How to Fish Unfamiliar Bodies of Water On June 17, 2013

By: Kirt Hedquist - Doctor Sonar® Pro Staff

Just where should I start fishing?  What would be the best presentation to use? I often asked myself these fundamental questions before venturing onto a new body of water. And you, too, may ask yourself this when you are wondering how to fish unfamiliar bodies of water.  When I began fishing Walleye Tournaments 6 years ago I had to quickly learn how to break down a new body of water to catch the species of fish I was after, however, this process is not reserved solely for competitive fishing and can be adapted to enhance your everyday fishing experience on most bodies of water.  There are many factors that formulate the procedure of going about learning how to fish unfamiliar bodies of water which include time of year, water levels, predominant forage base, and are you fishing a lake, reservoir or river?  I like to visualize the course of action as if it were a jigsaw puzzle laid out on my kitchen table.
What I would like to do is have you pull up a chair to my table so I can show you how I sort through the puzzle pieces and assemble them to make a complete picture.


Spreading The Puzzle Pieces - Getting Started 

Finding out as much information about the body of water is the first thing on my to-do list, so finding any available maps is puzzle piece number one.  Check the DNR website, bait shops, or on line map stores.  Navionics also has a great PC App that provides the opportunity for researching a lake and marking various waypoints and allowing you to transfer them to your sonar.  If a decent map is not easily available I have gone as far as to print my own 2’ x 3’ map by combining sections from the app I am using, and blowing the pages up in order to piece them together and laminated it as one large, foldable map.  I now have a waterproof, easy to read map that can be marked without destroying it.

DNR websites typically have creel surveys, stocking and lake data that can be valuable information for the average size of fish you are targeting, forage base, clarity, and bottom make up.  Fish that are stocked will typically fish differently than naturally spawned fish; stocked fish are typically more weed orientated.  Talk to the regional fisheries manager and ask them questions about seasonal movements, forage base and typical big fish spots.

Check out relevant fishing websites and look at the fishing reports, these resources usually provide information for the past couple of years…take note of the water levels, temps and techniques used.  There are several satellite views available on the internet which can be helpful to the angler by giving a bird-eyes view of a lake.  For example, Lake Oahe in South Dakota reveals some of her otherwise hidden characteristics when viewed from above including lake structures and low water levels…while Lake Erie will reveal the locations of mud lines vs. clear water, all important features to take notes on.  Many of the electronic manufacture’s equipment has the ability to utilize a computer, in conjunction with a software program, allowing the ability to looking at a lake, waypoints, and areas of interest and then transfer the data to a GPS via a media card.   Another valuable tool is a quality, high definition-mapping chip that gives bottom details while actually on the water.

Once this data is collected you can sit down with a map and start arranging the information.  In the end, this will give a good picture of what the lake will look like before you even arrive.  Local bait shops can be a great source for lake information because your success is their success.  Make mental notes by looking at any bragging boards in the shops, note the date’s fish were caught and be sure to buy any bait locally to build a relationship with the area bait shop owners.

Another critical piece in the puzzle is the weather forecasts that surround your fishing dates…past, present and future.  Stable weather patterns leading up to, and during your trip, will give you an indication to a fairly predictable pattern in which fish will typically be active and feeding, allowing you to go with a faster presentation of trolling crankbaits or pulling spinners.  Unstable weather will greatly affect the pattern of the bite and may even shut it down, creating conditions for a slow presentation in which case Lindy rigging, vertical jigging and spot on the spot presentations will be more productive. 

Grouping Pieces Together - On The Water

Once you have pieced together smaller segments of you puzzle you need to start assembling these groupings into the larger picture…this is where a good quality graph with a high quality mapping chip comes into play.  Navionics (Premium or Platinum) and the Lowrances Structure Scan are units that will show its user all the underwater details not seen topside including the ability to view objects out from the side of a boat. These features are just more great additions developed and introduced by electronics manufacturers to make time pre-fishing more efficient.  Rock piles and underwater humps are seen with picture like clarity and allow the angler to enter waypoints on spots of interest allowing for further investigation at a later time.

The first day on the water for me is usually a day of scouting where I take information from the first pieces of the puzzle and apply it on the water, fine tuning the gathered information and adding additional waypoints while taking notes on details.  Pay attention to transition areas, weed lines, subtle bottom irregularities, little rock piles, small humps in main lake basins and break lines, and noting them on a map and entering waypoints on the GPS. Things to note along with structure are water clarity, type of weed growth, water flow if fishing a river, water temperature, bait fish, if you find fish and if they are suspended or tight to the bottom.  I will drop a line in the water if I do see any fish on my electronic displays to verify they are the species of interest. and to get an idea what the mood of the bite might be.

Filling In The Blanks - Fine Tuning Presentations 
Now that I have taken the small groupings of the puzzle and started organizing them and piecing them together, I will start to see a picture forming.  This partially completed puzzle will now rely on puzzle pieces consisting of color, presentation style, speed, and beginning location to become whole.

The missing puzzle pieces means going to my predetermined areas to find fish, pick the areas apart, if I don’t see any fish I move to the next area, and when I locate fish on my graph I will spend time at these spots and fine tune the presentation that is needed and looking for that “spot on the spot”.  It sounds funny, but I let the fish tell me what they want…but just how does someone listen to the fish?  Presentations are the only way to determine what the fish are in the mood for.  For example, I may start out trolling crankbaits, such as the Salmo Hornet, and switching up colors, sizes and speed as I go.  Mixing it up with a bottom bouncer using “Slow Death” and Berkley Gulp Pinched Crawler and determining if they are listening to this presentation…if they are life is good.  But what if they are not reacting to these presentations?  They are still actually telling me something…change my presentation.  I would then possibly switch to slow presentation, such as a Livebait rigging or vertical jigging presentation, again looking for that “spot on the spot”.  What type of live bait should I be using?  Again, I will let the fish tell me what they want; it may be a leech, minnow or crawler that ends up fine-tuning the presentation to their language.

The Completed Puzzle 

When I place that last piece into place I have a completed puzzle and things will become clear on how and where to catch fish on the body of water I am working.  I pick my most productive spots, rank them accordingly to the quality and quantity of fish caught and I proceed to set up my fishing arsenal based on my findings.  I then unload the boat of unnecessary gear and clutter, making the boat a more efficient tool, and saving fuel with less weight.

I hope this helps you to understand how to fish in unfamiliar bodies of water.


by Bruce Samson under fishing tips

Comments are closed for this article.