While on assignment for Houseboat
magazine recently I found myself dock-locked by foul weather for a good portion
of the period I had hoped to be cruising—and fishing—the Bass Islands of
Western Lake Erie. In this case, it was mid-summer thunderstorms and the winds
they prompted that kept us from venturing out into the open waters of the
southernmost Great Lake; by this point in the season it is more likely to be fall
cold fronts that boost the breeze that keeps boats of all sizes in port and
their occupants from angling. However, whether it’s the deck of a secondary
craft or a houseboat upon which you stand and cuss Mother Nature, keep in mind
that some of the best fishing any time of year can be found literally
underfoot, right at the dock.
That’s because docks and piers and ramps and seawalls serve as
structure, and structure attracts the baitfish that our favorite gamefish
pursue. Actually, pilings, cross-beams and other materials (especially those
made out of wood) that support docks are home to algae and plankton that the
baitfish seek-out, the first links in the classic food chain, the other end of
which features us settling down to a fine mess of fried fish.
Structure also offers shade, which bait and gamefish value for
protection from sunlight and to help them hide while playing cat-and-mouse
among the timbers, weeds and shadows that can be found around boat docks.
Feed ‘em or Fool ‘em?
Getting into that game is a matter of fooling the fish below using
vertical fishing tactics, and maybe a little casting, using baits that match
the hatch below. Artificial lures such as lead-headed jigs, blade baits and
jigging spoons work well from boat docks, but when the wind is blowing or the
temperature dropping—or both, as is usually the case come autumn—I have found
that the best bet for vertical fishing success is to feed the fish rather than
try to fool them. In other words, use natural bait rather than artificial.
For starters, you can often see some baitfish swimming around in the
water under your boat and its dock and get an idea of the size and species of
the fish that are probably providing the bulk of the food for the larger
predatory species you seek. You can also ask local anglers, fellow boaters or
the local bait shop what the primary baitfish species is in a particular lake
at a particular time. If you have lures of the right size and shape, or are
lucky enough to have a bait shop nearby, you can purchase the proper live bait
or lures and get fishing.
In our case last summer, we were without live bait, having planned on
trolling spoons and crankbaits for open-water walleye and smallmouth bass, and
the marina where we were based didn’t have a bait and tackle shop where we
could by smaller lures or live bait. We did have a wire-mesh minnow trap along,
however, which I had tossed into the car as an afterthought. On our first
evening stuck at the dock we baited the see-through cylinder with rib bones and
saltine crackers left behind after an alfresco barbeque dinner and by morning
had a dozen emerald shiners and a pair of crawfish with which to tempt our
Despite wind in the 20 mph range, we enjoyed several hours of fishing
action dunking the minnows, which were suspended beneath bobbers about four
feet down, around and under the very docks to which our houseboat was tethered.
Better yet, we soon found that boats in the seasonal slips nearby were even
better bets for the fishing, as their hulls were often coated with algae from
being in the water all season long, and fish learned to count on the shade
provided by the little-used craft, concentrating under the foulest hulls.
Primarily panfish such as crappies and sunfish, we caught an occasional catfish
and a few small bass while plying the docks waiting for the winds to wane.
That evening, after baiting the trap with pieces of the fish we had
caught earlier in the day, we removed the claws from the crayfish we had saved
from the night before to make them less of a threat to the fish we hoped they
would attract. Placing the crawdads on circle hooks threaded through the tails
of each crustacean, we dropped them to the bottom directly below rods we placed
in holders aboard the boat. By keeping the line straight down we knew the
crawfish were on a short tether and could not wander far to hide under a rock
or get lost among the weeds.
The next morning we found a fat channel catfish on one line and nothing
on the other; a fish (we suspect a channel catfish) large enough to break the
line had apparently scooped up our crawfish and just kept on swimming!
Chum’s the Word
That day we had more minnows in the trap and we learned my 10-year-old
son helped himself to more than his share of “complimentary” saltines from the
restaurant to use as a lure in the trap. Crumbling the crackers and spreading
the pieces across the water next to the boat as chum, he soon had a resident
school of sunfish hanging around the piling at his feet. Using pieces of raw
hot dogs and, when the meat ran out, their intended buns as bait, he caught
bluegills all morning long while I worked the docks with the minnows for
crappies and small bass.
We hardly noticed when the wind dropped and only when some of the boats
around us began firing up their engines and heading out of the marina toward
open water did we realize the lake had calmed and we could be fishing out
around the famous Bass Islands. It took us each a pair of fish and 10 minutes’
more dock fishing to decide to do just that.