Transition Period Strategies

Transition Period Strategies
Robert Gootee releases his career-best redfish.

Last month I spoke about angler focus, and focus is never more important than during a transition period such as we have right now on our mid-coast bays. Mike McBride hates the word transition. He says it is a crutch for anglers who are unwilling to put forth sufficient effort to discover patterns and catch fish in tough conditions.

Truth is, though, transition periods are real and can be defined simply as times during which fish move from one area to another. These can occur seasonally, daily, and even hourly. Confusing, I know, but I think I have developed some strategies that will help us pattern fish during these changes.

I recently had a fun night speaking to a packed house at the Aransas Bay CCA chapter meeting. Angler focus was my primary topic. Toward the end of the evening an attendee spoke up and said, “But, Jay, the fish always seem to be in front of you.” While I can neither confirm nor deny whether that is true, I can tell you that my focus certainly becomes more intense on tough days.

Seldom are my anglers too far left or right for the fish to only be in front of me. I want my anglers in a wade line with me, not one here, one back there, and one who knows where. A more compact line allows me to coach in tighter ranks, which allows the whole group to benefit from the lesson. It can also be said that it is an excellent way to establish the “feed line” in which the majority of the actively feeding fish might be holding.

It’s easy to understand how focusing on every cast and retrieve can increase the odds of getting bites but it is not just the obvious aspects that deserve our focus. I teach my anglers to focus on the small things that can show us where fish are holding and how they might be feeding during transitional periods. Selecting the proper location is always a key and the presence of bait is a given. During transitional periods I feel that fish stage, waiting in something of a limbo state for conditions to become stable. I believe stability creates comfort and comfort creates more instinctive reactions from fish. No science here, just my observations.

Fish in my so-called limbo state must be in an area that allows for quick feeding when feeding opportunities arise. I would certainly prefer the area to have a windward position but leeward drop-offs adjacent to suitable shallow grass flats also work well. Right now I am finding that the majority of my better fish are holding along edges of submerged grass that lie parallel to shallow sandbars and guts. The area of larger submerged grassbeds affords a greater area in which they can ambush bait versus smaller grassbeds. I noticed recently all the trout we were catching had extremely dark backs and their spots were very pronounced. It was obvious they had adjusted their coloration to blend with the grassy habitat – geckos do this all the time. When we released those fish they blended into the grass in an incredible way. Actually, they just disappeared.

I also noticed that I had to allow my lure to brush the top of the grass to get a bite. I could sometimes feel the lure swimming through the grass on the take. Notice I used the word take. To me, a take is a slight heaviness on the line that is nearly undetectable without a very high-quality rod. Not trying to sell you a rod but this is a fact; I see it day after day on my boat. A highly-sensitive rod also allows for quicker detection of the take, leading to quicker reeling to load the rod, followed by setting the hook. These limbo fish can spit the hook in a heartbeat so you have to be ready. Light takes or bites should be met with the same aggressive hookset as a solid strike.

I suggest a tighter than normal drag if you’re missing fish or if fish are surfacing and shaking loose. Many times under the guise of checking an angler’s knot I have reached over and tightened their drag without them knowing, hoping to assist them hooking the soft takes the fish are giving us. It is natural for finicky fish to come immediately to the surface when they feel the pressure of the line. They instinctively try to dislodge whatever is stuck in their mouth and a violent headshake is their way of getting rid of it.

I want my rod tip down with the tip close or even below the surface whenever this scenario starts to play out. It goes completely against what many believe but it works beautifully. The water becomes something of a shock absorber that dampens the fish’s effort to get rid of the hook. I also believe they tire more quickly with the added pressure of the water against the rod and the full length of the line. It seems to work for me. I land far more big fish than I lose.  

Now that we have covered some areas where fish might hold during changing conditions, it is also important to note that fish move in and out of these areas constantly, so you could say they are literally in transition most of the time. (Sorry Mike for using that word again, but it fits here.) This is where having your wading partners spaced in a fairly tight line running perpendicular to the shoreline is critical. I also like to keep the ranks fairly tight when wading larger areas of grass and sand flats.

One bite along the line stops the whole group! Nothing irritates me more than the guy who believes the way to catch more fish is to cover more water. The only way this might possibly be true is if the angler cannot interpret signs of fish in front of him. For those that possess greater fish savvy, the slow and deliberative method of working an area seems to pay larger dividends.

When in wading formation as described above we can see the movement of fish by way of bites occurring along the line. Early might be the shallow guy’s time and then after the sun starts to rise our mid-line guys start sticking a few. Later, it’s the outside guy’s time to do some damage. This is natural as fish pull off a shoreline and move deeper as the sun rises. If we are paying close attention to the details – time of day, conditions during these times, and solunar feeding periods, patterns are more readily interpreted and success rates rise.

As the line of anglers pushes slowly forward, bait as well as gamefish may be bumped forward. Notice I said bumped and not spooked. Spooked is fleeing from danger or something obviously out of the norm. Bumped is a sense that something might not be quite right. Bumped fish will still eat, I have seen them do it. Had a flounder yesterday bump from her bed and stop a few yards away. I yelled to one of my guys; “Watch this. I just bumped a flounder and she stopped right here in front of me.” My lure hit the water and she ate. But like the guy said; “The fish are always in front of me.” Had I spooked her she would have left a vapor trail.

A trolling motor or push pole might bump a school of reds but they will settle quickly and resume feeding. A 350 horsepower outboard spooks them and it takes longer for them to settle down. With this said, I try to approach at idle speeds and stop well short of the location I plan to wade. 

We can learn from what we see if we truly want to learn. I see a school of mullet jumping out in water about four feet deep in front of my boat and I’m thinking boat noise bumped a school of trout or reds and they are spooking bait as they move away. The late Howard Brown put me onto this many years ago on a calm morning in California Hole. Had the gamefish spooked we’d have seen telltale wakes as they streaked across the shallows toward the deeper water. But that didn’t happen. Given the distance from the boat noise they merely bumped, and their slow movement toward deeper water is what spooked the mullet.

When wading, if I see a mullet jump 50 yards in front of one of my guys I make sure he saw it or knows that I saw it. A gamefish that we bumped may have spooked the mullet. I want my waders to be constantly aware when positive signs are being observed.

If I can see bottom structure in the area where the mullet jumped I bring this to everyone’s attention. Keeping the guys advised of such observations helps create a positive vibe and I’m a big believer that a positive attitude leads to positive things happening. Blend this with good fishing skills and consistent catching is more likely to be achieved.

With so many changes occurring, it has become more important for today’s anglers to be aware of all that is happening around them and to understand what is natural and what is manmade, which is probably an article in itself. You need to be aware of everything that is taking place around you and then be able to adjust your fishing techniques to fit the conditions of the season, the day, and the hour.

The ability to adjust, coupled with angler focus and skill, will definitely lead to more success on the water. I have found over the past five years that my adjustments during a day of fishing, my focus and my patience, are being tested more than ever before. Boat traffic, weather, and people on the water don’t really bother me because I know I cannot control these aspects. What I can control are my ability to focus and adjust. I am very much enjoying the fourth quarter of my fishing career. The bar is continually being raised in the Fish Smart category and I love  the challenge.

May your fishing always be catching!  -Guide Jay Watkins