Note: The following article was written by Kentucky Lake Guide Dave Stewart.
Ever wonder why some anglers seem to be consistently successful year round while others do good in the spring and fall but struggle in summer and winter to bring fish to the scales? The most prominent reason for this is that those anglers that are consistently successful have unlocked the key to ledge fishing.
Some know it as "drop fishing" and others know it as "ledge fishing" but whatever name you have heard it called, it is the key to being successful on reservoirs during the heat of summer and the cold of winter.
What is a ledge?
Basically a ledge is a form of structure that can be found at the edge or bank of an old creek channel or the main river channel that remains underwater after the flooding of a reservoir. A quick look at a topographical map of any man made reservoir will show you these old channels. The creek channels will wind their way from the backs of the bays to the old river channel and the main river channel will wind its way thru the reservoir from the headwaters of the lake to the dam.
Seasonal fish migration
To understand why ledges produce you must first understand fish migration patterns. Although it is true that there are always some fish shallow as it is true there are always some fish deep, the most successful anglers will fish in depths and locations that are holding the majority of the fish during any one given time of the year. Bass are predatory fish and as such will follow the main source of food which in reservoirs is baitfish with various species of shad being the predominant baitfish in most reservoirs. Thus the majority of the bass in a reservoir will be found near the majority of the food source.
Without going into too much detail about why their food sources and water oxygen content cause the shad to move into shallow water in the spring and back out to deeper water in the summer which is repeated again during the fall and winter months, it is easier for our purpose here to just know that this is the seasonal migration pattern for shad and thus for the majority of the bass.
Why ledges produce
Migrating fish use the old creek channels in reservoirs as their route or "fish highways" as they travel from shallow to deep water and vice versa. The previous statement is probably the most key knowledge to know and remember to be a consistently successful bass angler. If you give that statement some close observation you will soon realize that except for the few weeks that the majority of the bass are very shallow for spawning, that at any given time, the majority of the bass are going to be very near those migration routes or along those migration routes. This is why you always seem to catch more bass in shoreline areas that are near deep water, hence, you are fishing near a migration route or "fish highway".
For example: points, docks, laydowns, vegetation, shoreline stumps, and brush piles that are near deep water are well known hot spots for bass. If you take this knowledge and apply the question as to where are the majority of the bass located when they have migrated to deeper water not near the shoreline then it only makes sense that the deeper fish will use the underwater "shoreline" or ledges that provide a similar environment of cover and structure near deeper water.
Which ledges produce?
Just as with shoreline fishing, there are ledges or areas on ledges that tend to produce more fish than other areas. I have found that it is imperative in my guide business on Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley that I be able to identify potentially productive ledges. The key to identifying these offshore productive areas is to apply the same rules as you would if looking for productive shoreline areas. Structure and cover are the primary factors in finding likely ledge fishing areas just as they are primary factors in finding likely shoreline fishing areas.
Structure being the bottom composition such as rocks, gravel, mud, etc. and topographical features such as points, cuts, creek junctions, gradual dropoffs, steep dropoffs, etc. Cover being that which allows the bass protection from light, camouflage and concealment from the prey, and physical protection. We all know that bass will orient themselves to cover such as stumps, laydowns, brush piles, vegetation, man made structures, overhangs, etc. When you take these two factors (structure and cover) into consideration when searching for productive ledges you can eliminate a lot of nonproductive water just as you can when applying them to traditional shoreline fishing.
How to find productive ledges
Just like shoreline fishing, preparing for the search of productive ledges in open water begins with a good topographical map reconnaissance. Pick an area of the lake you are going to target for your search and then by following the old creek channels and main river channel on your map, note those areas that have prominent structure variations such as you would do if looking at the shoreline areas. That is, look for points, cuts, creek channel junctions, channel bends, etc. These are the areas that have the possibility of holding fish if there is good cover available as well as food supply near.
The next obvious step is to get on the water and go to those
likely areas and check them for cover and food supply.
Finding these prominent underwater areas on open water is not as
easy as finding them on the shoreline where you can use the
naked eye to assist you with visual reference. A good set
of electronics such as a flasher, lcr, and/or graph recorder
plus being familiar with how they work is a must in finding
productive ledges. Assuming that you are familiar with
your electronics, finding these spots then just becomes a matter
of following the edges of the channels with your electronics and
comparing the feedback you are getting from them with the map
you have already marked.
