Summer is upon us in full force. As we struggle to “politely” share the water with other enthusiasts, battle the heat of the season, clarity of the water and the clutter of people at the boat ramps, we can be rewarded with some of the most consistent, stable and dependable weather and fishing conditions of the whole year. This is not exactly the prime time of year for the largest fish in the impoundment to show themselves, but there are still plenty of quality fish to be had for those willing to brave all the challenges summer fishing has to bring.
Summertime in reservoirs usually include rapidly dropping water levels as electricity is generated to keep the rest of the community comfortable in their air conditioned environments. This, mixed with uncomfortably high surface temperatures, results in most of the fish in a reservoir pulling off the bank and sinking down in the water column staying around bait as well as seeking their preferred temperature level for optimum growth and health.
As I begin my search for fish during this time of year there are a few standard routines I will follow as well as some season specific techniques and locations I turn towards. My day usually starts the same. As I leave the launch ramp, I turn on my graph and idle out of the no wake zone noting the surface temperature and prominent depth and activity level of bait located on the screen. With nothing more than the last maneuver, I have a starting point at which to search for feeding bass.
As I get into the main channel, I will check for the presence of a strong thermocline. The thermocline is the level where cold, oxygen deficient water sinks down providing a virtual “floor” to indicate the maximum depth at which bass will usually locate. It is visually identified on the graph as a wavering line at or near a constant depth through out the water column indicating where dead, oxygen deficient algae and other organic matter suspend in open water, being kept afloat by the increased density of the colder water below.
Almost all of the baitfish activity can be found at or above this depth. Bass seem to rarely go into the thermocline, instead preferring to sit right at or just above this level in order to enjoy the comfort provided by the cooler water along with the abundance of food and oxygen found here. This seems especially true on hot, windless days with no surface chop or wave activity to stir things up. The depth can vary significantly from one body of water to the next and even be dependant on location in the reservoir.
Backs of creeks or main river channels frequently do not have thermoclines as long as the incoming water is cool and with enough force to prevent stratification. Some thermoclines out here in the west will form in 20- to 30-feet, while others may not be noted until depths of 50, 60, 70-feet or more. Still on other bodies of water it seems impossible to locate a definitive thermocline layer.
Water clarity seems to play a large role as the sun penetrates deeper into the water, so does the thermocline. The only sure and easy way I know to positively identify the proper thermocline is to drop a temperature probe into the water and note temperature differences about every 10-feet. When there is a 10-degree or greater drop, that is usually indicative of the thermocline level.
With all that being said, the quality graphs of today work most of the time as long as the sensitivity level is adjusted to its highest setting that still maintains a decent picture of the water column. With lower quality or older graphs, it may help to use the “zoom” feature and look closely as you scroll the screen down in the water column over deep water. This allows a close up look of the identified depth using all available pixels the graph has to offer making the thermocline easier to identify.
MORE ON THE GRAPH
With the thermocline identified, I will next seek out arcs indicating larger fish as well as take note as to whether the bait fish appear to be balled up in a defensive posture or spread out, suspending lazily as indicated by small dots and dark shades spread evenly across the water column near a certain depth. A preferred scenario would be the classical “ball of bait” on the graph with arcs noted under and streaks moving from below the balls into and through them. This is a sure indication of actively feeding predators attacking a ball of bait. Find this and with almost casual pitches of a lure in front of and to the sides of the boat, then allowing it to sink to this level will almost certainly produce results.
When it comes to choosing how to pursue bass in this environment, it is important to remember that although, bass rarely will follow a bait down more than a few feet, in clear, warm water they will literally rise 20- or 30-feet or more to strike prey pinned against the top of the water ceiling.
With this in mind, even when targeting deep suspending fish during the summer, a top water bait with steady action and a little profile becomes my first choice. Some of my favorite summer time topwater lures include the Heddon Super Spook Jr. as well as a Rico or other quality “popper” style bait that provides my preferred small profile.
If bait is suspended over open water or when fishing steep bluff walls, this is by far my favorite and most productive technique. Don’t be discouraged by the depth over which you are fishing. Bass will frequently suspend over water up to a hundred feet deep and still rise up to attack a wounded fish on the surface.
