April 09, 2021
Want to have a successful year of fishing in 2021? Whether you’re targeting largemouths on Lake Guntersville in Alabama, walleye on Devil’s Lake in North Dakota, stripers off Montauk Point at the eastern tip of Long Island, or cutthroat trout in Yellowstone National Park, we all want to experience great and memorable angling days over the next several months.
If that’s the goal, then keep in mind there are seven common mistakes you’ll want to eliminate from your angling game this year, blunders that can cost you a chance at a big fish, an opportunity to take home a limit, or simply being able to enjoy the fishing trip of a lifetime.
No matter what you fish for across America, from bluegills to largemouths and from muskies to sailfish, do what you can to avoid these seven mistakes and chances are, you’ll find yourself smiling much more often while you’re spending a day out on the water!
Angling Mistake #1: Ignoring Weather and Safety Concerns
To start off this list of seven deadly angling sins, it goes without saying that no fish is ever worth ignoring safety concerns. That obviously starts and stops with having all of the necessary and legally required safety gear handy on your boat, especially a Coast Guard approved PFD (personal floatation device).
But having and using a life jacket is only one key to staying safe out on the water. Another is simply paying attention to the day’s weather forecast for spots like Lake Texoma, a big 89,000-acre reservoir near my North Texas home.
On many days, Texoma is calm enough that I’ll paddle my sit-on-top kayak out from shore, hoping to coax a striped bass or smallmouth into hitting the popper at the end of my eight-weight fly rod. But on other days, when spring thunderstorms threaten or a powerful autumn cold front rolls through, you couldn’t pay me enough to get out on the big lake in a boat that’s anything short of the crabbing vessels made famous by the TV show Deadliest Catch.
The same safety concept applies when lighting is dancing around in the spring or when frigid water and heavy wave action makes the chance of a wintertime hypothermia disaster very real. And believe it or not, the same principle even applies during the heat of summer when dehydration, heat exhaustion, and severe sunburn are all possible outcomes.
No matter where you go or what you fish for, always play it safe.
Angling Mistake #2: Poor Timing
When it comes to catching fish, timing is everything in some instances. For largemouth bass, for instance, the best chances to catch a bass in shallow water are going to be in the spring during the spawning cycle or in the fall when fish move into coves to chase baitfish in an effort to fatten up for the coming winter. Where will those same bass be when the sizzling hot days of summertime arrive? In general, most will abandon shallow water, instead spending the hottest days of the year offshore in deeper H2O as they seek cooler temps and better oxygen content.
The same concept—that there are certain times of the year when fishing is better—applies to virtually all species and all locations. For striped bass in New England, target the autumn migration when stripers churn the surface into a frenzy as they gorge on baitfish. For crappie in an inland reservoir, fish shallow during the spring spawn and around deeper structure the other times of the year. For tarpon in the Florida Keys, be there during the migration that occurs in the spring and early summer months. And for trout in the Rockies, fish the best hatches that come off most rivers during the warm months of summertime.
In short, whatever species you are targeting and whatever location you are visiting, find out when the best fishing action takes place and do what you can to be there.
Angling Mistake #3: Ignoring Little Things
During the years I covered Major League Fishing, one of the most interesting parts of each tournament day were the 30-minute-long breaks when the professional bass anglers would roar into a rendezvous point so lunches could be passed out, camera operators could get freshly charged batteries, and anglers could make tackle adjustments as their bass rigs sat rocking gently in the waves.
One of those anglers was the legendary Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., arguably the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All-Time) in the modern bass fishing game with more than two dozen tournament wins, multiple Angler of the Year titles, four Bassmaster Classic triumphs, and being one of the chief advertising spokesmen for Bass Pro Shops.
So, I was always curious when I would watch KVD work on his tackle and pull out a Sharpie marker that he would use to darken up the braided line he had spooled on some rod-and-reel setups. When I asked him why he did that, VanDam shrugged and said that it helped camouflage the line—braid can quickly lighten up in color the longer it is in the water—as he tossed baits into weedy settings where a tournament-winning bass might be hiding.
Then he mentioned something about simply trying to control as many variables as he could on any given day, figuring that paying attention to small details would help him be a more efficient angler who caught more fish.
That spoke volumes to me then and it should do the same for any angler who enjoys a day out on the water. Pay attention to the little things that you can control, from checking your line often for nicks and abrasions that could cost you a fish to keeping the point of your hook sharpened to keeping tackle and gear in peak operating condition. It might not seem like much at the time but paying attention to the little details of fishing can pay off with some hefty benefits when you least expect it.
