Meet the big, big world of small waters fishing!
A guide to identifying and understanding the waters near you!
Wherever you live, small waters with good fish populations are within easy reach. Many are public waters. Some belong to clubs. Many restrict access to employees or residents or are “pay-to-fish” operations. Yet others are yours to fish with no more than a blessing from the property owner!
The largemouth bass will be the predominant predator in these waters, more often than not, and most will have a supporting sunfish population. But, depending on your geographical region and the type of water you find, you could discover smallmouth bass, catfish, perch, pike, walleye or even trout or musky in the mix!
Drainage ponds and lakes
Seepage and drainage lakes are common in most parts of the country. Most gather water through the natural hydrology of the area or planned excavation designed to redirect flow and water settlement. Seepage lakes draw water from the surrounding areas. Drainage ponds and lakes receive effluent discharge from higher neighboring ground. Some are part of a stair-step system that passes water from high ground to adjacent lower lying regions through a series of pools, lakes or ponds with connecting stream beds or conduit.
Angler’s angle: Such waters are rarely conceived with a fish or fisherman’s interest in mind. Look for obvious fish attractors like drainage pipes and areas of natural runoff. These will attract fish following rain or snowmelt. But they will also create cuts akin to tiny creek beds in a reservoir. Depending on the flow they are apt to receive, they can extend well into the lake or pond…If the developers have rimmed the lake with rock to prevent erosion, fish will prowl the edge created where the rock ends. Look for aquatic plant growth and emergent vegetation along the perimeter as well.
A farm is not a farm without water, and retention ponds of different types serve the life needs of crops, owners and farm animals. Depth, water quality and management practices determine the quality of fishing. Gifted and well-managed ponds can be real gems! Farm ponds can be reservoirs created by impounded streams or seepage/drainage lakes. Many produce big bass, sunfish and catfish. Impounded waters will have their deepest water near the dam.
Angler’s Angle: Fish available cover such as docks, deadfall and brush, particularly on relatively featureless lakes. Seek out aquatic vegetation. Matted plant beds may provide superb conditions for fishing hollow-bellied frogs. Texas-rigged worms and creature baits will shine along edges and in pockets. Try spinnerbaits, jerkbaits and lipless crankbaits when conditions permit – especially in spring.
Sod or “turf” farms in such states as North Carolina have tremendous irrigation requirements. Many depend on drainage lakes or impoundments that are substantially larger than the average farm pond to meet their water needs. The lakes may feature stumps, logs and brush along with natural shoreline vegetation. Look for vegetation, dropoffs and other irregular bottom features in lakes without more visible cover.
Angler’s Angle: Work the wood for bass. Cold weather angling often provides the best big bass action of the season. Hunt for irregular contours, humps and ditches and planted cover such as rock or brush piles. Mossy shorelines are often good froggin’ areas. Empty the tackle box here. Many baits and techniques will serve.
–Industrial and Residential Development Lakes
Commercial or residential communities and sub-divisions often create lakes prior to groundbreaking to divert rainwater from structures. Fertility and depth influence fish populations. Pass on waters too shallow or infertile to sustain healthy populations. But you will be surprised how many provide good fishing.
Angler’s Angle: Check out drainage inlets after rains. Property managers often keep cover on such waters to a minimum for the sake of public appearance. Look for objects or cover planted offshore by fishermen and aquatic plants. Always check out the base of riprap, which might extend around the entire lake perimeter. These lakes are often your best bet very early in the season.
Quarries and Mines
Once a quarry or mining operation ends, the vacant hole often fills with water through a probable mix of springs, seeps and runoff. Resultant waters are usually deep and clear in their early years. Clarity usually diminishes when bald banks erode following storms. Lakes also become more fertile as water acquires more nutrients.
Angler’s Angle: Observe mining operations and the excavations before they fill with water to understand better the resultant lake structure. You will learn how to read these waters quickly. Note roadbeds and the stair-step pattern of the operation as the mine grows deeper. Ledges serve as platforms for cranes. Spoil heaps become underwater islands.
–Rock and Lime Quarries
These are your classic quarries found most anywhere. Look for signs of old roadbeds and spoil heaps from high ground locations or use electronics from a small boat to locate abandoned equipment, piping and other materials left behind.
