Captain Steve Soule’
It isn’t frequent that the average bay angler takes time to plan their trip out in depth, or consider all of the details of the day ahead. If you look at the most successful anglers around the coastal waters you will find that they leave very little to chance. These guys and gals who fish tournaments and take customers out to earn a living can’t afford to take a haphazard approach to fishing. They may seem relaxed and fish may appear to flock to them, but very little happens that wasn’t expected. This isn’t a result of researching reports in the news papers and on the internet, or listening to radio shows. These plans are typically founded in years of on the water research and an intimate knowledge of the waters that they will fish and the species that they target.
It seems that today, more than I can ever remember seeing in the past, anglers are yearning to catch what the pros catch. The biggest problem is that they don’t recognize the effort that went into each successful day. None of the top pro anglers got to their level of success without a huge investment of time, money, frustration and desire. So, how does an angler new to the sport of fishing and craving a greater level of success in their personal fishing get to that level? The answer is neither simple nor likely to be what most readers would want to hear. It is however, the best and most fulfilling way to truly learn to catch, more, and bigger fish consistently.
To find success in fishing and create consistent and repeatable results, you need a plan. Unfortunately, not just any plan will work. The plan must be founded on known truths, most of which can only be found with first hand experience. For those unsure about how to create an effective plan for a great day of fishing, here are some guidelines.
Start with what knowledge you do have, add in some that can be gained from current local informational sources, and understand the factors that can and will affect your day. If you have knowledge of an area, this will probably be one of your best starting points. With that foundation of understanding of the area, you only need to look for the "signs" that your chosen location is holding fish today. Hopefully, the familiarity of the area allows you to know the tide flow and level, wind direction, and other pertinent water conditions that work well. There are days when you can "force" a pattern to work, but for most days, and most anglers, this isn’t a recipe for a fun day of fishing. Again, knowledge of more areas, especially of those that differ not only in location, but terrain as well, will help you achieve success in catching.
I always urge people to explore. This has saved me as a guide and tournament angler more times than I could ever remember. Exploring doesn’t just refer to driving off to a new location twenty miles away. Exploring the general area you fish, and water and shorelines adjacent to them, can often lead to a greater understanding of how the fish move within the area. These are the things that you need to know: where the fish are positioned on different tides and at different water levels? What are they feeding on and when do they want to eat? Do they feed in a distinct and defined area within the larger area? If they leave the immediate area, where do they go?
A great example of this is one of my favorite reef systems in the Galveston Bay Complex. This particular reef structure is fairly long, and very diverse, encompassing shallow and deep water, mud transitions, guts, and even a few small flats. Due to the reef’s orientation, both tide and wind can have a profound effect on the water flows around the reef. For years, my understanding of this reef was very simple. I knew it had a shallow ridge that exposed itself on low tide and the general area was mostly shell bottom. But, after many years of drifting and wade fishing the area, I can now identify at least 7 distinct guts in and around the reef, shallow flats in several areas and several very distinct feeding areas for the big trout and redfish that inhabit the general area. I can tell you on most days, in most conditions, which part of the reef the fish will most likely be on and when they will most likely eat. Again, nothing beats the time spent exploring and understanding the areas that you fish.
I have said for years that a drift-only angler will never have the kind of intimate knowledge that a competent wade angler will develop. This isn’t to say that you can’t learn well from a boat, it just takes longer to develop the same kind of understanding of the area. When you are drifting, you absolutely have to monitor the depth finder and note the various depth changes in an area. You will have to drift and repeat, numerous times, as you are only seeing a "small slice of the pie" that is directly under the boat; whereas, a wade fisher can zig-zag across the area and piece the puzzle together much faster.
So what are the key elements of the plan, and how do we develop a successful one? The answer has several important pieces. Know your weather conditions! Know your tides! Know both flow direction and level! Know the primary forage species that your targeted fish is currently dining on! Know the timing of when the fish are feeding best! With all of those things said, the single most important piece of your plan should always be: Know when it’s time to adjust your plan!!
Knowing your weather! This is fairly simple. Turn on the TV or get on the internet and you can find the pertinent details for the day. But you need to be able to relate what you see or read to what will happen at the spots that you intend to fish. Wind direction can be critical to water clarity and levels. It can also take away the ability to cast comfortably to the area that you want to target.
Knowing your tides! This is also just a click away on the internet. Find a reliable source for tide level and direction of movement. These two components can be two of the biggest determining factors in your success in saltwater fishing, especially if you are in an area that sees big swinging tides or the opposite where the tide movement can be nearly non-existent. If you fish back-bay areas, you would want the bigger tide movement days to move the prey species. Conversely, if you fish near a gulf pass, strong tides often make fishing very difficult as the bait and fish are literally flying by in the tide.
Knowing the forage species! For trout and redfish, there are a handful of forage species that are consistent throughout most of the year. Mullet are a year round target. Shrimp are prevalent during spring, summer, and fall. Shad show up during the spring and remain through the summer. The list goes on, but it can be important to know what is there and when they will be the primary target. Knowing the target prey can help in selecting lures and baits to improve success.