If I am unable to locate active baitfish or bass feeding in open water, I then attempt to target under water humps, islands, and points that top off at or closely above the level of the thermocline. This is when I look to imitate the size and color of the dominant baitfish species in the lake. Remembering that the majority of baitfish and minnows are this year’s hatch, they are usually small in size ranging from two to four-inches.
Many more bites will come on artificial lures replicating these sizes, not forgetting that indeed, bigger baits do usually mean bigger fish. To get these baits into the target zone quickly and keep it there, I frequently reach for dartheads to ¼-oz. along with drop shots with weights up to 3/8-oz. depending on depth.
Another very reliable albeit old-fashioned technique that has produced very well for me over the years is the trusty Carolina rig weighted with ½- to ¾-oz. weight. When dragging this rig, a very nice bit of advice would be to use the all but forgotten Fireline. It provides a great advantage over mono, braid or fluorocarbon by providing very minimal stretch. It keeps the diameter small, and unlike braid, holds up to sharp rocks and abrasions very well. It is about the only time I will find myself using Fireline these days. Some of my favorite baits to use include Zoom four-inch dead ringer in watermelon, Roboworm 4 ½-inch, straight tail in a baitfish color such as prizm shad or morning dawn and the small Zoom Brush hog in watermelon candy or green pumpkin. Another bait that has seemed to work especially well for me on the drop shot over the last couple years is the Jackall Cross Tail Shad in purple smoke.
This is the most important time of year to keep a rod rigged up and ready to drop over the side of the boat. Even if you find the day slow, and are unable to locate large quantities of baitfish, as you cast along the bank or drag over island tops, I can almost guarantee, by paying close attention, sometime through out the day you will locate balls of bait or a couple arcs just below the boat. This is a sure fire situation where - because I am usually fishing “forward” (in the direction of the bow) - I will flip the bait I kept at the ready towards the back of the boat letting it fall right onto or very near the arcs I saw, resulting in a quick fish or two I might have otherwise missed. I have actually had to fish complete tournament days using this technique utilizing my graph to locate and therefore sight fish for these active bass.
When it comes to suspended fish, the most difficult part seems to be getting that all important first strike. Frequently, when you hook a fish over open water there will be several more fish swimming along with the hooked one usually all the way up to the side of the boat. With this in mind, in a team tournament or when fun fishing, make it a point to have your partner cast in the direction of your hooked fish as it comes near the boat. Make multiple casts and just let the bait pendulum down. You may be surprised at how often that results in a double hook up.
If you happen to have gotten the hook up on a bait with two or three trebles, don’t be afraid to let the fish dive down next to the boat as well. This as well has produced “doubles” for me a few times with one fish on one treble and another on the other. Just fun little tricks that may result in an extra fish or two during the day. When using a walking style bait like a Zara Spook, I will always tie on a War Eagle Front Runner in front of my bait. This gives the impression of one bait chasing another, significantly increases the odds of a double hook up and for people new to walking baits, it allows the bait to walk easier and with less effort. Again, more little nuances that can add to the final tally by days end.
Just like when fishing shallow, during the summer pay close attention to the shade. Remember, not just shadows cast onto the water by objects out of the water, but focus your efforts on the shady sides of under water points and ledges. Place your boat down from a point or island top and throw parallel to the bank hitting the top of the point or ridge, then drag the bait down the side into shade pockets that are created by the angle of the sun. Focusing just on this maneuver alone will significantly increase the amount of fish caught in a day. As the sun moves and changes the shade line, so should you. Constantly be aware of the angle of the sun and try to keep it in your face thus placing your bait on the dark side of structure.
So in summary, summer is an excellent time to get out there and go fishing. Identify the thermocline to establish a maximum depth, keep your baits replicating the size of the majority of forage found and focus on shade and open water fish suspended over structure like humps and points. Keep an eye on the graph and look for opportunities to drop bait directly onto the head of fish under the boat. When you do get that all important first fish, use it as an opportunity to turn one into two by having your partner cast near the hooked fish to target any others schooling with it.
Keep in mind, there is a reason that DFG limits summer tournaments to six hours. The fish are stressed this time of year. Many of them will need decompression if kept in the live well for any length of time. Try to keep the live well water cool by adding ice, keep the water re-circulating and add an additive to help the fish relax. Better yet, snap that photo memorializing your catch and immediately release the fish in order to assure a healthy return and the chance for another battle again in the future.
Jim Novotny is sponsored by Dobyns Rods, P-Line and GYCB. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.