Not all summer largemouths spend all their time in deep water. On certain lakes, the feeding fish head for the shade of docks. (August 2007)
Photo by BIll Shaeffer.
During the summer, not all largemouth bass migrate to deep-water sanctuaries. At many state waters, the best summer fishing isn't below you but in front of you at the piers and docks lining the creeks and river channels.
Depleted oxygen levels and scarcity of cover or forage at deeper depths compel many bass to take up their summer residence around piers, the most prevalent manmade cover at many impoundments.
Piers rank high as targets among fishermen because of their visibility and numbers and their attractiveness to fish. They are, in many cases, the most obvious cover around. Piers offer bass all the comforts of home: shade, cover, food and a sense of security. Beneath their timbered framework, the whole food cycle is re-enacted. The wooden appendages collect algae, which attracts microorganisms. The microorganisms, in turn, attract baitfish, and the baitfish attract larger predators, such as largemouth bass.
Anglers don't need to study topographical maps or interpret signals on a fish locator or master GPS units to find piers. One run up and down the lake usually suffices.
The ease with which fishermen can find piers translates into a major drawback: Fishermen will find plenty of "peer pressure" at piers, since these structures are accessible to novice and pro alike.
Some anglers are more successful at fishing piers than others because they understand one of fishing's great inequities -- all piers are not created equal. The ability to distinguish productive piers from unproductive ones, whatever the lake, involves knowledge about the basic movements of fish.
While deep water is primarily the summer home of bass, fish in deep water are relatively inactive and difficult to catch. When bass feel the urge to dine, they often leave the depths and move toward shallower waters where they become more active feeders and more catchable fish. Their movements take place along well-defined paths, known as structure. Structure is any irregular feature on the lake bottom, the most common being points and creek channels. As fish journey from deep to shallow water upon structure, they stop at "breaks" along the way. Breaks can be stumps, rocks, dips in the land, and, of course, piers.
During the summer, fish may linger at the deeper breaks along structure unless other factors, such as rising water levels, force their food supply into the shallows. When this occurs, the bass are certain to follow.
The movement of fish upon structure provides one key to finding the "choice piers" coveted by experienced fishermen. The better piers are situated near deep water, close to or on points or adjacent to creek channels and creek bends, the main underwater routes of structural highways.
Additional structures, such as rock veins or rockpiles, or cover, such as brushpiles or sunken trees, increase the fish appeal of piers. Anglers often look for rod holders mounted at piers because they indicate that pier owners have sweetened the area with brush. The age of a pier and a pier's framework are important factors, too. Usually, the older the pier, the better the fishing. Many fishermen contend that bass seek out more seasoned piers because the salt and chemicals in newly treated lumber repulses fish.
Piers with distinctive features are often better fish magnets than piers with conventional features. Piers fashioned with long poles instead of straight lumber or piers with cement supports instead of wooden ones or piers with extended walkways instead of abrupt ones may hold more fish. Sometimes, boat rails near piers may hold more fish than the piers themselves.
Some lakes have idiosyncrasies, which make piers even more attractive to summer bass.
Since finding choice piers is an art in itself, let's look at how local experts find and fish choice piers for summer fishing at their home waters.
If you're not fishing piers and docks at Lake Norman during the summer, you're not fishing -- that's the consensus of Troy Armstrong of Denver and team tournament partners, Michael Fox of Statesville and Tony Shook of Claremont, three Norman fishermen who have spent countless hours at the lake.
"If you don't like fishing docks, you've got to learn to like fishing them if you want to catch fish at Norman," said Armstrong, who contends docks are the most reliable year-round pattern at the Duke Power Company impoundment.
"Ten years ago, you could get away with fishing stumprows and blowdowns. Some fish are still caught from them, but you'll be in trouble most of the time if you're not fishing docks.
"There's no consistent bite on deep-water structure at Norman like there is at Lake Wylie and other lakes in the summer. I don't know why, but fishermen can't catch as many fish here as they can elsewhere on crankbaits or worms from deep ledges and humps."
Shook and Fox rarely target anything other than docks at Norman during the summer, and with good reason -- there's little else to target along the lake's 520 miles of shoreline.
"When Norman was constructed, a lot of the lake bottom was cleaned off, so there's not much natural structure," Shook said. "What cover there is at Norman is mostly in the form of brushpiles and piers."
