Rods & Rigs - Tips for Lake Breakdown

When I’m preparing to fish a tournament, one of the biggest things is breaking down a lake.  Whether it’s a lake I fish several times a year, or one that I only get to fish occasionally, it’s important to have a solid game plan.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Now, every lake is different and current weather patterns can influence … but I have a dependable formula for each season of the year. In each season I’ll conduct a thorough search, but these logical starting points help make me more efficient on the water.

Where I Look

Winter: During the cold season, I’m focusing on main lake, deep water structure where fish tend to cluster for temperature stability. Unlike the spring and fall months, I don’t expect to be running around to find fish on the move. Instead, my winter plan is based on locating several spots close together.

One important variable here is the weather. If you get a warm winter rain, it’s a given that a lot of the fish — largemouth, smallmouth and spots — will run to the creeks for the comfortable water temperature and the increased feeding opportunities in the turbid water.

Muddy water and muddy banks hold heat better; plus, rising water and increasing warmth can hurry the crawfish out of their holes. Bass know this, so they’ll take advantage of the opportunity.

Summer: When the main lake is hot, I’ll spend most of my time in the rivers, where fish find more oxygen and current. I’ll run up the river arm and expect a wad of fish in the temperature changes.

Most of the time, when you’re up the rivers, you’re in more of a canyon scenario, so you get shade late in the day. That can definitely be an advantage during the hottest months of the year, so I’ll stay in these areas that are most attractive to the fish.

Spring: This season can be a little bit of a wild card, but it’s all about the spawn, so I want to find an area in the lake with a lot of flats and protected water. I’m going to be looking for fish that are either spawning or moving up to spawn, so areas that are rich in this type of habitat are where I’ll spend my time.

Most everyone is always looking at the east side of the lake because when the sun sets in the west, you get that late afternoon light penetration. But I think the way the lake lays out and where the protected water is plays a more important role. It’s more about the lay of the land and where the protected water is found.

The fish are going to be on both sides of the lake; they’re not going to swim up the west side to go to the east side. One side of the lake might spawn a little earlier than the other side, but there are fish on both sides and they’re going to be using the same type of terrain, so I might bounce from the east side to the west side.

A few degrees difference in water temperature is not a big deal o me. They may move up to spawn a little sooner on one side, but I’d rather catch them prespawn anyway.

Fall: This is a bait-focused time of year and fish are schooling a lot more. Most of the time, I’m about halfway up the rivers. It seems like a lot of those fish in the upper heads of those rivers start working their way back down; also, there are always some resident fish. This is why I find it more productive to fish more in the center of the river arms instead of going far up or staying on the main lake. This is just a good starting spot for me and then I’ll adjust accordingly.

When I’m looking for bait in the fall, I really like rock — big boulders or a slide down into he water. I don’t really focus much on mud in the fall. It seems like winter finds more fish on mud. In the summer or fall, there seems to be a lot more fish on those big rocks because of the shade pockets.

Best Baits

When I’m breaking down a lake and searching for fish, I’m going to use baits that will help me quickly determine if there are fish in the area. For winter, it’s really hard to beat a Yamamoto Hula grub. In fact, I’ll almost always have this bait with two jig sizes on my deck and one of them will be a 1-ounce. This bait falls fast and gives the fish an irresistible target.

If I’m fishing the rivers after a warm rain, I’ll often throw a spinnerbait. However, one of my most productive baits is a nail weighted Senko. Rigged on a 1/0 Aaron Martens Gamakatsu Dropshot/Split shot hook with a 3/32- to 1/8-ounce nail weight, this is just a fish-catching rig.

Spring: For this season, a jerkbait can be very effective for big females moving up, but if they’re not reacting, a wacky-rigged Senko always works. The only problem is that this bait slows me down, so if I feel like I need to step up the pace, I’ll switch to the nail-weighted Senko so I can cover water faster.

I’ll also have a Hula Grub handy for fish I may see on my graph. Not all fish move up to spawn at same time, so if I spot one in deeper water, I’ll drop that Hula Grub and catch them every time.

Summer: I’ll be looking for shade pockets and covering water with topwater walking baits, or a Yamamoto Zako swimbait. This is also a good time for a weightless wacky-rigged Senko. I’ll pitch it into shade pockets and let it fall on a slack line. That bait is always fishing, wagging that tail and tempting fish.

If I’m fishing a Senko in cover like tules and weeds, I’ll Texas rig it to prevent snags, but if possible, I’ll wacky rig it because I get a lot more bites that way.

Fall: When those fish are schooling on bait, I love throwing a topwater. Some guys think this is just a morning thing, but in the fall, I’ll throw a Spook any time of day. I may not get as many bites, but they will typically be better quality.

If a fish misses a topwater, or if the bite slows down, you can often get bit by throwing a wacky-rigged Senko in baby bass or a natural shad color. You’ll often have fish holding below the surface activity, so fishing deeper into the water column might pay off for you.

Search Plan

Any time of year, I’ve found a few principles helpful in my lake breakdown.

•   Don’t show the fish your bait too much in practice. If I get a couple of good bites and determine I have a good quality school in the area, I’ll move on and look for similar areas. When I’m throwing topwaters, I may only want to get a couple of blow-ups because that tells me the fish are there and they’ll eat what I’m throwing.

•   Realize that the bite can change from practice to tournament because some anglers stick a lot of fish in practice and condition them toward certain baits. That’s why it’s so critical to develop multiple patterns.

•   Be aware that fish school by size. If you’re catching dinks, don’t burn too much time with the wrong size fish; go find another school with better quality. But that’s tournament talk. If I’m fun fishing — especially with novices or kids — I’ll stay on the school and catch a bunch of them.