Sight fishing: A lot more to it than might meet the eye

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    BY ROB MAGARGAL

    Talk about your hot button topic. A conversation on sight fishing (i.e. bed fishing)… oh, that can go south in a hurry depending on the audience.

    I have read through enough forum comments and/or social media comments on this very subject to know there are some very strong opinions about it. And no matter how much information is out there, most will stick to their view point and will not waver on how they feel.

    Now with that being said, is there a good and bad to sight fishing? Well, that depends.

    There is one more thing I’d like to mention before we get rolling. No matter how anyone feels one way or the other on this subject, in the springtime from March through May, if you are fishing in 2 feet to 20 feet of water, you’re essentially “bed fishing.” The fish you are catching at those depths, many are most likely reacting to your bait or lure getting too close to them guarding their territory and/or rolling directly over their bed.

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    A PAIR OF DONKEYS for the author at Lake Jennings from spring 2019, caught after spotting the big girls in shallow water and taking a very stealth and precise approach to not spook them and get them to bite.

    Are you sitting over the top of them? Maybe not. In the end, it does not really make any difference. It’s only in the mind of the angler, which really means nothing. Sorry. Those fish are still being pulled off their bedding areas or away from their territory by your lure or bait. That is a fact definitely happening. Sight fishing in many ways, however, can help an angler understand the behavior patterns of a bass. They can see the decision process happening right in front of them. Does the fish hit it, or does it even care? Does it get bored that the bait is there and forget about it? Or does it catch the angler off guard and smash it before anything can happen? It’s the cat and mouse game for sure. Chicken or the egg?

    One thing I learned early on was this: I can have a very short line out that has tension on it and watch the fish suck in my bait. This all happens without even a hint of the fish biting. There is no thump. No tick. No nothing. The fish sucks it in and swims off to drop it. From that, how many times does this happen when we are not seeing the fish suck the bait in? There have been times where I don’t set the hook and realize the fish had my bait and spit it. That’s when the oft-said phrase pops in my head, “Set the hook, it’s free.” It costs nothing to set the hook. Makes a lot of sense. You lose nothing by setting the hook. However, you can lose everything by not setting it.

    Sight fishing is a great tool to help a young angler understand how to hook and land a fish. It teaches them valuable lessons on how to control a rod and reel. How to manipulate the fish into doing what you need it to do, and that’s control the fish.

    It can also bring out the worst in a person’s behavior. They see that fish in front of them. It won’t bite. Or it’s just pecking at the bait. That’s often when the Rat-L-Trap gets tossed in the bed or something along those lines.

    Snagging bed fish is as bad as it can get in the springtime for a bass fisherman. Snagging PERIOD is horrible — we all know the Mike Long saga well by now. At one time considered one of the premier — if not THE premier — big bass sight fisherman in SoCal. Well, that came to a swift and just end when he was exposed by Kellen Ellis of SDFish.com, who shot video of him snagging several large bass and posting them as landed by standard, legitimate and conventional means. No matter what crosses your mind when seeing that fish, if that fish does not eat your bait, just leave it alone. Cheating in fishing means you’ll cheat in life, period.

    There are some who have an overall negative view on sight fishing. And mine is that during tournaments, I am not a fan of taking fish off the beds during the springtime. It’s not the catching part. It’s what happens afterward where it matters greatly to me. This is where my view on the subject sits. This is where I happen to have strong feelings on this subject.

    There should be no tournaments or fish left in the livewells during the spawn — just 100% catch and release at the time of landing the fish. That’s from March through May in SoCal. Yes, some will say we have spawners in June and possibly even July. And that’s fine. It’s about the many, not the few.

    Being put in the livewell all day? Many times, the answer is yes. My question now is, why? It’s one thing to land a double digit to let her regain strength over 10 minutes in the livewell with clean, fresh, cool oxygenated water and release her back where you landed her.

    How come many of us feel the need to carry those fish all day in our livewells? To me they’re being put there for one of two reasons.

    1. Hero shot at the end of the day. Great… nice work. I am all for a photo. I have many myself. Take the photo and let them go. Holding five at the end of the day

    means nothing — just have five different photos.

    2. The weigh-in at the end of the day.

    I have watched countless tournaments or just fishermen in our local waters pick off those spawning fish and livewell them. They carry them around all day and release them at the dock. Those fish are stressed out of their minds. There is no way they’re not. And depending on the day and heat levels in the well and water temps in the well, they could die later after being released. They were slowly cooked and suffocated in the livewells. For all the love of the sport we have, it’s seemingly no problem for some killing the resource we claim we cherish.

    Before all the tournament fishermen go off the deep end and start cussing me out here, I also realize the studies have shown that the tournaments are NOT hurting the overall bass population within our SoCal lakes.

    Now take a deep breath everyone, and continue reading.

    I am a huge fan of the new format for tournaments we see on TV. That catch, weigh and release is amazing. It’s the least amount of stress you can apply to a fish, aside from simply not catching one. And well, I’ll be doing my best to catch more for the rest of my life. The idea of not catching fish will never happen in my world.

