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Bass Fishing Indiana’s Patoka Lake

By Marc Rogers

The Army Corp of Engineers completed Patoka Lake in 1978. It is the second largest reservoir in Indiana containing 8,880 surface acres of water at normal summer pool. At normal summer pool it has a maximum depth of 52 feet and an average depth of 22 feet. The Army Corp of Engineers controls the lake’s water level with a spillway for flood control purposes. The lake also provides drinking water for the surrounding areas. Patoka Lake is located approximately 10 miles from French Lick, Indiana.

Patoka Lake was formed by the impoundment of the Patoka River and there are 11 named and unnamed tributaries throughout the lake. The dam is located at the west side of the reservoir. The normal summer pool level is 536 feet above mean sea level. This level is normally stable but can fluctuate between 506 and 548 feet above mean level. The Army Corp of Engineers control over 17,000 acres of land surrounding the lake. The land is leased to the State of Indiana and managed for recreational purposes including hiking, hunting, camping and fishing. Most of the shoreline is wooded and there is little development close to the water.

The lake receives heavy fishing and boating pressure. Therefore, some areas are posted with skiing restrictions and speed limits. The areas are clearly marked with buoys. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources close some areas of the lake during waterfowl hunting seasons because they are designated as nesting areas. The areas include portions of the Patoka River arm, Little Patoka River and Lick Creek arms. Bald Eagles have been known to use the area around the lake for nesting and these areas are also posted as restricted areas.

During construction many trees were left uncut around the shoreline in most of the tributaries. This has left many large areas of standing timber in the lake but boat lanes were made for navigation into the main lake area. Patoka Lake is a lowland lake with the bottom consisting of mainly mud and clay. There are areas where the bottom is gravel and rock near some of the channel bends as the wave action has washed away the mud and clay. There are still many areas of deep water where stumps and broken limestone can be found. These are areas where anglers should concentrate when fishing the deeper water of the lake.

The dominant fish specie in Patoka Lake is the Largemouth Bass. The lake also has a good population of Bluegill and Redear sunfish. The sunfish provide good angling opportunities and a good forage base for the Largemouth Bass. Northern Pike and Tiger Muskie were stocked just after the impoundment filled but failed to reproduce.

Bass Fishing in Patoka Lake is popular due to the catch rates and sizes available. There is a 15-inch length limit on Largemouth Bass. This length limit has helped the fishery produce many 3 – 5 pound Largemouth Bass and the catch rates are above the state’s average. I have personally taken many legal size bass from this lake with the largest weighing in at 7.5 pounds.

During the spring (March and April) anglers should concentrate on shallow water first. Many legal size male will be preparing for the spawn during this time and are eager to feed. When the surface water temperatures reach the middle 50-degree range this shallow activity will begin. If shallow water bass are yet active the bigger females can be found preparing for the spawning activity in depths of 8 – 12 feet. Crankbaits and spinnerbaits are a good choice for locating these bass. Anglers are advised to use a slow presentation during this season, as the bass will generally not chase a fast moving lure. Once bass are located, a jig is ideal for taking bigger bass. Jigs can be presented in shallow water by flipping and pitching or with a deep slow approach.

As the water temperatures reach the low 60’s anglers should try jerk baits and flukes for shallow water bass. Again, start with a slow presentation and speed up if the bass are active. Site fishing for spawning bass is popular among anglers at Patoka Lake because the water is generally clear in the spring. Anglers should always be looking for nests and bass when fishing in the shallow water along the shoreline. When fishing beds, shaky worms, tubes and lizards are always a good choice. Bass immediately released will generally return to the bed and little harm is done to the fishery.

Bass do not all spawn at the same time. The larger females can still be found in the 8 – 12 feet of water near spawning areas throughout the spawn. With water temperatures in the 60’s slow rolled spinnerbaits and crankbaits are a good lure choice to target these bigger bass.

