Learning to Identify the Strike Zone

Learning to Identify the Strike Zone
Jay’s starting lineup for clear water conditions.

Do you remember when John Madden retired from coaching and became a football broadcaster? He was great at breaking down the plays on both sides of the ball. His Wham and Bam antics were awesome and very entertaining to watch, and they were also extremely accurate. Tony Romo to me is not John Madden but he is extremely good at breaking down the offensive strategies. I know, what does this has to do with me and my fishing? Honestly, I am very similar with the antics and the colorful play by play when coaching anglers to better ways of doing what we do.

I found myself a few weeks back instructing a group of guys in the John Madden manner. “See the grass edge? We wanted to cast just up on the shallow grass edge and short-twitch the lure to where it falls straight down the drop-off. The drop-off is shallow, so it won’t take long to get the lure down into the strike zone. Now, short twitches, almost like you are lightly vibrating your rod tip, allowing the lure to barely dust the bottom.”

I almost wished I had been able to draw the process up for them on a dry erase board. Drawing the grass edge, the potholes, the scattered grass beds, current and wind directions, and the position in which the fish were staged. I am sure in today’s high-tech world I could get a program that would allow me to draw this on the screen as I talk about such things in my seminars. It is vitally important when working such a pattern that we stay back as far away as we can from these specific structures. Accurate casts to the structure is primary key to success.

Breaking down the pattern for each day or season will remain one of the most important aspects of fishing. I am not sure we can learn this in any other way than just getting out there each morning and allowing all the conditions of the day to show us where we need to start. As we get into a period in early summer when winds could begin to give us small windows to fish some more open water structures, it will still be important to be able to break down and analyze each structure.

Mid-bay and barrier reef structures, along with shallow sandbars that run between spoil bank and island land masses are some of my favorite types of structure to target when weather patterns allow. Not to get too far off track, but the continued protection of our oyster reefs in the Aransas Bay complex is critical to the overall health of our bay systems and their residents. Wind-driven as well as tidal currents play a large role in the way we approach and fish these areas.

I prefer small shallow bellies and even shallow passes through the reefs when I can find reef structures that allow for this. It is obvious that we want to fish reef points or points on sandbars. Points force water movement, no matter whether wind-driven or tidal current to flow around them. The water movement forces bait fish into smaller strike zones, making it easier for fish to feed and acquire a meal.

In my experience, the larger predators will stage either up-current or upwind. Trout and redfish are broad-tailed and more proficient in their mobility through moving water versus forked-tailed species such as mullet and menhaden.

When I am looking for points or passes in reefs or sandbars, I also look for bait and bird activity. Pelicans, gulls, and even terns can signal us to bait fish that are not being seen until something forces them close enough to the surface for the birds to swoop in. Current can bring the bait close enough to the surface for birds to feed on them as well and even this will be a sign that game fish are close by. I would even go as far to say that the type of noises that gulls and terns make when communicating with one another is a clue to bait being present. I don’t speak bird, but certainly wish I did. I do, however, recognize these sounds and continue to use them to establish areas holding the proper bait and possibly the best fish for that day. I will also say that I am very skeptical about even getting out of the boat when I am not seeing or hearing the right things from my bird friends.

One of the best things about the amount of wind we experience along the middle and lower Texas coast is the fact that the wind moves the water for us probably more times than the tides do during daylight hours. Never believe that fish feed only during the times posted on Solunar Tables. Predators are highly opportunistic and therefore not likely to pass an easy meal, which the wind can provide through the water movement it creates.

Over the past several years, the commercial harvest of oysters has eliminated a bunch of areas that I once depended on. New regulations were put into place for the sanctuary reefs of the Second Chain of Islands, Ayer’s, and Beldon’s. Cedar and Carlos are already beginning to show recovery but it is going to take some time for what I refer to as the backbones of these reefs to fully rebuild. The taller the backbone, the more protection and water movement there will be through and around the reef structures. This is excellent for fishing and will also provide protection from erosion along our barrier island shorelines. Another benefit will be improved growth in bottom grasses that provide critical habitat for the entire marine food chain. Apologies for getting off track, but these topics are very dear to me.

I like to position up-current or upwind of passes or points on the structures we are talking about in this article. This allows the current to bend or sweep your presentation more naturally into the strike zone. I know, you’re probably thinking, so where’s the strike zone? Locating the strike zone is always the hardest part of the process for many that don’t get the opportunity to fish water moving around structures every time out.

What I’m describing here is the small area within the flow of water where small eddies occur, and/or where the water movement slows slightly as it sweeps around the point. I watch my line and the lure for that slight hesitation in movement to establish the zone. If lucky, we get a bite on the first cast and the work is cut short.

I always instruct those fishing with me the importance of creating the least amount of noise possible as we move into position to begin the process of locating the zone. It is so easy to push too close or allow a good fish to pull you too close. Once the zone, drift, and presentation are established we can then apply this knowledge to other areas on similar structure wherever we might be fishing. The truth is we can apply what we learn in Aransas Bay to areas all up and down the Middle and Lower Texas coast. For years I have had ten or more members of my Fishing Club that never fish in the Rockport area, but use the updates I put out on similar areas of structure in their respective areas. I guess it works because they have been members more than fifteen years.

I throw soft plastics when fishing the small passes or breaks in reefs and sandbars, and I prefer the Texas Custom’s 1/16-ounce 2/0 jigheads for this application. This jig does not hang up as readily as others, and when it does you can thumb the spool with the rod pointed straight at the lure and it will usually roll off the snag with steady pressure. Please, just break it off if it won’t come loose. All that you are likely to achieve by walking closer to free it will be ruining the fishing in that spot.

What about the Double D or Custom Corky Soft Dine when fishing the areas I have been describing? The Soft Dine is more susceptible snagging, whereas the Double D floats upward in the water column, making it more user-friendly in this situation. Water color will determine the colors we use but you cannot go wrong with anything white, plum, root beer, bone pistachio, or watermelon.

I also want to remind all of you to get in the habit of inspecting your leader often throughout the day. Our main line and leader are the main link between us and the fish. I typically use 36- to 40-inches of leader material, and I personally prefer monofilament over fluorocarbon leader in most situations. I like the ability to tighten my drag and allow the stretch of my mono leader and action of my rod to absorb the shock of heavy headshakes and runs during the battle with larger trout. I use Osprey Premium Mono for my leader material and my motto for maintaining it in good condition is… If in doubt, change it out.

Hopefully by the time this article is published we will be seeing milder wind and you’ll be able to fish some of the structures types I have discussed here. As always, keep only what you need and release the rest.

May Your Fishing Always Be Catching -Guide Jay Watkins

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