Is Fishing Pressure Fake News? Part 2: The Stories
In Part 1, I analyzed lake data to see whether the fishing population in a pressured body of water, can stand up to that pressure. In Part 2 of my research into fishing pressure, I wanted to bring in some commentary from full-time fishing professionals. Tim Chandler is a full time guide on Lake Guntersville in Alabama, as well as other well-known Alabama lakes. In addition to Tim’s commentary, I talked to eight-year Bassmaster Elite Series Pro Chad Pipkens, who was happy to weigh in with his opinions.
Ryan: Tim, you’ve been a guide on one of the most popular and pressured bass lakes in the country, Guntersville in Alabama, for thirty years. In general, over the course of a week or month of guiding, do you notice the fishing changing with pressure? How do the fish respond, and how do you adapt?
Tim: They definitely respond. When the big tournaments are here, obviously that increases the pressure, but there is also a lot of dock talk here since its such a popular place. When word gets around that a particular creek or section of the lake is hot, you definitely notice an uptick in the pressure on that area. When the fish get hammered, they leave. It’s hard to say how many. They don’t all leave of course, but lots of them get out of there. The way I can usually tell when the fish have left is when you can’t catch them on the usual baits. If you have to use special baits- baits fish don’t typically see- to get bit, the bulk of the fish have probably left.
The great thing about Guntersville is the grass. If you are in less than eight feet of water you will have grass. Fish use that grass and sometimes just bury up in it. I don’t think they move far, maybe 1,000 yards in any direction. If they are in the back of a big creek, they might move to the front- things like that. I think they spread out and then regroup when the hammering subsides.
Ryan: Have you found you have to change baits or presentations in addition to changing areas?
Tim: It kind of depends on what they were biting on to start with. If a special bait starts producing, like that bright orange vibrating jig this year, or the Alabama rig in years past, then yes, you do have to change baits because they have seen it so much. The thing is, on Guntersville, patterns don’t last for more than three to four weeks or so, sometimes less. Certain baits always seem to work at certain times of the year, but then they get off it and onto something else. The wacky stuff they seem to remember, but not the usual stuff.
Year after year there’s always a rattle-bait (lipless crankbait) and jerkbait bite in the winter and the fish don’t seem to get conditioned to it. That transitions to a soft plastic bite as the spring progresses. Then you get a strong topwater bite, which can overlap some with the shad spawn which is generally a spinnerbait or squarebill bite. When summer starts, some of the fish get out to the deeper ledges where the deep crankbait bite picks up. Some fish will just stay in the deeper grass. As the summer progresses it becomes a worm and football jig bite. Then we start over again, every year.
Ryan: As a quick “aside” tell me about the Alabama rig- does it still work down there?
Tim: Fish are caught on it. The locals don’t really throw it much anymore because it does not work nearly as well as it used to. The problem is the out-of-towners still throw it all the time so the fish have not forgotten about it like they might do with other hot baits from years past. It definitely is not nearly as productive as it used to be.
Ryan: So overall, you find bass to be pretty forgetful, at least year to year?
Tim: Yes, and they are pretty predictable. It’s the fishermen that make it complicated! Obviously there are days when I am out there and those fish just seem so smart, but overall a bass is not very bright. He does not have much to do down there. He is an eating machine. He mates once a
year and the rest of the time he just swims around and eats worms and other fish. That’s what he’s programmed to do.
Ryan: I know you do some guiding on Smith Lake in Alabama as well, a very different lake from Guntersville. Do you find the fish react differently?
Tim: Definitely. Guntersville is full of grass, flats and ledges, with stained water, and it’s mostly largemouth. There is lots of structure, and lots of cover on that structure, which means lots of places for an ambush predator to move about.
Smith is super deep and clear with very little grass, mostly rock and very steep drop-offs. When the pressure happens on Smith Lake, and it doesn’t have to be fishing pressure- just the increased number of boats and wave runners in the summer can create pressure- can drive the threadfin shad and blueback herring very deep and the bass will follow. The bait and the bass have nowhere else to go but to the deep water. They are almost uncatchable at times during heavy boat traffic days. That’s when a lot of guys resort to night fishing.
