Basics on How Too Fish Docks and Piers
When considering this article I was not sure what the value would be to readers outside Gauteng, reason being that the Vaal River is probably the most prominent venue when it comes to Docks and Piers. But we are seeing more and more development around our precious dams and there are very little venues in Gauteng now where you can go and docks and piers do not play a role in your fishing trip, so I decided to do it anyway. This is probably one of my favorite structures merely because it fits in with my fishing style and there is nothing I enjoy more than pitching at a dock and anticipating the bite!
Perhaps the ultimate cover, boat docks can be counted on to hold bass year round…….
When not in hot pursuit of food, bass normally hold close to some type of structure. In many instances, they prefer to be under cover.
Shade from overhead objects hides the fish and makes them feel secure. Such spots also serve as ambush zones from which bass can dart out and grab passing baitfish. Examples of favorite overhead cover include matted grass, lily pads, sunken brush, flooded willows and the like. And here is another example that exists on virtually every dam in South Africa: Boat Docks.
Boat docks always hold bass, It’s one of the very, very few structure types that attract fish year-round. I fish them summer, winter, pre-spawn, post-spawn, even in the spawning season. There’s never a time that I can’t rely on docks to produce some fish. Boat docks are one of the ultimate cover types. They’re one of the major patterns that I use at all dams. Anytime I travel to a different dam and I see docks, my first re-action is there MUST be some fish there. This is something that I relied for years and it’s consistent.
OVERVIEW OF FISHING DOCKS
There are two main types of docks, stationary docks, which are supported by poles driven into the dam or river bottom, and floating docks which are build on plastic blocks or metal drums and which ride up and down as the water level fluctuates. Both types of docks are attractive to fish for the same reasons. They provide shade, they attract bait fish, they break currents and they offer protection from predators such as fish eating birds and fish catching humans. I personally believe shade is the most important of these attractions. Darkness is a condition any prey or predator feels comfortable with. In darkness or shade, they feel like they’re hidden. If they’re prey, it’s easier to avoid predators. And if they’re predators, they can ambush their prey. This applies to bass, and that’s why boat docks are attractive to the fish.
While docks in many dams have the potential to draw and hold bass, docks in certain kind of dams are usually better than others. The less natural cover a dam has, the better the docks, because they’re the primary cover. Conversely, the more natural cover a dam has, especially aquatic vegetation, the less appealing docks are (we will get back to this statement once I have made my point)
Thick mats of vegetation offer the same cover features as docks (shade, temperature change, current break). What’s more, the vegetation produces oxygen, which is especially critical to bass in warm weather. If a dam has abundant aquatic vegetation, the fish will prefer it over other cover types. One thing to remember, if you can find a combination of a dock and aquatic vegetation, that’s better than either cover type by itself.
How does this relate to two venues most people know? Firstly the Vaal River although the river has a lot of vegetation it is not the type of aquatic vegetation that release oxygen. The dominant vegetations are reeds and lily pads. Also the amount of docks on the river makes it one of the dominant structure types on the river. You will always find fish on the docks in the Vaal River.
Bronkies on the other hand has predominantly grass that is the aquatic vegetation that I refer to, that release oxygen. There is also some docks that are adjacent to the vegetation and these docks produce consistently and keeps on reloading.
Water color has little effect on how bass relate to docks and piers. They utilize this special structure in clear, dingy and muddy conditions. Only the effectiveness of various techniques is affected. For instance, in clear water anglers must stay farther back to avoid being seen by the fish. This may eliminate the possibility of using such close-in techniques as flipping.
BEST TIMES FOR DOCKS
While docks can hold bass throughout the year, I think two times are better than the rest for fishing docks: Post-spawn and Winter. Docks along major bays serve as stopover places as the fish move from spawning shallows back toward deep water.
