I can still vividly remember my very first fish. Sitting on an old wooden dock, can of worms at my feet and an intense sense of determination in my spirit, the scrappy sunfish may not have been very big, but it certainly captured a large part of my heart.
That first experience in angling proficiency taught me an important lesson - - docks hold a tremendous amount of fishing potential. Whether you chase down bass or pursue panfish, dock fishing is a unique technique that will bring surprising rewards. Next time you are on the lake, steer your boat over to the nearest dock and hang on tight - you are about to embark on a new angling experience.
Largemouth bass are a cover-orientated fish. Bright, sunny weather force largemouth to seek the cooler, shaded water that a dock provides. They are also an ambush predator, so the more hiding spots a dock has to offer, the better the chance of having a fish waiting underneath. Put these two pieces of the puzzle together and you are well on your way to unlocking the dock factor.
My favorite time to dissect docks for largemouth is during hot, sunny and stable weather. These three variables will have bass stacking up under the wood and waiting in anticipation for a morsel of food to wriggle their way. During these conditions, look for fish to be relating to the darkest and most hidden recesses under the surface, paying particular attention to any areas of the dock that are facing away from the penetrating rays of the sun. Keying-in on floating weeds alongside the dock, lily pads or tethered boats will increase your chances of finding those hidden fish.
"Big" Jim McLaughlin, a two-time Pro Bass Classic champion, offers these words of advice. "A lone dock on a nothing shoreline is often overlooked by anglers, but not by a roaming bass, who sets up shop if conditions are favourable." Trying these little things can bring about big rewards.
Stealth is a key concept to keep in mind when approaching a dock. Fish can be jittery while lying in wait, and any sudden sound or movement can shut them down or spook them out from underneath the dock. (It goes without saying that smacking your bait off the dock, or worse still, into a cottager's boat is a definite no-no!).
A multitude of lures work well for dock largemouth, each having its own time and place. For aggressive fish, I like to throw crankbaits and spinnerbaits to pull fish out from their home. These lures are particularly productive when fish are hanging on the outside edge of the structure, waiting in ambush to strike. For less active fish, or if they are holding tight to cover or buried in the weed growth, a texas-rigged lizard or jig and craw combo cannot be beat. The jig and craw combo is a mainstay on my flipping stick, during the summer months - and for good reason. It has a slow, seductive fall, it is relatively weedless and it offers a large profile for fish to key-in on.
Cold front conditions or cloud cover will also cause bass to congregate under docks. Look for fish to be right on the edges during cloudy days and extremely close to cover during cold fronts. Faster presentations will be your best bet for cloudy, warm days, whereas a front will force you to fish extra slow and methodically. Persistence is the key when targeting docks, and letting the fish dictate what they want and finding out where they are hiding, will help you work your way up the ladder to "dock maestro."
The scrappy cousin of the largemouth bass, although its preference is for rocks over weeds, also finds wood docks attractive and comforting during certain conditions. Dock fishing for smallies is a slightly different game than searching for largemouth, as the available cover and structure that smallmouth relate to is in sharp contrast to their bigmouth brother. One variable that is of utmost importance is the presence of a rock bottom. Although the dock can have some weed, wood and sand strewn around, without rocks under and around it, chances are you will not connect with fish. I like to search out docks on prime rock shoals, with a passage to deeper water nearby. This affords the smallmouth a feeding area to travel to, and an escape route to retreat to when it has had enough of the skinny water.
Unlike the largemouth, who may reside under a dock for extended periods, the smallmouth prefers to periodically visit docks for short stops while traveling along shorelines and actively feeding. Smallies will use the cover a dock provides to ambush and corral any prey that may wander or reside in this sanctuary. If the sun comes up, and they become "trapped" in a shallow area of water, smallmouth will take up residence under a dock until it is safe to return to a deeper water haven.
Smallmouth bass under docks provides a different style of fishing in comparison to the largemouth. Long casts with light line are the preferred method for chasing smallies as water clarity and the skittery nature of the fish will come into play. Downsizing your bait is also necessary, in order to make your presentation as lifelike as possible. My two favorite baits to throw at dock smallmouth are topwaters and jigs. Topwater baits provide extreme excitement for the angler; watching a chunky smallmouth race out from a dock to clobber your plastic intruder is positively heart stopping! I have seen some fish swim as far as ten feet to intercept my bait and the visual thrill never seems to diminish. Jigs are my other weapon of choice for fish that are less active or stubborn. Working all angles and sides of a dock with a bucktail or twistertail jig will entice any fish present to take a bite. Concentrate your efforts on docks for smallies this season and connect with the fish that have been playing "hide and go seek" with you all of these years.
Panfish may not possess the size or strength of some of the larger gamefish, however, they consistently provide two quality traits that most anglers cannot resist - fun and taste. These scrappy and pugnacious fish are attracted to docks in a BIG way, and anglers are wise to follow them there if they hope to fill a frying pan with fillets.
Crappie are the most sought after panfish, and their relation to docks, especially during the spring period, is next to none. Once ice-out occurs, crappies flood to the shallows in search of food. They set up residence on most shallow water cover they happen upon, paying particular attention to any docks they may find. The one thing to keep in mind when looking for crappie docks is to search out old, wooden docks with a variety of emergent weed or brush scattered in and around the area. Old, decrepit docks that are falling apart will hold the largest concentrations of fish, whereas newer, metal versions will routinely be devoid of any activity.
Once water temperatures reach between 66 and 68 degrees F (19 to 20 degrees C) crappies will begin their spawn. This is when the shallows will be positively teeming with fish, and the majority of those found will be in and around docks. Mating fish prefer to build their nests close to cover, and boat docks are high on the sought after list.
Crappie will usually suspend under a dock at a variety of depths, so it is wise to cover all areas, from the top of the water column to the bottom, until you connect with a fish. One portion of the dock that crappies find extremely attractive is the legs of the structure. These seem to be magnets for this panfish, and it is always worthwhile to throw a few extra casts at each of these supports before moving on to the next dock.
In terms of tackle and baits for crappie, simple is definitely the route to take. Ultra light combos are the preferred choice, due to the small line diameter that they require, and the fight that a smaller fish can transmit through a rod of this type. Light line and solid docks can be a difficult proposition, however, as long as you play the fish quickly out and away from the structure, there really is no cause for concern.
There are many baits that cater to panfish, and crappie in particular, although the basics are often the best choice when rigging up for battle. Micro jigs are my number one choice for fishing docks, due to their ease of use and the resemblance they hold to the food that the fish are actually feeding on. Jigs can be fished in two ways - suspended under a float or fished freely. Fishing a jig under a float has its advantages for dock fishing as you can set a specific depth, which keeps your bait in the strike zone for as long as you need to, or simply let your float drift under the dock in order to cover more of the area hidden beneath the structure.
If the fish are inactive or if the cover below the dock prohibits a free-swimming presentation, then a float presentation should get the nod. If you are faced with active fish, or if the fish are found at different depths under the dock, a free-swimming jig will bring optimum results.
Other presentations that are productive around docks are small spinners and tiny crankbaits. These lures really shine when panfish are hanging right on the outside edge of the dock and are in an aggressive mood. A rule of thumb for dock panfish is slow presentations during cold water temperatures and faster baits as the water warms up.
Experiment with different techniques and baits while picking apart a dock, and rest assured that the fish will be more than willing to co-operate. Try these tactics for perch, rockbass or sunfish, and discover the attractive power that docks have over all types of panfish.
Dock fishing is a specialized technique that can add a new dimension to your angling repertoire. Next time you are on the water, spend some time "knocking on docks", and be prepared and ready for whatever happens to answer your call.
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