When the water temperatures reach the middle 70-degree mark, the spawn, for the most part, is over. There may still be some males guarding nests but they will be few and far between. The females have moved off into the deeper water near the spawning areas. Crankbaits running in 10-foot depths are a productive presentation for the post-spawn females. In the clear water of Patoka Lake bluegill pattern crankbaits will be the best producers since the bass rely on the bluegill for a food source. However, if water is heavily stained to muddy fire tiger patters seem to work better. Also, chartreuse spinnerbaits with double gold blade are a great produced in dirty water conditions.

Once the water warms into the 80’s bass will hold in and near deep water. The river and creek channel ledges with deep water in close proximity can hold large schools of bass in tightly concentrated areas under these conditions. The areas most productive are channel swings close to the shoreline. These steep banks allow bass to move up to feed and back down to more comfortable water temperatures and oxygen levels. Anglers should concentrate on the ends of the channel swings where broken rock and timber is often present. The thermocline in Patoka Lake develops between 20 and 25 feet deep. The area just above this is often the most productive depth for summertime bass fishing. Large plastic worms of 10 – 13 inches will be productive on the larger bass holding near the thermocline.

Fall fishing on Patoka Lake can be phenomenal. Bass chase the sunfish, shad and golden shiners that are abundant in preparation for the cold winter ahead. The first indication for these circumstances is the large schools of baitfish swimming just below the surface. When the baitfishes start jumping above the surface it is due to predators chasing them. Shallow running crankbaits, flukes and top-water lures are most effective at this time. However, a lipless crankbait left to flutter below the schools of baitfish will produce the bigger bass. The bigger bass will suspend below the baitfish and take the injured baitfish that fall through the water column. Spoons like the Johnson Silver Minnow allowed to slowly descend after the cast is also very effective. The best way to find fall bass is to keep your eyes and ears open for feeding activity while on the water. Also, birds diving at the water will indicate where the baitfish schools are located.

Winter at Patoka Lake is quite slow for bass fishing. There are times when the lake freezes enough to allow ice fishing. When the water falls into the 40-degree range I use a jig and work it slowly along the bottom in and near deep water. My most productive presentation is a slow crawling motion to mimic a crayfish. The water is usually clear during the cold months and crayfish colored jigs are the top producers. The steep shorelines are the most productive during cold conditions.

Anglers that are not familiar with it often overlook Patoka Lake. It is located off the beaten path relative to other popular reservoirs. However, a trip to this lake is well worth the drive for an avid angler.

Bluffing the Cold

By Marc Rogers


Bass Fishing Bluffs in Winter

The winter season can prove a difficult time for many anglers.  When the water temperatures fall into the 40-degree range and below the bass’ metabolism slows drastically.  They become lethargic and feed infrequently, sometimes only once per week.  This lethargic behavior makes them more difficult to catch.

Presenting slow moving lures along bluff walls is a very productive technique to catch bass in cold-water conditions.  Bluff walls have some key features that other structure lacks.  Bluff walls allow bass to reach a comfort zone in both temperature and depth with less distance to travel by moving vertically.  If the bass desires a ten-foot depth change they have the opportunity to move just ten feet when positioned along bluff walls.

The key to bluff fishing in the colder seasons is a slow, vertical presentation.  Jigging spoons and jigs tend to be the most productive.  While both lures can be productive the jig is a little more versatile than the spoon for a slow presentation and bass key on crawfish for a cold season diet.

Finesse jigs are often a good choice for winter bass fishing.  The slow metabolism of the bass, a cold-blooded creature, requires much smaller meals in cold water conditions.  The presentation of the jig should also be slow because crayfish are also cold-blooded creatures.  A fast moving crayfish in cold water is very unnatural and not effective for catching bass.  Also, bass will not chase bait when its metabolism is running at such a low rate.

The finesse jig presented to the bass should be natural crayfish colors.  Bright colors are great for grabbing the bass’ attention in warm-water conditions but cold water is a completely different situation.  Natural colored jigs, presented slowly, are much more effective during the winter.  The best colors to use are brown and dark green colors.  Under most winter conditions water clarity is not a factor in color choice because the lack of rain allows for the water to remain clear.  Clear water allows these natural colors to be seen easily by the bass.

