How to find fish fast

Imagine having a captive audience of four of the top guns in the world—tournament pros Kevin Van Dam, Tim Horton, Gary Parsons, and Penny Berryman—sitting in lawn chairs at the end of a dock perched over Missouri’s flat calm Table Rock Lake.
Hot time in the summer sun.
Even in the early morning, the yellow hazy Ozark fire ball is so penetrating and pervasive that the assembly of shorts clad anglers is huddled under the shade of a giant umbrella.
They are laughing and swapping tournament stories, joking with one another, and taking drinks from the giant cooler filled with ice and bottles of spring water. Where does one start with the questions?
What I wanted to know, though, was how these Tracker Marine tournament pros find fish so quickly on lakes, rivers, and reservoirs they’ve never even seen before, let alone fished.
Yet, as full-time tournament gypsies, that is what they are expected to do, week after week, season after season, year after year, from one part of the continent to the other.
And you thought you found it hard trying to figure out how to catch fish in that lake at the other end of the district.
Indeed, Parsons will find himself one week fishing a Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) tournament on Lake Erie and the next week on the Rainy River.
Van Dam, Horton, and Berryman, on the other hand, will hopscotch between B.A.S.S. and FLW events on the Columbia River in Washington and the Thousands Islands in southern Ontario, before heading south on the Interstate to a quarter-million dollar first-place event in Louisiana.
These guys and gals had better be able to find fish quickly. And they do.
Some keep massive computer files and binders, on a water body-by-water body basis, of all the past tournaments ever held on the lake, river, or reservoir. They consult the pages like a financial adviser scouring the past performances of stocks and mutual funds, looking for seasonal patterns, lure tendencies, trends.
And changes. Is the water higher, lower, or the same this year? Have spring rains flooded the lake and clouded the water? Has the drought and summer heat resulted in thicker weed growth? Has the local water control agency increased, decreased, or shut off the flow of water?
Remember Rainy Lake last July!
Interestingly, the pros all agree that if they’ve never been on a big lake before and they’ve only got a few days to find the fish, they’ll hire a small fixed wing aircraft and fly over the water body.
“From a plane, you can see all the little changes,” said Berryman. “The mud lines. The areas where clear water meets cloudy water. I’ve even spotted schools of baitfish.
“I can learn more from a one-hour plane ride than from three days of boating,” she noted. “I can also get the confidence to run the lake. And usually I can determine the section that is hot.”
Tim Horton nodded his head in agreement. He said the biggest mistake most anglers—recreational and tournament alike—make when they fish a big lake for the first time is trying to learn it all.
That is impossible, he says—and not necessary.
“If you do your homework right, you can narrow down the lake to one or two sections where the tournament will be won,” he noted. “That way, all your time on the water is focused on developing and refining a pattern.”
Ironically, one of the things Parsons says he avoids is the crowd—the areas and spots where everyone else is fishing.
Parsons, by the way, has won major events on every North American walleye circuit. He is the only person ever to win Angler-of-the-Year titles on all three professional walleye tours, including unprecedented back-to-back honours on the PWT.
He says it is rare to do well when you’re fishing “in the pack.” You are sharing too many fish, he says.
Van Dam agreed, although the mistake he says he sees tournament anglers make is stinging fish in practice.
Believe it or not, Van Dam says he has such confidence in his species’ specific fishing abilities and techniques to catch largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass in the spring, summer, and fall (in big lakes, small lakes, reservoirs, and rivers) that he doesn’t need to make very many casts in practice.
And he certainly doesn’t need to catch many—or any—fish before the tournament starts.
“I’ll often spend three to five hours just cruising around in my Nitro bass boat, using my eyes to look for visible objects and my sonar to spot deep water structure,” he explained.
“Often I won’t make a single cast.”
Someone remarked that they’d never yet fished a tournament where the prize was awarded to the angler who had the best “practice.” Everyone burst out laughing.
What about big lake/small lake strategies, I wondered? Surely the pros attack a lake the size of Rainy Lake or Lake of the Woods differently than they do a much smaller water body?
“Then it is musical chairs,” chuckled Berryman. “To do well on a small lake, you had better be doing something different. It may be something subtle, but if you’re doing what everybody else is doing . . . then you’re going to be catching what everybody else is catching.
“In fact, do you want to know how you can tell when a pro has had a bad practice and is going to do poorly in a tournament, regardless of the lake size?” she asked.
“If they have more than three or four rods laying on the casting platform, then they’re in trouble.”
Based on where Berryman, Van Dam, Horton, and Parsons find themselves these days—perched high atop the fishing world—“trouble” is something they’d have difficulty even spelling.

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