By Bob McNally
What is it about docks? Why are they so attractive to freshwater bass, panfish and catfish, and also to a host of saltwater species including redfish, seatrout, striped bass, flounder and snook?
Why don’t all docks produce fish, and why do some docks yield only small fish, while others habitually harbor giants? What makes a good dock, and why might a poor dock be barren of fish?
Fish are drawn to docks for several reasons. One, it’s man-made cover that usually harbors small minnows, so it’s a food source with a place to hide for ambush predators like bass, or in saltwater for fish like snook and seatrout. Further, most docks run perpendicular to a shoreline, and for that reason they usually extend from shallow water to deeper water. This forms a natural migration route for deep-water fish to access shallow water, where most of their food is located.
Another plus for docks is that in warm weather they provide cooling shade, which fish desire because it diminishes sunlight and lowers water temperature. Another attraction for docks is that many have night lights. The lights attract bugs that fall into the water and are eaten by minnows, which in turn attract fish.
Not all docks harbor abundant minnows, however, and fish have a way of knowing which docks do and which ones don’t. The real key here may be to learn how to tell if a dock is likable to baitfish. I don’t know how to do that, other than through observation. But I do know how to make a dock a minnow haven. Brush piles and Christmas trees placed under a dock are a minnow magnet, and that’s sure to attract fish. Also, placing fish viscera, soybean cake, rice and corn meal around a dock (especially near brush) brings in minnows, and that’s a dinner bell to gamefish.
It’s not always possible to tell the difference between a “good” fishing dock and a “poor” one, but there are some tip-offs to speed the search for the most likely candidates.
Docks that consistently give up fish today can pretty much be counted on to yield fish in the future. Naturally, environmental conditions shouldn’t change with the dock or the water, bottom and terrain around it. In fact, anything that changes can greatly alter the productivity of a dock. In rivers (or tide water), simply the way current flows to, around or passes through a dock can make a big difference in how attractive it is to fish. If water flow is altered, and current near a dock changes, that may be enough to turn a great spot into a dud, or a “nothing” dock into a terrific one for feeding fish.
Naturally, trial-and-error fishing and close observation are the only ways to tell if a hot dock maintains its forget-me-not qualities.
For example, one of the best docks I ever fished had some renovation work done, but afterward never yielded good fishing. The dock owners had some old pilings removed, and new, large pilings were installed. Apparently that did something to the dock that fish didn’t like, because they never returned, at least not in the numbers or sizes they once had.
Much of the time docks that extend closest to the deepest water in the area are the ones likely to hold the most and largest fish on a regular basis. Sometimes by checking a good hydrographic map and learning which points of land or shorelines have creek channels or drop-offs nearby can lead to hot docks. Say, for instance, you note on a map that a shoreline has a 30-foot deep creek channel nearby. If there are docks along that shore, and several of those docks stretch way out near the creek drop off, odds are pretty good they’ll draw fish. Naturally, checking the area around docks with a fathometer is smart to learn which ones are closest to the deepest water.
Another ingredient many prime fish docks have is age, and the better ones have lots of pilings with cross supports. Rarely have I fished a dock that was less than a couple years old that consistently produced decent catches of fish. I believe the older, more decrepit and decayed a dock is, the more likely it consistently holds mature fish—and this is especially true in saltwater where barnacles, oysters and other crustaceans form on dock supports and are the basis of the inshore marine aquatic food chain.
Older docks also have lots of nooks and crannies, chipped wood, and rotting beams. Such docks usually are loaded with bugs of many types, and I believe this makes them appealing to minnows—which draws fish. Another tip-off to prime piers are lots of support beams and crisscross latticework around them. Pier pilings are cover for minnows and fish, and cross supports provide fish with even more places to hide and get out of current flow.
Another plus to piers that have lots of cross supports is they tend to catch flotsam. Frankly, the more junk around and under a pier the better, especially if the water is deep, say 8 feet or more. Some such piers often catch masses of floating weeds, and that adds to the fertility of the place, which produces fish food. One excellent pier I used to fish on the broad St. Joe River in southern Michigan had hog wire stretched along one side of the dock and around a broad boat house at its end. I have no idea why the owner had gone to the effort to erect hog wire to the pier pilings. But the wire snagged floating logs and brush, and weeds clung to it like grape vines in a Southern oak tree. The dock was a sure bet for fish, and there’s no doubt in my mind it was enhanced by the hog wire and flotsam it held.
Like much fishing, being observant while working docks can lead to success. For instance, anytime you see a large sailboat or cruiser tied to a dock, the place should get special attention. Sailboats have large keels, so where they’re tied to a dock it’s likely to be extra deep, and there may be a drop-off that holds fish. Likewise, a huge cruiser in the 30-foot or longer range not only has a deep draft, but frequently big boat owners idle engines in slips for long periods. This can churn the bottom, gouging it out and forming a hole, which is a natural sanctuary for the biggest fish living around a dock.
Always carefully fish piers with low-to-the-water lights hanging around them. Low lights on a dock usually indicate the owner is a night fisherman. Such people commonly sink brush piles around lights, usually for crappies. But fish love brush, too, and they can produce good catches even during the day.
Anglers who fish docks in current have some special lure presentation options. When piers are approached from the up-current side, floating crankbaits and top-water plugs can be cast near the structure, then allowed to drift far back under the dock before a retrieve begins. This is a deadly and excellent way to fish a pier, and top-water lures fished this way can be especially productive, particularly at night or during low-light conditions when it’s calm.
Not many dock fishermen I know habitually fish piers with crankbaits, but they should. Crankbaits can be fished fast to quickly check a pier, and casts from various angles can be made from a single boat position to thoroughly work a dock’s key corner spots where fish often station in ambush for prey.
If there’s a boathouse, or a “T” or “L” shaped dock at the end of a pier, the sharp right-angles or corners of the dock and boathouse are prime places for casting crankbaits. Also, by moving close to a dock, and making casts parallel with the pier, a crankbait is working the edge of a dock throughout the retrieve. Such casts should be made along all sides of a dock, and when possible, the lure should be made to bump or hit pilings during a retrieve. Bumping crankbaits into pilings unnerves dock gamefish and draws strikes when nothing else will.
Fishing docks may not be the most picturesque or aesthetically pleasing type of angling, but year-in and year-out, through all months of the year, and on water from Maine to Montana, California to the Carolinas, few other structures will consistently harbor more or bigger fish than docks. That is all the reason I need to fish docks every chance I get.
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