You’re on a heavily pressured lake with lock-jawed fish. You have a limited amount of time to fish, so you spend your day grinding away in hopes of convincing a disinterested bass or two into biting. Sometimes you find some willing biters, but more often than not, you don’t.
“Welcome to my world,” jokes Major League Fishing pro Jordan Lee.
That might sound odd coming from a professional angler who has broken records and enjoyed astounding success since he was in high school. Lee, from Grant, Alabama, finished sixth in his first Bassmaster Classic at the age of 22, won back-to-back Classic titles on two popular lakes (Lake Conroe near Houston and Lake Hartwell near Greenville, South Carolina) in 2017 and 2018, and claimed the winner’s trophy at the very first MLF event he ever fished soon thereafter.
But when you grow up on Lake Guntersville – one of the most heavily fished impoundments of the Tennessee River – and make your living catching fish on high-pressure fisheries like Lake Okeechobee, Kentucky Lake, the Sacramento River, Lake Toho, Lake Sam Rayburn, Lake Chickamauga and the like, you learn a thing or two about finding a consistent bite, regardless of how many other boats are fishing with you on a given day.
“Let’s be honest: It’s tough for everybody who fishes a popular lake,” Lee admits. “A fish who sees a bait 10 times in a day is going to react differently than a fish that sees one bait in 10 days.”
Standing out in the crowd
Lee’s approach to an over-pressured fishery starts with the baits he throws. A lipless crankbait is a “gimme” in many lakes in March and April, but instead of the standard color and size that nine out of 10 anglers throw, Lee will switch up to a profile and presentation of a proven color that fish likely haven’t seen.
“My best advice is to mix up the baits and throw things that aren’t as popular for that time of year,” Lee says. “For example, a red Rat-L-Trap is always a player in early spring, no matter where you’re fishing. I like a red lipless crankbait, too, but if I can’t get bit on that bait, I like to throw the same color, but a different kind of bait. Try a red jerkbait, or a worm with some red in it. Going against the grain is my best tip for pressured lakes.”
Same technique, different presentation
MLF veteran Jeff Kriet echoes Lee’s “novel alternative” approach, dialing in a handful of subtle changes that allow him to continue using a proven technique, but in a way that other anglers probably won’t.
Take flipping, for example. While most anglers will default to a creature-style bait, Kriet frequently switches up to a simple 6-inch plastic worm when he’s fishing a heavily pressured lake.
“If you go behind guys who are throwing the beaver or creature-style baits, you’ll pick up a lot of fish behind them (flipping a worm),” he says. “The worm enables me to make a lot more pitches. I’ll pitch through the cattails and through my target and pull it the whole way through, rather than just at the base. It’s a different look. There’s not that many people that flip an old-school worm anymore, and the fish still eat it. They didn’t quit eating a worm, and they never will.”
Kriet will downsize to a 1/8-ounce weight (3/16 if the wind is blowing) and 15-pound fluorocarbon so he can properly flip the smaller, lighter bait and weight.
MLF Pro Tips: Best Fishing Advice Ever
Go where others haven’t gone (or won’t go)
If there’s one thing that separates MLF pros from everyday anglers, it’s the ability and willingness to explore areas that most other anglers wouldn’t even consider fishing. It’s an approach that helped Jacob Wheeler win the Forrest Wood Cup at the age of 21 (when he found an out-of-the-way spot on the Chattahoochee River in Georgia) and finish second the following year (when he finagled his way deep into a backwater of the Red River in Louisiana).And it’s one of the first things he considers whenever he’s fishing a lake that’s been hammered by local pressure.
“I look for places that are hard to get to: the backs of creeks and pockets where other people just don’t fish,” Wheeler confirms. “A fishery like the Red River, those fish see a lot of baits. The biggest thing is to get away from the crowd and find a pocket where the fish are fresher. That means maybe going up inside the mats instead of just fishing them from the outside or getting as far back into a lily-pad field as you possibly can. Going the extra mile can be a big deal if it means getting to a group of fish that haven’t seen a bait.”
Learn to identify secondary opportunities
While Lee, Kriet and Wheeler have all caught plenty of fish and won plenty of money fishing community holes – Wheeler won an event on Lake Chickamauga in 2014 fishing one of the most well-known spots on the lake – more often than not, they’ll spend more time looking for less obvious, secondary or tertiary spots to fish.
While there may be fewer fish on those smaller spots, those fish will have likely seen far less pressure. “I’d advise people to use their electronics more,” Wheeler says. “Sometimes it’s way more productive to spend a couple of hours looking instead of casting non-stop and hoping to find fish. No matter where I’m fishing, I’m always looking around on my Lowrance, trying to find subtle little spots that other guys might not look for. Those main lake points are pretty easy to find on a map, so everybody naturally goes right to those points. But you’ll usually be way better off if you can find little groups of fish on secondary points and avoid that big, obvious-looking stuff.”
It doesn’t have to look pretty
Going back to the first scenario: You’re grinding away at your high-pressure local lake and motor up to a stretch of bank that looks like a bass wasteland.
No identifiable cover, no obvious pieces of structure that a bass might be holding on. Do you fish it or move on?
“Fish it,” Wheeler advises. “In a case where you know that all the pretty-looking spots have been hammered, and maybe you’ve done some of the hammering yourself, it makes sense to fish spots that maybe don’t look so perfect. You might roll up on a ‘no-nothing’ bank that doesn’t look exactly right, but don’t be so fast to blow right by it. Make a cast or two to that bank. When fish feel extra-pressured, you’ll be surprised sometimes at where you’ll find them.”
Lee mirrors that approach. “Going against the grain is almost always the best bet (for pressured fish),” he says. “The biggest difference I see between (MLF pros) and a guy trying to catch a bass on the weekend is that we’ll fish spots that just don’t seem to make a lot of sense to everybody else. Those spots where most guys will think, ‘Man, there’s no way there’s a fish there,’ but there is.”