Deciphering Docks

When it comes to bass fishing, not all docks are created equal. Here's how to tell the great ones from so-so bass hideouts, and how to fish them properly.

It's catches of chunky largemouths like this one that keep bringing bass anglers to the dock time after time. With a little knowledge and experience, you'll soon learn which ones produce and which ones don't. Photo by Jeff Samsel.

Having been told that the plan was to fish docks, I recall being curious as to why we were zipping right past dozens of them. When the boat stopped, in fact, we were well up a creek, and the bank beside us was lined with docks in both directions. Using the trolling motor to ease us up to a very ordinary-looking dock, my buddy handed me a spinning rod rigged with a finesse worm.

"Feel for brush," he instructed. "When you bump anything, slow it way down and be ready,"

Within a few minutes, we both had landed bass, and by the time we finished working that dock, we'd caught four or five. With fish in the area, I expected him to ease us over to the next dock in line. Instead, he said, "Let's make a move."

Curiosity won out at that point, and I had to ask what was so special about that particular dock. "Partly it's the brush," he answered as he opened a compartment and began digging around. "If the docks on either side of us had brush, they'd be good, too.

"That's only half of it, though," he continued as he found what he'd been looking for -- a weathered lake map. After gazing at that map for a moment, he showed me the exact spot where we were sitting, and immediately I understood. The inundated creek channel made a big swing toward the bank, and the channel edge was almost under the dock we'd just been fishing.

Not surprisingly, we spent the day running and gunning, hitting very select docks that had all the right elements -- and we caught fish almost everywhere. That day I enjoyed the huge benefit of riding the lake with an angler who knew the waters we were fishing exceptionally well, and who knew exactly what the fish had been doing. Far more important than the day's pattern or catch, though, was the lesson boldly underscored and emblazoned in my head that day -- that not all docks are created equal.

As summer sets in, boat docks provide important cover on any lake that is even somewhat developed. Along with providing all-day shade, which can be critical through the warm months, most docks offer cover in the form of pilings and many also have boats tied to them, brush planted around them or extra features, such as ladders for swimmers that provide additional cover.

Virtually all docks hold some fish at times, and fishermen who simply work from one dock to the next typically will catch a few. However, those anglers who carefully consider what makes one dock different than another and really seek to build patterns accordingly will catch far more bass in the long run.

Before digging into any discussion about fishing docks, though, it's probably worth acknowledging that working the waters around private docks can be somewhat of a touchy subject. Some dock owners are protective of their backyard waters and may shoo anglers away. Although the actual waters around the docks are usually public and legal for anyone to cast or pitch to, it's not worth arguing with a landowner over the right to fish around his dock. There are too many other fishing holes out there.

More important, anglers need to be respectful of the dock owners' property when they do fish around these structures. Many dock owners who do have "anti-fisherman" sentiments probably have had their attitudes shaped by anglers who talked loudly very early in the morning, left snagged lures on docks, nicked the paint off boats while trying to cast between boat and docks or were otherwise disrespectful.

Courtesy covered, let's dig into exactly how to figure out which docks will serve up the best fishing.

The No. 1 factor that separates some docks from others in terms of fish-holding capacity is their location, and there are several aspects of location that anglers should consider. First come big-picture questions about what area of the lake the most fish are using. Are bass feeding best in the creeks or along the main river channel? Up the lake or down the lake? Shallow or deep? With answers to those types of questions, anglers can identify groups of docks to begin exploring. Overall, during the summer, docks in the lower ends of major creeks, in pockets at the lower ends of lakes, and way, way up major tributaries tend to offer some of the best prospects.

As you might guess, there's no single, simple answer to the question of which docks will produce the most fish. The answer varies by lake, by conditions, and even by the mood of the fish.

Within an area, many location-related factors separate certain docks from others. Some docks extend off the ends of points. Others are in the backs of coves. Still others are close to channels swings or other significant structural features. Even side-by-side docks are often quite different from one another in their offerings to bass because the slope of the bank shifts and one is a shallow dock, while the other is a deep dock.

Anglers must consider conditions and a bass' normal behavior to home in on the docks that are most apt to produce based on location. One helpful trick is to study a good map of a specific area and look for those textbook spots that the bass "should be" using. And then simply see if there is a dock in any of those spots.

Certain things don't show up on lake maps, however, including some important steering factors. Among the most significant are the wind, current and the color of the water. If a steady wind has been blowing directly into a pocket, for example, the best docks in that pocket are apt to be in the very back, where the plankton has been blown and the baitfish concentrated.

