things you can observe off shore that tips you off on something neat underwater. Any time there is a light ripple on the water, it's prime time for finding new spots. If the surface is rippling everywhere except one small area, that's the area to take a look. In shallow lakes like those found in Florida, there is likely a weed bed just up wind that's keeping the waves calm. In reservoirs, it could be an oil slick showing fish feeding on shad under the surface. Either way, it's worth the gas to find out.

If you're fishing a creek channel or road bed, always follow it out to the main channel. If it's not too deep, these intersections of underwater highways are usually hot spots. Bends with any type of cover present are always good. And a bend in a road bed with a ditch on either side is a natural ambush spot. You've already spent the gas to find the channel, might as well take the most advantage of it.

Of course just running across the lake to get to the other side is an opportunity to find off shore structure. Any time you fire up the big motor, you should automatically turn on the depth finder. If you're going to use the gas anyway, stumbling across an off shore ledge or hump could make it well worth it. If you see anything when running that's unexpected, shut her down, turn back 180, and use the oil slick from your exhaust to retrace you path. All it takes is a little hint to find an isolated weed bed a mile off shore. And you really haven't had a complete life until you run across an isolated hydrilla ball as big as a house, standing 10 feet tall in 25 feet of water. There is something about a quick limit of 5 pound plus fish that will make a memory that lasts a life time.

Fishing new water can be both fun and exciting. It should be something you look forward to, not dread. Paying attention and knowing what you're looking for will normally lead to great results. It's a matter of time, believing in yourself and your lures, and burning gas. Any lake will yield to hard work. Experience will shorten the time needed, but nobody has enough experience to reduce the time to zero. Have fun, and learn from every trip. Before you know it, fishing that new lake will be as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. Just about then, it will be time to go find some new water. Good Luck until then.

Paul Crawford

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