If you can find the pantry, you will find the hungry bass. Think about the first hour of your day. At some point, you went into the kitchen and ate some food. And you followed the same hallway to reach the kitchen, and ate at your favorite chair, drinking coffee from your favorite mug, etc. Now, if you were a bass on a big lake like Lake Chickamauga, you would know that, at this time of year, that bay has frogs and bugs in it, and that point has a ball of shad on it, or that lay down is a good ambush point to wait for a meal to swim by it. Wind, thermocline, pressure and light are other factors, not to mention moon phase, water temperature, and water levels. They are the basic ingredients of fishing.
Most anglers know this as “pattern fishing.” Roland Martin famously defined a “pattern” as follows:
“[a pattern is] the exact set of water conditions such as depth, cover, structure, temperature, clarity, currents, etc. which attracts fish to that specific spot and other similar spots all over the same body of water.”
A pattern in this sense is a web of changing phenomena. Understand the pattern, and you will find hungry fish. Why? Because fish are creatures of habit. But we are too. And one thing Mr. Martin left out of his puzzle is the human element of the pattern, and the things we learn from other anglers. Here is the story of the puzzle I figured out on Lake Chickamauga prior to the KBF Trail and Pro Series tournaments held there last week.
When I arrived at the house we rented, Cory Dreyer and Jody Queen were catching fish off the back dock. They were decent fish that were aggressively feeding on bait and frogs in the evening. A boater came by and talked with us, and at one point the words “Nine Pounder” and “Pop-R” escaped his lips. I learned two things at that moment, but I also had a question: where did the fish go when they weren’t eating? That is to say – where was the bedroom, relative to the kitchen?
(Backwater near the house. Photo by Henry Veggian)
Larry Anderson and I launched nearby the next day. To reach the water in the bays and cuts around the house, we had to cross a large river channel and navigate a maze of sloughs. It was windy, the water temperature had dropped after a cold front and the water was high. I picked up a few more clues along the way. First, the fish were reacting quickly to baits, or not at all. Out on the the main points, the fish would grab a crankbait near deep water as soon as I turned the reel, or ignore it. In the shallow areas, several times a bass followed my topwater lure, only to stop the chase. I would paddle by and see the fish as it spooked and swam off in a hurry. This told me the fish were a bit sluggish after the front.
Second, I started to figure out that fish were orienting toward the main creek channel that headed out to the river channel. I caught them near islands and quiet pockets along the channels, and I started to suspect this was the hallway from the bedroom to the kitchen.
Finally, we saw another kayak angler, a local. He was not in the tournament and he had paddled a pretty long way to reach the area. And so Larry and I left the area confident we could catch small limits there, but not feeling very good about its potential to produce bigger fish. But something was drawing those fish, and those anglers, to that spot.
I spent my second day scouting Lake Chickamauga from a launch 35 miles from the house, in a bay of the main lake, looking for a bite in the grass and fishing in a different style. I didn’t find much, so I headed into town to think and have a look around Dayton. I visited tackle shops and studied the lure types. While driving back to the house I went into an old tackle shop we thought was abandoned. It was open, and the owners were also tight lipped about certain areas. Farther down the road, I saw another kayak angler launching from a primitive launch on the bay near our house. I spoke with him – he was the 3rd person who did not mention a certain area that had my attention. That area turned out to be the kitchen I was looking for.
I drove to Chattanooga with Larry that evening, and we noticed low cloud cover and the big moon. He then said “the wind will be calm all morning tomorrow.” At that moment, I knew what I had to do. When I told the guys I would be launching off the nearby road and fishing the back bay near the house, one of them asked “Are you serious?” I don’t blame them – Cory and Brian and Jody had taken Cory’s bass boat into the back bay, and only caught one fish. And that boat could not go where I was planning to go in my kayak.
Tournament day. It’s 4 a.m. and the house is empty, except for one person. I’m still in bed, snoring and dreaming of big fish. I wake up at 5:30, head for the kitchen, then drive the short way to the dirt launch. Two local kayakers are launching on the back side of the bay. I know then that I had guessed right: there were fish in the coves back there, farther up the creeks into the woods.
I launch behind the locals and land my first fish, a 16”, within minutes. The two locals had gone up one creek, but I follow another, and I am catching good fish the entire way. At one point, one of the locals paddles up to me because, as he said, “I’m surprised to see you moving that lure so violently, and want to watch.” His name is Josh and he seems like a good guy, affable as well as generous with information about fishing. He’s a bit confused my technique, I can tell. When I’m not whooping it up and talking to the fish, my Pop-R can be heard half way across the bay. But I’m pausing it longer, too, because I remember what had happened 2 days prior. When I twitch it after a longer pause, there is almost always a bite.
(Josh, the Friendly Local. Photo by Henry Veggian)
Having dialed in location and the cadence of my presentation, the only thing left to do is catch fish. Josh and I fish together on opposite sides of the channel for about two hours, exchanging stories and fishing tips. I have a solid limit by 7:30 a.m., and when Josh crosses over to my side of the creek, I put down my rod and watch him cast and retrieve. He is throwing a weightless worm and twitching it a bunch, catching decent fish. I don’t care that he cut me off, because the water is growing clear and the channel shallow, and besides, I’m not very territorial about fishing spots. I am considering a return to the deeper water when I see a splash about one-eighth of a mile past Josh. It is the far end of the cove, and a big splash. The water is gin clear and only about one foot deep, so I paddle quietly. There is another splash, and another. I keep my eyes on the spots.
When I left that cove, I had three of the best five fish I would catch, including a 20.50” kicker fish that smashed my Pop-R when I brought it over the small channel in about 8 inches of water. If that back bay was the kitchen, the top of the cove, where the creek channel entered the bay, was the dining room.
(Catch, Photo, Release. Photo by Henry Veggian)
I caught more fish on the way out but the clouds were breaking up and the wind was starting to blow. At 10 a.m. I took a break to upload my fish and charge my phone battery where I had parked, and I wasted too much time there. When I launched again, I landed only one more fish in the final 3 hours and lost a few decent bites that possibly cost me a better finish. The fish had cleared out – they had followed that creek channel out to the bigger water, like a lazy dad looking for the couch after a good breakfast.
It had been 2 seasons since I finished in the money at a large KBF tournament. Along the way I had some chances and near misses, as well as a number of very bad days. But lately I’ve been fishing loose, letting my senses guide me while on the water, but also off the water. This past week, success was determined as much by what I didn’t hear or see, as by what I heard and saw. The results have been good – five straight finishes in the money over the past month. I’ve been fishing hungry, and it feels good.
If you have ever cooked much, you know it’s best to go slowly. Assemble the ingredients. Mix them in order, and take your time when heating the food to avoid over-cooking. Use local ingredients, too, because they are fresh and they taste better.
And when it’s ready, share the meal with some friends.
©Henry Veggian 2019