January 17, 2014 by Tom Redington
Today's fishing electronics are absolutely incredible. Like most of the pros, I have cutting-edge touch screen Lowrance units on my boat with displays that dwarf what was available 10 years ago. First came the GPS revolution, making navigation of new lakes much safer and returning to offshore hot spots much easier. Then came ever increasingly accurate topo maps, with 1-foot contours. Now, instead of spending hours finding a spot that looks good on a paper map, we can run directly to it at 70 mph and pull up right on it on our first time to a lake. About the same time, huge advances happened in sonar as well, with side imaging that looks like a satellite picture of the lake bottom on both sides of our boats, plus DownScan sonar that allows you to practically count the bass, crappie and individual shad in a thick tree. To say these units were game changers is a massive understatement.
I've guided on Lake Fork for 10 years and instructional sonar trips have long been the second-most requested trip (catching a 10-pounder, on a topwater, with it jumping five times on the way to the boat but not coming off is number one). With traditional sonar, most novice anglers were only slightly less confused by the end of the trip than when they started. Nowadays, most guys fully understand the images after an hour or two.
The fact that the new sonar units are so powerful has created a fishing paradox. The maps are so good and the displays are so easy to read that it seems like every angler on the lake can find the spots that were, until recently, the secrets of a few locals.
So where does this leave us? If you fish a crowded lake or in tournaments, it means that the obvious spots on the map will probably be found by lots of others, especially during the peak summertime offshore structure fishing season. The good news is that with a little time scouting, today's power Lowrance units allow you to discover subtle lunker hangouts that most others miss - spots that would have been nearly impossible to locate in years past.
With that in mind, here are a couple of new videos I did to help you interpret your sonar unit better.
The Basics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14v1U98MeLs
For a more in-depth look, the following is a recent article I wrote, with tips for using your electronics to find bass in areas that other anglers miss.
"Not so obvious"
Boat docks, lily pads, and laydown trees all hold a lot of fish. Problem is, everyone on the lake knows it and those places get peppered by baits. In the past, offshore structure like points and creek channel bends were the best way to avoid the crowds; however, these days even a novice can turn on his Lowrance and drive right to previously hidden deep water hideouts. Obvious spots produce bass when the crowds are light. On weekends or during a tournament, you can bet that if a spot looks good to you, it looks good to a lot of others too. As a result, fish in easily recognizable places get a lot of pressure and often stop biting ... if you're even able to get on the spot amongst a crowd of other boats.
The holy grail of bass fishing, especially for tournament success or regular lunker catches, is finding something that most anglers overlook. As more anglers become proficient with new sonar and mapping technology, finding the unexploited becomes increasing difficult, yet the payoff is worth the hassle. The following are a few ideas on where to start your treasure hunt:
Barren spots on the map:
Does that big main-lake point with a channel swing on the side of it look good to you? Yeah, the last 3,000 guys on the lake thought so too. At the FLW Tour on Chickamauga this past summer, everyone knew it would be won on deep structure and that the lake was going to fish small with big crowds on key spots. I went into practice and pretty much eliminated any spot that looked remotely fishy on my map. Instead, I spent hours graphing around large expanses of seemingly flat, featureless bottoms. In most cases, the maps were correct. However, over the course of three days, I found some fish holding to spots in the middle of nowhere. While most of the field was fighting over the good-looking areas, I had three key spots all to myself and rode them to an eighth-place finish ... by fishing the worst looking water in the lake.
Micro structure & cover:
You don't need a 200-foot long point or a 10-foot channel drop-off to hold bass. Subtle contour changes or small pieces of cover regularly hold a school of fish, or at least a quick keeper. Today's graphs are an awesome search tool for this. On plane, I'm always keeping one eye on my Lowrance sonar screen, looking for any subtle humps, ditches or drops not marked on my map. Some of my all-time best fishing spots are humps that slowly rise less than 3 feet in nearly 30 feet of water, or 1-foot deep ditches running through 8-foot flats. If I see one, it's very easy to mark a quick waypoint and come back to investigate further. When I'm off plane, StructureScan clearly shows isolated rock piles, fallen trees, sunken boats, isolated grass clumps and tons of other cover that few others find. Often, you can make five or six casts to one of these spots and catch an active fish or two.
The "wrong water":
In the spring, you'll find almost every boat beating the bank. In the summer on legendary structure lakes, all the boats will be out on the ledges. When creeks get big runoff and turn muddy, most anglers flee the area. Whatever the time of year, not all of the bass are in the same area doing the same thing. Go against the grain, figure out the fish and you'll have virgin water the entire trip.
Hard bottoms are consistent bass producing locations, especially in lakes with lots of soft, muddy bottoms. In this case, gravel, rock or shell beds hold big schools. In lakes with lots of rock and hard bottom, transitions from one type to another (such as gravel to clay or chunk rock to ledge rock) are bass magnets. The best spots aren't noticeable by looking at the shore, lest everyone will know the transition exists. These transitions are easy to spot when the lake is down, so make mental notes of where they are located for when the water comes back up to normal. Again, new sonar advances make finding these spots a lot easier. Use your StructureScan to find changes in bottom hardness (harder bottoms appear brighter and thicker, often producing a second bottom return or "double echo"), and you can actually see what size rocks are on the bottom in the side view. Having trouble setting up your graph and reading the Down and Side sonar? If so, check out my instructional videos here.
Vast grass mats:
Many anglers quickly find the areas of a lake that have grass. However, submerged aquatic vegetation like hydrilla, milfoil, cabbage and coontail grows irregularly and changes vastly from one year to the next. In large flats, grass beds can grow for dozens of acres, often making it feel like looking for a bigmouthed needle in an Everest-sized haystack. Most anglers fish a small stretch of the grass by wandering aimlessly, shrug their shoulders, and move on. It takes a lot of effort and skill to stay on the raggedy outside grass edge, often a high-percentage area. If the fish are actually up in the middle of the grass flat, it can take hours of fishing to stumble upon a good school through all the dead water. In this case, the grass bed is obvious, but finding the hidden jackpots takes a lot more persistence than most will invest.
The next time you're struggling to catch fish, keep in mind that you might have an "obvious" problem.
You can follow Tom Redington's fishing tips and updates at www.facebook.com/tomredingtonfishing and www.twitter.com/Tom_Redington. For fishing articles and videos, check out his website www.LakeForkGuideTrips.com.