Fishing the Deep: Finding Off-Shore Fish
by Lynn Burkhead
As spring begins to wind its way towards summertime across the southern United States, bass on many reservoirs are beginning to shift gears.
From the rigors of the annual shallow-water spawn to the lazy, hazy days of hanging out deep and smacking shad as they wander by.
Many of those bass have or will soon find their way to a water body's ledges, the submerged structure that separate shallower water from deeper water.
Find a lake's preferred ledge these days and odds are that you're going to find a school of bass stacked up.
Probably a school of BIG bass stacked up.
So how do you go about finding such early season off-shore sweet spots?
For that, let me turn to Major League Fishing pro Mark Davis, the Arkansas legend who is one of the sport's best anglers at ledge fishing.
Where does Davis, the 1995 Bassmasters Classic champ, start his search for finding the perfect ledge?
By reading a good old fashioned lake map.
"When I pick up a map, I'm looking for three things," said Davis. "First, I'm looking for really tight contours where there is a good drop-off and shallow water close to deeper water.
"Second, I'm looking for an irregular feature like an indention on a point or something like that.
"And third, I'm looking for any creek or ditch that intersects the ledge."
In other words, Davis' search for the "perfect" ledge often revolves around finding that ledge's unique imperfection.
Major League Fishing pro Jeff Kriet is another great ledge fisherman, honing his skills on Lake Murray in southern Oklahoma, a deep and clear water body filled with rocky ledges that attract and hold smallmouth and largemouth bass.
Like Davis, when Kriet begins to venture off-shore, he is on the look-out for something that is a little out of the ordinary from the surrounding terrain.
"I try and pick out any irregularity in a ledge, something like guts, little points, high spots, and steeper versus gradual drops," said Kriet.
Given his druthers, Kriet prefers looking for off-shore bass rather than those that are up close and shallow.
"I hate fishing the bank where there might be one fish around a laydown," said Kriet. "But out there (off-shore), with every cast, I feel like I've got 100 looking at it.
"When I find them out there, it's generally a school instead of one three-pounder and that's what keeps me going."
As important as map study is for beginning to locate an off-shore ledge pattern, Davis does note that it can only take an angler so far.
"Unfortunately, the better ones (ledges) are not on a map," said Davis. "You actually have to go out on the water and find those others with your electronics, looking for the little subtle ones and the features that they have."
While many anglers think of finding such off-shore spots as being a key technique during the summer months, Major League pro Kelly Jordon believes it pays to look earlier in the year.
Especially on waters like his home lake, Lake Fork.
"What happens in May on lakes like Lake Fork is that the fish (start to) get on deep structure well (before) summertime," said Jordon, a born-and-raised Texan.
"In May, there will start to be a lot of fish beginning to show up out there, although not as many as in June and July, which are best months for fish on structure.
"May is kind of early, but you can hit the big females out there (early on) before people start going out to look out there for the big fish. Most of them (anglers) are still shallow because the fishing is so good (there)."
There's a solid biological reason that drives Jordon's boat off-shore so early in the year.
"The big females, the trophy size fish, they are the first to spawn in a lake," he said. "And usually, most of the really big fish caught are the first wave of spawning. After that, it's simple. If the big fish spawn first, they are also first to hit the deep structure."
Jordon admits that finding these heavily girthed sows on off-shore structure can be difficult in May.
"Yeah, it can be like hunting a needle in haystack early on," he said. "(But it's worth it). When I was a guide, I’d start in late April, graphing likely spots and looking for them to show. When they did show, they would almost always be big fish."
The key to finding those early off-shore fish is proper use of a boat's electronics.
"Start looking for points, channel bends, humps, (roadbeds), (bridges), etc. that are sticking out in to the main lake area," said Jordon. "Start looking in 16 to 18 feet of water down to about 25 feet of water."
When you actually get your boat in to one of these areas, use your electronics as you idle over them, and then mark them on your GPS as you find schools of fish.
"When you do find those schools, then fish there," said Jordon.
Davis says that the current variety of sonar technology combined with GPS waypoint coordinates has changed the game of ledge fishing from what he grew up learning how to do years ago.
"Before, it took some degree of expertise with a paper map and sonar," said Davis. "But with a GPS and a map, you can drive right to a spot and then drive around looking at your sonar (to fine tune a location)."
Today's electronics has even made it easier to find the more subtle locations that other anglers have missed.
"Sometimes, you can find something good when you set up on places a little bit off the beaten path," said Davis. "It might be 100 yards away (from the community hole). And of course those spots are harder to find."
Keep this fact in mind however: Maps and electronics can only take an angler so far concedes Davis.
"At the end of the day, while you want to use all of the tools at your disposal like maps and electronics, it all comes down to fishing it with an actual lure," he said.
Kriet agreed, noting that he'll spend many hours of fishing to narrow down the best offshore spots.
"The key, on obvious stuff, at first, is to see what they are on," he said. "Then I'll spend as much as 12 to 14 hours a day practicing to find those one or two really good deals out there."
What about lures for such spots?
We're talking typical summertime off-shore stuff in shad colors, especially deep-diving crankbaits like a Strike King 6XD, a Norman's DD-22 or a Lucky Craft Moonsault CB 250.
After that, don't forget to toss big swimbaits; big jig-and-pig combos; the old "ball-and-chain," or Carolina-rig, and big spoons like the Lake Fork Tackle Flutter Spoon.
One final piece of advice: When looking for fish ganging up on off-shore sweet-spots, later can often be better.
"Historically, the peak of the deep bite (on many lakes) occurs between 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.," said Jordon. "My favorite hours to fish deep on Lake Fork at this time of the year is 3 to 6 o’clock."
If such hours seem a bit odd for a May fishing trip, Jordon suggests fishing the shallow stuff early in the day, grabbing a bite to eat at a local marina, and then venturing off-shore as the day's heat builds.
Jordon reflects back to a similar game-plan he put into motion a number of years ago on Lake Fork.
The early part of the day produced shallow water topwater fish, including an eight-pounder on a Pop-R.
The middle of the day? A great lunch at Lake Fork Marina.
And the end of the day?
"I hit a school in 1996 that I never will forget," said Jordon. "It was me and two of my guiding clients back when the slot was 21 inches (on Fork). That day we caught 29 over the slot and 20 of them were over seven pounds.
"We were throwing a Carolina-rigged Ring Fry and we caught them all day long. It was just incredible."
Indeed it was.
"What else can you say about finding a school of big post-spawn fish holding in 18 to 22 feet of water?," said Jordon.
"That’s why this month is my favorite – you’re hunting the mother lode of big fish and if you can catch them out there deep, you can just smoke ‘em."
And when you do, it's an experience that will stay with you the rest of your earthly life.