Column: Anglers, for better results, add weight and take it down deep


By John Hayes - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



You know that thing where you make cast after cast after cast and get nothing, and somebody walks right up to your spot and — BAM! — pulls out a monster?

It may not be the bait. I could be the weight.

In a recent national survey, freshwater fishing guides said the mistake most commonly made by anglers was not using enough weight, not fishing deep enough.

Getting the presentation to where the fish can see it can be more important than the choice of bait, and sometimes finding that depth can be more difficult. If everyone is catching fish on red worms, it’s easy to choose a bait. But are they getting those hits at 3 feet under the surface or 6? Is the guy with a stringer of fish rigging two BB-size split shot and casting 20 feet up-current from the spot he intends to fish, or pinching on a No. 4 and tossing it five feet upstream?

“You really have to think about what you’re doing. Conditions change constantly and the depth you’re fishing has to change,” said Dwight Yingling, owner of North Park Sports Shop in Allison Park, Pa.

A case in point: Last week, for a couple of days after the state Fish and Boat Commission stocked North Park Lake, Yingling said the confused rainbows were hugging the shoreline. Catch-and-release anglers on the Stocked Trout Waters Open to Year-Round Fishing lake needed little weight to put the bait right in front of the fish.

“Eventually the trout moved into deeper water, and then higher in the water column on warm sunny days,” he said. “Guys needed heavier split shot to get down to them, and then less split shot or maybe a float when (the trout) were closer to the surface.”

Famously, summertime bass might torpedo straight up to smack a lure off the surface. A trout might rise for an emerging fly, but nymphs and other bottom bugs make up some 90 percent of its food. For the most part, trout don’t look up to eat.

“You’ve got to put it right in front of them,” said Yingling. “In a creek you usually want smaller split shot — BB or B size. In a lake you could go to No. 5 or No. 7 (shot) when the fish are deep, maybe lighter if you’re fishing a minnow under a float and just want to keep (the bait) from swimming up.”

Ever wonder about those heavy 1-ounce No. 4 dropshot sinkers hanging from tree branches over waters like North Park Lake? So does Yingling.

“It’s probably because they think they need to cast way out,” he said. “A lot of people make the mistake of casting straight out, thinking the big fish are farther offshore, when they might be right along the shoreline.”

Or anglers might use big honking weights to pull heavy monofilament line off the reel, when they’d do better switching to a lighter line.

Fly fishing is mostly about controlling line, not lead. Fly anglers have more tools for putting presentations right in a fish’s face.

Sink-tip fly lines position the leader, weighted leaders can place the fly in a deeper position and weighted flies take the waiting out of going deep. Mending modern fly lines, something that can’t be done with monofilament, holds the fly at a desired position and depth despite the current. Poorly named “strike indicators” are primarily depth regulators, and split shot can be changed almost as quickly as the water changes depth. And long before there were any of the above, fly anglers controlled a fly’s depth by getting position on a fish, casting upstream and waiting for the fly to sink.

But with more options come more opportunities to screw it up, and many fly anglers struggle with depth control.

“When they have trouble catching fish, most times that’s what it is — not getting the fly down to where the fish are,” said Bob Phillips, owner of International Angler fly shop in Robinson. “There are a couple of factors: not enough weight in the fly line and line control.”

On streams, the top current moves significantly faster than the impeded current on the bottom. Failure to correctly mend a floating fly line puts an unnatural pull on the fly — dry or submerged.

“Some guys fishing with streamers make the mistake of using a sinking tip or sinking line or long leader that defeats their purpose,” Phillips said. “They’re getting the fly down but not fast enough because the fly is 9 feet from the sink tip. They should use a shorter leader.”

When conditions call for split shot, Phillips said one big shot can drop a fly fast in quick current, but it’s usually better to use smaller shot pinched about 20 inches above the fly. There are no conditions, however, when weight should be added to add distance or control to the cast.

“The weight of the fly line is what loads the rod,” Phillips said. “You’re casting the weight of the line, not the weight on the line.”

In rivers where bass, walleye and pike-family predators feed differently than trout, anglers have other considerations.

“My situation is different,” said fishing writer and guide Jeff Knapp of Keystone Connection Guide Service. “On the Middle Allegheny, from East Brady up to Franklin, the fish are typically in more shallow water. One of my first concerns is trying to keep the lure a little above the bottom (at those depths) where the most aggressive fish are feeding.”

In the spring, when water temperatures reach the low 40s and the smallmouths “wake up,” Knapp said most will be found on the shallower sides of deeper pockets in 12 to 14 feet.

“But the more aggressive fish, the ones taking tube jigs, move up to 5 or 6 feet,” he said. “Getting the right depth is important. They won’t take baits that don’t go down to the bottom.”

On a sunny day last week, Knapp found the bass moving from deeper holes to rocky flats at 4 to 5 feet and back again.

“Go for those active ones first,” he said. “They’ll often be associated with incoming tributaries, moving up closer to the flow. But you have to be at the right depth for them. Too shallow and this time of year they won’t go for it. Too deep and you’re into the less aggressive fish.”

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By John Hayes

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette