by John Neporadny Jr6>
“Warning!! If you have a heart condition, it is recommended that you avoid fishing behind this dock because the effects of hooking a spawning bass could be hazardous to your health.”
No, the Surgeon General hasn’t posted any signs like this on any of our lakes yet, but the perils of trying to land a thrashing largemouth behind a dock might be more than the faint-hearted can bear. “A guy who has a heart condition doesn’t want to fish for big spawning bass behind docks,” says Bruce Gier, a tournament angler from Eldon, Mo. “Sometimes, you’re using 6-pound line when you hook a 6-pound fish, and then you have about six cables for the fish to go over. You can flat get into some jams then. I’ve had some heartbreaking experiences behind the cables.”
In other Midwestern lakes spawning bass seek the shelter of flooded timber and lay-downs, but on Gier’s home reservoir, Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri, bass build their nests behind boat docks. “A dock is the biggest log on the lake,” says Gier. The floating structures offer bass plenty of cover to protect them from wind and intruders. Their favorite dock shelters include cables, walkways, pillars and sunken brush piles.
The dock’s location is the key to finding spawning bass. Gier locates the majority of nesting bass behind docks in the backs of coves, except during the latter stages of the spawn when he concentrates on main-lake condominium docks.
No real pattern exists as to which docks hold spawning bass. Gier notes that he doesn’t seem to find them in exactly the same places every year. “You need to go back in the most awful looking area you can find,” Gier says. Any dock that has pillars is a prime target because bass will spawn next to every support.
Another prime target is a dock with two or three sets of cables running from the pier to shore. “The docks that seem nearly impossible to get behind are the ones where the fish congregate best,” Gier says. In most cases, the fish are unmolested because the average angler shies away from the menacing cables.
In addition to keeping anglers away from the spawning territory, cables also serve as security blankets for bass. Some fish spawn right under the cables. “They seem to know that they can deal you some fits on those dock cables and they can,” Gier says.
Some bass also spawn in the open areas behind the docks. Even if the dock has plenty of cover, Gier wastes little time fishing behind it if he fails to find a nest (a round, shiny spot on the bottom). Shiny spots that are barely visible in 8 feet of water usually hold bigger fish. Bass spawn at various depths on fluctuating lakes affected by spring rains. Gier finds most of the spawning bass on Lake of the Ozarks behind docks in less than 10 feet of water.
If Gier finds a nest close to the bank, he tries to catch the bigger bass first by working deeper water and then gradually moves in shallower to catch the smaller male fish on the nest. “A lot of guys make the big mistake during spawning time of fishing for the bass they can see,” Gier says. “If the big fish is there, of course, go ahead and get her. She is generally lying just out to where you can’t see her, though.” However, in a tournament, Gier concentrates on catching a limit of keeper-size fish initially and then works on the kicker fish. When the spawn reaches its speak, Gier can catch a limit fishing behind five docks in a row.
The depth of the cables determines where Gier positions his boat behind a dock. If the cables droop deep enough, Gier slides his boat on top of them and uses the cables to hold his boat in position. When the cables hang above or on the surface, Gier keeps his trolling motor next to the moorings. “I don’t have any paint on the shaft of my trolling motor because it’s constantly rubbing against the cable.”
Once he finds nesting bass, Gier offers them a wide range of lures because he feels the fish will eventually bite. “You just have to have a giant arsenal of every kind of plastic lure known to man,” Gier says. He either flips or pitches to his targets, or casts with an underhand sling to skip the lure under walkways and cables.
Gier’s strategy starts with heavy-duty equipment and then scales down to lightweight tackle as he moves in closer to the fish. During his first presentation, Gier stays back far enough to where the fish is just in sight. As he moves in, he switches to lighter line and smaller lures. “You can come close enough to where you can spook off the fish but it will come right back,” he says. When using line as light as 4-pound test, Gier can move within 10 feet of a spawning bass and still coax it into biting.
In murky water, you can use as heavy as 20-pound test line behind the docks, but since Gier mainly fishes the clear water of the lake’s North Shore area, he usually scales down his line size. For aggressive fish, Gier selects bait-casting equipment and 10-pound test line. “I feel I have a little bit of an advantage with this heavier tackle,” he says. His favorite lures for this application are a brown 1/4-ounce jig and brown No. 11 pork frog or a Hula Grub in earthworm or crawfish colors. With most of his lure choices, Gier prefers crawfish or earthworm colors (brown, dark green, motor oil), especially for finicky fish. “If you have a fish that’s in the mood or about half ticked off at your bait, then go ahead and throw something chartreuse,” Gier says. He suggests that you can even catch aggressive fish on sunny days with a cotton candy or pink-and-chartreuse plastic lizard.
When bass shun his jigs, Gier changes to spinning tackle, 8-pound test and soft plastic baits. His top lure choices are 4- and 6-inch plastic lizards and plastic crawfish.
The next step in Gier’s scale-down approach involves 6-pound test line and 4-inch plastic worms on a No. 1 wire hook. “You stay with that as long as you can and as a last resort,
when you just have to have that fish, pick up the little stuff and throw everything you can at them,” Gier says.
The “little stuff” Gier resorts to consists of trout fishing tackle, an ultralight rod and reel with 4-pound test line and a small plastic trout worm impaled on a tiny hook. Gier sticks the hook through the head of the worm and leaves the point exposed to ensure a good hookset. This rig is especially effective on fish that Gier has missed a couple of times with his larger lures. “What have you got to lose? You can’t catch that fish the other way, so you might as well go to the real light stuff,” Gier suggests.
The Missouri angler retrieves all of his lures at a snail’s pace or even slower. Occasionally he’ll twitch a lure fast for aggressive fish. “Every fish lying on a bed has its own personality,” Gier says. “If you move your lure just a hair when it’s in the nest she might look at it. Big fish don’t want a fast-moving bait. If you present something to them fast, I guarantee that they won’t even look at it. They don’t get big by being stupid.”
When a fish strikes, Gier carefully pulls his line to set the hook. A soft touch and a sharp hook are critical, especially when fishing with light tackle. “On spawning fish, it’s unbelievably important to have a sharp hook. That thing has just got to be like a needle,” Gier advises. He also suggests that you remain calm if you see a big fish hit your lure, otherwise you’ll jerk too hard on the hookset and break your line.
The real challenge comes after you’ve set the hook. Trying to weave a stubborn bass through a maze of cables, pillars and other obstacles can be a pulse-raising experience. Gier catches most of his 5- and 6-pound fish on the heavier line (8- and 10-pound test) with his drag set light. “You can turn a 6-pound fish during the spawn with 8-pound test line. It’s a trick but it is possible,” he says. Since spawning fish tire easily, Gier usually lands them if he controls their initial surges.
Patience helps Gier land the smaller male bass (15- and 16-inch fish) on the lighter tackle. He has even landed bass after they have jumped over a cable and looped the line around to where it was ready to form a knot. But when a 4-pounder smashes one of his mini-baits on 4-pound test line, the bass has the edge. “He’s the boss. You have to leave it up to him as to whether you’re going to land him or not,” Gier says. “That doesn’t usually last too long. It’s usually Fish 1, Gier 0.” With a lack of obstacles behind the dock and a little bit of luck, the heavier fish can still be landed by keeping slight rod pressure on the bass to wear it out and then guide it toward the boat. However, the light tackle is no match for a bruiser bass behind a dock loaded with brush piles. “That’s where the big boys win every time,” Gier says. “If those fish bury their heads in the brush while pulling 4-pound line, I don’t care if Houdini is holding the rod, the fish is going to win.”
Frequently checking your line improves your chances of catching fish behind the docks. Gier advises retying your line whenever it rubs against a cable. “It’s over for your line if it touches that cable,” he says. If your heart can take it, sneak behind a dock this spring and try to coax a bass from its spawning hideout.
For information on lodging and other facilities at the Lake of the Ozarks or to receive a free 162-page vacation guide, call the Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-FUN-LAKE or visit the Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitors Bureau web site at funlake.com.
Copies of John Neporadny’s book, “THE Lake of the Ozarks Fishing Guide” are available by calling 573/365-4296 or visiting the web site www.jnoutdoors.com.