Docks make for excellent secret hideouts. Here's how to use them to catch 4 species

I still remember catching my very first fish. I was sitting on an old wooden dock with a can of worms spilled at my feet, filled with all the determination a five-year-old could muster. The scrappy sunfish I hooked that day may not have been very big, but it certainly captured a large part of my heart. And that first taste of angling taught me an important lesson-docks hold a tremendous amount of fishing potential. Whether you chase down bass, pursue panfish or tackle walleye, dock fishing is a unique technique with surprising rewards. But before you steer your boat over to the nearest dock, you first need to know how different fish relate to different types of docks.

Largemouth bass

Bass and docks go together like reels and line, especially during summer when bass relate to these man-made structures for both food and protection. “A lone dock on a nothing shoreline is often overlooked by anglers,” observes two-time Pro Bass Classic champ “Big” Jim McLaughlin, “but not a roaming bass, who sets up shop if conditions are favourable.”

Largemouth bass, in particular, will hang out under docks for extended periods. These are cover-oriented fish, and hot, sunny, stable weather forces them to seek the cooler, shaded water beneath docks. They are also ambush predators, so the more hiding spots a dock has, the better chance a largemouth can be found there.

Look for them in the darkest and most hidden recesses, paying particular attention to any areas of the dock that face away from the sun's penetrating rays. Key in on floating weeds and lily pads alongside the dock and tethered boats to increase your chances.

Many lures work well for dock largemouth, but each performs best in specific situations. For aggressive fish, try crankbaits and spinnerbaits; these are particularly productive when fish are hanging on the outside edge of the dock's structure, waiting in ambush.

For less-active fish, or fish holding to cover or buried in the weed growth, a Texas-rigged lizard or jig-and-craw combo can't be beat. Either offers a slow, seductive fall and a large profile for bass to zero in on. Plus, they're relatively weedless.

Even when it's cold or cloudy, you can still find largemouth bass gathering under docks. Look for them right on the edges during cloudy days and extremely tight to cover during cold fronts. Faster presentations are your best bet for cloudy, warm days, but you need to fish extra slowly and methodically when it's cold.

Just keep in mind that stealth is key when approaching a dock. Bass can be jittery while lying in wait, and any sudden sound or movement can shut them down or scare them away.

Smallmouth bass

Dock fishing for smallmouth bass is a slightly different game, since smallies don't favour the same cover and structure as their largemouth cousins. Smallies prefer rocks over weeds, so a rocky bottom is essential (although there can also be weeds, sand and sunken wood). Search out docks on prime rock shoals with passages to nearby deeper water, as smallies look Smallmouth bassfor places with easy access to feeding areas and escape routes.

Unlike largemouths, which may reside under docks for extended periods, smallmouth bass visit docks for short stops while travelling and feeding along the shoreline-all the while using the dock's cover to ambush and corral prey. If the sun comes up, though, they'll hang out under a dock until it's safe to return to deeper water.

As for catching them, smallies call for a different approach from what you'd use for largemouths beneath docks. Long casts with light line are best, given that water clarity and the fish's skittery nature come into play. Also, downsize your baits-topwaters and jigs work well-in order to make your presentation as lifelike as possible.

Topwater baits can be extremely exciting; watching a chunky smallmouth race out from a dock to clobber your plastic intruder is positively heart-stopping. Jigs are another choice weapon, especially for fish that are less active or stubborn. Work all angles and sides of a dock with a bucktail or twistertail jig and you'll entice almost any fish to take a bite.

The perfect dock

Docks come in all shapes and sizes, but only certain types will hold fish. To boost your odds, look for docks with some or all of the following characteristics.

• constructed of wood that is not pressure-treated

• old and decaying

• as close to the water's surface as possible

• varying depths underneath

• surrounded by structure such as weeds, timber or rocks

• moored boats, which offer fish even more shade and protection

• an assortment of weeds leading to the dock, which provides the fish with safe passageways

Panfish

Panfish may not have the size or strength of larger gamefish, but they possess two traits that most anglers can't resist-they're fun to fight and good to eat. These pugnacious fish are attracted to docks in a big way, and anglers are wise to follow them there to reap the rewards.

