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The Art of Prefishing
By Paul Crawford

We talk a lot about tournament fishing these days. There are books and articles all over the place about tournament tactics, learning new lakes, and such. But if my experience on the water is any indication, folks seem to be missing the boat when it comes to those all important trips to the lake on the days leading up to a tournament. I can't tell you the number of secret smiles I've had at the expense of yet another competitor whining that he caught 20 fish on his hole last week and this week just couldn't catch cold. We've spent some time talking about finding fishing and catching them, (and we're likely to chat some more about that in the future), but for now, I'm going to assume you have that part covered. Let's look at managing that valuable time on the water preparing for a tournament you'd really like to win.

Oddly enough, most of the prefishing problems I see, are on waters that are well known to the angler. If you're on a strange lake, you're likely to put in the time to find fish and develop several spots or a good pattern or two. But put folks on a lake they know well, and they are very likely to go fishing, not prefishing. There's a BIG difference between the two and consistent winners know it!

First, a couple of guiding principles. On a prefishing trip, you're out to find fish and find ways to catch fish, NOT catch fish. The reward for a good day is lots of bites and only a few fish to show for it. You're there to find out something you DON'T know, not confirm what you do know. This is a trip to learn, not execute what you've already mastered. Come tournament day, you'd like to catch several fish, and catch some big ones as well. You know the conditions will change during the tournament, and you'd like to know how to adapt to those changes. You'll need a detailed plan for the tournament, and the prefishing days are the time to make that plan.

One very often asked question, one which I find amusing, is "When is a good time to go prefishing?" The answer is "Anytime!" There is absolutely no possible way to have spent too much time prefishing for a tournament. It doesn't matter the time of day or night, it doesn't matter the conditions, it doesn't matter how well you know the water. On even the most modest size lake, you're not going to live long enough to try every possible place with every possible lure in every possible condition. Can't happen. You'll never know it all. The very best you can ever hope for is to have a pretty good guess. Oh, there are certainly times I'd prefer to prefish, but even under the most bizarre circumstances there is plenty out there to learn. Conditions, both existing and expected, will dictate when the possible most profitable time to prefish will be. But unless you live right on the lake and have no other constraint on your time, then you'll likely to have to put up with what ever you're faced with on a given day and only with extraordinary luck will it be the "best" time to prefish. Now, I do know that most people asking this question are trying to balance a full life with their fishing time, so they would like to choose a good time for their trip. But once you've developed your prefishing skills, you'll find about any day is as good as another, it will just influence how you go about it and what types of information you can learn. The key portion of this mind set is to remember that no day will let you learn it all and that any day will let you learn enough to give you a pretty good clue come tournament time.

Same story, second verse, for conditions. I don't care if it's snowing in July, there is something extremely valuable out there to learn. Your own good judgment will dictate when it's dangerous to be out there, but barring that, any condition is a good one. You obviously have no control over the conditions come tournament day, and the possibility exists you could be faced with similar conditions. But far more useful is the concept of "similar circumstances" where you group a set of conditions into one or more categories and thus can learn something about some other completely different conditions by what happens today. We'll get a lot further into this later.

The Aims of Prefishing

It's a whole lot easier to accomplish something if you know exactly what you're trying to do. The readily apparent answer is get ready to win a tournament. One level down is to find some fish and find out how to catch them. But consistent with our earlier assumption, in general you already know pretty much how to do that. So, we need to get even more specific. We're looking for locations and baits that one of two possible classes of fish will fall into, a large number of fish and/or big fish. As Larry Nixon once observed, "Anyone can find fish, the trick is to find biting fish." So now we can finally look at our real aims:

  • find several concentrations of aggressive fish;
  • find out what they will bite;
  • find some large fish for our anchors;
  • find out what they will bite;
  • find out how each of those categories of fish will react to the changes of conditions occurring during a tournament.

I have to admit that I can't recall ever having left the lake on any trip and really knowing the answer to all of those questions even for that day, much less in general. With experience, most of the time I had a pretty good guess even before the day started to what the answers might be. But the wonderful thing about this sport is you're constantly surprised. What keeps you coming back is that on some rare occasions, it's a pleasant surprise.

On new lakes, I'm forced to spend a lot of my time learning the water. I've got to run to the places I've planned on a map, find the cover, if any, that exists on interesting structure, learn to navigate quickly and safely. This will burn up a lot of my valuable prefishing time. But it does keep me from being bias on what I expect to happen. On a new lake, I'm forced to let the fish tell me what to do instead of trying to force them to do what I'd prefer them to do.