    It would be great to start moving in that direction for our local tournaments. It can still be the largest five picked from the weights from that day’s fishing. It does not have to be the most overall weight. There are lots of ways to do this. It’s simply sitting down and making it work. It can happen.

    For me and sight fishing, I personally like to sight fish. I will not shy away from that either.

    I like to search out the haunts where the big girls like to hang out. For those who feel it’s easy, they are sorely mistaken. Those fish do not get that big by being dumb. Their instincts are spot on. It’s not that they’re overly smart either — they’re fish after all. It’s a pea-sized brain they have. Rather, it’s that they know when something is not quite right. They can tell something changed in their environment and that triggers their fight or flight instinct, with it 98% of time time being their flight instinct that’s triggered.

    They just leave. You may even get to see them leave. They have no worry showing you they’re leaving. They waste no energy trying to move away quickly like a 3- pound bass might. They may even swim right by you as if to say, “not today.” I have personally seen some massive fish come up to the boat and swim off.

    True sight fishing to me is an art form. There is a true skill-set needed for it. I’m not talking about dropping a bait down on 2- to 4-pound fish. Those are just fun-time fish to take a kid out sight fishing.

    I have many fish in the double-digit range that I have landed sight fishing. And I believe there is a right way and wrong way to sight fish.

    For me it’s about studying the environment that fish live in. What type of cover is around? What type of structure is around? Is there something a big fish might like? Why would it want to stick around that area? Does it have an easy access to deeper water? (Deeper water, of course, being a relative term). Where does the sun hit? When does it hit? Is there easy baitfish around to nab when needed? Where are the males? This as well as many other factors matter greatly in even seeing one of these bigger bass.

    Then there is this.

    So, you found one. Can you

    land that fish if by chance it hits your bait? What is your overall fishing skill-set? These are not 2- to 3-pound schoolers busting topwater. When was the last time you landed a fish of any species short-lined in freshwater over 10 pounds? Or any fish in the freshwater at 10 pounds? Do you understand what controlling that fish is, or what it means?

    Do you even have the gear to land that type fish? Do you have the mind-set to land that fish? Will you panic? Most do. And that’s the number one issue… panic.

    Do you have the boat control techniques to even get a shot at that fish?

    This is an art form. If you struggle landing a 4-pound fish, what makes you think you can land a 10- or 12-pound fish?

    Here is a bit of information to use if you do happen to find one as you’re rolling by in the boat this spring.

    1. Keep going… do not stop that boat. She’ll most likely feel she was not seen. If you change the water in any way or create shadows by reversing that troller, that flight instinct was likely just triggered. She’s either gone or soon will be.

    2. Get well away and out of her line of sight and then slowly turn around to study what she’s doing. See if she’s comfortable with her surroundings. If so, you may just have a chance. Maybe a slim one, yet a chance nonetheless.

    3. Get everything ready in the boat. Get the net in a spot with easy access, yet out of the way. Get those other rods away. Make sure you have a space to work in on the deck and can get to the back of the boat if need be.

    4. Get the correct rod and the reel and hook, line and bait ready and set up. That line and knot better be fresh, too.

    Do not play around with some light wire hook, or some small drop-shot or lighter rod. I use a serious quality 7’1 heavy action rod or a 7’5 medium-heavy action rod. I use 40- to 50-pound braid tied directly to a 4/0 heavy wire super line hook. I use a larger, high-speed reel — no little 50 size reels — it’s 150 size minimum for me. It’s about line capacity and spool diameter to get the line back on the spool quickly.

    Baits? Something not too bulky. You want something that falls through cover and gets her attention. Something you can get a hook through so you can drive home that hook point well. The last thing you need is the bait balling up on the hook. You have to get that weight and hook through her thick jaws. I have seen it a few times where you think you hooked her only to have her come to the surface and spit it back at you.

    The 4/0 heavy

    wire hook and heavy braid are key to this success.

    That toss with a big treble hook swimbait? Oh, so you want to snag her, Mr. Long? That’s exactly what’s happening. You’ll never get me to believe anything less.

    Weedless baits are how to do it properly in my world. Something where you saw it disappear, hooked inside the mouth every time. You see it on TV during tournaments in the spring. They show it was hooked inside the mouth.

    Once hooked, if you get that chance, it’s about getting the fish up and out of its area to allow yourself to be able to fight it. You’ll most likely lose the battle fighting her on her terms.

    This is where not panicking, breathing correctly and having the gear needed to get the job done is essential. Believe it or not, the fight is over within 10 to 15 seconds in most cases when bass fishing. If not, you have given the advantage back to the fish.

    If you have the right gear and control the narrative, you’ll be high-fiving your buddy instead of sinking to your knees with your head in your hands wondering what just happened as you see the big girl swim off.

    As for techniques to work a fish, sorry, those are for you to try and figure out and work on to get those monsters to bite. It’s taken me a long time to learn these fish behaviors. And every season I’m learning a little more about it. It’s all about getting the pieces to the puzzle lined up in the right sequence.

    If you follow these simple rules and guidelines, perhaps when and if that chance presents itself, you may just be successful in getting that trophy fish to the net this spring.

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