One of the biggest and most intriguing factors that keep fishermen coming back day after day is the process of discovery; figuring out the puzzle so to speak. The task of sifting through all the variables and making sense out of all the factors in order to establish a pattern is what drives many anglers. Unknowingly we all go through the same process every time we fish but without the fanfare. Most of us don't realize we are even doing it, establishing a pattern, but just as sure as water is wet we are doing exactly that.
Now there are way more folks who fall into the category of "routine" fishermen than those who actually take the time to go about defining and unraveling a solid pattern. The guy who hooks his boat up, launches at the same ramp, fishes the same spots and throws the same bait trip after trip is what I call a "routine" fisherman. The law of averages eventually rewards this guy with a good trip, just enough hope and success to keep him coming back. Now I'm not going to tell you that what the "routine" fisherman does is wrong because different folks have different goals and expectations - and if "routine" fisherman has a good time on the water and enjoys his trip then more power to him. But, there is much more out there to see and a whole lot more fish to be caught.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the technique of establishing a pattern I ever heard of was demonstrated by a very accomplished guide on Sam Rayburn by the name of Will Kirkpatrick. Will actually taught classes on fishing and showed anglers how to apply the techniques he taught. One of Will's best lessons was How to Establish a Pattern.
Anglers in the class were given a stack of 3x5 note cards before they went out to fish. On the cards the anglers were to write down a variety of information every time they got a bite or caught a fish. Water depth, surrounding structure, water temp, lure, retrieve speed, and so on were all noted by each angler.
At lunch or dinner that evening the anglers were to bring their stack of cards and start sorting through them. Little by little each card was placed into categories until they were all done. It was amazing at the end of the sorting process how each angler could now physically put their hand on one stack, that was usually the largest, and see exactly what the common denominators were in their pattern. This process is what we as anglers need to be able to do mentally in order to narrow down the options and realize just exactly what the pattern is for that specific day.
Okay so now you understand the method of how to decipher the pattern, the only question is, "How do I get started?"
A few basic qualifiers come to mind that should shed some light on the subject before we get started. The first one has to be about things you cannot control, meaning weather conditions. Weather obviously plays a huge factor in determining your strategy for that day's trip on the water. For arguments sake we are going to make weather a non-factor, it's drop-dead perfect conditions and no water is off-limits due to bad wind or other limiting factors.
The next uncontrollable factor has to be tides, either you have them or you don't - no in between. Tidal movement will certainly influence your approach and should determine where and how you start your day.
Now we have determined that we have tidal movement and good weather so the next piece of the puzzle to fill in is, "What type of lure do I start off with?"
In a situation like this I personally like to find a lure that enables me to cover a lot of water and possibly take advantage of an aggressive bite. For years this was the standard game plan for some of the best big trout hunters in the business. Show up on a picture perfect flat and start the session throwing a Jumpin' Minnow. The first big surface eruption let them know there were fish in the area and then it was time to get down to business. If the fish didn't eat off the surface the switch was made to a Corky or possibly a Broken Back and that was all she wrote. No there weren't any sexy "blow ups" or anything like that but the strike to hook up ratio was often off the chart and that's what really mattered. The topwater plug helped find the fish and the more subtle approach from the subsurface offerings caught the fish.
Now speaking of subsurface offerings, it's always a good idea to start your fishing trip with each angler throwing a different bait in order to cover the most area and different depths of water. The folks starting with soft plastics can also take advantage of different bait profiles to help them cover the water more efficiently and that's important. A soft plastic with a paddle tail will emit more vibration than a straight-tailed bait and that makes it easier for fish to find. The quicker a fish can find your offering the sooner you can start to refine your pattern and possibly get on better quality fish.
Now as a guide it's always fun to start experimenting with other colors, sizes, and presentations once you get a pattern figured out and start catching fish. I can't tell you how many times while fishing with customers that someone on the boat started trying a new color or retrieve only to find out that it worked even better than what we were doing originally. A small variation can sometimes make all the difference between a good day and great one. The variations are great to play around with once you begin catching fish but I personally don't get too caught up with ultra-specific colors in the beginning. My thoughts are you have to start somewhere and that's usually pretty simple - dark or light.
Decide from the start who will throw a dark bait and who will throw a lighter colored bait. Let the results point you in a direction and then get more specific with colors or shades. Don't get so hung up on a color or combination that it causes you to not have confidence in the bait you are using, though. If your soft plastic doesn't have the exact number of sparkles in it I'm sure you can still catch fish.
I think the basic color concept of light or dark is more important than whether a bait comes from the exact slice of the color spectrum as another. Now I have been proven wrong on a few occasions by some super spooky redfish but that is more the exception than the rule. I say, "Don't get too hung up on the little things."
A truly dialed-in pattern is a thing of beauty and helps to promote confidence in any angler. When you step on a boat to go fish with your buddy or a guide and they tell you something is going to happen and as soon as you stop the boat it does exactly as they said, suddenly it seems as though everything in the world is right.
The more skilled you become at putting these pieces together and being able to decipher the puzzle, as Will Kirkpatrick taught, the more enjoyable your trips on the water will become. Don't become a creature of habit, take the clues you are given and put them in order in a very simple and basic fashion and watch what happens. The results become much more predictable and your time on the water becomes much more pleasant as your results get better with each trip.
I remember hearing a long time ago, "Knowledge is power and, the more you know the better off you are." This could not be more true than in fishing.