The good news for a new lake is, in general, the fish will be biting. That may seem like an odd statement, but it's a pretty good assumption going in. The reason is simple, schedule. If I'm heading for a new lake, chances are it's a regional or national event and the sponsors will schedule the event for the season and the "normal" conditions which likely will produce a good bite. There are, of course, exceptions and unexpected conditions, but by in large the bigger events are held in "prime time" during the spring or fall of the year. Even if the tournament is going to be held in the middle of the summer, I'll schedule a prefishing trip during the spring when I think I'll have the best chance of getting a good bite. You're always faced with finding the right spot with the right bait, and learning a new lake is much easier when the right spot is anywhere you happen to stop, at least to get you started.

On a new lake, you're forced to play the percentages. Seasonal patterns, prevailing conditions and popular if over pressured spots will limit your search to a manageable level. Unless you've got the luxury of several days on the water, you'd better stick to the beaten path and leave the off the wall stuff to those with enough knowledge of the lake to make it effective. If the bite is strong, finding a big fish bait in a well known spot will pay off more often than finding some secluded area with a more traditional offering. This truth is confirmed time and again by the rather poor average showing of local anglers competing in tour events. Under tough conditions, sometimes those well hidden spots that you just can't find in a few days will produce a winning stringer. But like we said, sponsors don't schedule big events for tough conditions.

The 90% case is prefishing a lake you already know. We'll assume from here on out that you know something about the lake you're fishing so you can spend your time finding fish, not learning the lake. First rule of Prefishing, "If you know a spot holding fish and you know what they will hit, DON'T GO THERE." Prefishing time is at least as valuable as tournament time, don't squander it confirming something you already know. Also keep in mind it's never a good idea to burn the fish up in a spot you will need on tournament day. If you have a secret honey hole, leave it alone. Along the same lines, if you found some fish in a new area yesterday, don't go back. Show some confidence in yourself and assume if you found a concentration in an area recently, you can do so on tournament day as well.

All of this leads up to my basic approach to prefishing. I'm normally doing one of two things while I'm on water I know; 1) Throwing baits I don't think will work in a place I know there's fish; or 2) Throwing a bait I know will work in a place I don't think there's fish. I'm always looking for surprises.

Gettin' Rigged

Along with many tournament anglers, I take a lot of ribbing, especially when non-fishermen find out I carry about 10 rods in the boat at all times. On prefishing days, I'm likely to have every one of them laying on the deck. Just about every basic category of lure is represented. You'll find flippin' sticks, jigs and worms, Carolina rigs, spinner baits, top waters, crank baits, jerk baits, floating worms or tube jigs, buzz baits, and spoons all on the deck some place. I can cover just about any situation just by reaching down for the appropriate rod. The day's partner will have a similar collection on the back deck and we'll make point to never throw the same thing at the same time.

One important little tip is to keep a "baseline" lure in the water when searching for fish. When you find a lure that works on a given day, keep that lure in the water at least on one end of the boat all of the time until you find a bait that works even better. With my regular buddy club partner, he'll start with a simple 6" Texas rigged worm, (a bait that works under just about every condition), and keep throwing it all day until I prove him wrong. Proving him wrong means I get a couple of bites when he doesn't get any. We're looking for baits that are better than what we're already throwing, not just a good, (which is still interesting to file away.) By using a baseline lure when covering water, we're sure that if we wander by catchable fish, we'll catch 'em while looking for better lures all of the time.

The one other thing we'll do different when prefishing is use line snaps, (not snap swivels, just the snaps.) I don't really like snaps since I've lost good fish using them. And I also think they can interfere with a lure's action, (not to mention tangle most varieties of submerged weeds.) But on prefishing days, I like have the quick change capability offered by a snap and I'm not worried about loosing a fish even if I get him on. Come tournament time, when I've reduced the possible lures I'll throw to the ones I know will work, I'll put small split rings in the eyes and tie direct to them instead of a snap.

All of this excessive use of lures is leading to finding the 3 or 4 lures that work the best. On the tournament days, you'll find a rather clear deck with only the proven lures and rods out in the open. You do get fooled sometimes and a bait you gave up on yesterday will be the best bait today. But sticking with the percentages, at least start with proven baits until the fish refuse them.

Planning the Day

Anytime you head out on the water you'd best have a plan. Prefishing is no different. Before you ever get to the lake, decide on what is most important to know coming out of the trip. Are you looking for additional spots? Do you need to know what lure they're hitting? Do you have to find new water? What type of tournament are you in? Are you looking for Big fish? Do you need a morning spot worse than at mid day? Are your fish shutting down at 10:00 when the sun get high? Figure out the problem before you go looking for answers.