Ryan: If you could give one tip, from all your years of guiding, for dealing with pressured fish, what would that be?
Tim: I like to think of a bass being much like a house cat. If you have a piece of string and you drag it by a cat, he will react and paw at it, maybe even chase it. He’ll do that the first three or four times. About the fifth time, he will just watch it go by. But if you make it go faster, or jerk it, or do something different to get his attention, you can get that cat to react. A bass is the same way.
The number one mistake I see is guys who just throw their baits out and reel them back in- the same way cast after cast. My tip would be to get creative. If you know the fish are there you have to figure out how to get them to react, and it might not be what you think. I had a great day one time by fishing a rattle bait like a worm. They were picking it up off the bottom when it was just laying there! So get creative with your retrieves, don’t do the same thing cast after cast. That would be my tip.
Ryan: Thanks Tim, I am looking forward to fishing with you when you come back north for the smallmouth. Best of luck this season!
Next is Bassmaster Elite Series veteran Chad Pipkens (chadpipkens.com). Before qualifying for the Elite Series, Chad fished the FLW Tour as a co-angler for many years, as well as the Bassmaster Opens and FLW Series as a boater. He has qualified for three Bassmaster Classics and had his best year in 2019 with multiple Top 10 finishes in major events. Despite only being in his mid 30’s, he has a wealth of solid national tournament experience.
Ryan: Thanks for doing this interview, Chad! Talk to me about a time when you really observed fishing pressure affecting the fishing.
Chad: The best example from my career actually happened last year at Bassmaster Elite Lake Fork Tournament. As you know, Lake Fork is a world renowned big bass fishery and it receives an unbelievable amount of pressure. In practice for the tournament I was able to find some schools of fish relating to structure just slightly offshore, but still in the creeks. I believe they
were transitioning fish moving in and out of the creeks for their spawning activities. I found several groups of fish using my Humminbird Mega Side Imaging and 360 Imaging and doing a lot of graphing.
One place I found was a subtle little underwater point. It was not obvious at all above water, but it just looked “right” on my Mega Side Imaging. Had I not been intentionally graphing, I never would have found it. I made a cast or two in practice and caught some white bass and a four-pound largemouth. I had several other strong bites, so I knew it was definitely a spot I wanted to try in the tournament.
When I rolled into that spot on Thursday (day one of the tournament), I could see the bass on my Humminbird 360. They were all set up on the right side of the point. Once I got dialed in, I was getting bit on almost every cast. I caught 32 lbs! Almost every fish was between five and seven pounds. I tried making other casts around the area, but they were so focused on that one spot, nothing else worked.
On day two (Friday), the fish moved. Scanning with my 360, this time I found them on the left side of the point. It was the same deal. No other casts worked. Once I had the cast lined up, it was lights out. I caught another huge bag and was leading the tournament! I really believe that the pressure I put on them on day one forced them to move, and then they regrouped in a new area and I was able to relocate them and continue catching them. Here is where the story gets interesting.
In this particular tournament we had Saturday off. When I arrived back at my spot on Sunday (day three of the event), one of the dock owners in the area walked out on his dock, and without me asking, told me four boats had hammered my spot on the “off-day”. He said that two of them were boats that had been watching me on Thursday and Friday.
What is interesting is that the fish were still there! After a little bit of searching, I was able to relocate them, but this time they were suspended way off the point in over 24 feet of water, near a standing tree, but they were much more inactive. I visited the spot two or three times during the day. Unfortunately, I hung my crankbait in the tree each time. I did not make any more casts. In hindsight, perhaps I left the area too early. I weighed in a much lighter bag from other areas.