Take note that while doing this you may find some cuts or points or irregular features that are not printed on your map, especially if the map is a few years old. This is because floods, current, etc will change the channel edges over the years just as it does the shoreline you are used to fishing. You should take note of any of these "new" features on your map as they may be areas that have seen little or no fishing pressure.
Once you have located one of these areas that you have identified on your map your next step would be to determine if there is sufficient "cover" to hold fish. Although your electronics may or may not show the cover, you should use a manual means of checking these areas for cover too. I say this because your electronics will only show you a small area of bottom as you pass over it and you can easily miss some cover or your electronics may not be sensitive enough to "see" the cover. This is especially true if someone has planted a "stake bed" in that location.
Stake beds many times do not show up on your electronics unless there are cross members attached to the stakes. The best way that I have found to "search" one of these spots for cover is to use a Carolina Rig. The dragging technique employed in using a Carolina Rig will transmit to you thru feel the type cover if any that is present and even the type structure of the bottom such as rock, mud, gravel, etc. The more you practice with the Carolina Rig as a search technique the more familiar you will become with identifying the type cover and structure it is coming over and through. Another plus of using the Carolina Rig to check these spots for cover and structure is that you may just catch some fish too.
Once you have found one of these spots that has good cover on it you need to mark it on your map and make notations of what you found and how to locate this spot again. If you have a GPS unit, finding this spot again becomes simply a matter of marking the spot with your unit so that you may return to the spot using GPS navigation. If you do not have a GPS unit, then you can pinpoint the location by using the triangulation method of identifying the location. The triangulation method is no more than taking note of the location in reference to at least three or more shore line objects that are preferably close to 90 degrees in different directions from your boat.
Fishing the ledges
Probably the biggest adjustment you have to learn to make when fishing the ledges is getting used to the fact that you are sitting in open water with the shoreline as much as hundreds of yards away. Although techniques used fishing a ledge are very similar to "pounding the banks" and in many cases exactly the same, some people have a problem at first with not having a shoreline to reference their cast and cannot visualize the spot they are fishing.
One of the things you can do to help you with this is to use "markers" to outline the area you are fishing. These "markers" are commercially available in most sporting goods stores and are no more than a floating piece of plastic with a string wrapped around it and a piece of lead weight attached to the tag end of the string. You can drop these "markers" along the area you are going to fish and even outline the area such as a point or cut to give you a visual reference. Another thing that will help you is to make good notes of the information you gathered when first checking the spot with regard to things like where on the ledge the cover is located or is it a gradual slope etc.
Once you become familiar with a certain spot and get comfortable with offshore ledge fishing you will find that you will use the markers less and less. Just as with fishing shoreline spots you will also find that there are techniques that work better than others at certain times and that there are patterns that work better than others at different times.
An example of different techniques used at certain times that is very similar to shoreline fishing would be that you may find that early in the morning and late in the evening that the fish are more active on the top of the ledge in shallower water and will take topwater baits and shallow running baits. Just like on the shoreline you will find in many cases that as the sun gets higher and the day progresses the fish will move deeper on the ledges just as they will move deeper on the points along the shoreline and you will have to fish deeper using deep diving crankbaits, Carolina rigs, Texas rigs, etc. to adjust to the depth of the holding fish. You may also find that the ledge fish may be holding in cuts more than on points or they may prefer ledges of rock bottom over gravel just as patterns will differ if fishing the shoreline areas.
Another key to successful ledge fishing is current. Ledge fish have a tendency to be much more active when there is current present either from wind or from water being pulled through the dam. Although I am not really sure why this is true, I believe it is because current causes the microscopic food that the bait fish feed on to be swept along and the baitfish get more active in feeding and in turn this gets the bass more actively feeding on the baitfish. Whatever the reason, you can bet that if you are fishing a ledge and there is current on it that the fish will be more active than if there is no current present.
An important point to remember when fishing a ledge with current on it is that the fish will face into the current and many times be behind a current break such as the down current side of a point or stump and you should position your boat and present your lure accordingly.