The place I start is the type of tournament I'm entering. If it's a small club event or local pot tournament, then I'm going to concentrate on finding numbers of aggressive fish. If it's a big event where a two pound average gets you 122nd place and a Thank You for entering, then I'll be looking for the Big Bite and forget about smaller fish.

Once I know what type of fish I'm after, then I can decide on when to go. If I'm looking for numbers, then I figure my best chance will probably be early. I'll be in the water by 4:00 AM and try to get a couple of hours of night fishing in before dawn. The early morning bite is generally just an extension of the night bite with the fish feeding close to the same areas. If I can find some night fish, then that spot might be my first hole on tournament morning. This is our first example of that "similar circumstances" thing. By starting a couple of hours before dawn, I figure I have about 4 hours of practice to locate areas that may only be good for the first hour or two on tournament morning. But, if I can find the right spots, I should have a quick limit to start the day and my prefishing will be extremely successful. If, on the other hand, I'm targeting big fish, I'll probably take my time getting to the lake and plan to stay all day. Those big bites do happen in the morning but only rarely will a limit be caught early. More likely I'll be flipping most of the day or fishing big baits down deep. In either event, the bite is actually better from about mid-morning on so there is no hurry. I'm going to be covering a lot of water before dark so I'd better pace myself. Didn't find an early bite? Then I'd stick around until evening. If I can find fish moving into feed at dusk, the chances are fairly good at least some them will be hanging around for a morning bite as well. Again, that similar circumstances thing.

Of course I'll already have done some homework, looking at seasonal patterns, studying my maps, looking at logs of past events and the like. I may have a list of 10 or 15 spots I'd kind of like to try, depending on how the day goes. I'll divide those places into spots that I think will be a morning bite, (points, feeding flats, shoreline and such), and spots that should be OK later in the day, (offshore humps, heavy flippin' cover, deep ledges and grass beds.) With this plan in mind, I'm ready to hit the water and have a productive day regardless of what the day brings.

Adapting to what You Find

I'll start the day normally at a spot where I'm pretty sure fish are hanging out, but not necessarily tournament grade fish. The first thing I'd like to establish is my baseline bait for the day. Dinks will work for this just as well as 4 pounders. So, if I can stop some place where the small fish normally are and get a couple of quick bites, then I've got a good starting point for the day. I won't stay in any of these places long regardless of what happens. If I do get a couple of quick bites, then the bait is established and I'm ready to search water. If I don't get a bite in 10 or 15 minutes, then I'll skip around to a couple of other dink holes just to get started.

Starting with dink holes also gives me an idea of how aggressive the fish should be in my other, bigger fish holes. If you can't get a dink to bite, then it could be a slow day and every bite you get is very important. If the dinks are active and feeding then I might just be up against the worst possible scenario for prefishing, the day they'll hit everything, everywhere. I just hate to prefish on those days where I always catch fish. The reason is simple, there's not much I can use later. If all of the fish are active, how will I know which are the more aggressive on a slower day? How can I tell if this particular spot holds a bigger concentration of fish unless I sit there and catch a bunch to prove it? On a good bite day, about the best you can do is confirm those spots that shouldn't have fish really don't. Not much water to eliminate on those days. If, on the other hand, it's a tough bite day, then if I do find some fish in a new spot or two, that spot could be great on a better day and I can eliminate water that only holds fish under the best conditions.

The biggest single factor in having a productive prefishing trip, (or tournament for that matter), is to stay acutely aware of everything going on around you. I see folks all the time so intent on their presentations that a school of ten pounders could come up right beside them and they would never know it. You have to remain aware of everything your lure is doing, but use your eyes, ears, and nose to also stay aware of everything around you. Everything that happens has some reason behind it. Any good crappie fisherman can literally "smell them out" by cruising around for that distinctive shad oil smell. If you're in an area with the strong odor of shad oil, something is having dinner down there. Most of the time it's crappie or brim, but the bass are normally close. If you see a single small shad skipping across the surface in a panic, you can bet the retirement fund that something is chasing him. This time it's normally a bass and you're on fish whether you can catch them or not. If you're not getting bit, time to change lures. On a fairly calm day, I can see an active school of bass come up from close to a mile away. I can hear them without seeing them for close to ¼ mile. You just have keep looking and listening for them.