Angler’s Angle: Use your electronics to read the lake bottom. Abandoned equipment at the lake bottom is like fishing a shipwreck. Old piping may form unusual cover and great holding areas for a multitude of species, including catfish. And don’t miss the obvious – rock piles and roadbeds, which may descend in switchback fashion rather than in a straight line drop into the depths. Summer could find lots of suspended fish.
Sand plays a critical role in construction and drilling operations, and you will find different types of sand pits scattered across the country. South Carolina has a concentration of fishable waters left from sand mining operations. The Midwest, particularly Wisconsin, has recently become a hotbed of “frac sand” mining. (Frac sand is used to fracture shale deposits for petroleum extraction.) See Small Waters Fishing Features for fishing sand pits: Post Spawn Sand Pit Bass with Mike Iaconelli and Boyd Duckett, and Carolina Sand Pits with Gary Klein and Bobby Lane.
Angler’s Angle: Sand mines may have modest depths, but they usually feature steep shorelines that bank erosion transforms into tapered dropoffs over time. Find fish along this natural structure. You will also find them tucked under the overhanging limbs of shoreline trees. Pitch jigs and creature baits along shorelines. Look for planted brush and offshore rock piles. Many will be fish magnets. Emergent vegetation along the lake perimeter can create good pitching and frogging water.
Highway construction requires an abundance of earthen material – mostly rock and clay – extracted from the surrounding area to support the roadways. And you will find an abundance of waters created by such excavation along our highways, especially America’s Interstate network.
Angler’s Angle: The fishing is often terrific on these waters. Access is the bigger issue. Find out whether the waters are on private or public land. Parking may be a bigger challenge than locating fish.
Coal companies left their mark in states like Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, and Missouri with an open pit mining process that stripped away the topsoil and the rest of the “overburden” to access coal deposits. Age of the lake and the chemistry of the basin and surrounding land often determine the productivity of the lakes created from these pits. Highly acidic lakes can be virtually devoid of fish. But most waters left behind rank from fair to phenomenal at some time during their lives. Depth varies dramatically in such waters.
Angler’s Angle: A remote lake with the right mix of water quality and habitat can be as fun to fish as a pristine wilderness lake. But many lakes may seem like hard nuts to crack to a beginner. Look for points, vegetation and timber. Shallow shelves – even short shelves — can be major fish attractors, especially in spring. Old pits may produce excellent numbers of bass and panfish. Many produce some of the largest bass of their regions. Shaky head worms and stickworms are bread-and-butter baits, but pull out the ultra-finesse presentations when the bite gets tough. Dropshot excels in deep, clear pits.
Phosphate mining operations in Florida set the stage for some of the best bass fishing in the Sunshine state. Like strip mine areas in the Midwest, they have left strange and wonderful wildlife oases in their wake. North Carolina and Idaho also host phosphate mines.
Angler’s Angle: These lakes often offer bass and panfish aquatic vegetation as well as abundant shoreline cover in the form of deadfall, overhanging trees and emergent plants such as cattails and bulrushes. These can be killer waters for shallow water techniques, but don’t overlook quality offshore structure, as these lakes often provide more depth than the state’s natural lakes.
The Minnesota iron mine boom left unusual waters with depths of 100-plus feet. Some feature 500-foot depths. These waters can be tough to fish, but trophy-size largemouth, smallmouth, pike, walleye and even trout are there for the taking. (Some have lake trout, too!)
Angler’s Angle: These rare waters are good places to pull out swimbaits and your whole arsenal of finesse tactics for bass and other predators. Open water trolling tactics could net lots of fish, too. You will need your electronics for consistent catches.
Small reservoirs are located across the country, and the really good news is that they are usually easier to figure out than the big reservoirs the pros fish. Small reservoirs may be five- to 20 acres up to several hundred acres in size, but you can count on the bass and other species using the same structural elements of reservoirs everywhere – creek channels, shelves, and stump fields, as well as all sorts of cover. Terrain and topography – and sometimes supplemental digging and dredging — determine thedepth and character of these waters.
Angler’s Angle: Topo maps and photos of flooded areas prior to lake creation will serve if you can’t find a hydrographic map. But sonar systems and patience should enable you to figure these lakes out, too. Take everything you have read about fishing big reservoirs and apply it to these lakes. You’ll crack the code in a fraction of the time! Aerial photos can be revealing, too.