Angling Mistake #4: Wrong Gear
If your idea of fishing is dangling your feet in the water off a dock as the sun sets and letting a worm ride under a bobber at the end of a cane pole as you seek platter-sized bluegills, then fishing is an exercise where the gear is quite simple.
But if saltwater species grab your attention—fish like tarpon, bonefish, permit, red snapper, redfish, etc.—then you’re going to need heavier and more specialized gear. The same thing is true for coastal stripers and inland reservoirs teeming with big largemouth bass.
In general, you’ll want lightweight tackle like a small spinning rod or a 4-, 5-, or 6-weight fly rod for bluegills, crappie, trout, and small bass. If bigger bass, muskies on a Midwestern river, or redfish along the coast are what you’re targeting, then you’ll need heavier spinning tackle; a 7-, 8-, or 9-weight fly rod; or a baitcasting rod-and-reel combo with the right kind of line spooled on. And if you’re going after the really big stuff like trophy-sized blue catfish, big tarpon, pelagic species like sailfish, or even offshore tuna, then you’ll want the heaviest spinning or baitcasting gear that can handle big fish in deep water. For fly fishing for really big species, you’ll want specialized gear including a 10-, 11-, or 12-weight fly rod that can handle a big on-the-water fight.
Angling Mistake #5: Not Matching the Hatch
In fly fishing terminology, matching the hatch simply means making sure that a fly matches the size, shape, and color of the insects that trout are feeding upon. The same concept is true in nearly all forms of fishing, even if flies aren’t the tackle being utilized.
If you’re fishing for bass early in the year when they are eating crawfish, adjust your lure selection accordingly. If you’re targeting freshwater stripers with something that resembles threadfin shad, make sure that you’re fishing a lure that matches the silvery hues and current size of the baitfish. If you’re wading after redfish on a saltwater flat, you’ll want to make sure that your lures match the mullet, shrimp, and/or crabs that they are dining on.
Whatever you are fishing for, be sure that your lures match the local menu available at that particular time of year.
Angling Mistake #6: Not Listening to Your Guide
Several years ago, I spent a couple of days on the water with guides Steve Klas and Randy Oldfield. Before I headed south for our bass fishing expedition on Lake Fork, the late Klas had instructed me to be sure and have 20-pound monofilament spooled up on my baitcasting reels.
Pressed for time, that was the one thing I failed to get done before I headed out the door. As I drove down the highway, I thought that 14-pound mono had never let me down yet, so what was the big deal about changing my line out?
A couple of mornings later, I figured all of that out as I sat in the boat of Oldfield, watching a huge largemouth—Randy estimated the fish in the 11- to 12-pound range, if memory serves correct—swimming off with my crankbait in her mouth after she broke me off at the boat.
After a moment of disappointing silence, Oldfield turned and asked me: “You did change your line out, right?”
Let’s just say that it was a teaching moment and a lesson learned. Since then, I’ve never failed to pay attention to my guide’s instructions, whether they involve casting into a certain spot, using a particular type of lure, or simply making sure I’ve got 20-pound test line spooled onto my reel.
Angling Mistake #7: Not Keeping Your Hook in the Water
One of my best angling friends is Rob Woodruff, a longtime Orvis endorsed fly fishing guide from East Texas. Over the years, Woodruff’s springtime calendar has often stayed full as he guided anglers for a double-digit Lake Fork lunker intent on destroying an eight- or nine-weight fly rod.
One April, Woodruff had a client in the boat who grew weary from casting a big streamer fly on a big fly rod as they eased into a likely looking spot looking for a Texas-sized bucketmouth bass. When the client mentioned he wanted to rest for a minute and for Rob to make a few casts, Woodruff shook his head no a couple of times and mentioned that the bank they would soon be fishing was prime big bass real estate.
After the client insisted that Rob make a few casts, my friend reluctantly did so, fully aware of what the result might be. A couple of casts later, a big explosion in the water resulted in a sizable fight of a big bass back to the boat, all as Rob grimaced and the client thought about what might have been.
A few moments later, Rob was hoisting the big-bellied bass into the air to be weighed and photographed. As he released the 9.75-pound largemouth and let it slide back into the water, the final mistake in this angling story was clearly illustrated.
And that mistake is this: tired or not, keep your hook in the water on a fishing trip. Because you never know what’s lurking just below the surface or just around the bend.