By David A. Brown
Special to BassFan
It's not for the faint of heart, the impatient or the superficial. It’s like three levels beyond off-the-beaten-path and a long way from “fishing safe.” But if you’re down for the high-stakes game of combat dock fishing, the rewards can be well worth the effort.
Of course, quality fish can be caught on easy pitches to front corners and long casts tracing the sides, but think of it like really good barbecue: Most of the time, you have to leave the main drags and venture into the city to find the slam-dunk pit masters smoking up the ribs and brisket that locals favor.
With docks, this means sneaking, stretching and squeezing into those secluded inner areas behind boat lifts, beyond blown-in weed mats, beneath walkways, around brush or laydowns and over or under dock cables. Getting a bait into these tight quarters is tough, but separating fish from fortress, well, that’s where dreams are realized or crushed.
Oklahoma pro Chris Jones recently won the FLW Series Southwestern Division event on Grand Lake with this pattern. His performance was well-documented, so we asked 2nd-place finisher Jeff Sprague for his insights on the close-range dock game.
“The hardest docks to fish and the hardest docks to get a fish out of are the docks that hold the better fish because there’s more structure there for the fish to relate to,” Sprague said. “That’s the reason for fishing these docks, but that’s why it’s a double-edged sword: The more potential hang-ups you have, the more likely you are to get the bites you need out of that dock.”
Along with the manmade dock cables, braces, walkways and various flotation devices, Sprague wants to find any brush piles, laydowns or wood jams complementing the main dock structure. Deep spots or points running beneath or near a dock immediately amplify its potential.
Older docks with small bushes or grasses sprouting from the sides may not make the local tourism brochure, but they are straight-up food factories for bass. Plants mean insects and insects often fall to the water where opportunistic bream feed ever-watchful bass. Add in heavily caked algae – most common on older white Styrofoam floats – and the nibbling shad bolster the bass buffet.
Also note the evidence of crappie fishing (mounted rod holders, patio chairs, coolers, cleaning tables), as this guarantees perimeter brush piles. This enhances bass habitat, but Sprague’s quick to note that such docks probably get a lot of bank pressure and, therefore, may not be as productive as you might think.
Sprague points out another clue – docks with ducks. Think about it, ducks of any breed don’t like human company, so spotting a congregation – or even their messy aftermath – could indicate a little gold mine of unmolested potential.
Astute Approach Needed
When Sprague eyeballs a favorable dock, his first priority is to determine his best approach. How can he best reach the sweet spots? Are there any perimeter features like laydowns prior to the interior waters? Is the bank on his right or left? All of these things influence casting angles, and a few moments of mental mapping betters his performance.
Prudent target selection plus a well-conceived game plan can equal success around docks.
In the interest of time management, consider that docks on high, steep banks may include elevated walkways with sufficient clearance for a bass boat. Other times, you and your fishing partner may have to take turns raising the dock cable and tugging the boat forward.
In any case, trolling motors are vital to this game, but Sprague says he likes to maintain full control. GPS functionality, which can essentially anchor you on a spot, is cool for open-water applications, but at close quarters, this benefit can easily become a liability.
“That trolling motor doesn’t discriminate,” Sprague said. “It might need to turn left or right to keep you on the spot, but in doing so, it could blow out your spot.”
In most cases, your Power-Poles or Minn Kota Talons will reach a spot that enables you to make the right presentation behind a dock. Often, a set of adjacent docks may offer sufficient approach space from only side; in which case, reaching the far end of that inner lagoon between dock and bank might require leaning over a walkway or support beam. Tournament anglers can’t leave their vessel, but one foot in the boat and one bracing on a walkway or support element is fair game. (Just be judicious about touching the actual dock, as some homeowners are more sensitive than others.)
Short casts with spinnerbaits, bladed jigs and even small umbrella rigs can find love in close quarters, but given the congestion, the space in which to make those reaction baits do their thing is minimal. Therefore, you can make more meaningful presentations with a jig, Texas rig or finesse worm.
“I like a Gene Larew Hammer Craw Texas-rigged on a 4/0 Gamakatsu offset hook with a 3/8-ounce bullet weight,” Sprague said. “I can pitch that bait where it needs to go or skip it into tight areas. I also like wacky-rigging the Gene Larew Tattle Tail Worm. This worm is made with a thicker head and a narrow tail, so it falls head-first. But when I want it to fall a little faster, I’ll nail-weight it with a 1/16-ounce weight.”
Sprague attacks the dock combat zone with 20- to 25-pound fluorocarbon. Here, he likes a 7-foot medium-heavy rod, which is long enough for him to reach over various impediments, without being so long it becomes unwieldy in tight spaces.
No risk, no reward; no guts, no glory – apropos summaries of the often-intimidating, yet undeniable need for presentation accuracy.
“Not all casts are the same,” Sprague said. “You and I may see the same hole, but you skip a bait in there perfectly into that small hole, where I might skip up there and bang the bait off a piece of wood. Now, I’ve spooked the fish and he’s either not positioned right or he swims off.”
Some closing thoughts address closing the deal.
“A guy has to have a plan already formulated in his head before he even hooks a fish,” Sprague said. “How is he going to get that fish out? What are his options? Is he going to go under cables, over cables? Is he going to put his hands in the water? Is he going to try to boat-sling the fish over the cables or walkway?
“Whatever the case may be, a guy has to already know in his mind what he’s going to do. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time because that fish will own you before you even have the opportunity to make that decision.”