Technique and Tackle
As previously mentioned, the techniques employed for ledge fishing are the same or very similar to the techniques you would use when fishing the shoreline. I recommend you approach ledge fishing from a "top to bottom" aspect, that is, start fishing the "top" of the ledge first and then work deeper on the ledge to locate the active fish. Many times the active fish will be holding just at the top edge of the ledge or on or near cover that is on the shallow water side of the ledge.
You can visualize this if you compare it to fishing the shoreline in which the fish are in shallow water near the bank or between the bank and the edge of the first drop into deeper water. You would employ the same techniques here as you would if fishing the similar shoreline area you have visualized. Topwater, shallow to medium running crankbaits, Texas rigged plastics, jerk baits, spinnerbaits etc.
Just as in shoreline fishing you may have to cover the entire spectrum of shallow to medium water techniques to find the right pattern and lure selection for these fish. Just like in shoreline fishing you must take into account time of day, water temperatures, cloud cover, etc. to help you in finding the right lure and technique for the shallower fish.
Generally, if the fish are in this top of the ledge area they will be actively feeding and it does not take long to find out if the fish are there. If the fish are not responsive on the top of the ledge then you would start to probe deeper on the ledge just as you would if you were fishing a shoreline point. Visualize the top of the ledge as the waters edge if you were fishing a shoreline point and employ the same techniques that you would there taking into consideration the slope gradient of the ledge.
Just as with a shoreline point you may be fishing a gradually dropping bottom or you may be fishing a steep dropping bottom into the channel. It has been my experience that ledges that have good cover that drop off at about a 45 degree grade are the more productive ledges but there are times when a steeper drop or shallower dropping bottom may be the pattern and should not be overlooked.
I have found to it to be the most productive to use deep running crankbaits, large spinnerbaits, jig and pig, and Carolina Rigs to fish the "drop" side of a ledge. I prefer Bill Norman crankbaits in the DD14 and DD22 series for my deep cranking. Good selections of these crankbaits can be found in any good sporting goods store or tackle shop.
I like to use Lock Jaw spinnerbaits in the one ounce size and have found these to be a deadly lure when slow rolled over the top of the ledge and let drop slowly down the ledge. These spinnerbaits can be found on the internet at www.lockjawlures.com. LockJaw lures also makes very good jigs that I like to use in the 3/8 ounce size and when tipped with a plastic trailer made by Snoozer's Bait Co they are hard to beat.
Carolina rigging is my favorite method of fishing the ledges because as mentioned before they also transmit to me the information about what type cover and bottom I am fishing as well as being a very productive technique. I use a Falcon 7ft Carolina Lizard Dragger rod in MH weight for my Carolina rigging and have found it to be the best rod I have ever used for this technique. I equip my rod with a Lew's reel filled with 20lb P-Line for the main line and use 10-14 lb P-Line for the leader.
I prefer to use a 1 ounce brass bullet sinker, two glass beads, and a brass swivel to complete my Carolina rig. I have found that the plastic lures made by Snoozer's Bait Co and also those made by Original Fish Formula are the best plastics on the market and produce fish when no other plastic bait will. Snoozer's offers a unique concept in plastic fishing by employing hand poured, naturally scented baits that are custom made to your color, fleck and scent specifications.
You can buy these baits in some tackle shops around the country but are readily available on the internet at www.snoozersbaits.com or by calling 1-866-JIGNPIG. Original Fish Formula is an old name in the fishing world that has come back into the market with a great selection of ready made scented lures as well as their ever popular Fish Formula scent now in aerosol cans. You can find this new line of Fish Formula Products in some tackle shops or they are readily available at www.fishformula.com or by calling 800-874-6965.
As you can see, there are no secrets to ledge fishing. It is just another way of employing what you already know but in a different area of the lake than you are now fishing. The next time you are out there on the water and pounding the banks and the fish are not biting, look behind you and take time to think about how many fish there are out there on those ledges just waiting for you to find them. If you will spend some time learning to fish the ledges you just might turn that other half of the year that you are struggling to catch fish into some very good fishing trips or even a check at the weigh-in.
Note about the author: Dave Stewart is the owner/operator of Bass Buster Guide Service on Kentucky and Barkley Lakes and offers instructional trips on ledge fishing. You can contact him at 270-354-5039 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org