The last day of the tournament, the fish were still suspended. I was more relaxed on the last day. I had fallen behind because of my low day three weight. I caught an 8lb fish in the morning on a spinnerbait, so when I rolled out to this spot, I was more patient than I had been on day three. I located the suspended fish. I caught several of them, and I lost a couple that would have helped. My bag was not quite as big, but I stilled weighed a respectable 23lbs that last day.
I think the take-away is that pressured fish will move. They also might stop biting for a while,and the school might disperse a little, but if they come back together and you can relocate them, you can catch them again. It might be a little harder, but it is possible. Obviously if enough of them get caught they won’t re-group, but you never catch every fish out of a good school, especially during the times of year when they are really schooling, such as post spawn, summer, and late fall.
Ryan: Did you find you had to change baits to get them to bite again?
Chad: In this case, not really. I am sure there were multiple ways to catch them, but on those three of the four days when I caught them, I did most of my damage with a Damiki DC 300 crankbait. They ate the crankbait all three days. I did mix in some other baits, but I was still able to catch them cranking. Again, I think the key was I had to wait for them to reposition and regroup.
Ryan: Keeping in mind that this tournament was in May, these fish had probably already seen hundreds of crankbaits. You also caught a 9 lb. fish on day two. That fish was roughly 9 years old. Just think how many crankbaits it must he have seen in its life, yet he still choked on your offering!
Have you found you have had to make adjustments year to year on lakes that get a lot of pressure?
Chad: It seems to depend on the lake. A great example is Kentucky Lake before the recent Asian carp invasion. On Kentucky, which in recent years had very little grass, once the spawn is over, the fish have very few places to go, except for the channel ledges. The ledges get pounded hard by everyone. Those fish, year to year, have changed what they bite. You can see them on your graph but you can’t get them to bite easily because they have been so pressured, but they have no place else to go for cover or structure. The lake has all the ingredients for a healthy bass population- current, bait, structure- just not a variety of it, so the fishing pressure seems to show itself more.
On the other hand, lakes like Guntersville, Chickamauga, Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, those lakes have a lot of cover in wide variety. They have grass deep and shallow. They have timber deep and shallow, they have ledges, rock, and docks in the right places. Those fish just reposition when they feel pressure. They have places to go, unlike the fish at Kentucky Lake. It becomes a matter of finding the relocated fish, because once you do, it seems you can get them to bite.
The Elite Series event on Guntersville this past year is another good example. Everyone thought it would be a typical June ledge-fishing tournament. I spent practice time out on the ledges but could not get bit. I started fishing grass in five to seven feet and got bit. The shallow to mid-range grass ended up helping me finish in the Top 5 and it definitely was the deal for the winner, Jamie Hartman.
I have come to believe that on these larger bodies of water the fish do a lot of suspending and roaming, and there are much more fish out there than we think. We essentially just intercept them whenever they show up on places that we like to fish. The fish are pressured for sure, but they also might have spent the last week chasing bait or suspended over 100 feet of water in timber. If they did not see a bait in that time, it obviously plays to our advantage!
Ryan: Chad, as always, thank you so much! Great stories and insight. Best of luck on the tour this year! As you can see, there are some common themes shared by Tim and Chad. We have all experienced pressured fish. The important thing is not that they are pressured, it really comes
down to what you do about it. Tight Lines, and Live The Passion!
Ryan Said is a tournament angler and U.S. Coast Guard licensed guide on Lake St. Clair. He also guides Lake Erie, and many of Michigan's inland lakes. He books trips through Marcels Guide Service - an affiliation that is beginning its seventh season. In 2011, after winning the Bassmaster Northern Open points championship, Ryan had the honor of fishing the Bassmaster Classic and the Bassmaster Elite series trail. He has fished the Bassmaster Open Series several times, as well as the Costa Series. Ryan is an engineer and teaches high school math. He coaches the college bass fishing team at Lawrence Tech, and offers seminars and "on the water" instruction for high school anglers. Ryan is pro staff for Dobyns Rods, Lew's Reels, Costa Sunglasses, P-Line and Blackfish Gear