It seems that every year we find ourselves eagerly waiting around for longer days, warming water temperatures and bass activity to kick into full gear. The fish are gorging themselves in the pre-spawn, aggressive during the spawn, and back into heavy feeding after spawning efforts are through. It’s up to this point that things are going great – you know exactly which bait to use, and more importantly you know exactly where the fish are located. Then, like a light switch, you can’t get a bite. You aren’t seeing fish, and you don’t know where the bass you had your finger on for the past three months vanished off to, seemingly overnight.
When it comes to late summer fishing, there are two main factors that impact bass behavior and location. Seasonal changes (water temperature and oxygen levels) and food availability. For the most part, bass will do one of two things: move out into deeper cooler water and follow bait or stay close and hunker up in shallow heavy cover. Every lake is different but here’s a couple of good places to start.
When water temperatures rise, and available oxygen levels change, many bass will slip into deeper, cooler water to wait out the summer heat. Finding these fish takes a bit of work, but with some patience it is entirely possible. Every body of water is different, so exact depths will vary on the lake dimensions and conditions of the water that day. Generally, these deep dwelling fish will be anywhere from 15-30 ft of water. In most cases the clearer the water, the deeper you should look. For the clear lakes in the northeast, there seems to be a magic number right around 27-30ft.
Find those fish. The sooner you can put a plan together the more water you will be able to cover and more schools you will be able to find. I recommend picking these locations out ahead of time using the contour maps on your graph and determine the highest probability areas of locating fish. You can also use the (free) Navionics Web App to access detailed lake contours on your smartphone or computer. These high probability areas include: ledges, breaks, humps, points, and river channels. The fish will relate to their previous shallow water areas, where they can slip easily and quickly into that deep more comfortable water. Most of these areas will have a steep pitch into the ideal water depth. On your map, keep an eye out for small groups of close contour lines. This indicates a steep change of depth. Once you’ve located these areas on the body of water that you’re going to be fishing, make note of them and be patient while idling around those locations to mark fish on your sonar as you come across them. It may take some adjusting to find the exact depth the fish are in that day, but once you find a school or two, use that depth as a reference point for the rest of the locations you’ll be searching. In most cases, bass will show up as defined arches relating to bottom structure, rarely stacked more than 3 or 4 fish high. If you find a group that is stacked 6-10+ fish high, they are most likely not bass. Don’t be afraid to look deeper than you are comfortable with. There have been countless tournaments won fishing offshore.
What to throw. Once you’ve found a school of fish, how do you catch them? Before you go casting to the fish you just worked so hard to find, it is important to make note of their location. Whether that be a visual object that you can relate them to mentally, a waypoint on your graph, or a marker buoy. These will all give you a good point of reference to exactly where you found the fish. A great technique to start with is a deep diving crankbait or jerkbait. With a crankbait, try to maintain contact with the bottom as much as possible. Use a steady retrieve at a medium rate and if the fish are active don’t be surprised to catch a couple good ones. If you don’t get bit on a moving bait, or catch a few but the bite turns off, it’s time to slow things down. My go-to technique in a slower finesse presentation is a drop shot. Match your leader length up with the depth of fish that are suspended off the bottom and work slow and methodically. Change up colors (white, watermelon, green, pink), bait types and retrieve patterns to see what the fish want that day. Sometimes they want the bait shaken vigorously, other days they want it hopped of the bottom and deadsticked. Listen to what the fish are telling you. Another good technique to use on offshore fish is a shaky head worm. Rig up a senko style or big 10in worm on a 3/8oz shaky head jig and drag, shake and deadstick it along the bottom. This works best when fish seem to be particularly relating to the bottom of the lake. Stay traditional in colors – In clear water use more natural colors like Watermelon or green pumpkin and use darker colors like black and blue or plum when there is less clarity.
Although a sizeable portion of fish move deep, there are still a lot of fish that stay in shallow heavy cover throughout the summer months. Fishing for these shallow fish is a little more straight forward. The water temperatures will be much warmer this time of year, so it helps to know what the fish’s priorities are – Oxygen and food. Fish are still going to target the cooler and heavy covered portions of the shallow water column, but there must be adequate oxygen levels for fish to survive. Good indicators of suitable oxygen levels are healthy submergent and emergent vegetation, windblown shores and water current.
What to use and where to use it. Good places to fish for shallow water bass relating to heavy cover are weed lines, Lilly pads, heavy weed mats, grass flats, reeds, and docks. This is the time of year where you can fish topwater baits like spooks, buzzbaits and frogs, which to many is the most exciting way to catch a bass. Topwater baits are best used in early morning and late evening. In many cases, the areas with ample shallow cover are also very expansive and can seem overwhelming. Stick to pitching weightless worms, Texas rigs or jigs in and around any abnormalities in the cover you’re fishing. Find the differences and you’ll find the fish. The same pretty much goes for docks. Docks are a reliable source of both shade and good structure for bass and bait alike. In the warm months, fish will most likely suspend on the end near the deepest portion of the dock or back up in the darkest possible spot of shade. On bright sunny days shade is going to be your best chance of pulling one out of shallow cover. Pitch and skip your bait around and under docks to put it in places and in front of fish that are hard to reach. Old wooden permanent docks have always proven to be more successful for me.
Put these techniques into use next time you’re on the water when things get hot and frustrating – They might just help fill your livewell!