Photo by Keith Sutton.
Fishing from the bank is the reason many of us love fishing. It’s the simplest, most cost-effective way to have a maximum amount of fun. It’s recreation in its purest form — no muss, no fuss. Just you, a simple pole or rod and reel, a bobber or bottom-sinker, a hook, some bait or simple lures, the sky and the water, a warm day and fish.
When we think of bank-fishing, we often remember childhood fishing trips with friends or relatives, dunking worms or crickets in a farm pond, and thrilling to the pulse of scrappy sunfish dashing to and fro at the end of the line. We conjure up memories of days on the lakeshore as crappie were pulled one after another from a shallow-water brushpile. We think back to that just-right summer afternoon when the catfish in our favorite fishing hole snatched up every bait thrown their way.
Of course, it’s never too late for making memories. Fishing from a quiet shore clears the mind and soothes the soul. It’s a great way to introduce kids to the joys of fishing. And the fish you catch will provide the makings for many delicious meals.
Recapture that feeling. Leave your boat at home, and go bank-fishing again. The following recipes for success will give you some options to consider.
Many bank-fishermen consider crappie special prizes –not because they fight especially hard, nor because they’re particularly challenging to catch, but because they’re abundant in many of our waters and, when rolled in cornmeal and deep-fried, incredibly delicious. Fortunately, in spring, when water temperatures are moderate, crappie invade shallow cover in ponds, lakes and reservoirs, thus putting them within reach of bank-fishing enthusiasts.
It helps to know one special quirk of crappie. They like food (live minnows and small jigs are unbeatable) that’s doing nothing at all, just hanging there, immobile. Making a presentation in this fashion takes patience and practice, but do it right and watch your catch increase.
Use a thin, sensitive bobber to detect delicate pickups. It also helps to use a bobber with a brightly colored tip, and keep your eyes locked on its messages. If the float tilts left, a crappie has taken the lure from the right side. Vice versa if it tilts right. And if it rises the slightest bit, a crappie has inhaled the lure from above. Set the hook on any of these — even on suspicion!
Small crappie are good practice subjects, but if you start catching runts and you’d rather be landing slabs, relocate to another bank-fishing area. The little guys are fun, but big ones aren’t likely to be among them.
Most anglers fish deeper water when big crappie don’t turn up in the shallows. Deep water holds mystique; we believe it’s where the lunkers live. But when it comes to crappie, more often than not you’ll find Mr. Big in shallower water, not deeper — and that’s a boon for shorebound anglers.
Search for bank-fishing locales with access to the backs of out-of-the-way coves, the shoreline reaches of flooded willows and other shallow water. Or simply get repositioned so that you can cast your bait toward the bank instead of away from it. Wallhanger crappie may be in water barely deep enough to cover them.
Remember the precise locations where you catch, lose or see big crappie — the specific stump, the particular bush, whatever. A return visit could turn up the barn door slab you missed, another trophy that moved in or a crappie that grew bigger after release.
No species of fish is more tailor-made for bank-fishermen than the bluegill. These sunfish frequent shallow water most of the year and provide exciting fish-a-minute action for shorebound anglers of all ages. Many of us cut our angling teeth while bank-fishing for these bantam prizes.
Spring is the “good luck” season for bank-fishing bluegill fans. During the days just before spawning activity begins, bluegills go on a feeding frenzy to offset their reproductive growth spurt. They’re feeding more, and so this is a great time to catch them.
Another fact in the angler’s favor is the concentration of fish during the spawn. There may be a dozen nests in an area the size of a car, and there may be several beds of that size along a 100-yard stretch of shoreline. Because bluegills are holed up in the shallows, they’re simple to find and easy to catch.
Offerings of small earthworms and crickets are rarely ignored. Wear polarized sunglasses so you can better see the clusters of dish-shaped nests, and then approach stealthily and cast your offering to the bed with just a single split shot to weight it. Keep your line tight, and when you feel the fish move off, set the hook with a gentle flick of the wrist.
Boat docks are hotspots for post-spawn bluegills. These structures provide shade, security and a smorgasbord of foods. Savvy bank-fishermen use a short, light spinning or spincasting outfit to skip, flip or ricochet a bait or lure into even the tightest areas. Use unweighted crickets or slow-falling artificials such as curlytail jigs to mimic falling insects. Flip these under the dock, and prepare for a strike as the bait falls.
If catching trophy-class bluegills is your goal, focus your bank-fishing efforts on ponds. Many anglers shy away from ponds, believing these diminutive waters aren’t big enough to support numbers of jumbo sunfish. But if you examine state-record listings, you’ll learn that idea doesn’t hold water. Nearly half of all state-record bluegills were caught in ponds, including many weighing 2 and 3 pounds. Some poorly managed ponds are inhabited by tiny, stunted bluegills, but those with balanced populations of predator and prey fish provide some of the best fishing available for heavyweight sunfish.
When bank-fishing comes to mind, we often picture the humble catfish angler sitting at night by his campfire with several poles propped on forked sticks. This is bank-fishing unadulterated — just the right fish, just the right place and just the right time for relaxing good-times angling.
Certainly, many of our finny favorites are more challenging, prettier, even “fancier.” But because the catfish loves the shallows of ponds, small lakes and little streams, because it takes a variety of baits without a hint of caution, and because it is as good in the frying pan as any fish that swims, it will always be a favorite of those angling from shore.
Despite the idea of the catfisherman working his shoreline honeyholes at night, you can fish whenever you like, from high noon to midnight, and expect to catch a mess in prime waters. Fish with a cane pole or an ultralight outfit or your favorite bass tackle; catfish don’t care. Carry plenty of hooks and sinkers, though, because chances are good that you’ll lose quite a few. The bottom-feeding cats lurk around weedbeds and other tackle-grabbing cover.
A stop at the grocery store or bait shop will turn up plenty of good cat baits. Fresh chicken liver is first rate, as are worms, hickory-smoked bacon and commercial stink baits. For the ultimate in simplicity, though, buy cheap chicken hot dogs and slice them into one-inch pieces. Place in a quart container and add two packages of strawberry Kool-Aid (unsweetened) and two tablespoons minced garlic. Fill the container with water, and allow the franks to marinate overnight. These make great cat baits (or midnight snacks).
Fish on the bottom, using a split shot or a small slip-sinker to carry your bait down. Or use a bobber to float the bait slightly above the bottom. You need not fish deep or far from shore.
To ensure landing more catfish, always use an extra-sharp hook, and let the fish start moving off before you set it. When tightlining, you should feel the fish yank at the bait before it swims off. When the cat starts moving away, count to three, and then set the hook with a quick upward snap. When working baits beneath a bobber, wait until the float disappears or starts to move slowly across the water. That’s usually when the fish has the bait in its mouth.
With luck, the cats will bite. They usually do. Your rod will bounce, you’ll set the hook, and you’ll savor the fight again and again and again.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
An autographed copy of Keith Sutton’s latest book, The Crappie Book: Basics and Beyond is available by sending a check or money order for $15 to C&C Outdoor Productions Inc., 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002.