By Yamamoto Pro Jimmy Reese
Photos by Rob Newell
I just got home from the Forrest Wood Cup where I finished 11th and missed the final-day top-10 cut by just 8 ounces. Ouch!
Oh well, it was a good tournament for me and the one thing I did want to share with the Inside Line about my week on Wheeler Lake is what I learned about summer time schooling fish on TVA lakes.
After a couple of days of pre-practice and official practice, I decided to chase schooling fish during the tournament because they seemed to be the fattest, healthiest class of fish in the main lake – especially the schooling smallmouth. Ironically, when I found the schooling in fish practice, they were not necessarily schooling. I was just fishing main-lake banks and points near the Wheeler dam and caught a couple of nice fish on a Yamamoto D-shad. So I decided to check the area again on the first day of the tournament. When I returned, the fish started surfacing, breaking and boiling all around me. From that point on, I kind of got sucked into this whole schooling fish thing.
I did find some other places up in the Elk River and they produced a few fish for me, but I spent most of tournament time sitting on schoolers. Consequently, that’s how I caught most of my weigh fish. After spending the better part of three competition days chasing those crazy schooling fish, I learned a thing or two about them.
First of all, fooling with schooling fish can be absolutely maddening. You see so many fish breaking all around you – good ones, too – and they absolutely will not bite. The tournament-winning fish are right there in front of you and those suckers are so smart about taking a lure. It’s enough to make a man talk to himself!
In a way, schooling fish are kind of like fishing for a really stubborn fish on a bed: you can see it but you have to keep switching baits and presentations until you find just the right combination to get it to bite. The first thing to understand is you’re not going to roll into a melee of breaking fish, make a dozen casts and catch 20 pounds. Trust me, it may look easy when you first get there, but you better be ready to spend some time on schoolers and that means being very, very patient. I had several schooling places that I spent a couple of hours on each day. And hey, that’s nothing: some guys in the top-10 spent entire tournament days on a single schooling spot! Now that’s patience.
Be ready to babysit the schooling fish and watch their every move. At first, all of their breaking and boiling will look completely random, with no rhyme or reason to it. But if you sit with them for a while, you’ll start to notice little patterns as to when and where they start breaking first and how that surfacing activity moves across the area. This is the really cool part about schooling fish: once you start understanding where and when they’re going to break, you can be more predictive with your presentations, putting casts where the breaking is about to happen, which is rewarded with bites more often than putting a cast where the breaking already happened.
Every spot has its own rhythm and timing to the schooling activity. Most of my schooling areas were essentially main lake points with little feeding flats on them. But every area was unique and I had to learn the subtleties of each one of those spots. A couple of the better schooling spots had big rocks on them that served as the primary ambush point where the schooling would always start and spread from.
I discovered this by noticing that the schooling always started in certain “hotspots.” When I floated over the hotspots with my Lowrance, sure enough, there was a big rock or sharp contour break there. That’s when I figured out every point had a central ambush spot where the school regrouped between flurries. Instead of chasing the ripple-effect schooling all over the flat, I was better off waiting on the timing of the hotspot where the primary ambush center was located. When the schooling waned and things got quiet, I knew they would be re-firing off the rock again and that’s where my lure needed to be when things erupted.
Here are a couple more tips I learned from “summer school” at the Forrest Wood Cup: Have a variety of lures to rotate through when trying to tempt the schoolers, but do not get locked into any one certain lure, even if you catch a few on it. This was probably the craziest part of the schooling game to me. I would rotate through lures all day and then suddenly find one they would bite. I could catch two or three fish in a row on that lure and then they wouldn’t bite it again the rest of the day. Crazy!
On the first day, I caught three in row on a chatterbait and then threw it until I was blue in the face and never got another bite on it. That’s the way it was the entire time. One lure would get hot for a minute or two and then it was done – better pick up something else and keep rotating through lures to find the next hot ticket.
Other than the Chatterbait, I preferred to use spinning tackle for most of my schooling work, mostly because it casts light baits far and easily. I used a Douglas Outdoors “Sawed-off Shotgun” spinning rod with 20-pound test P-Line braid fused with a 8- to 12-pound test P-Line fluorocarbon leader.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a quick list of some of the lures that worked for me when chasing summer schoolers at Wheeler Lake. If you’re faced with schooling fish in the heat of summer on the TVA chain of lake, maybe some of the tips I just mentioned will help.
Good luck and be patient!
· Small topwater popper with a feather.
· 3/8-ounce chatterbait teamed with a Zako Swimbait, both white in color.
· Small homemade 1/8-ounce hair jig
· White Yamamoto D-shad on a 5/0 Gamakatsu offset hook
· 1/8-ounce dart head with a 4-1/2 inch purple worm
· Couple of different swimbaits in the 3- to 4-inch size