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Water just Hides the Good Stuff!
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Reading the Water

Published November 24, 2005
By: Steve Worrall

Ever get to the landing with your best fishing buddy, launch the rig, and ask, Well, where do you want to start? He looks at you and says, I dont know, where do YOU want to start?

I have always been a bit amused at this, having run through that scenario many times myself. Im also a deer hunter, and can tell you this for sure: NO deer hunter will pull up to a wooded edge, look over at his buddy, and ask, Well, where do you want to start? His buddy would smack him one, just before taking his keys away and driving to the best location for the conditions.

The hunter knows the lay of the land, inside out. He knows where his selected game lives, sleeps, eats, and the routes between those areas. Hes aware of the seasonal changes in behavior, and understands one of the most important of all details; where there is food, there his quarry will be.

So why do Muskie anglers have so much of a quandary with this fairly well accepted Hunters Set of Simple Beginning Rules? Its the water. Derned stuff hides everything, makes it invisible. Whats that line, slightly adjusted to fit, from the old rock song; The Lake is a desert with its life underground, and the perfect disguise above? Something like that, anyhow.

Its tough to look out at the water and see whats REALLY there. After all, the flat surface is all we can actually see, but theres the rub, one has to rely on electronics to see beneath that surface. Almost all serious anglers have a sonar these days, many with GPS, Temp, Speed, and maybe channel 9 to watch the Bears play. Most are Liquid Crystal display. Heres a few things about LCD units we need to talk about before we get on to the reading the water stuff, but these points are probably more important than many of the concepts well talk about a bit later.

LCD sonars have an interesting feature Ive never been able to figure out. The screen runs BACKWARDS. Weve been taught from the time we began to learn to read here in the good old US of A that information flows from left to right. The LCD, for some reason unknown to us and held as a secret by the sonar scientists, runs the other way. That alone makes it difficult, because most folks have a tendency to view the screen as a whole; a single piece of information, as a result. The only portion of that screen that is important to the moment is the first inch or so, the current data of what is under and immediately behind the rig.

Reading a large screen LCD ( large screens are so youll spend more dinero, I think) is like sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck looking at where youve been, not really much about where you ARE except that magic inch of the screen. Absorbing that information and then transferring it to a portion of the mind that stores it and remembers the structure is way more difficult that walking the fields, hills, valleys, rock outcroppings and wooded areas during scouting for a hunt. Ive spent an enormous amount of time trying to figure out why this process is so easy for some, and so tough for many others, and how the mind adapts to a one dimensional image and translates it to a three dimensional memory. I think I may actually have a grip on the whole process. Remember the inch-right-hand-of-the-screen rule, and the rest of this might make some sense.

Lets talk about elapsed time. Why, you might ask, would that have anything at all to do with reading the water? Well, heres what I came up with after teaching a fishing course at Nicloet College in Rhinelander, Wisconsin for years. I learned way more from that class than I was ever able to teach, I was more of a moderator for a group of 35 really fine anglers, lucky for me.

Imagine you driving home from work. When you get in your car, fire that baby up, and exit the parking area, are you actually thinking hard about where you need to turn, stop for stop signs, change lanes to get to an exit? Are you watching the signs, the area around you, and paying close attention? Nope, probably not.

The first time you made that drive, you had to do all those things. Second time, little easier, the memory banks stored good information. Third time, no worries, and by the end of a weeks driving home from work, you can listen to the radio, chatter on one of those damnable devices designed by the Work Enslavement Division of High but Irritating Technology, fiddle with your CD collection, and drive RIGHT home as a result of a complex, moving, fairly dangerous set of subconscious stimulus/reaction functions. Around your speeding vehicle are hundreds of other folks executing the very same process while keeping a casual eye out for an anomaly. How in the WORLD does this work?

Elapsed time. As you move through the different stored memory points you selected on your first couple drives, your brain stored the amount of time it takes to get from one, to another, and another, until you are home. If you had 20 people drive that same drive, and asked them how they got to the final destination over and over again without even thinking about it, youd get 20 different sets of directions. Everyones visual keys are different, some focusing, for example, on a gas station on a corner, others on the pizza joint on the other side of the intersection, still others on a Walgreens kitty corner to the pizza joint.

