The main Combat-Fishing® homepage Articles that will take you all over and tell you how to catch what swims Articles for anyone interested in the outdoors Ecology for anglers and those interested in fishFishing tactics and basic methods how to and whythe Latest reports on whats biting and where Fish Stories and Yarns A list of fishing and outdoors related websites Combatfish's Space website Get the latest Combat-Fishing Fish designs and Books Online


Latest Reports | Fishing Articles | Fishing Tactics | Fish Ecology and Biology | Travel Articles | Fishy Fun | External Links | Shopping | HOME

A basic concept for fishing large lakes (and bays)



The first impression many anglers have when fishing a large body of water is: "where do I start?"  Unlike a small pond or little lake, the shoreline gives away very little of what is underneath the water, and with so much water, the fish can move at will.  You will wonder how to find these roving fish without blindly trolling or randomly casting into the depths.  With a couple of tools and a little fish knowledge, however, an angler can unlock many of the secrets of the water, and as a result, avoid wasting time trying to stumble on the fish.

(back to the top)

Doing your Homework.

First, an angler should research the reservoir heavily!  You need to find out some basic data including: How old is the reservoir, what kinds of fish where in the river before the reservoir was formed, and what has been stocked since, what type of dam was used to contain the water, and what does the bottom look like.  An easy way to find out alot of this data for federally, state, or corporately constructed lakes is to hit the web site of the organization that owns the dam.  Many lakes in the US fall into four categories: Hydroelectric, water storage, recreational, and shipping. Hydroelectric lakes were build to provide power, and therefore the dams are controlled by a power company (the Tennessee Valley Authority and American Electric Power are a couple of examples). The best source of information on hydroelectric lakes is the web site for the company that operates the dam, and the visitors center for the dam itself.  The remaining three categories are usually built in the US by the  Army Corps of Engineers or by an equivalent state agency.  Information on these lakes is also available at the lake or dam visitor center, and on the web by a visit to the Army COE web site (which will direct you to the appropriate district web site).  If the dam was built by a state agency, a simple trip to the states department of natural resources (or equiv.) will work.

Now that you know the history of the dam, and have an idea of how the lake looks and what facilities are available, how do you find out about the fish?  The best place to find out what fish are in a public lake is to call or link to the states or provinces department of fish&game (or freshwater fish commission).  They will have detailed stocking information available for the lake, and with any luck, will give you access to CREEL SURVEY DATA.  Creel survey data is data taken from a sample of anglers on a body of water including what they caught, what methods were used, how long did they fish for, and what species were they after.  The creel survey data is a gold mine!  Use the data to find out what fish are most often caught, and what species are most pursued, and note particularly the dates for each set of data.  While the data on what is stocked in the lake will tell you what fish are in the lake, the creel data will tell you how many of these fish end up on the dinner table, or if they survive to adulthood.  Another good piece of data to ask about is if any scientific fisheries studies have been done on the lake.  These technical reports are hard to read, but what they can tell you is where each species is found, how big it gets in the lake, and how healthy the population is. IN ALL THESE DATA SOURCES LOOK FOR UNDEREXPLOITED SPECIES (fish that no one pursues but that you think might be fun to catch) and HOW YOUR TARGET SPECIES IS DOING IN THE LAKE AND WHAT IT IS EATING.

The final piece of homework is:   look for a topographical (or contour) map of the lake.  A good, detailed contour map is even more valuable than the fisheries data, because if you know your fish (what they like to eat, and where they like to hang out), it will lead you to spots where you can look for them.  These maps vary in appearance and are available from a wide variety of sources (USGS, NIMA, Army COE, the State or Province, and several companies). Here is a very simplified example for an imaginary lake (similar to several Army COE lakes-click on it for an enlargement), which I will refer to in the rest of this article, and to help explain general concepts for fishing lakes.
(back to the top)

The General Rules of Big Water Fishing

1) Fish will seek comfort zones when not really hungry or not amorous (i.e. spawning).
Know the preferred temperature preferences for the species you want to pursue. SInce a large body of water can have a variety of temperatures (temperature layering or stratification) at various depths, a fish will seek out the temperature it is most comfortable at and the depth associated with that temperature.  Also, if the species is structure seeking (black bass, crappie, brown trout are a few examples in freshwater)  it will seek structure at these corresponding depths.  This rule applies to saltwater as well as freshwater, as any party boat captain can tell you.  In order to find these fish use a thermometer (see tools below) on a metered line to obtain the temperatures at various depths, then fish at the appropriate depth for your fish.  In the spring and fall a phenomena called 'turnover' will make it very difficult to predict fish depth, and just sampling water temps at various depths will not work.  In these cases, however, the fish will be very hungry or amorous anyhow (See #5 below)!