Speaking of schooling fish, even if you don't want to depend on schoolies for your tournament, there is no better quick way of learning a lot about the fish than chasing schools. First, you can quickly refine your baseline lures by seeing what the schoolers will take. I normally prefer to find a bait that they'll hit when they go down since they could well hit anything that moves when they are on the surface. Many times you'll find major league fish holding just under or to one side of smaller schoolies. But perhaps the most important thing to find is why they are schooling there. Consistent schooling spots just about always involve some type of structure and/or cover. It's a place where the bass can herd the shad for an easy meal by penning them against the surface. Points, humps, steep ledges or other major structure is common ground for schoolers. There may well be excellent cover near by where the bass hold waiting for bait during the off times. I have found countless excellent off shore structures which have produced winning stringers just by idling around where I notice a school was working. The fish are telling me where to work and giving me a good clue of what to throw. Listen to them.

You need to recognize the similar circumstances for the conditions. What do early morning, late evening, high wind, an approaching cold front, a summer thunderstorm, and the middle of the night all have in common? They are all low light conditions. If your low light baits such as spinner baits or buzz baits are working under one of those conditions, they could well work under all of them. What do high wind, a main lake channel, and a flooded creek all have in common? They all have currents associated with them. If you're catching fish in the spring during cloudy days in the middle section of a reservoir and then you go out on a sunny day, move to the upper end of the same lake. Why? Well, the lower light conditions had a good bite going in clear water, so the low light caused by the stained or muddy water from a major flow source may be holding fish today. OK, a simple one. You're on a big round natural lake in Florida and there is a 15 mph wind from the west today. In tomorrow's tournament, the conditions are still going to be hot and sunny, but the wind is suppose to be 10-15 out of the east. Where should you concentration some time in finding fish near the shoreline reeds? Me? Easy! I'm going to work the south side. If I find fish on either the east or west side, conditions will be entirely different as the wind shifts. I know I'm way down south and a wind switch from west to east probably means a low pressure area is passing through, which in turn means the wind will switch to the south over night, and depending on strength may blow out the fish on the north side. The south side will be protected overnight on the leeward side as the wind shifts. The south side will have a wind induced current flowing in front of the reeds today (from the west) and a wind induced current tomorrow from the other direction, about the same strength. All things being equal, the south side will be the most likely location of similar circumstances between today and tomorrow. If I can find fish there today, it's my best bet of them staying put over night.

Similar circumstances for locations is what pattern fishing is all about. Find fish relating to one type of structure and it's a pretty good guess they will be on similar structure all over this part of the lake. So, when you're prefishing and find some fish on a particular pattern, you should work that pattern, right? Wrong! Let's say you find fish on a main lake point in 15' of water around clumps of hydrilla. You know about 3 other points around here with pretty much the same conditions. Why check them? You've got a limited amount of time and if there are three other spots just like this one then you need to isolate the pattern and look for other spots, not confirm what you already know. If on tournament day, you do find the fish in the same location and you don't have much else going, you're going to give those other three spots a try no matter if you get bit there today or not. A more productive use of time is to find a hydrilla field in 15' of water not on a point and see if that's also holding fish. If they are holding in hydrilla, then you need to be looking for more of that, not points. If, on the other hand, they aren't in your new hydrilla field, you need to check a couple of bare points to find out if it's just the point part that's important and the hydrilla is merely interesting. After checking the other two spots, you have all sorts of new options of things to look for by comparing the later results with the original point. Otherwise, you're just stuck with 4 points and have no place to run if the fish move. Even if you don't get bit the rest of the day, you still have the same 4 spots and a little confidence that you don't have to worry about other patterns.

So, you've found a good morning bite on spinner baits over heavy weeds. From mid morning on, you've found some nice 4 and 5 pound fish holding on main creek channels in 20' of water. It's 2 o'clock and you're getting cranky. Time to put it on the trailer? Nope, time to go flippin'. You've established a couple of good patterns you have confidence in, so you already have a plan. Now is the time to establish a good back up if things don't work out. You've got your deep fish if they don't suspend and shut down. It's a little early to work on a back up early morning pattern, so look for another pattern for later in the day. A flippin' pattern is probably as reliable as anything since you're looking for them where they live. Flippin' is also a great option if a high wind blows you off your open water pattern.

A truth long held about prefishing is you're out to eliminate water. To do so, you'd like to cover as much water as possible. How much water you can cover will depend on the fish and their mood. If they are shut down, you'll be forced to throw bottom bumpers and slow down enough to work them effectively. If they are kind of neutral, then you can speed along with spinner baits, jerk baits and crank baits, covering miles in a single day, looking for areas with aggressive fish. If they are really aggressive, then you speed from spot to spot trying to eliminate water looking for somewhere you don't get bit. Obviously, it's tougher to eliminate off shore water where you have to wait for your lure to sink 20' than buzzing along a shore line. But keep in mind as the day goes on, you can concentrate on the really high percentage areas. If you're wanting to check an off shore ledge, make a few casts to either end and maybe to a point or cut along the length. If you get bit, you know everything you need to know already so get out of there. If you don't get bit, then why waste your time running the rest of the ledge just to find one or two lonely fish? Either way, you can prefish a deep ledge in a few minutes, even if you'd spend 3 hours fishing the same structure in a tournament.