In areas that have current pushing through them, the fish commonly feed more actively on the moving-water side than the lee side, especially if docks create eddies and ambush points. That said, it's usually worth probing at least a few docks that are both in and out of the current to let fish reveal which they are relating to and where they are feeding most actively.

Water color can have a couple of important effects that anglers should consider. First, when the color varies in different parts of a lake, it will affect the areas (and therefore the docks) that hold the most actively feeding

fish. If the water is quite clear overall, for example, docks in creeks that have been stained by wind, wave action or a recent rainfall may hold more active fish. If much of a lake has turned ultra muddy, on the other hand, docks that stretch into the clearest water remaining in the lake may be the most productive.

Even when water color is uniform, the color can help dictate which docks will hold the most fish and how the fish will relate to those docks. If the water is significantly stained, fish will relate to the docks that offer the most cover in shallow water, and they will hold very tight to the cover. In clear water, fish will be off the deep ends of docks, often relating more loosely to them and will be more apt to relate to scattered surrounding brush.

Before examining the dock structures themselves, it's important to consider all the "extras" that commonly make certain docks extra inviting to bass. Stands of aquatic grass, deep riprap banks, brushpiles, rockpiles and other physical features commonly combine with docks to create outstanding complexes for the fish to use under various conditions. As an example, a dock that is bordered by floating vegetation at the shallow end and has brush sunk off its deep end will tend to hold more fish than an otherwise similar dock in the same area that lacks these extras.

Among the most important extras are brushpiles, which often are put out by property owners so they can catch more fish off their own docks. Brush might be stuffed under the dock itself, sunk off the sides or directly off the end, or it might be placed a cast's length away. The best docks, of course, offer all of those options.

At times, the tips of brushpiles will extend out of the water, making brush easy to locate. More often, the cover will be fully submerged, and finding it requires peering carefully into the water, searching with electronics and paying close attention to any extra "bumps" when working waters around docks. Anglers also should pay attention to clues that brush might be present -- the most obvious of those being fishing benches, rod holders and lights that are pointed toward the water. Similarly, a dock that harbors a boat that looks like it's really used for fishing is far more apt to have brush sunk around it than one that appears to be a water skier's.

An additional "extra" that anglers always should be on the lookout for around docks is food for the bass, whether in the form of baitfish schools, bluegills hanging around dock pilings or crawfish tunnels along the banks. If the shad are concentrated in a certain part of a creek, chances are very good that the docks in that same area will hold their share of bass. Likewise, if most of the baitfish are holding in a certain depth range, the most productive docks often will be the ones that have pilings in that specific depth.

Along with considering what is around a dock, anglers ought to pay attention to what is not around a dock. When even a small dock that doesn't have much obvious added draw provides the only cover along a significant stretch of bank, any fish seeking concealment along that bank pretty much have to go under that dock. Lone docks, therefore, sometimes gain a bit of an edge over those that are part of long rows of boat docks.

Finally, it's important to look at the physical construction of the dock itself and what it offers to the fish in terms of cover to relate to, shade and concealment. Most distinctions are obvious and easy to interpret, but they're important and too often overlooked. Wide docks offer more shade than narrow ones. Docks built on supports -- especially those that have cross bars between the supports -- provide more cover than floating docks. Low docks offer more all-day shade than those that are higher off the water. That factor can be especially important as summer progresses. T- or F-shaped docks and U-shaped boat slips provide more angles for bass to ambush from than straight docks and typically offer more cover in the form of pilings.

The most complicated docks that offer the most interesting cover for bass sometimes are the most difficult to fish effectively. However, that is not all bad. Most anglers will make a single unsuccessful attempt to get a bait to the prime area, make a cast or two along the outside and move on, leaving those fish unpressured and more catchable for anglers who are willing to practice tough deliveries and persist at trying to put their baits in difficult places.

As you might guess, there's no single, simple answer to the question of which docks will produce the most fish. The answer varies by lake, by conditions, and even by the mood of the fish. And so, the process of figuring out which docks are the best often calls for experimentation.

Armed with a good understanding of important variables, however, an angler can look at a lake's total offerings, consider the season, conditions and his own history on the lake and begin the process of deciphering docks. The key is to approach dock fishing with an understanding that even neighboring docks are often distinctive from one another and then to pay close attention to distinguishing features of every dock that does produce a strike.

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