I quit tournament fishing in 2003 and for the most part I don’t miss it.

What I do miss is the figuring out. The exploring. The breaking down a body of water I’d never seen before, or hadn’t been to in some time. Where are the fish holding? Are they spawning? On the move? In their summer haunts? What are they eating? These questions and more must be answered to put together a solid pattern. A tournament angler may get 3-5 practice days to build a pattern. However, the weekend angler might only have one precious day. That Saturday they’ve been waiting for when there are no kid’s ballgames, no weddings, no yard work, no anything. Just that special day when an angler can say “Gone Fishin”.

So how do we put a pattern together in that day?

For starters don’t wait for that day. Now you can’t actually put a pattern together until you have caught a few fish, but, you can give yourself an advantage. Get a head start on your trip by doing research at home.

Check the internet. I know many of you already do this as I see the questions on Facebook and fishing forum pages. What’s the bite like at Lake X? Are the walleye hitting cranks or live bait? Is the top water bite happening?  On my website (www.fishnfunokoboji.com) the fishing report page is by far the most viewed page. The Iowa DNR (iowadnr.gov) site has a wealth of information on the lakes in our state. Most bait and tackle shops have websites and Facebook pages. The good ones keep up-to-date reports.

Check the weather and track water temperature if possible. This is extremely important in the spring. We need to know where the fish are in relation to the spawn. Different species spawn at different times. Water temperature and length of day seem to be the determining factors in the spawning process. If you don’t know when your target species, i.e. bass, walleye, catfish, etc. spawn, research it. Also research what type of bottom they prefer when spawning; hard or soft bottom, bull rushes, rock and gravel? All of these are spawning areas for different species. When the spawn is over, it’s time to think about food, because for the most part that will dictate where a fish spends the rest of the year. 

Learn what prey is available. In many of the reservoirs in Iowa, shad are the main forage. In our natural lakes, minnows and shiners are the dominant baitfish. Bluegill and crawdads are available forage in nearly every body of water in Iowa. Knowing what feed is available helps an angler narrow the search. If I was chasing bass on a natural lake during the late spring or early summer the first place I would look is areas where bluegill spawn. Find these large populations of bluegill and you will find bass feeding on them. On a shad based reservoir in mid-summer I know I’m going to be looking in open water for big schools of baitfish. The more we know about the bait fish in a particular body of water, the quicker we can find the game fish.

Most of our homework is done. We have studied game fish movements from ice out through fall. We know what type of baitfish our chosen body of water has available. Now it’s time to make an educated guess, based on our knowledge and time of year or seasonal pattern, as to where the game fish may be. How do we do that at home?

Get a lake map and study it.

At ice out most species of fish will still be near wintering areas. These include, points, humps and flats with immediate access to deep water. Mark all of the areas that fit this criteria. I use different color Sharpie pens to mark different types of areas. Designate different colors for different times of year. I will circle an area in black and write wintering area. A spawning area will be in red, summer in green, etc., etc. Then use the same colors for all of your maps. There will be overlapping areas. 

As the water warms in spring, offshore areas become less populated as fish move toward spawning areas, highlight these spawning areas. This is a gradual process and not all fish move at the same time. They meander, stopping to feed. Male fish are usually the first to arrive at spawning areas, and the last to leave. Spring cold fronts halt the process and warming trends accelerate it. So transition zones become important, specifically drop-offs on the edge of spawning flats. Highlight these areas.

After the spawn all that’s left for the year is to eat and don’t get eaten. Structure and cover help a fish accomplish these goals. All lakes and reservoirs have some type of structure. However many, especially our bigger reservoirs, are lacking in cover. Because it’s important, let’s look at the difference between structure and cover.

Structure is permanent, it is a part of the lake’s infrastructure much like the foundation of a house, and consist of: flats, points, drop offs, humps, bridge pilings, creek or river channels, etc… Flooded trees in a reservoir I personally don’t consider structure. However, if there is a distinct edge formed by a large group of trees this I would consider structure. This edge often coincides with a drop off into a creek or river channel.

Cover is not permanent and is susceptible to change. Cover consists of: weeds, flooded brush, the shade of a dock, downed trees, manmade brush piles, and boat hoist. Cover that is located on a structural element is ideal.

We’ve studied the lake, the fish habits. We know what baitfish are prevalent in the system and we have watched the weather patterns for the past week. So where do we start?

For me, that decision is the last piece of homework I do. I take all the info from my marked maps and the seasonal patterns and match them to the Lakemaster map in my Humminbird. I will generally pick six prime spots and place an icon on these spots. I want spawning/feeding areas, access to deep water, and a combination of structure and cover. One thing you will see quickly is these are often community spots that get fished often. Don’t let that worry you.

Attack these spots. Fish as aggressively as conditions will allow. Your target is the most active fish in the system. The ones most inclined to bite. Start with a lure that covers a lot of water effectively—maybe a crankbait, a buzzbait, a jig— but don’t crawl it, snap it up and let it fall. You get the idea. Cover water, move, attack, make something happen. I remember a guide trip on Little River Lake in southern Iowa back in the early 90s. The walleye had been on the tips of points for nearly a month. We had fished a few spots like that—vertical jigging with nothing to show for it. So I fired a cast up shallow into 6-7 feet of water. My jig never made it to the bottom. We moved shallow and immediately started catching walleye.

Mix it up. Do not get lazy. If you are fishing by yourself, work these prime areas with at least 3-4 different presentations. With two or more anglers in the boat, each should offer a different type presentation. The first one the most aggressive, then one a little slower and finally a subtle temptation. Make cast from multiple angles. I’ve seen times when working a lure from deep to shallow resulted in zero bites. Reverse it and go from shallow to deep and the bite becomes fast and furious. This is especially important when current is involved, like in a river or reservoir. Or, when wind creates current in a natural lake. As a general rule; the more current, the shallower the active fish will be. Remember that shallow is relative to the seasonal pattern the fish are in.

What happens when the fish aren’t set up on these prime spots? Unfortunately this happens, maybe due to weather changes or fishing pressure. Now we move to secondary locales. This might be an inside turn or cup. Maybe they moved tight to cover like laydown logs or docks. Maybe they moved offshore and are suspending. When we did our home research we should have marked these secondary spots and have a plan on how to fish them.

About The Author

Doug Burns

M. Doug Burns started his fishing career in 1986 as a dock boy at Sunset Lodge on famed Lake of the Woods. Doug quickly worked his way up to guide by fishing whenever he had the chance and producing good results consistently. He started the Iowa Guide service in central Iowa in 1994 then moved to the Iowa Great Lakes in 1999 where he now spends 150 plus days a year on the water. Doug is a proven tournament angler, winning four times and qualifying for 6 national championships including two RCL and one In-Fisherman PWT Championship. Doug has published one book, "Twelve Days in Walleye Heaven" and over a one hundred fishing articles in various national and regional publications. He is a sought after seminar speaker as well.