Know the timing that the fish are using to feed! This timing is usually related to one of only a handful of factors. Tide movement – usually fish will be on a pattern of feeding in one area during the incoming tide and another area during the outgoing tide. These may not be far apart, but will almost always relate to the way the tide will flow through the area and around the structural changes found there. Light, or lack thereof – fish will feed on certain species during certain light level conditions, mostly due to their ability to ambush that particular animal most effectively. Frontal passage can bring huge feeds, but its my opinion that it has the utmost to do with the change in barometric pressure. Knowing this, you can pick some things from your weather report that may help your day. Most of the time this is just something that you are effected by rather than planning on. I do however try to plan trips around impending pressure changes to see improved success in big trout fishing.
Know Moon phase and timing of position! This is something that you can definitely use to your advantage, and again, it’s readily accessible on the internet. All fish and animals tend to feed following a moon schedule more than any other factor and knowing the timing of rise, set, directly over and directly under, can have a huge impact on your plans and fishing success or failure.
What’s the impact of this knowledge? Well, you won’t know until you try, but here’s a few interesting stories from recent months that help to substantiate what I’m suggesting. Last week was a great example. I had been trying to make plans with my tournament partner, Daniel Popovich, but my work schedule wouldn’t allow. He ended up fishing one of our favorite shell patches on Monday evening, in what wouldn’t seem like ideal conditions .The wind was blowing at nearly 20 mph, it was very cloudy, somewhat foggy, and occasionally drizzling. Not that we haven’t seen these conditions produce huge stringers of trout in the past, and this day was no exception. He landed 9 trout that afternoon, between 22 and 27 inches. Of them, two were over 7 pounds and 3 others were over 5!! This was a classic case of knowing the spot, weather, and tidal conditions. The fish are also fairly predictable about feeding on the moon. I think that it was setting during the period when the best bite was going.
During every single one of the 5 tournaments that we have fished since December of 2009, our trout will consistently feed on the moon position. Obviously, we can’t plan to have a specific moon phase or position, but we go into each and every day knowing when to expect the best bite and making sure that we are in the area where we have the greatest confidence at that time. Another interesting note, they will feed even more aggressively when the moon hits a certain position, coinciding with a shift in barometric pressure.
During our second tournament in December, we spent seven hours without a single bite, but at around , the fish in a very small area turned on and bit in a way that I have never seen before. This was one of the most prolific big trout bites that I have ever fished! In about an hour and fifteen minutes, I had 15 bites. I was only able to land 5 of the fish that bit, but the stringer weighed 14.85 pounds, and I didn’t come close to landing the biggest fish that bit. I only had one fish that was under four, while the biggest was 6.75 on the certified scales. I missed or couldn’t stop 5 trout that easily would have dwarfed the biggest trout of the day. It was both fascinating and infuriating, but enough to land us a 3rd place finish. The bite was right on the major feed period for the day based on moon event and in conjunction with a sharp drop in a rising barometer the first day after the passage of a very strong clod front. I’m not suggesting that most people go out and try to fish a frontal passage, and definitely not suggesting that anyone endanger themselves, but if you are there and can fish it safely, that can be one of the most amazing bites you will ever experience in trout fishing.
As you develop that understanding of the areas that you fish, you will likely learn the smaller areas within that area that the fish actually feed in. Then you can better understand how the tide will effect where they will be positioned, given a certain level of water and direction of flow. Add to that the knowledge of which tide they are using to feed the most and when the moon will motivate them to a peak of feeding. From these conditions and your knowledge of the fish, and experience in the area, you start to understand better how to approach the area, as well as the fish. Then, you are more likely to be in the right spot at the right time. You can begin to take some of the guess work out of your fishing and fish an area with confidence. These things won’t guarantee you fish every trip, and there really aren’t any absolute truths to fishing, but you will be several steps closer to catching fish every trip. Think of it this way, you won’t catch fish at every spot, every day, but if you can eliminate a spot in a much more efficient manner, you can move to another that may be working. Eventually, you will find one that works on even the most difficult of days.
The final piece in developing plans for angling success, is understanding what has happened while you are on the water and keeping accurate records. I am as guilty as anyone of not recording some of the best information that I have learned. I’m a hit and miss log book angler. Fortunately, I have a better memory of fishing than I do of virtually anything else. Now, my family will not agree with me that this is a good thing, but as far as my fishing career goes, it’s been very helpful. If you recognize the importance of your logbook, here’s a few important things to keep track of: weather conditions, such as, wind direction and speed, cloud or light level, air and water temperature, water color and clarity, available structure in the area, activity of the bait, barometric pressure, tide level and flow direction, and of course the bait that you used. Don’t forget to log the bad days along with the good. It is every bit as important to know what didn’t work. I would far prefer to eliminate non-productive areas quickly rather than stay in an area trying to force something that isn’t going to happen. It isn’t always easy to understand exactly which factor is the cause of success or failure as they are often in conjunction with other factors. The more you watch and record what you have seen and experienced, you will find that your ability to locate and catch fish will increase, along with your ability to eliminate water.
So you can see, developing a plan, based on the current conditions, your knowledge, from recorded data, or that of others that can be borrowed. Knowing your target and the food that they are eating, and then understanding the timing can most definitely lead to greater success. This understanding will most likely will translate to much more fun in your personal or professional fishing time.
Good luck and great fishing!