Larger jigs are effective at times and many anglers believe this is because the bass will look for bigger meals at fewer intervals to conserve the energy required to pursue prey.  Others believe the larger profile attract the bass’ attention and it is the slow presentation that is the key to the baits effectiveness.  Regardless of the thoughts, it is ideal to tie both baits onto two different outfits and present both in the same areas throughout the day.

Football head jigs are the best choice when presenting jigs in rocky areas.  The football head design keeps the jig positioned upright because of the wide profile of the jig head.  Also, the wide profile minimizes the chance of the jig head getting wedged in crevices throughout the bluff.

Bluff walls offer a variety of structure and cover for the bass.  The broken rocks, strewn throughout the bluffs, are ideal for Smallmouth bass.  Smallmouth bass tend to prefer rock cover more so than Kentucky and Largemouth bass.  Also, Smallmouth bass will often school with others of similar size during the winter.  If a Smallmouth bass is caught the angler should spend some additional time in the same area to target the possible school.  Anglers targeting Largemouth bass should look for fallen trees (commonly called dead falls) along bluff walls.  The Largemouth bass prefer the additional cover provided by the fallen timber.  However, the lure presentation for Largemouth bass is generally the same as for Smallmouth.

Spinning gear is a better choice for presenting lures to bluff walls.  The spinning reel allows an angler to leave the reel’s bail open, which aids in the vertical presentation, by allowing the lure to free-fall through the water column.   To get a true vertical presentation with a bait casting reel anglers must pull line off the spool while the lure is falling.  With either reel, if the spool is locked after the cast a lure will fall with a pendulum like presentation and not keep in contact with the structure.   Keeping the jig in contact with the structure is key to mimicking a crayfish falling along the bluff.  Once the jig rests on the many small ledges on the bluff it should be moved slightly, allowing it to fall to the next ledge.  The key to detecting a strike is paying close attention to the line after the lure lands on a ledge.  Many times the strike is so light an angler cannot feel it.

There are many effective cold-water presentations available to anglers pursuing bass in impoundments.  Current weather and water conditions play a major roll in which ones are most productive on any given day.  However, if you find you favorite impoundment to have water temperatures to be in the low 40-degree range or lower you should spend some of your time presenting jigs on bluff walls.  Clear water conditions will make this presentation even more productive.

Bass Fishing Hook Set – The Moment of Truth

by Marc Rogers

Setting the Hook on Bass

Cast, retrieve, cast, retrieve…..a bass picks up your offering and you experience the moment of truth in bass fishing.

The worst time you will experience this moment is when fishing is slow and you have not had a bite for some time. You concentration is lacking and you are not paying attention to what your offering is doing under water. During this moment, the bass will inhale and expel your lure before you realize you should have set the hook. There is generally no second chance for catching this bass.

In the past, anglers were instructed to set the hook hard while fishing soft plastics. Much of this was due to the hooks that were available. These older hooks were sharpened with files and stones regularly for the best performance. Today, hooks are manufactured with chemically sharpened points that are super sharp. These hooks penetrate easily through soft plastic lures and into the mouth of a bass.

The new technology used to make hooks have changed the way many anglers now set the hook on bass. Instead of the extremely hard hook-set, anglers are now using a sweeping or slight snapping motion to set their hooks. Reeling in the slack line and simultaneously pulling back or snapping the rod is common among anglers using bottom bouncing soft plastic offerings. Other techniques require different hook-sets.  Recently I caught up with Derek Vahey and Aaron Hunter to discuss how they set the hook while bass fishing.

Derek Vahey, Midwest Fishing Tackle Staff Member, reports, “When fishing Texas rigged soft plastics, you have to push the hook through plastic. In this case, when I feel a bass or see my line move, I keep slack in the line and set the hook with a slight snapping action to drive the hook through the soft plastic and into fish. If you do not do this, what will happen is the hook will simply slide into plastic and never penetrate the fish’s mouth, and the fish will come off. The key is making sure not to snap the line to hard and pop the fish’s mouth open before the hook can stick the jaw.”