At one time, Shook had installed over 137 brushpiles from one end of the lake to the other, a throwback to the days when he feverishly fished Norman for crappie. Many of his brushpiles are situated near piers because Norman's fish are pier-oriented.
"Piers are where summer bass find shade, security and forage," Shook said.
Shook and Fox, who have had great success fishing the Norman team tournament trails run by David Johnson, rarely forsake piers and docks unless they find schooling bass. Even then, their departure from the piers is temporary.
"Sometimes, quality fish will school in the summer," Shook said. "If we find schooling fish, we'll try to catch a quick limit from the school, but we'll go right back to the piers."
Fox said their choice piers are in 2 to 12 feet of water with brush and rock around them. He and Shook don't care if they're old or new piers or of any particular construction, though they favor the ones located above the Highway 150 bridge.
"We always target largemouth bass and usually stay above the bridge because spotted bass have taken over the lower end of the lake," Fox said.
Another critical element in selecting piers to fish is finding baitfish along with piers.
"When we practice for a tournament, we don't fish," Shook said. "We just ride around the lake looking for baitfish, and I'm talking about big pods of baitfish. We may fish piers on points or in pockets, but there's got to be baitfish in the area."
By fishing piers in connection with baitfish, the anglers have a means by which they can eliminate numerous piers from consideration -- a necessity for successful pier fishing at a lake with an overabundance of piers.
"Norman is loaded with docks, but you can't just go to any dock and catch fish," said Armstrong's wife, Michelle, who fishes the Women's Bassmaster Tour and competed last July at the WBT at Norman.
To eliminate piers, the Armstrongs look for old wooden piers and docks, which are at a premium at Norman with all the recent lakeside development. They also scout for baitfish and brush close to these piers.
In addition, they look for piers and docks off the beaten path to escape the heavy summer recreational traffic at the lake. To Troy, the heavy boating traffic is a greater factor than the heat in making fishing difficult during July and August at Norman.
The piers at Norman have a peculiarity that makes fishing them even more challenging.
"On other lakes, fishermen can pattern the docks," Troy said. "For instance, if fish hit at one kind of dock, fish can be caught off other docks just like that one all over the lake."
But that doesn't hold true at Norman."
"Instead, bass are very dock-specific. If you catch fish from a particular dock, remember that dock because you can catch fish off it on your next trip. But you can't catch bass off other docks just like it all over the lake."
Fox also finds pier fishing at Norman unconventional.
"Textbook rules are out on this lake," he said. "Basically, you go with what you know from experience."
To fish piers, Fox and Shook ease up to productive piers and fish each one about eight minutes before motoring elsewhere. Fox uses 1/2-ounce jigs and 1/2-ounce citrus-colored crankbaits to probe the docks and piers. He rarely flips, preferring to cast or skip his baits with medium-action baitcasting rods. Some rods have a fast tip for jig-fishing.
Shook uses similar baits.
"We mainly use big baits, such as jigs, spinnerbaits and crankbaits, because we're looking for a big bite," said Shook, whose approach is an aggressive one at a lake where bass of only 4 pounds routinely take the big-fish awards at tournaments.
"We don't finesse fish very often, but if there is a time to go to smaller baits that would be in the summer."
The Armstrongs employ a different strategy, relying upon soft-plastic shad imitations worked slowly around piers for summer bass.
HIGH ROCK LAKE
Summer bass fishing has changed dramatically at High Rock Lake since the drought of 2002. Before the drought, High Rock crankbait artists, such as Lexington's David Wright, Gerald Beck and Salisbury's Spence Brunson, used to reel in big stringers of bass with deep-running baits that probed structure 7 to 12 feet deep.
But since the drought, steady rains and increasing pressure from lakeside residents upon Alcoa Power Generating Inc., the lake owner, to maintain more stable lake levels, have altered summer fishing strategies at the Rock.
"If water is being pulled and the lake drops, the fish back up into deep water, and they're easy to catch," said Yadkin Lakes guide Maynard Edwards (336/249-6782). "If the gates close and the water rises, just inches, the deep-water fish shut off, and the lake becomes a shallow-water man's paradise."
Based upon recent proposed action for water levels at High Rock by APGI to meet Federal Energy Regulatory Commission re-licensing requirements and to satisfy various interest groups, the lake level will experience more modest fluctuations than in the past.
