Spring breaks: Cutting Mississippi’s massive Granada Lake down to size takes talent and a bit of redneck ingenuity.
As Randy Haynes jumped backward, the tendon in his knee popped. “It sounded like a .22 rifle going off,” the 59-year-old angler remembers. And perhaps it was that sound that scared the 8-foot-long water snake back into the bush. “I had just laid down a stringer of crappies under that bush. Evidently, that snake didn’t like my idea at all. That sucker had a head about as big around as a softball. But that’s spring crappie fishing in Mississippi. Action-packed, but not always the action you’re packed for. “
Haynes had been taking part in an early-spring Granada Lake tradition: walking the banks, doodling for shallow crappies.
“They bring the lake way down, so you can drive all the way around it. When they start bringing the water back up, the crappies come with it. Everybody and their brother will be out there. It’s an amazing redneck extravaganza.”
1. Get the Edge
As the water level climbs on Granada, it inspires the crappies to start moving toward the shallows in preparation for the spawn. These fish will stop at the first significant break or piece of structure, so this is where Haynes begins his search.
“You can look at a lake map and see where the depth breaks are,” says Haynes. “So, drive around in your truck until you see the edge of the water near one of these breaks, and start fishing.” He uses a 10-foot pole and ties a small jig to 2 feet of line that dangle from its tip. “Drop a chartreuse-and-orange jig about 12 inches under the water near the bush tops. You jig a little bit, and either get bit or move.”
2. Playing Snag
Snagging crappies might seem crude to some, but it is highly effective—and legal—in Mississippi.
“This deal starts out in January,” says Haynes. The colder the night, the better it is. When they start running water to fill up the lake, crappies get sucked down the tube and will stack up on the riprap below the dam. These fish will not bite because they are dazed. So, we snag ’em.”
Rig up tandem jig heads about a foot apart on your 10-foot crappie pole, leaving about 9 feet of line dangling from the tiptop.
“Stand on the edge of that riprap bank and drop your line out. You’ll feel your jigheads bump into the fish, and you just set the hook.”
Righteous Rigs: Using simple powers of observation helps take the mystery out of trout.
If you were to look in Anthony Bartkowski’s garage, you might think he was an Orvis rep. Actually, the 46-year-old Colorado resident is the executive director for the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. But he has spent time as a trout guide, inspired by his addiction to fly-casting since a family friend first introduced him to the sport when he was 12 years old.
“I grew up catching trout, steelhead, and bass in the tributaries of the Great Lakes,” Bartkowski says. “But when I moved to Colorado about 15 years ago, I fell in love with the mountains and crystal-clear streams here, and the many species of trout that swim in these waters.”
Bartkowski isn’t the only angler in love with the salmonoid opportunities that abound near his Colorado Springs home, so he has developed several tactics to stand out from the crowd. His insight will help you catch pressured trout where you live.
1. Hanging Back
When Bartkowski pulls into his favorite streams, which are often crowded with other anglers, he notices how the anglers get rigged up at their cars before heading to the water. “In my mind, these guys have just wasted a tremendous amount of time. Most of the local anglers know better.”
Instead, Bartkowski will leave his tippet naked until he gets to the water’s edge to make a few key determinations.
“Don’t assume anything,” he says. “I want to look at what bugs are present. I will turn over rocks, see how the fish are positioned in the current, and gauge feeding activity. When you are too eager to start casting, you forget to be observant.”
2. Triple Up
A lot of anglers visiting Colorado fisheries for the first time use traditional single-fly presentations. According to Bartkowski, this is a mistake.
“A lot of our local anglers will use a two-fly setup, which is good. But I go even one step further and add a third fly,” he says.
“The water can be so clear in many of the streams we fish that your fly selection has to be perfect. The process of elimination can take a while. Do you need a dry fly, a nymph, an emerger? And what colors? By presenting a three-fly rig, I can come to the proper conclusion very quickly.”
To complete the setup, he adds a strike indicator 36 inches above the top (dry) fly.
Bass to the Basics: A wader’s guide to guaranteed bites and 100-fish days
It’s likely you own A baitcaster older than Austin Luke. He is only 33 years old, but he lives to fish. His passion was ignited walking farm ponds in the Heart of Dixie, and it exploded in high school. When he arrived at Troy University, he founded the school’s bass fishing team.
