The Power of Observation
By Tim Tighe
Tim Tighe Outdoors.com
Most of the 300 foot bluffs in the Harpeth River are blanketed in thick fog as I round the bend a couple of miles from the ramp. When we near the ramp, the river at water level about a mile upstream becomes visible, and I see several osprey perched in the few dead trees on the far side of the river. Observation and research have taught me that this is a good sign. Osprey eat fish, primarily shad this time of year, so the fact that they are here tells us the bass should also be here. They would not be here if the conditions were not right for them to be successful. There are too many other places for them to be with over a hundred miles of water in this lake. If we make a bad decision and go without a catch there is the refrigerator at home as backup. Obviously they do not have that option. If they make bad decisions, it may cost them and their chick’s lives. Therefore they are not wrong often. Another thing that observation has taught me is that the Blue Heron, who usually wade the shore and use a slightly different hunting method, operate on the same premise. There are several of them in this area so my anticipation for an excellent morning is very high.
Previous observations of this area – especially in the fall – have led to some phenomenal results, because it has everything the shad and the bass need to maximize their chances to feed heavily in preparation for winter. There is a twenty eight foot channel for deep water access which the big bass require for safety. Wood cover is there for all the fish to stage in when the shad are not active, and a large shallow flat that is perfect for the shad to move up and feed on plankton as the sun warms the water in the afternoon. This scenario is the same on land or water that has been playing out since the beginning of time. If you make good decisions you have a good chance to prosper, if not it could be life threatening.
We idle the bass boat into this area because observation has also taught us that since these birds are here for a reason; they do not want to leave. They will tolerate our presence as long as we don’t get too close or cause too much disturbance, which also helps us in relation to not spooking the bass and shad. All these wild creatures first instinct is survival so the larger the disturbance to their environment, the more you diminish your chances of success.
I turn the boat off and just watch and listen for shad and fish activity. The added benefit here is the sweet smell of the moist morning air as well as assuring our feathered friends we mean them no harm so they can get back to their normal routines. This is my wife’s favorite part. She would rather watch the birds than catch fish. We have binoculars to watch for activity but observation has also taught us to watch the birds as they are better at finding the fish than we are from their elevated vantage points.
We sit still and let our small disturbance diminish and start seeing the birds concentrating their attention on the upper end of the large flat where it meets the deeper creek channel. This makes perfect sense because it allows the bass and shad to have an easy transition from the deep water up onto the shallow flat. We start seeing the shad working on the surface first, and I slowly start that direction with my trolling motor. Experience has also taught me that if I use the outboard motor to get there quicker, we stand a good chance of spooking everything and ruining the potential feeding frenzy. If the activity is a half-mile away, I will use the outboard motor until I get within a few hundred yards. This also gives the bass time to get into position for the attack, because they now have the shad in shallow water and close to the shore which diminishes the shad’s escape routes. In the real world of nature, a predator (the bass) is always looking for any advantage to feed more efficiently.
You only need a few baits that all should mimic shad, and my favorites are a chrome and black Strike King Red Eye Shad, a KVD 1.5 square bill crankbait in shad colors, and a white spinnerbait or shad colored swimbait. You want to use baits where you can cover a lot of water, because the action can get fast and furious and the fish are very competitive. If you get it close to them, they will usually eat it.
When you observe the shad, you will notice they go from a feeding mode to getting nervous. When this happens, get ready it’s about to be on! Start casting your baits close to the school of shad and pay particular attention to water depth, the size of the fish you catch, what kind they are (largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, white bass etc.), because they often school by species, size and in some cases depth. Your observation skills are critical here because you don’t always want to catch large quantities of fish. If you are fishing a tournament you can only weight in five and they need to be as large as possible.
My first cast came to a sudden stop and it was on. The fish were so competitive I was literally catching two at a time on one cast. One would be on the front hook of the Red Eye Shad and one would be on the back. My wife looks at me like I am Jesus Christ turning water into wine. As much as I would like to say she does this often that would be somewhat of an exaggeration. Since the action can be fast and furious, you want to get them in the boat and get back out as soon as possible before the fish figure out something is wrong and they disperse. A key word of caution is needed here. The action can be furious, and in the haste, to get back out to the fish it is easy to get a hook in your hand from a flopping fish, especially if you have two at a time. Please be careful. We caught them that way for several minutes and then they scattered. We used the same process and moved to different schools and repeated the process numerous times the rest of the afternoon. The accompanying photo shows what happens to a red eyed shad after about 150 fish catches. Two of them are new and the rest are the casualties.
One of the most important tools we have in our arsenal is refining our observation skills. This is a two part process. First you have to learn to observe, but more importantly, you need to understand not just what is happening but also why. The good news is the more you do this with the correct mind- set the better you get at it. It has helped me tremendously in my deer hunting and my successful forty year aerospace career, and I’m confident that it can improve your fishing or any other endeavor you chose to pursue. I will write in future articles how this process has enabled me to harvest 4 Pope and Young bucks in 6 years with the biggest scoring 180 back in 1991. Not an easy task with archery equipment.