Ever been driving along, minding your Evil Technology ear piece and your stereo, when something inexplicable happens, and you suddenly have a slight cramp of panic, look wildly about, wondering, Where the HELL am I? Did I miss my turn? only to find one of the visual cues stored and settle back, after a brief whew, what was THAT all about thought or two. What happened there? Something interrupted the flow of elapsed time your subconscious was monitoring, just enough to upset the internal clock that tells you a corner should be coming up, a visual cue confirms it, and the clock continues to run. Perhaps you looked another direction and noticed something you have never seen, breaking the subconscious stream. OK, how in the world does this apply to reading the water??

The same process occurs with those who know how to look at a sonar screen, have explored and fished the expanse of features in the lake or river, and can, using the trolling motor or kicker, execute a route no different from the ride home. I am absolutely certain thats what I do, and talking with others whom I consider boat control freaks has confirmed it for me. Problem is, some folks cannot figure out where the ROAD is, much less follow it enough times to set up a subconscious route.

Heres how this works. First, if you can, find a copy of a Pelican Lake map on the web. Print it out, look for the south landing off of Highway G, and locate Antigo Island, just for visual reference. Print that puppy out and follow me on a road trip from the landing SW looking basically east , around the face of the island looking south, around the NE corner fishing to the west, and ending on a long sand finger on the SE corner.

OK, we are there; Antigo Island on Pelican Lake in Oneida County Wisconsin. Its rock structure, and breaks off slowly in some areas, and like a knife to 40 in others. There are rubble piles, rock piles, areas of round rock, and some boulders the size of Volkswagens. There are many points, inside turns, and a twisted contour line that has two distinct roads. Road number 1 is the one I follow to hit the top of the food shelf if I feel the fish are up cruising and eating. That road is 10 to 12 deep and about a boat length wide. If you slide up into 9, you are OFF the road. If you slide out to 13, you are OFF the road. That path will keep you fan casting the tops of the rubble piles, the round rock stuff, and all the interesting topography that the 3 to 10 area has, almost exactly one casting distance deep. I learn the water using a jig, casting and retrieving as described in the associated Creature article here onsite. Since the jig sinks at 1 per second, I can learn not only the road, but what it IS that held that fish, how the structures lay out, and store that in the old noggin subconscious elapsed time clock just like driving home using a 3-D image like a hunter might have of his favorite Whitetail lairs. The ROAD is 10. Thats your lane, stay in it. The fish, under those conditions, are on the shoulder, and out in the roadside, using all the stuff there for hunting prey, cover, and whatever else a Muskie likes that stuff for. Follow that road, learn those things on the roadside and create a mental image as if you were looking at that boulder pile out in the open air, and you have it. The water surface just holds up the boat, and keeps the fish happy. Ignore it, other than to appreciate its beauty during an especially spectacular sunset, or when a Muskie rockets into our world firmly hood up to your offering.

The 18 line was harder to visualize for me, and took longer to get set in the subconscious. Its fairly distinct, and encompasses the secondary breakline to an 18 deep edge then dropping anywhere from 20 to 40 that is common to almost every piece of good water in the main basin of Pelican. This road covers the drive across the broken rubble on the break, the huge boulders and busted slabs of stone, and the transition from super hard bottom to sand and even marl in some places RIGHT on the edge of the smoother transition. Its like sitting over the very edge of a long line of rock outcroppings, broken down to boulders and rubble, and transitioning to cleaner bottom at more that 18. Driving that 18 road I can reach 4 to 6 with a long cast, but am concentrating on the main primary breakline for my presentation; mostly the 9 to 15 break.

I know where the rock piles, boulders, and shelves are, and have my personal visual cues on the sonar screen and reactions to same to keep the boat on the road. I use my sonar, NOT the shoreline, because my visual cues need to come from the road itself, not way off in a field 200 yards or more away. Moving triangulation isnt something Ive mastered yet, I guess.

One can learn the water without using a jig, thats a certainty. I would highly recommend learning how to use a jig! You will then in just a couple trips down that new road on your lake selection of the day, learn more about the roadside structure, inside and outside turns that might not exactly match the turns on the road, and areas that HOLD those big girls in less time than you ever thought possible. Youll eventually learn the water anyway, by moving across that water over and over with the sonar, but the jig cuts the education time by hundreds of hours, and is one of, if not THE best reading the water tools in the box.

Next time youre on the water with a boat control freak, youll see this process in play. Learning the water this well creates the need to fish it correctly, no matter the conditions, and demands a higher level of boat control skill than a sloppy, thats close enough for government work approach. But that, you see, is another story.

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