APGI proposes to maintain the water level within 6 feet of full pool between April 1 and Oct. 31 and within 10 feet of full pool between Nov. 1 and March 31 except for maintenance or under emergency conditions. Lakeside residents are bartering for a winter drawdown of no more than 6 feet.
Whatever the final result, more constant and higher lake levels translate into a stronger pier bite.
One other quirk at High Rock contributes to a strong pier bite in August.
After the post-spawn period, the bass at High Rock migrate as deep as they'll be all summer. This movement usually occurs from mid-June through early July, the prime time for a deep crankbait bite.
But as the weather gets hotter in late July and in August, the fish return to the shallows and move to the piers. This odd behavior is attributed to poor oxygen levels at deeper depths.
As long as the lake stays within 3 feet of full pool, the pier bite remains strong in August.
"Many of the piers at High Rock are in shallow water, particularly on the Davidson County side," said Lexington's Robert Walser, the 2006 All-American champion and a shallow-water specialist. "If the water drops, those piers won't hold any quality fish.
"A few piers will hold fish even if the water level drops. I have caught bass in the heat of the summer in water so shallow I had to pitch to reach the fish."
At High Rock, piers abound in Abbotts Creek, the longest arm of the lake; Swearing Creek, a narrow, rock-laden creek; and Second Creek, the place where the late Bryan Kerchal won the 1994 Bassmaster Classic in August by pitching red-shad plastic worms to a series of docks situated near the creek mouth.
The '94 Classic illustrates how baffling pier fishing can be at High Rock. While Kerchal was the only pro to limit out each day by fishing docks, directly opposite Kerchal on the other side of the same creek, Virginia's Woo Daves, an accomplished pier-fisherman, was getting skunked.
I know of Woo's woes because I was the press observer in his boat for the day. Daves didn't catch a keeper from a pier all day, even though he targeted nothing but piers except for one brief moment when he fished brush at the Flat Swamp bridge.
In short, location is critical when fishing piers at High Rock. Long stretches of piers may yield few bites, but another stretch may
be a bonanza.
Unfortunately, what works at Norman for finding choice piers -- noting baitfish near piers -- doesn't work at High Rock because baitfish are everywhere at the APGI reservoir.
However, some strategies for finding choice piers hold true at High Rock, too. High Rock bass favor old piers, which are numerous in Abbotts, Swearing and Crow creeks, and piers stationed near rock veins or piers with brush. Wooden steps at piers or caved-in walkways should never be overlooked and often harbor the bigger fish.
Most High Rock fishermen flip green pumpkin jigs or green pumpkin- and plum-colored soft plastics around piers or use downsized versions of Carolina rigs near piers when the bite gets tough. Spinnerbaits are used in muddy water.
"When it comes to dock fishing, Lake Wylie is a carbon copy of High Rock Lake," said Captain Jerry Neely of Jerry's Fishing Guide Service (704/678-1043, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Neely said Wylie's summer bass seek relief from direct sunlight by going to the wider docks at the lake that provide more shade. The wider docks also accommodate more fish, so fishermen sometimes catch four or five fish from one dock.
The best wide docks stand in 12 to 20 feet of water in conjunction with brush, chunk rock or manmade stone, especially rock that was placed in the lake to prevent erosion.
Wylie is cluttered with docks, but the best ones rest in Crowders, Mill, Beaver Dam, Big and Little Allison creeks, and the main body.
"Fish the docks situated about a third of the way in from the creek mouths," Neely said. "You can fish halfway down Big and Little Allison creeks."
Some docks harbor bream, which draw bass.
Neely fishes the docks with 3/8-ounce amber or black jigs, working from front to back or back to front, whichever is easiest, depending upon the configuration of the dock.
The 64-year-old guide also uses a watermelon Texas-rigged plastic lizard and when the bite gets tough, a split shot crimped on the line about a foot above the lizard.
"I'll let the wind or my trolling motor move the lizard slowly away from the dock," Neely said. "By summer, the fish have seen a lot of baits and will follow them a good distance before striking."
During early mornings and late evenings, bass can be caught around the docks with topwater propeller baits and with black, beige and white floating worms.
All piers and docks may be born of wood or steel, but they're definitely not equal. Once you're able to assess the relative fishing value of piers and docks, you'll not only be able to catch more summer bass but more bass whatever the season.