By John P. Lee
For those without electronics, the lost art of manual depth finding…
The more I know about depth the better I feel about things. I don’t like to stab in the dark and stand in my boat and announce, often to myself, “This point here looks deep” or “This bay opening looks shallow.” I want to know as close as I can. In saltwater, when I’m out on the boat, my eyes are using the machines, the plotter, the fish finder, and I expect to know, quickly, what depth I’m in. I want the same things in freshwater, but the boats I use don’t have electronics, so I rely on old-school dead reckoning skills to chart the ponds I fish.
Sure, no doubt, an awful lot can be gathered about a place by simply looking at it. A steep bank down into water often does mean a drop off, and conversely, a gradual, mellow, slope of shoreline often does mean a shallow slope under water. The presence or absence of weeds is another indicator. But not always. The bay we thought was deep was shallow and we fished it all wrong. And the deep drop was only 12 feet not the 30 feet a fishing friend said it was. And so we fished that wrong too. And so on for cast after cast, place after place. Depth matters and the closer to exact we are the better. Depth controls temperature and fish become the temperature they choose to hang out in. If your kid in the heat of summer dives off the dock and swims down to the bottom and then comes up screaming—“It’s freezing down there! Freeeeezing.” That should makes us think: what temperature does a largemouth want to live in? There are likely way more temperature stratifications in a small bass pond than most of us think and a bass has a preference—a comfort zone—and it knows it. It’s hard for us to think this way. We stay close to our body temps regardless of the air temperature. A fish changes and this requires energy and metabolism. So depth matters.
The ponds I fish tend not to have the topographical charts that the larger more common ponds and lakes have. I like ponds—everyday ponds, everywhere ponds, farm ponds, kettle ponds, boyhood ponds—and often these ponds don’t have a lot of data attached to them. You need to get it. And I don’t mean every move you make becomes a data point, or that the whole trip is quantified. But I shoot for a general sense of awareness.
My tip—and it isn’t really a tip—but more of a way of life to higher levels of learning: anchor your ass off. Use the anchor as a sounding tool. This week, for example, I fished a pond near where I live, a pond that I’m learning. I fished three days in a row, from deep dusk to full dark. I must’ve anchored 45 times. I actually got a small blister on my hand from hauling and setting. Not every time I dropped the anchor did I fish that much. Actually, on one of the days I brought my young boy out and he just loved to set the small anchor, watched the line peel through his hands, and then haul, thinking he was the strongest boy on the planet. So with him aboard we made a lot of drops and I graphed (in my head) a whole run of water between two prominent points of land.
It’s fool proof easy: I know the amount of anchor line, 24 feet. And he’d let it down and I’d watch for the line to go slack on bottom. An even better way (and faster) would be to rig a 10-ounce bank sinker on a thin rope with marks every five feet, a true sounding lead. Back in the days of sail, they used a sounding lead to figure out not only bottom composition, mud, silt, clay, but also if they were gaining or losing depth. A vessel was said to be “on soundings” when it was nearing land and “off soundings” when it was offshore, off the edge of the continental shelf and over deep ocean water. We had fun with this: “Let’s take another sounding,” I’d shout, in my saltiest voice, and he, grinning like a pirate, would let the anchor fly.
And I would inspect the bottom contents. Am I in mud? Does the anchor come up with plants on it? What kind of plants? How dense are they? Is it sand? How does the anchor feel when it hits bottom? A soft touch or hard. Again, it’s not perfect. But it’s better than simply guessing. Every time I take a sounding I look at the bank—my distance from it and what the shape of the shore looks like as it runs into the water. Does my depth make sense? A picture begins to form in my head about the typography of the place. The picture becomes clearer the more I’ve charted the pond. Anchoring five times tells me something, but dropping anchor 100 tells me a lot more. I see a lot of largemouth fishermen not bothering to anchor at all. They fish quickly down the bank—cast, move; cast move. Looking for bites. It’s the way the tournament pros do it. I suppose that method has rubbed off on the rest of us. I like to find water that I think holds fish or find the depth that the fish are in, drop the anchor and start casting.