“If I’m not fishing, I’m thinking about fishing,” he says. After college, Luke decided to guide fly-fishermen in Wyoming before turning to his current full-time position as a salesman of industrial goods.
“That was an awesome time. I had some pretty impressive clients. I mean, how many people get to say they taught Jimmy Fallon how to fly-fish?
“Bass fishing is so popular in Alabama, the lakes here are just loaded with bass boats every weekend. So I started concentrating on rivers and creeks about 10 years ago. I either wade or use a kayak now about 90 percent of the time I go. It’s not unusual to have 100-fish days, and I’m not fishing in a crowd.”
The tactics that Luke has learned while fishing mostly small Southern streams are applicable anywhere in the country that largemouth and smallmouth bass are found. Just be prepared to spend most of your day alone.
1. One-Lure Wonder
When targeting small rivers like the Cahaba, which runs through Birmingham, a small plastic craw is hard to beat. “If you want to head out with just one lure, grab a little 3-inch Paca Craw and rig it on a ¹⁄₈-ounce Slider jig head,” Luke says.
The tactic isn’t difficult to master, either. “You wade or float until you find a shoal. These shallow-water areas typically have a few big rocks that block the moving water. Cast the little craw upstream and slowly crawl it through ambush areas. If you see a fish looking at the bait, pop it real quick. River bass will not let a craw get away.”
Remember that in summer, bass feeding patterns shift to low light or darkness. That makes it a good time to work deeper water or darker river bottom.
2. The Guarantee
If artificial baits ever fail Luke, he has a 100 percent effective backup plan.
“If I really, really want to catch a fish, I’ll stop fishing,” he says. “Lay down your rod and start turning over rocks. Eventually, you will find a live crawfish. Using the same Slider head, I’ll hook the craw through the tail, and cast it into deep holes between shoals.”
When you get a bite—and you will get a bite—don’t set the hook immediately.
“Wait about five seconds before you yank. The fish tend to grab the crawfish and start swimming with it before they try to swallow it.”
Not only does the live craw get bit 100 percent of the time Luke uses it, it also gives him important data for the remainder of his fishing trip.
“Look at the colors of those craws, and change your artificial offerings to match.”
Later is Greater: Put weekend warriors in your rearview mirror by tangling with walleyes at night.
Jake Bohnsack started fishing walleyes when he was 4 years old. That’s what you do in northern Minnesota.
“My dad would take me and my brothers to Mille Lacs Lake as soon as the ice was safe. It wasn’t anything too serious for us back then. We’d bring ice skates, and Dad would drill holes to set up rattle wheels. We’d skate around until one of those wheels started turning, and then it was a race to see who could get to the fish first.”
Now Bohnsack is 36 years old and takes his walleye fishing a little more seriously (although he still uses the same rattle wheels his dad employed when he was a kid). A sales rep by trade, the Minnesota native finds time to target walleyes close to 10 times per month. He mainly plies small lakes near his home. Still, the fishing pressure from nearby Minneapolis pushes the local anglers to target fish during nonpeak times, which is a great lesson for anyone hoping to boat more fish.
1. By the Light of the Moon
In spring and summer months, Bohnsack hits the water only after the sun goes down.
“Find a 10-foot sand or gravel bottom outside a good weed edge and troll crankbaits,” he says. “Put yourself between the deep water, where the fish hang during daylight hours, and their feeding area.” Bohnsack drops one No. 7 Rapala Shad Rap back 75 feet behind the boat, and places the other at 100 feet, moving between 2 and 3 mph.
“Here’s the trick,” he says. “Every few minutes, rip that bait. It triggers strikes.”
2. Light the Bobber
If Bohnsack is fishing from shore, which he often does, he still targets the 8- to 10-foot zone, and he still fishes at night.
“Remember, walleyes are very light-sensitive,” he says. “So, you have your best chance of catching them shallow when the sun goes down. I’ll fish off a dock at night using a lighted bobber. It’s super easy. I just put a leech or minnow beneath the slip float. I think that little bit of illumination interests the fish, and they find an easy meal swimming underneath. What’s more fun than bobber fishing?”
“Plenty of guys use line-counter reels,” says Bohnsack, “but a lot of guys set their drags way too tight. You really don’t need to set the hook. If the drag is tight, the momentum of the boat will rip out the small trebles.” Shimano
Power ‘Gilling: Anyone can catch a bunch of bluegills, but landing knot-headed bulls takes tactical refinement.
