For most of the year, we are after fish that we rarely see. But for about six to eight weeks in the spring, we can actually watch and look at the fish we are trying to catch. It's really exciting!
A lot of fisherman will say they can't catch fish on the beds or that it takes too long. Well, both can be true, but I hope to shed some light on the situation. Keep in mind, to be good at bed fishing, it takes practice and experience. You need to be able to find the fish, judge its mood or state and then catch it.
When I look for fish, I commit to looking for fish. What I mean is, I don't cast another rod, pick my nose or anything else that may cause me to overlook that big fish. Trolling motor on high (water clarity affects the speed I can go) along the bank, I try to stay out past the limit of visibility with the sun behind me.
As I'm looking, there will be an angle into the water that offers the best view. It may be in front or behind the boat, and that's where I focus my attention.
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I learned long ago that fish will almost always make their bed in or around something to mess the fishermen up. So I look closely at stumps, trees, boat docks, anything I see in the water. I will comb through an entire cove or pocket. I don't stop on the first fish I see, but rather, I look at all the fish in that area to find the best and most catchable one.
Once I spot the fish that's big enough for my attention, I judge its mood. As I go by it, if he never swims out or leaves the bed ("locked on") but stays within a few feet of the bed, that fish is very catchable. If the fish swims out of sight, I will come back slowly and more quietly. If the fish still swims out of sight, I go on to the next fish.
Next, I gauge the fish by how it reacts to bait. It is always preferred to throw your bait well past the bed, let it sink to the bottom and then bring it to the bed. Splashing bait right on top of the fish makes it wary and harder to catch. Sometimes the fish will swim off when the bait hits the water or gets close to the bed, and that's OK. Just bring your bait up to the edge of the bed and wait. You may have to back your boat off to get the fish to come in faster. The farther I keep the boat away from the fish, the better. They tend to be more aggressive when they don't have a boat sitting on top of them. If the fish swims in, sees your bait and races out of the bed, it's going to be tough to catch it. When the fish pauses or addresses the bait by nosing down on the bait, that's a good sign.
Now that we've found the fish, it's time to catch it. Observe the fish -- where or how it goes into or out of the bed, where in the bed it focuses its attention. In a bed that may be 18-24 inches in diameter, there is going to be a "sweet spot." Watching the fish will help you identify the spot. I keep a couple of baits on the deck, because some fish will react more aggressively to one bait or another. I like to use white bait that I can see, but you have to judge the fish's reaction to the bait.
There are usually two scenarios that take place.
First, if the fish addresses the bait directly, be ready, because it can go quickly at any point from here. The first time it noses down on the bait, I wait and don't move the bait. It may pick the bait up, but if it doesn't, I move the bait slightly or shake it. If the fish continues to address bait, it's just a matter of time before it picks the bait up to move it away from the bed. Be quick and certain the fish has the bait in its mouth; under most tournament rules, a fish caught by sight-fishing has to be hooked inside the mouth.
Second, if the fish swims in, sees the bait and circles around, I shake it slightly. If the fish addresses the bait, scenario one takes over. But if the fish doesn't address the bait, I wait until the fish is facing the bait and pop the rod, causing the bait to hop/jump. This quick movement can generate a quick response. The bait will typically land outside the bed. Reel it in and throw back past the bed. Again, watch the fish as you bring the bait to the far edge of the bed. If the fish still doesn't address the bait but is in the path of the bait, I pop the rod and try to bump the fish with the bait. Be careful not to foul hook the fish. Repeat until the fish addresses the bait. I want to aggravate the fish into biting. That bait making the fish move around the bed and bumping into it will anger the fish.
A couple more things to note:
This can take a long time. Make sure the fish is going to help you, otherwise it's not worth the time. Several times, I've spent more than an hour on a single fish.
Also, be careful when you set the hook that the fish has the bait in its mouth. There's nothing worse than spending 30 minutes on a fish, foul hooking it and having to turn it loose.
Catching bedded fish is a battle of wills -- the fish's will to guard its bed and not get caught vs. your will to catch it. You just have to be more patient and determined than it is.
There is no substitute for time on the water.
This is the first in a series of monthly fishing columns by local fisherman Rusty White that will appear in The Herald.