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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.