Dan Quinn’s first memory of bluegill fishing is Norman Rockwellian. At 5 years old, he was sitting in an inner tube with a rope tied to it, the other end secured to his father’s belt loop. Red worms and bobbers completed the picture of father and son wading a small stream near Brainard, Minnesota.
These days, the 35-year-old marketing professional fishes all over the country for all sorts of fish, but chasing bluegills around local lakes in western Wisconsin still holds a special place in his heart.
“Bluegills are awesome because they are so accessible. You can go just about anywhere to catch them,” he says. “But since my childhood days, I have really enjoyed not just catching bluegills, but targeting really big ones.” His tactics are unusual but highly effective when catching a mess of fish is simply not enough.
1. Cranking Giants
Crankbaits for bluegills? Sounds a little crazy, but that’s exactly how Quinn targets platter-size ’gills in summer.
“You won’t catch a million fish doing this, but I’m not after numbers. I’m after the kind of fish you can’t wrap your hand around,” he says. Using a Rapala Ultralight Minnow (it’s about 1½ inches long), Quinn makes a long cast behind his boat, engages his spinning reel, puts his trolling motor on high, and trolls the bait around likely summer haunts. “I focus mainly on offshore humps that have grass on them. The deal is, when you catch one, stop and cast. This is all about making first contact, and then exploiting the school.”
2. Go Horizontal
Quinn ramps up his aggression once the ice thaws.
“A lot of guys like to sit in one spot and catch a bunch of small fish. It certainly works, but that’s not my deal when I’m trying to target big bluegills.” In spring, his favorite tactic is finding future spawning areas and casting a marabou jig.
“Now the jig I use is a ¹⁄₁₆-ounce VMC. This thing is super subtle in the water. I’ll figure out where the bluegills will be spawning, then target the dropoff just outside this area, usually 8 to 10 feet. Cast the jig to the other side of the depth break and just slowly reel it back. The big ’gills swim up and slurp it down. It’s an awesome bite!”
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Drag and Bag: The game plan—and the meal plan—for your biggest catfish ever.
“I don’t remember how old I was, but it was just after I got over that wobblin’ part of learnin’ how to walk when Daddy started taking me catfishing,” remembers Jeff Dodd, now 54. “We’d wade down the little shallow rivers near home and cut willow saplings to make limb lines. Daddy taught me that you have to stick ’em straight down in the mud of the riverbank, then cut another limb with a fork in it and stick it in the mud right in front. That way, when the catfish takes the bait, the willow sapling isn’t pulled out by the fish—that sapling stays put because of the leverage created by the forked branch. We caught those catfish to eat.”
Dodd grew up in Trenton, Tennessee, where he now farms full time. When he’s not planting cotton, soybeans, and corn, he’s chasing catfish. Although he doesn’t use limb lines anymore, five decades of chasing whisker fish has taught him valuable insights he’s willing to share.
1. Drifting for Bites
When Dodd isn’t targeting big blue cats in the Mississippi River out of Memphis, he is floating on Kentucky Lake in his home state or traveling to Rend Lake, Illinois.
“On Kentucky or Rend, all you have to do is find a pretty shallow flat, position yourself on the shallow side where the wind pushes you to the deep side, and slowly drag dead bait,” he says.
For channel cats, Dodd rigs up a drop-shot rig, like bass anglers use, and positions cut bait or shrimp on a 3/0 circle hook 2 feet above 1 ½ ounces of weight. “Drop your bait down to the bottom and let out 40 or 50 feet of line. Put your rod in the rod holder and wait. I could catch 100 in a day if I wanted to clean that many.”
2. Edge a Ledge
“A lot of folks probably don’t realize that catfish aren’t always on the bottom,” says Dodd. “They will regularly suspend just off the edge of a main-river ledge to eat whatever drifts off the edge. So these fish can be easy to catch if you know what to do.”
The first step is to use electronics to find main-river ledges that have fish. “You can tell if the fish are catfish based on the size of the marks. The marks I’m looking for have eaten the marks the bass guys look for.”
To catch these fish, Dodd rigs up a hefty Carolina rig using a 2-ounce egg sinker and a 2-foot leader that terminates with a 5/0 catfish hook. Cut bait, either skipjack or panfish, is his go-to meal plan.