Success At The Dock

March 2012 Feature Dan Armitage

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 resident gamefish.

Incredible Hulks

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.

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