2) Fish seek gradients (areas of sharp changes in depth, temperature, pH, light, weed lines, or clarity).
Remember that contour chart we discussed above, take another look at it.  Areas where the depth contour lines of different colors (depths) come close together indicate a drop-off.  Predatory fish often sit on the deep side of the drop-off waiting for shallow water swimming baitfish to swim over the edge.  If the drop off has structure on the shallow side (see the submerged tree areas), predators will also sit on the deep edge and shallow edges of the cover so that they can jump out and snatch up a hapless baitfish.  Areas with sharp changes in temperature will also attract fish.  Where a river enters a lake, there is often a zone where the river water merges with the lake water (sometimes easily visible by the change in water clarity or whirlpools).  In summer and winter the lake water will form layers.  In the summer the water near the surface will be warmer than the water near the bottom.  The depth at which the water temperate sharply changes from warm to cold is called the 'thermocline'.  This thermocline is sometimes visible on sonar as a line.  Fish sit near the thermocline to be both comfortable, and able to pop into the less comfortable water to get prey.  The thermocline also hides some vibration from above or below it, so it will appear as a line on a sonar screen, and like an attack submarine, predatory fish will use this characteristic to hit prey.  

3) Hungry fish in big water are either schoolers, cruisers,  or ambushers.
 Every predatory fish (this includes nearly all sportfishes) are 'built' to catch their prey in one of three ways: ambush (hide until prey comes by and then jump out to catch it), cruise (swim alone or in groups of 2 ot 3 in a likely prey holding area until it finds something to eat), and school (swim in large groups to encircle prey or use other predators to help find prey-'two eyes are better than one, four are better yet', and to help evade even bigger predators).  Know which of these three types your fish is.  Some species will assume all three roles, depending on age and the type of prey pursued.  As an example, smaller striped bass will school together to ambush schools of small minnows, large stripers will cruise near schools of larger prey when prey is plentiful, and then will ambush when seeking structure prone prey.   Largemouth bass are largely ambush predators (big mouth, sprint muscles, upturned eyes& mouth), but will cruise in the spring and fall, and small-midsized largemouth will school in the fall to encircle shad schools in larger lakes.  Bottom line-know what your fish is for the conditions and lake and customize your lures/baits accordingly.  For ambush predators-find structure in there comfort zone, or gradients the fish can use (see rule #2) and you will find the fish.  For cruisers, use noisy/smelly/colorful baits/lures to attract their attention over large distances, and move lots over likely water.  ALSO-note that one of the best ways to seek out schooling or cruising predators is to troll (at the right depth, see rules #1&2) until you find them, or if they are schooling near the surface look for diving seagulls and water birds (see rule#4).

4) Watch the birds, look for anything out of the ordinary, watch the weather.
 Birds are an excellent source of reconnaissance for large water.  They have a good viewpoint, and better eyes, and can spot schools of bait (which is where the predators will be) better than most anglers.  Look for fish-eating birds diving into the water, and look for flocks of birds circling a section of water surface.  Also, look for 'nervous' water (water that looks like something is moving underneath it).  Look for shadows in the water and 'boils' on the water.  Also, look for groups of other fishers (remember courtesy and don't crowd them).
A weather change can cause fish to feed or stop feeding.  Dropping pressure will usually trigger bites, while rising pressure will turn the fish away from feeding.  Lots of rain will make some fish harder to catch (sight feeders like bass) and some easier to catch (scent, vibration dependent fish like catfish).  Watch the weather forecast (see rule #6).

5) Remember to be aware of turnover in Fall and Spring.
In spring and fall, the surface water goes to the bottom and the bottom water comes to the surface, which will excite the fish and make them hungry.  Unfortunately, it may also make the fish  harder to find, since their is no correlation of depth to temperature during turnover. Use rules #2,3,4 to find the fish.  Also, if your species is spawning seek its spawning areas (before and after, preferably not during-let the fish do their thing and pick another species).

6) Be Safe!
 Always respect a large body of water, and never underestimate it.

(back to the top)

More Tools to find & Catch fish in big water

1) A Boat.
 It is easier to find and move to productive spots in a large body of water with a boat. BUT-if you don't have access to a boat don't worry-use the map just the same and hike or drive around the shoreline to get to the fish.  90% of the time I am also boatless and I still do pretty well on even the biggest lakes since most species hang out near the shoreline.

2) Navigation Equipment (Loran, GPS, Compass).
 It will make it easier to find promising areas in the lake (from a map) or to return to areas productive in previous fishing trips.
3) A Fishtank Thermometer rigged on knotted/marked string (see image-click image to enlarge).
 An easy way to get temperature measurements is to use a thermometer rigged as shown, tied to a string marked at even lengths (every meter or couple of feet will do).  Lower the thermometer to a depth, wait three minutes, and pull it up and record the depth and temp.  Do this until you find the thermocline (a shift of 3-5 degrees or more in 6 inches in the thermocline is common), and the temps that your favorite fish and its prey like.


4) A Depth/Fish Finder (Sonar).
 Makes it very easy to find fish, structure, the thermocline, and depth changes.

(back to the top)

Get your Combat-Fishing Stuff Here!

LEGAL: Trademarks for lures properties of their respective owners. ALL content ©1993-2015 Bryce L. Meyer. The term "Combat-Fishing" is a federally registered trademark. "Combat Fishing" when used in reference to travel information, fishing websites, fishing or travel books, or similar products as a brand is also a trademark. The Camo Fish and Pole log is also a trademark. Not liable for any advice provided. Webmaster email cfish at