Boathouse Basics for Bass

When anglers get into their boats and head out to their favorite bass cover, they often leave behind the most reliable fishing on the lake.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The morning had not started well -- the usually dependable grassline south of Lake Guntersville's Comer Bridge had not produced a single strike to buzzbaits or spinnerbaits. Now it was noon, and Bill Stephens and I were still looking for our first honest bass of the day. For some reason the big Alabama impoundment had decided to play tough.

That's when Stephens and I decided to work the boathouses. On Guntersville they line the shoreline of every cove and creek from one end of the lake to the other. You can hardly fish anywhere on the lake without seeing one, but Bill and I had just used up six valuable fishing hours without aiming a single cast to any of them.

Of course, the bass were on the boathouses that day, and as I look back on nearly 20 years of Guntersville fishing since that particular morning, I still wonder why it took the two of us so long to figure it out: Boathouses normally offer one of the most reliable of all bass fishing patterns on most lakes.

Boathouses and their accompanying piers and docks offer shade and cover, two of the primary requisites of bass habitat. Because they're basically in shallow water, boathouses attract a wide variety of bass forage, too, ranging from small algae and plankton to crayfish and sunfish. Many also offer bass that magical shallow to deep combination of depths the fish need for security and temperature comfort.

With such attractions, it would seem bass fishermen need do nothing else but concentrate on boathouses, and indeed, a few do. But most of the time, docks get ignored. My guess is that they're too obvious, they certainly aren't very glamorous to fish, and sometimes they can be as tricky to figure out as any grassline or underwater ridge.

Which Boathouse?
Although nothing in bass fishing lds true every time, several considerations help narrow the choices of which boathouse is most likely to hold bass: l Older boathouses and docks generally have more fish than newer ones. This may be due to the fresher creosote treatment of the newer pilings, lack of algae growth on those pilings, or a combination of other factors.

l Floating boathouses seldom have as many fish as those supported with pilings, except on deep, clear lakes with little additional shoreline cover. For whatever reason, bass prefer vertical structure; ladders always seem to attract bass. l Fish the boathouses that have rod holders or lights. These indicate the owners are fishermen and have probably put brush out to attract crappies. That brush also attracts bass.

l Boathouses located at the entrance to a cove or large creek should be fished because of their close access to deeper water. These offer the first cover incoming bass have in spring and fall, and the last they have migrating back to deeper water in summer and winter.

l Fish the longest boathouses and piers first to establish a depth range. If you catch a bass on the end of such a dock, fish only the longest docks along that shore because the fish may be relating to depth. If you catch a bass midway back on the longest dock, you'll probably also catch bass on the shorter piers that have a corresponding depth.

l In the summer, concentrate more on main lake boathouses, especially those along steeper banks and exposed to wind. Algae gets blown to these areas and baitfish and bass soon follow. In spring and fall, concentrate in coves and tributaries, as bass are moving shallow to spawn or feed on migrating shad.

Lure Choices
Practically any lure in your tackle box can be fished around a boathouse, but some are more efficient than others. To determine the mood of the fish, start by casting a spinnerbait or crankbait down the length of the pier, basically retrieving from shallow water to deep and coming as close to the pilings as possible. A strike here will possibly tell you a depth the fish are using; more important, it can indicate that the bass are active and will hit a fast-moving lure.

If these don't produce any action, slow down and consider changing to a suspending jerkbait or even a topwater chugger. The advantage of these lures is being able to stop them beside the pilings to present an easy feeding opportunity. Soft-plastic jerkbaits with their erratic action may also be tried.

More often than not, jigs or plastic worms and tube baits provide the most consistent results around boathouses. Presented either by short underhand pitches, flipping, or skipping, these vertical-fall baits can be put right beside pilings and underneath into the shadowy areas that overhead casts can't reach. Retrieves can be varied, such as low hops, steady swimming, or even bottom crawling until you find what the bass prefer that day.

At the same time you're trying different retrieves, be sure you're covering different parts of the boathouse. Sometimes the outside corners produce best; other times the fish may be farther back. In specific conditions, determine the mood of the fish, start by casting a spinnerbait or crankbait down the length of the pier, basically retrieving from shallow water to deep and coming as close to the pilings as possible. A strike here will possibly tell you a depth the fish are using; more important, it can indicate that the bass are active and will hit a fast-moving lure.

If these don't produce any action, slow down and consider changing to a suspending jerkbait or even a topwater chugger. The advantage of these lures is being able to stop them beside the pilings to present an easy feeding opportunity. Soft-plastic jerkbaits with their erratic action may also be tried.

More often than not, jigs or plastic worms and tube baits provide the most consistent results around boathouses. Presented either by short underhand pitches, flipping, or skipping, these vertical-fall baits can be put right beside pilings and underneath into the shadowy areas that overhead casts can't reach. Retrieves can be varied, such as low hops, steady swimming, or even bottom crawling until you find what the bass prefer that day.

At the same time you're trying different retrieves, be sure you're covering different parts of the boathouse. Sometimes the outside corners produce best; other times the fish may be farther back. In specific conditions,