Strategies for Tough Bite Days

Strategies for Tough Bite Days
Scott Washko keeping the reds out of our way.

On a recent trip, during a string of days when the bite had been unusually tough, I made a comment about how we should expect the trout to react to our presentations. During my dissertation I remarked that nearly all our bites recently had been “light and tight” and one of the guys asked what that meant. “Tight to the structure and light on the take,” I replied.

Several days following most full moons, we typically see a slower than normal bite. Late afternoon feeds are common and often produce extremely nice fish, but during this stretch the morning to midday provides limited action at best. I don’t know whether this next statement will make sense or even be believable to many reading it but, I believe I can read a lot into what the fish are wanting or not wanting by the way they take the lure, along with the position in the water column and proximity to structure where the bite is received.

When fish are in less than aggressive feeding mode they will often allow the lure to pass by if it is not easily accessible. In other words, if the lure does not pass right under their nose they’ll let it go by without any reaction at all. Full moon comes along every month and these subdued feeding modes that follow the full moon can therefore be predicted. Understanding these two basic facts will give you confidence and staying power when your fishing days fall within this period.   

This past week we had several really good days with trout weighing 4 to 5.5-pounds. Nothing larger but double digits of solid mid-range fish caught and released each day. These better-than-average fish came during a period when the bite was actually extremely slow. Knowledge that the fish were present due to visible signs and seasonal patterns in play definitely plays a huge role in placing oneself in the right place. It’s just smart fishing and should always be the best weapon in your arsenal.

I go to the worm when the bite is off and I suspect or know fish are present. No doubt, my go-to soft plastics are the 5” Shad Bass Assassin and the MirrOlure 5” Provoker and the Lil John and Lil John XL. I have been a huge fan of the soft flexible body of the 5” Bass Assassins for what seems forever. I believe I can create an almost irresistible action with these baits to draw instinctive strikes from gamefish that are not interested in feeding. For those that have fished with me very much, you know I am never lacking in a wide variety of the above mentioned soft plastics and my confidence in these lures is probably unmatched.  

I fish primarily shallow guts, shoreline structure, and shallow flats due to the vast areas of these structure types and water conditions that predominate the regions of the Texas coast I fish most often. “Trout water is trout water wherever you find it,” has been my mantra forever. If it looks good it probably can be, is the best way to look at things in today’s crowded fishing world. I try to not look at how close or far away from boat traffic an area might be and concentrate on what is below the surface that attracts fish.

I have had the luxury of wading my entire career. My feet are my eyes below the surface providing confirmation that what looks good from above is also good below. I had a guy tell me once that we were fishing too close to town. I guess he believed the fish knew where town was. For the record – I have never seen a trout poke its head above the water for a look around.   

The long and short of it is that I fish where the fish tell me to fish and it’s hard to avoid getting into the “spot” thing. Sometimes I just go completely cold turkey, meaning that I specifically avoid areas where I know fish are holding – and many others know as well. For every day that you spend searching and applying your fish-finding skills in other areas, you become a much better angler than those returning to the same areas each fishing day. I hope my clients understand that I am continuing my fishing education each and every day on the water. Practice makes perfect but in practice you’ll make some mistakes. Just remember that it’s usually mistakes that provide the best learning experiences.

On tough days, I believe that locating the line that bait and gamefish alike are using is the key – whether the line lies shallow or deep. Small signs point us in the right direction but we have to pay attention. I know that I beat the find bait topic to death but bait is everything in winter and early spring. Pay close attention to the bottom structure and water depths where baitfish activity occurs most often. Wading gives us great insight into what is below the surface. We can feel the changes in contour as well as changes in bottom composition. Savvy anglers can then relate this to other places nearby.

There are seasonal periods where the fish migrate to softer, mushier bottom versus firm grass and sand. Sometimes areas of scattered oyster shell attract and hold the fish but we have to be able to see and feel the shell to know this. The only way to accomplish this is with our feet. If you drift, you need a pole of some sort to continuously keep track of bottom conditions. In my early years I used an old fishing rod to gain this information.

I move slow and steady but fish with purpose when searching. A bite stops me in my tracks and the discovery process begins. What’s the water depth where I am standing versus where the lure is being presented? What’s the bottom composition and structure type where the bite was encountered? Water temperature is something you should have already established. Don’t have a water temperature gauge on your boat? You need one!

Was the bite high in the water column, somewhere in the middle, or closer to bottom? Was the bite a distinct thump, or just a tap? Does your plastic lure show signs of a bite? Is it twisted on the hook shank? Can you see or feel small areas where the teeth of the fish damaged the soft plastic? If you cannot see damage or scuff marks, run it across your lips, they’re very sensitive. It sounds gross but it works. My lips can feel what my old eyes can no longer see. All of these are parts of the process of locating hard-to-catch fish.

I find that during extremely tough times, larger trout will setup camp close to structure and close to bottom. Hence the tight and light reference made earlier. They seem uninterested in hunting or running down a meal but will eat something that requires little effort on their part. Seldom are these fish alone. They may be scattered from grassbed to grassbed but they will definitely be in guts that possess this type of bottom structure and the water depth they seem to be preferring at the time.

Once we discover the most promising line of bait activity and the depth at which the line lies, it’s time to begin a slow and deliberate grind for bites. The bites might come in short flurries due to the fish being scattered and not actively moving around in hunting mode. What is good for one fish is typically good for the majority so stand your ground and move slowly.

The grinding gig is something that many anglers have difficulty pulling off. Some believe that covering more water is the key to greater opportunity but this is only true if that person is capable of covering larger areas of water effectively. My vote is to move slowly until some kind of bite stops you, and then grind on that area and see what happens. I hope this gives those interested some insight that might improve your production during tough bite days.

May your fishing always be catching!  -Guide, Jay Watkins