So, what constitutes a "spot." My definition is two quick bites with one legal fish. A "quick" bite is two within about 15 minutes. If I already stuck the first fish and knew it was legal, then I'd try to shake off the second bite. I won't be around for the third bite. When I find a spot, then I'll move at least a hundred yards or so away even if I'm just running a bank. If I think I might have trouble remembering exactly where it's at, I'll punch the spot's coordinates into my GPS as I'm moving away. Some times I don't even have to make a cast to a spot. If I know a strong pattern, say our point with hydrilla example, if I motor over it with my depth finder, I won't even stop. There isn't a need. Again, even if I don't catch a fish here today it's a location which fits my pattern, therefore I'll spend at least a few tournament minutes here regardless. Why waste time casting? Maybe I see a school of fish and motor over a deep weed bed near by. What's the point of stopping? Just punch it in and know where to come if you find the fish on that pattern. Don't waste time on places you know you're going to fish anyway.

I'll also have to admit I'm not above fishing with binoculars. If I see someone catch a fish, I'll make note of where and on what. If I haven't tried that bait, I may tie one on just to compare. I almost never fish a spot just because another boat caught one there, (bad practice, bad form, and bad sportsmanship), but I'll sure as hell look for something similar down the lake a piece. If you're polite about it, most guys will tell you what they're doing and how they caught their fish. Return the courtesy. Also, at least try to stay out of the way of a boat actively fishing a tournament. These guys were probably out here last week and just watching them should tell you everything you need to know about a potential spot. Remember, they may be back out there prefishing on your tournament day.

Interpreting Your Trip

OK, rest up after a long hard day on the water. What did you learn? Rerun the day over and over in your mind, looking for details. Obviously you'd like to remember where you got your most bites, where you got the biggest fish, what did those fish come on. But think through the other things as well. What color was the water for each of those fish? Were clouds forming or the wind picking up? Was there a current? Where you near a weed bed and if so, what kind of weeds? How deep were you when you got bit? If you were flipping, how much water was between the bottom and the bottom of the mats? Was the sun angle consistent over your bites? Was there a particular kind of stump or tree that the fish seem to hang around? Did one lure color or size out produce a slightly different one? Where did you see those splashes and didn't get bit? Did you always see shad jumping? Look for any similarities or a consistent thread that you can think of. You'll be surprised of how many things start to make sense when you look back over them with a full day under your belt. What would you do the same and what would you do different given the chance? This is exactly the question you have to answer before the tournament.

Come tournament day, you need to have a detailed plan. That does not mean plan out and schedule every hole. It does mean knowing what spots to try first, where similar spots are if you do catch fish, where different spots are if you don't catch fish. What is your primary pattern going to be? How about your second, third and fourth back ups? What is similar in conditions today as when you prefished? What is different and how should the fish respond to those difference? What will be your best bait early? What will be your best bait later? What kind of conditions, sun angle, or such should you look for to decide to change? For each spot you're planning to hit, how many fish from that spot would make you happy? How long should you stick around each spot if nothing happens? Decide all of this before you hit the water and then all you have to do is execute. Regardless of if you win the tournament or not, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing your plan come together just like you envisioned it. If I truly believe I should run about a 3 pound average from the fish I've located and weigh in 15 pounds at the scale, I really don't care if the winner has 30 pounds because my plan worked. Next time I'll just have to work harder and come up with a better plan.

During the tournament, use the information you gained by prefishing. If you get bit early and then they shut down ask yourself where you went after they shut down last time. If nothing else, remember that all the spots you tried last time didn't work after they shut down and try something new and different. If today is cloudy and prefishing was sunny, where did you have the best luck first thing in the morning on a low light bite? If the wind blows you off your structure, try to remember where you get that one flippin' bite last time. If they quit hitting worms, remember your second or third best bait last time out. You have to react to what you find on the water but you can certainly use any recent experience to guide you in that reaction.

Well, there is still a ton of things and tricks we haven't covered. I haven't got into when not to use hooks and go solely for bites. But we've been long winded enough for this time. I hope you found something you can use, but mostly I hope you realize that prefishing, along with everything else related to bass fishing is pretty much common sense. If there is a trick to it at all, it's remembering what you're out to accomplish and avoiding using up your tournament bite in practice.

Hope they are all big ones….see you next time.

Paul Crawford

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