How To Cope With Falling WaterHow To Cope With Falling Water Falling water is something that fish are accustomed to, but anglers may not be. Don’t let a sudden drop throw you for a loop.
By M.L. Anderson
Bass deal with fluctuating water levels all their lives. In tidal waters, the changes are daily occurrences. In large reservoirs, the changes can be slow or abrupt, drastic or slight. Out west, a drought over a decade long has resulted in massive changes in water levels. Even with the day to day level being a small percentage of the capacity of the reservoir, there are still seasonal changes that affect the behavior of bass. At Lake Pleasant north of Phoenix, Arizona, for example, the annual vertical drop is about 100 feet. Oroville in northern California is another reservoir with drastic yearly drops.
“During the summer Oroville can drop eight or nine inches a day,” says California pro Gary Dobyns. “In fact, sometimes it falls over a foot a day.” This pulls the bass out of the coves, so when the water is falling, Dobyns starts his search on points right outside of coves. “If the water is really falling they won’t stay in a cove, even right in the middle,” Dobyns explains. “They just get out of there.” Gary doesn’t make any major changes in how he fishes – just where.
If he can get away with it, Gary will always choose a reaction bait, but at Oroville he often has to fish for deep fish, and that usually means switching to a Robo Worm on a dart head or shaky head jig. A Carolina rig is another possibility. “When the water starts falling, the fish suspend a lot and they really get on pilings and trees,” Dobyns adds. “Channels with steep walls can be really good, too. You can find spots and largemouths in the same places, but the largemouth are usually more cover oriented. Spots tend to suspend more – they have no problem living in open water. If you can find a hump in deep water it’s a huge deal.”
Watching your graph is critical to finding fish that have pulled out into open water. If you can find bait, the bass will be nearby. If Gary sees baitfish forty feet deep, he looks for structure at forty feet and fishes there whether he sees fish on it or not. Cover on the structure is what largely determines what he’ll use on it. If there is a lot of brush or trees, a shaky head worm or a Texas rig is the best bet since both are weedless.
For casting to pilings or structure without brush, Dobyns likes to rig a Robo Worm or a small Yamamoto grub on a dart head with an exposed hook. “I just let it free-fall and shake it a little,” Gary says, “and I watch the graph.” Gary makes a cast to one side of a piling and lets the lure fall down beside it. With the open hook, any fish that bites is going to be caught. Spotted bass are so aggressive and abundant that he can catch a hundred of them a day just dropping worms and grubs on pilings and other vertical structure.
Arizona angler, Gary Senft, has been fishing desert impoundments for decades, so falling water is something he faces on a regular basis. When the water drops three or four feet, Senft often finds that the fish just move on down the bank with it. But sometimes they simply change their minds about what they want to eat. If he’s been catching them on crankbaits and the water drops, they may still be five feet deep, but now they are finicky and he has to go after them with a drop-shot.
Senft will often deal with falling water by throwing a drop-shot rig with a very short leader and working it down the bank almost as quickly as a crankbait. He can put a huge number of fish in the boat this way…even when another angler has just gone down the very same bank with a spinnerbait or a crankbait. Senft uses Mojo weights because they don’t snag in the rocks and brush as much as other weights and he uses a variety of Robo Worms. “Fish will hang on to a Robo Worm forever,” he says. His favorites on just about any desert reservoir include Morning Dawn and Aaron’s Magic.
In tidal waters the fish are used to a rhythm of rising and falling water. “In tidal waters there’s usually a certain time that fish will want to feed,” says Dobyns. “In spring and winter it’s usually high water, and in summer and fall it’s low water.” He says that eighty percent of your bites can come in one hour on tidal waters, so chasing the tide is a good strategy. You need to figure out what stage of the tide the fish are biting on, then move so that you’re always fishing that stage. On the delta, for example, if the high water is at Sherman at 9:00, it will be at Stockton around noon. “You can chase the tide for a good half of the day,” asserts Gary. There is a major and minor tide every day, and it changes roughly every six hours. The times change by fifty minutes every day, so it’s essential to have a good tide chart and learn to make the adjustments for locations.
If you decide not to chase the tide, you need to stay in one area and discover how the fish react to the different stages of the tide. Generally when the tide goes out and the water falls, they’ll move off shallow grass beds to the edges where the bottom falls off. These areas are easy to see because the grass beds come to an end. Fishing the edges of the grass at low water can be really good.
Brett Hite is another western pro who is accustomed to lakes that have their ups and downs. “A lot depends on how fast the water is falling,” says Brett. “If the water is falling fast they’ll suspend more and you’ll also find more of them on steeper banks.”
Bass that are suspended in open water often congregate under anything that provides shade. Shade becomes their cover and Brett has found that he can catch a lot of fish by targeting shade. Many marinas use tires to make breakwaters and those breakwaters can be hundreds of yards long. The water beneath them may be over a hundred feet deep on some lakes, but there will still be bass suspended there.
Brett uses a Vixen right beside the tires to start out. The walk-the-dog action of a stick bait like a Vixen will often draw bass up even from deep water, especially in clear water. If that doesn’t work, you can always switch to a spoon or a dart head and send something down to them. When you’re dropping a bait in a hundred feet of water and it stops at 20 or 30 feet, you know it has to be a fish.
The boats and boat houses in the marina provide additional hideouts for suspending bass. When the bite is particularly tough, a Senko can be your best bet. Hite throws unweighted Senkos as close to the edges of the boats and breakwaters as he can. A big Senko falls faster than you might think, but it still takes a lot of patience to fish this way. “There could be 500 fish under there,” Hite says. “With that many bass, at least a few of them have to be hungry.”
Like Dobyns, Brett pays a lot of attention to his graph. Immediately after launching he examines the graph. “You’ll see a certain depth range where all the clutter is,” he explains. “That’s the activity range, so that’s the range I concentrate on. I look for structure at that depth, and when I fish under the tires, I know I don’t need to let my lures fall any deeper than that.”
Arizona pro Clifford Pirch has gotten a lot of experience on a variety of lakes since he turned pro. In his home state of Arizona, lakes tend to be very deep, so when the water drops the fish have plenty of places to go. But in some of the lakes he’s fished, deep water may only be fifteen feet or so. “On a shallow lake, when the water starts to drop it’s like somebody pulled the plug and the fish head right for the drain,” he says. On a lake like this, Clifford simply looks for the deepest hole close by. “Say I’m on the Delta, and the tide pulls the water down in a shallow slough,” Clifford says. “I move out to the edge of the grass and flip a worm or a jig.” Grass grows only to a certain depth, so when the bottom drops off, the grass stops. This deeper area outside the grass is the first place the fish will gravitate to.
If he decides to down-size and throw a finesse worm on a little jig head, he uses braid but goes to lighter braid and 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. The braided line makes it much easier to set the hook and get the fish back to the boat, even in weeds. He uses a blood knot to join the leader to the braid. “It pays to watch the water level closely,” Cliff adds. “When the water starts to come back up they move up almost immediately.” Cliff says that bass eat better on a falling tide, but movement, in general, is good because it moves food.
Falling water is something that fish are accustomed to, but anglers may not be. Don’t let a sudden drop throw you for a loop. Just remember that the fish are simply going to move to someplace comfortable and that they are still going to have to eat. If you’ve been on a good pattern, odds are you can find those same fish someplace nearby.
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