In addition, Vahey says, “When I finesse fish for bass I usually use finesse jigs or shaky heads with light line and spinning tackle. This requires a properly set drag for the light line to prevent breaking off when setting the hook. After taking up any slack line, I lift straight up and back to set the hook, and then keep constant tension on the fish until I get it to the boat.”

When flipping and pitching soft plastics to heavy cover it is best to use long rods, casting reels and heavy line. This requires an aggressive hook-set to ensure the fish is coming to the angler and away from the cover. It is a balancing act on how hard to set the hook using these techniques. While setting the hook too hard can pop the lure out of the bass’ mouth, a soft hook-set may result in anglers not being in control of the fish and it will tangle in the cover.
Vahey said, “I will error on the side of the hard hook-set when fishing heavy cover. If I miss one by pulling the lure away there is a chance I can get it to bite again. If I lose it in the cover after hooking it, chances are slim it will bite with a lure stuck in its mouth.”

Aaron Hunter says jig fishing is his favorite way to catch big bass. Hunter said, “I am never on the water without a Midwest Custom Tackle football jig tied on.” He presents a football jig differently than most anglers. Hunter prefers to hop his football jig off the bottom keying on the more aggressive bass. He adds a NetBait Paca Chunk to the back of his jigs for his trailer.

While bouncing a jig along the bottom Hunter seldom has any slack in his line. He sets the hook by “aggressively sweeping my rod up and back to about the 11 o’clock position.  I never exceed a higher position because I will lose control of the bass once it is hooked”, he says. When fishing heavy cover with jigs he said, “I will set the hook harder in heavy cover because I want to turn the fish towards me and away from the cover to avoid getting it tangled up.”

When fishing crankbaits, Vahey said, “I learned my lesson the hard way fishing crankbaits. The hook-set is dependent on the rod action and a medium-action limber rod is the key. There is not really much to the hook-set on crankbaits, when the rod loads up, simply pull to the side while keeping constant pressure on the fish. I advise everyone never to jerk on the rod to set the hook with these lures. The small hooks will easily pull out of the bass.” He added the limber rod assists in keeping the hooks in the bass when it pulls hard during the fight.

When top water fishing, it is best to use a limber rod. The limber rod assists in preventing anglers from pulling the lure away from the bass when setting the hook. Hunter reported, “I wait until I feel the weight of the fish before I set the hook. Top water is visual and many anglers set the hook too soon and miss bass by pulling the lure away from them before they have tried to eat it. Also, never jerk on the rod with top water lures that have treble hooks. A number four treble hook may look like it will hook anything, but they are really only three small hooks and can easily be pulled out of a bass.”

Hunter and Vahey both added this advice, anglers should use monofilament when fishing top water lures. Monofilament line floats and helps keep the lure floating on the surface. Monofilament also stretches on the hook-set and can be advantageous to keep the hooks set in the bass’ mouth.

Vahey uses the same hook-set on buzzbaits and spinnerbaits. He said, “I use heavy gear for both with a high-speed reel. Once I feel the bass’ weight on the line, I hit them hard. Monofilament line will help a buzzbait stay on the surface and I always use a trailer hook on both lures”. Many of the bass I catch on these lures are hooked with the trailer hook. Hunter added, “When fishing open water, I will use a long shank treble hook for a trailer hook. Sometimes I cut off the one point that would face down to avoid hang-ups.”

Changing hook-set technique is difficult for many anglers. They have become habit over time and great effort to change these habits is required. Recently, many anglers I know have changed their hook-set style when using Texas and Carolina rigged soft-plastic lures. The change is from the old “cross their eyes” style to a hard, sweeping pull. Most reported the harder hook-set was costing hook ups with bass due to knocking the bass’ mouth open with the lure and not burying the hook point. Regardless of your current style, it pays dividends to experiment with new styles if you are experiencing missed bass when you set the hook.