They constructed dams on small tributaries of larger river systems to power milling operations in the East during the early 1800s. Old but not forgotten, these shallow reservoirs have aged and silted in. But many retain vestiges of the original creek bed, a key structural element for bass and other species.
Angler’s Angle: Stumps left from the trees used to build the original mills remain on many waters, and bass will use them. Try shoreline cover, planted brush and Christmas trees and pad beds, too. You will find gamefish gathering near the dam during winter and the heat of summer if oxygen levels are sufficient.
Retreating glaciers from the last Ice Age left natural lakes behind in the Northern states, the Northeast, West and Upper Midwest. Yes, they created the Great Lakes and other big waters, but they left countless potholes and smaller lakes, too. Natural lakes offer a nice mix of habitat and a diverse predator/forage mix, too. Some are shallow and “old,” from a limnologist’s perspective, while others are deep and crystal clear. Fishing was born on such waters!
Angler’s Angle: Submerged and emergent vegetation play a critical role in locating fish on most natural lakes. Fish around docks and moored watercraft, too, for bass, panfish and other species. Focus, too, on primary and secondary breaklines, along with points and sunken islands.
Municipal Water Supply Reservoir Systems
Water transfer systems are the lifeblood of many urban areas across the country. In areas where water is a rare and precious resource, these systems may become quite complex. Since good water quality is imperative, these systems are as friendly to fish as they are people. When the lakes enjoy careful fisheries management, like California’s San Diego area waters do, the fishing can be downright phenomenal! The downside, of course, is that these waters often receive heavy fishing pressure and can be subject to a wide variety of restrictions – including a “no fishing!” mandate.
Angler’s Angle: Get information from local biologists responsible for lake management on the mix of fish species, habitat, and even how the lake was constructed. They can be treasure troves of information. In the West, planted trout populations produce monster bass.
Drainage canals began making more land hospitable to homes in Florida in the late 1800s. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers picked up the effort in the 20th century. These canals extend throughout the state today. Many provide phenomenal fishing for bass and other species, including, in some cases, exotic species like peacock bass.
Angler’s Angle: Canals are often shallow and quiet, wind-protected waters that make for skittish fish. Approach these waters with stealth. The good news is that you can use much of your shallow-water arsenal to catch these fish.
Creeks and Streams
You can walk for miles on countless creeks and streams across the country and not see another angler. I’m not just talking about waters that wind through farm country but many waters close to big urban and suburban populations, too! These are some of the most overlooked public waters in the country.
Angler’s Angle: Select streams with at least moderate depth and water flow throughout the year. Don a pair of waders or hip boots to access areas shore fishermen can’t reach. Canoes and kayaks may put you onto fish that may have never seen a lure! Scout these waters carefully for deep holes and runs that will concentrate fish during low water conditions and through seasonal temperature extremes. Check your state’s laws on fishing waters that pass through private property. They vary widely.
“Small” is a relative term, and one good “small waters” strategy is to find small waters within bigger waters. Many protected coves and harbors of big lakes and reservoirs can be fished like small waters and with small craft. Countless ports on the Great Lakes and other sprawling natural lakes and reservoirs offer such opportunity, and many are loaded with bass, northern pike, and panfish. (Many Great Lakes harbors draw waves of big trout and salmon in the spring, late summer and fall, too.) Check regulations or with the local harbor authorities on possible restricted areas. Many localities severely limit angling near boat docks and mooring areas.
Tips: Hit these waters early and late in the season if you can. Harbors often become ghostly after boats go into winter storage, and you can have them all to yourself. Treat a harbor like you would a lake, concentrating on docks, dredged channels, beds of vegetation, bottom changes, etc. Stay well away from boat traffic — not just for your own safety but also to keep petulant recreational boat owners and harbor masters from pushing through regulations that further restrict angling!
The Small Waters Creed
Be good stewards and good citizens when fishing small waters – or waters anywhere. Access to many small waters can be eliminated in a heartbeat – sometimes by nothing more than a “Keep out” or “No Fishing” sign, whether the one that posts it has authority to do so or not!
Never leave bait containers, bottles, bags or any form of litter behind! Pick up litter you find regardless of who left it there. Carry garbage bags with you to leave the grounds and waters in better shape than you found them.