I will use the Vaal River as an example, there the bass spawn on any form of hard structure available as there is very little spawning flats available. When the fish finish spawning and head back toward the deeper water the deep ends of the docks is the very first structure they come to, so they stack up on them. If a certain dock has adequate food and water depth available, those fish may never go any farther. They may spend the entire summer there. And winter? I think there is a big misconception about winter fishing, I use to have a lot of trouble catching fish in the wintertime. I believed, like everybody else, that you had to fish deep in winter. I’ve found this isn’t necessarily so. Bass like to stay immediately adjacent to deep water during winter, but when they’re feeding, they move fairly shallow, usually in 7 – 10 feet of water or less. If you got a dock that’s got 15 feet of water on the end of it and 5 feet on the primary poles, this is the very best place to catch bass in the wintertime.
If the water is super cold and the fish are lethargic, it’s hard to catch them anywhere. But if the barometer is stable and the sun’s out, bass will cruise near docks and feed. If a dam has a lack of cover except for docks, the bass will actually spawn around the posts. So I’ll fish docks in the pre-spawn and actual spawning period if conditions are right. Also docks are major holding areas through all of summer and fall. Of course, deciding which docks to fish is dependent on the time of year and where the fish should be. In summer they’re more likely to be on docks close to the main dam, deep water areas. Then when fall approaches, the bass will follow the bait fish back into the bays, so I move with them and look for docks in shallower areas.
PICKING DOCS & PIERS
Not all docks and piers hold the same attraction to bass, and a major secret in fishing docks is being able to tell the good ones from the bad ones. A prime boat dock is one that borders a creek channel, a prominent point, and old roadbed or some other structure that might serve as a migration route. I’m a firm believer that fish relate to a specific route when they move back and forth in a dam. And if a channel or point has good cover, that’s a prime migration route, and the bass use it constantly. A boat dock sitting next to one of these migration routes is a ‘killer’ place. That’s one of those docks where you can catch a fish in the morning and then go back three times during the day and catch another bass each time. In the Vaal River you will find multiple fish on one dock. An easy way for anglers to find such spots is by studying a dam contour map. I study maps for areas where a channel swings into a bank, or for points that stick out into deep water. Then I go and look at these places to see if docks are present. A lot of you might ask what the relevance is of a contour map on a venue like the Vaal River is, please believe me if you see a contour map of the river it will be an eye opener! The old river channel becomes key and very relevant. When I find docks in such an area, I judge their fish-holding potential according to their construction.
Older, established docks are better than new ones. Also, docks built on poles are better than floating docks, because they offer vertical cover extending down to the dam or river bottom. And docks with clusters of poles, ladders, cross braces or other additional features are better than docks with single poles and no clutter. I also feel that bottom content is another factor in a dock’s productiveness. Docks over good sand, rock or clay bottoms will be better than docks over muddy bottoms. And then there is building rubble, bonus structure, and bass love it. I have a theory that I apply when fishing new water to select these docks, I would idle my boat down a line of docks and pick docks with real fancy houses and lights on the docks. Two reasons firstly I believe rich people are more likely to dump their building rubble in the water than the average ‘Joe’. Lights attract insects at night that will feed hungry bass. Hopefully I do not get crucified for this statement!
The building rubble you can usually find right at the back of a dock, on the sides of the slipway or right in front of the slipway. These are the three most obvious places to search for additional structure at docks.
Once you located prime docks and piers, an angler must decide how to fish them. Time of year, how bass are relating to the structure, lure and tackle selection and cast/retrieve techniques all go into making this decision. Generally bass will hold underneath docks, and if there is vertical structure (pilings, ladders, etc), they will be next to the best of this cover. Also, unless it is early spring, they’ll usually stay on the shady side of the dock. But in the pre-spawn, they’ll be seeking warmer water, so they’ll be on the sunny side. You have to approach a dock as quietly as possible and it’s very important to get your boat in just the right position before making a cast. Wait until the boat is positioned exactly like you want it, then be very precise with your casts. I would pick my target depending on whether I am fishing for fun or in a tournament. If I am fishing for fun, I’ll cast to the end and outsides of the dock first. This way I may tease a fish out from under the dock. Then I can play it in open water where there’s less chance of losing it. Also a good way to teach kids you to fish docks until they have the confidence to fish the structure. But if I’ve got a tournament or competitor on my boat, I’ll make my first cast to where I think I’m most likely to get a strike. Usually this is back under the dock and around the thickest clump of pilings. If there is current (Vaal River), I approach the dock from the down current side (or down-wind side). My first cast will be across the end of the dock to the up current side, and I’ll retrieve the bait right back across the face of the dock, coming with the current. The fish will usually hold on the downstream side of the dock, and they’ll strike as the bait passes the downstream corner. Following this initial cast, I continue the deeper part of the dock, hitting every corner and side. Then I move my boat close to the structure and begin fishing the way along the dock toward the bank. In the process I hit every piling and other cover object that has the potential of holding fish. In the spring and early summer, I may twitch a Rapala jerk bait. The bait is fished right next to the pilings or plastic blocks. I also like to toss a spinner bait, crank bait and lipless crank baits around the docks, actually bumping the cover when possible.
But the bread and butter dock lures, the real productive baits, are those in the slow-moving, sinking family. Plastic worms, super flukes, jigs, tubes, grubs and similar offerings account for the majority of boat-dock bass. I use them interchangeable with the faster baits mentioned above. When I’m fishing docks with worms or plastics, I’ll skip-cast my bait back under the dock. I’ll use a medium heavy rod with bait cast reel and 12 – 14 pound test fluorocarbon line. (A skip-cast is similar to skipping a flat rock across the water. This is not an easy technique to learn but critical if you want to be successful at fishing docks. The secret to skip casting is to keep your lure as close as possible to the surface before making the pitch to the back of the dock.)
When worming docks, I normally fish a six inch worm, 4/0 hook and either a 1/8 ounce or ½ ounce bullet sinker. The light sinker allows the bait to sink slower, which gives the bass more time to decide to strike as the worm falls past it. Sometimes, though, if the docks are in deeper water, I will change to a ½ ounce sinker to get it down a little faster, especially if the fish are holding close to the bottom. The heavier the sinker, the more difficult it is to skip the bait. When skipping with a sinker the sinker must be pegged with a toothpick at the head of the worm. If it’s not pegged, the sinker will slide up the line during the cast, and it won’t skip properly.
Many times bass will suspend just under the surface. Other times, they will hold at middle depths along pilings or near bottom. The strike can come anywhere! If I don’t get bit while the bait is falling, I leave reel free spooling and let it drop straight to the bottom. Then I’ll click over the reel, let the worm rest a couple of seconds, and drag it a foot or two very slowly. And then I’ll twitch it. If a fish has followed the bait down to the bottom, and the drag doesn’t get it, the twitch probably will!
When a cast fails to produce a strike, I wind my bait in and toss it to another piling. I rarely cast back to the same spot twice. I believe that if a bass is present, it’s likely to hit the first time the bait moves through its strike zone, so repeat casts are usually a waste of effort. On any given day I attempt to pattern the bass according to specific depth and location along the docks. One day they might be holding on the end of the docks, and the next day they’ll hold under the walkway up near the bank. Usually, after you catch a few fish, you can see a very definite pattern. Then you can move from one dock to the next and concentrate on fishing only the most productive part of the dock. This way you can be more efficient with your time.
If the water is cold and the fish is inactive, I’ll flip a ¼ ounce jig with a brushog as a trailer so it’ll fall slowly. But if the water is warmer and the fish are active I’ll stick to a plastic worm or fluke. Also when I’m pitching plastics I’ll really massage the pilings and other pieces of cover. I think the fish like the vertical presentation, so I’ll drop my bait right down beside the structure. If I believe the fish is holding shallower I’ll try an spinner bait or a crank bait, if they take it that’s what I’ll stick with, because I can cover so many more spots with one of these baits than I can with a slow moving one. However it’s the slowest moving baits I turn to in winter. If I know there is structure of the dock, building rubble, vegetation etc. I will fish this structure first using my standard techniques. Then I’ll move in and fish the dock just as thoroughly as I would if the alternate structure hadn’t been there. Sometimes you can take a bass of this alternate structure, and then take a couple more of the dock proper.
Well I suppose this is it for me about boat docks, always keep in mind that docks will hold fish all year long and is always worth a try! Guy’s fishing the Vaal River a lot there is a lot of subtle techniques in this article that helped me tremendously on the river be sure to try them and I am convinced you will have more success taking fish of boat docks. Also remember a boat dock bordering on other structure is prime area!