PanfishCrappie-the most sought-after panfish-are second-to-none when it comes to relating to docks, especially during the spring. After ice-out when the water temperature reaches 19°C, they'll flood the shallows to search for food and to spawn, and docks are where you'll find most of them.

Your best bets are old docks made with wood that has not been pressure-treated. There should also be a variety of emergent weed or brush scattered in and around the area. Even better are old docks that are falling apart, whereas the newer, metal-alloy docks routinely harbour nothing.

Crappie usually suspend under docks at a variety of depths, so it's wise to target the entire water column, from top to bottom, until you connect with a fish. Keep in mind that dock legs often seem to be crappie magnets, so it's also worthwhile throwing a few extra casts at each of the supports before moving on to the next dock.

As for specific panfish tackle and baits, think simple. For starters, use an ultralight combo, which effectively transmits the fight of a small fish. Admittedly, light line around docks sounds scary, but as long as you play the fish quickly out and away from the wood, there's no cause for concern.

There are numerous baits that cater to panfish, and crappie in particular, although the basics are often the best choice when rigging up for battle. Micro-jigs are excellent for fishing docks because of their ease of use and resemblance to the food that the fish are actually eating. These can be used in two ways: suspended under a float or fished freely.

Fishing a jig under a float has its advantages, as you can set a specific depth and leave your bait in the strike zone for as long as you want. Or you can let your float drift under the dock to cover more of the area hidden beneath the structure. If the fish are inactive or if the cover below the dock prohibits a free-swimming presentation, then a float presentation should get the nod.

When you're faced with active fish, or if they're found at different depths under the dock, a free-swimming jig works best. Also productive are small spinners and tiny crankbaits, which really shine when panfish are hanging right on the outside edge of the dock and they're in an aggressive mood. And remember this rule of thumb for fishing docks for panfish: use slow presentations in cold water and faster baits as the water warms up.

Walleye

While many anglers may find it hard to believe, it's possible to catch walleye under docks during the summer. But targeting docks for walleye is a specialized tactic that only works on certain bodies of water under just the right conditions. First off, the lake has to be less than 20-feet deep-the more shallow the better.

WalleyeRemember, walleye are structure-oriented fish, and shallow bodies of water don't provide much in the way of natural structure. It's precisely because of this that they seek out docks for shade and comfort. Throw a period of hot, sunny and stable weather into the mix, and the walleye will be right where they are supposed to be-hiding under docks.

Even though the ideal lake for dock-dwelling walleye should be shallow, the deeper the water under the dock, the better the odds of finding fish. Walleye still prefer the comfort that deep water provides, so they will actively seek out docks in the deepest parts of a lake.

Similarly, another key tactic is to look for docks with close access to deep water. Walleye prefer to do the least amount of travelling through shallow water, so the closer a dock is to deeper water, the higher the chances they'll make use of it. Docks positioned over breaklines or across deep weedlines are a dynamite find for this type of fishing.

Just make sure the dock is over some sort of natural structure, such as weed clumps, rocks or wood. Although the fish will be using the overhead cover of the dock for protection from the sun, they'll still need some bottom cover to relate to. In fact, you'll find that most fish will be right on the bottom.

Lures for dock walleye are quite straightforward and do not stray far from what most anglers would use in open-water situations. Jigs are effective, as they allow you to pick apart all the areas hidden below docks while staying in the strike zone longer. Bucktails and twistertails in neutral colours seem to work best, although a change to a brighter hue may be in order if the water is stained or dirty.

Crankbaits can also be deadly on dock walleye, especially when retrieved with a twitch or in a stop-and-go manner. Spinning outfits with light line are best suited to this style of fishing, which demands accuracy. Just remember to steer clear of the dock once a fish is on in order to avoid tangling or breaking the line. When your walleye is in open water, though, you're free to sit back and enjoy the tussle.