Figuring a New Bass Lake Out on the Fly with Pete Ponds
MLF Select Pro offers tips for new and veteran anglers on easy signs to read any body of water
By Lynn Burkhead
January 17, 2017
Walking up to the Major League Fishing bass rig occupied by Geico Select pro Pete Ponds, it was obvious that the Mississippi angler was deep in thought.
After all, he and the day's field of MLF pros had just reached their boats after recently being told which zone they were going to be fishing on the vast, serpentine lake that winds its way through the Ozark Mountains of central Missouri.
With a story idea in mind, I approached Ponds and asked this question: "Pete, what are you looking for this morning and how will you figure things out on the fly?"
Ponds kept his gaze straight ahead, looking at the Lowrance electronics map that his boat was brightly displaying in the early morning gloom.
"Contour is everything," said Ponds as he pointed to the screen. "This is the main tributary arm, it looks like, here on Lake of the Ozarks.
"And I'm trying to decide whether or not the fish will be on the deeper stuff today or on the shallower stuff," he added.
One important clue for Ponds was to figure out where the fish were going to be in their transition between the end of the spring spawn and the beginning of summertime patterns.
While Ponds has previous experience on Lake of the Ozarks, that doesn't mean that he felt comfortable on this particular morning.
Especially as he tried to figure out a lake with nothing more at his disposal than his years of accumulated fishing knowledge, his experience as a tournament pro, an understanding of various water body types and the seasonal patterns that drive bass.
"I think a lot of these fish are just (now) coming off the spawn here in central Missouri," said Ponds, a 57-year old Madison, Miss., angler with one BASS tournament trail victory on his resume.
As I let the recorder roll on, Ponds continued to think out loud and tell me about how he was going about trying to put a game plan together.
"It could be (that some bass are in) the post spawn right now, maybe even some keying in on the bream spawn or the shad spawn," said the Duckett Fishing pro-staff member. "So I'm considering (this morning) that the shallow bite may be stronger.
"Now understand too that (on a lake like this), you have bluffs that give the appearance that they are deep, but they actually have shelves that come out, so they have some shallow water (sitting there). And sometimes, these fish will hang out on that."
MLF Select Pros prepare for the 15-minute Mercury Ride-Thru, a chance to read the lake and look for ideal fishing spots, at the 2017 Summit Select from Lake of the Ozarks.
As Ponds continued to try and figure out the "lay of the land," as he called it, he acknowledged that contour was going to play a key factor in where he wanted to start fishing.
"If I can find a steeper outside bend with a shallow point on it, that would be a pretty good (place to start)," he said. "Or maybe even a bluff end, that could be good. So that's a lot of the stuff that is running through my mind right now."
Factoring into his decision-making process on this particular morning was having a basic understanding of what kind of lake the MLF pros were being asked to fish.
"Southern reservoirs are usually flat and shallow - well, most of them are," said Ponds. "As you get into areas with more (hills and) mountain ranges, those are highland reservoirs, which I consider this (one) to be.
That being said, Ponds said that Lake of the Ozarks isn't a text-book highlands reservoir.
"I used to fish this lake, probably 10 or 15 years ago, and I know from that experience, it's not quite as deep as Table Rock or some of these other highland reservoirs. But it's still a highland reservoir (in my mind)."
Because of that, Ponds was trying to determine if his starting point would be channel swings, a point, a shallow backwater flat or even around a boat dock.
"You have to let the fish tell you," said Ponds. "You go out there and catch a fish or two and you let them tell you what to do and you go from there."
While his starting point seemed uncertain, the FLW Tour pro did acknowledge that sooner or later, he would be fishing around the myriad of boat slips, boat docks and boat houses that cover Lake of the Ozarks.
"Always boat docks and marinas are (a big) key (here)," said Ponds. "Why? Because there is a lot of bugs, spiders and other similar feed for the forage fish. That starts the food chain and the bigger fish like the bass will eat those (forage species)."
"(Boat docks) are certainly a player (here), there's no doubt about that."
"I've got an old buddy from this area, Ken Cheeks, that I used to fish with a lot," smiled Ponds. "(And) he used to tell me 'Fish them nasty docks Pete, fish them nasty docks!'
"That's the docks that are older docks and have a lot of vegetation growing off of them and stuff like that."
And the dirtier a dock is, the fishier it tends to be, as well.
Ponds also noted that sometimes, it helps for an angler to understand what type of boat is actually slipped beneath a covered dock or sits in a marina stall.
If it's a ski boat or pleasure boat, then there might not be much need for an angler to look too hard around that dock. But if there's a bass boat or panfish rig sitting there, then an angler might want to pay close attention to what is in the water around that dock.
Why is that?
"Usually, the ones with bass boats in them are the ones with lights on the dock (which attracts insects and baitfish)," said Ponds.
"And they are (usually) the docks that guys have been putting brush (piles) by and stuff like that. That (can be a) good indication (to fish there)."
When I mentioned that a lot of this seemed to revolve around an angler paying close attention to what he is seeing, Ponds shook his head in agreement.
"It's all about (seeing the) visuals, about paying attention (to what's around you)," he said. "You just can't go out there and be in la-la land and go fish because you're not going to catch them if you do (that).
Ponds noted that while it might sound complicated, it really isn't.
"You just have to pay attention," he said. "Some guys are really good at nature. Some guys, in deer hunting and such, they notice things that other people don't notice.
"It's just like in school," he added. "Some guys make all A's and don't have to study. I'm one of those guys that has to study.
"But I love it so much that I really make myself pay attention to things like birds (in the area), where there is grass, what kind of trees there are on the shoreline, (where) the outside bends of channels (are), is it a sand bottom or is it a rock bottom, is it pea gravel or is it chunk rock, stuff like that.
"You really have to ask yourself a lot of those questions."
And if you do, you might find yourself sitting in a bass boat one day next to Pete Ponds, trying to figure out how to win the day's competition in a big-time Major League Fishing event.