Versatility the Key to Good Catches
Patrick Mills

The Midwest’s rivers offer some fantastic sport for the bank angler, everything from popular sport species, such as smallmouth and walleye, through vast numbers of schooling species, such as drum, to bottom feeding leviathans, such as catfish or carp, may be caught. How can the bank fisher take advantage of this potential bounty? The answer lies in adopting a versatile approach. Anglers are often categorized as being bass, walleye, catfish, or some other species specific angler. The thing is, in practice this is almost never the case. How often have you gone out for cats and caught nothing but carp, or tried for northern pike and had hits from nothing but walleye? In my book, a fish is a fish, and I actually go out of my way to make my approach as species non – specific as possible. Such a philosophy almost always guarantees a bulging net of diverse species, as well as a great day on the water, but the question of interest is ‘how’?  In this article you’ll discover some simple and effective methods that can be used to temp all of the above mentioned species, often, as is detailed below, within the same fishing session. Such an approach was recently used by members of the JJC Anglers Club during a recent outing to the Illinois River at Ottawa, IL. What follows is a detailed review of the outing as experienced by those taking part, namely Chris Baltas, Jim Mowatt and myself, as we tempted a 30+ pound catch of catfish, carp, drum, smallmouth and assorted panfish over a short 4 hour period.

Jim and I arrived at Allen Park, situated just off Rt. 23 in Ottawa, at around 9:30 am on a crisp morning in early May.  As I’d never fished the Illinois River before, we decided to have a quick ‘cast around’ with a Smartcast fish finder. The electronics revealed a 3 foot deep shelf out to about 12 – 20 feet from the park’s concrete seawall over its entire length, dropping to a level 7-8 feet depth beyond that, with a slight deepening (perhaps not surprisingly) around the boat launch and Rt. 23 bridge supports. This information was key, as fish tend to use submerged shelves and drop offs as ‘underwater highways’. If you can locate the nearside shelf, on a river, lake or pond, it always pays to fish the deep water just past this feature, as this will essentially guarantee a continued flow of patrolling fish entering your fishing area. Indeed, it was with this idea in mind, and with the threat of impending poor weather, that we planned our strategy around fishing ‘over the shelf’ beneath the Rt. 23 bridge.

Knowing where the fish are likely to be and actually catching them are, clearly, two different things. In order to concentrate the patrolling fish in our chosen fishing area we prepared a groundbait (chum) and introduced 8 or so baseball sized helpings just over the shelf in 7 feet of water. What groundbaiting (chumming) does is provide an attractive, available food source for passing fish, which then stay in the anglers’ area for a period of time. Such an approach can yield some real bumper catches – the world banking record currently stands at 415 pounds of fish in 5 hours! – a feat that would not have been possible without the ‘magnetic’ fish attracting properties of a good groundbait. A decent basic groundbait can be made from equal parts cornmeal and white breadcrumbs, with extra sweet (such as cookie crumbs) or savory (such as fish or blood meal) ingredients added to give the mix extra ‘kick’. On the day we used a mix flavored with cookie crumbs and dried molasses as, from experience, most species of fish seem to have a sweet tooth.  Last, and most importantly, groundbait and dough bait should not be confused. A groundbait is not ‘doughy’ and should fall apart when rubbed between the hands – such a consistency is essential for creating an attractive carpet of feed in the anglers’ fishing area. Details pertaining to groundbait to recipes and mixing instructions can be viewed at this website's dedicated groundbait section, or obtained from the author via e-mail upon request.

With the shelf located and groundbait introduced just beyond this ‘underwater highway’, all that remained was the task of introducing our hook baits to the prepared fishing area. The rigs used featured modified sinkers called method feeders, which can be either home made or purchased from a variety of outlets, the closest being Wacker Baits of Oak Park, IL.  Briefly, a method feeder is simply a regular 1 oz+ sinker with a coil of loose fitting wire wrapped around it. The job of the wire coil is to hold a ball of groundbait tight to the sinker when cast, which in turn introduces groundbait to the immediate vicinity of the hook bait when resting on the bottom. Regular egg or other in-line sinkers can also be used, but with a ball of chum mounded directly around the lead. The key with this method is to use a short (~ 6 inch) hooklength, small (~ 12 – 14) hook, small (single corm, several spikes, or worm segment) bait and a fixed sinker or method feeder. This devastatingly effective rig results in fierce takes as fish attacking the chum ball suck in the hook bait and, typically, hook themselves against the weight of the lead. In many respects, the rig is similar to the paylaker’s highly effective pack bait rig.

On the day we fished action was immediate – Jim hooked and lost a large carp first put in (while I was still setting up!), while his second put in resulted in a 6 pound carp. My first cast resulted in the biggest fish of the day (an 8 pound carp), which took a while to land after trying to wrap my line around a bridge stanchion (who says fish aren’t smart!?). Over the course of the next four hours we bagged a total of 4 more carp, 6 drum, 2 catfish and several bluegill. Chris, who joined us later, fished with minnows for smallmouth (as the local anglers were doing) and managed a single smallmouth of around a pound in weight. It’s amazing, Jim and I were fishing for ‘whatever swims’ and ended up with ~ 30 pounds of fish, while Chris and the three or so local ‘species specific’ anglers in attendance managed a few smaller fish for a combined total of less than five pounds. On the day, as it always seems to be, versatility was definitely the key to bumper catches.

  Pat and Jim with a fine brace of carp, caught from the Illinois River, below the Rt. 23 road bridge,  in Ottawa, IL.

Clearly, even though these highly effective methods are reasonably straightforward to implement and feature easily obtainable equipment, this style of fishing probably seems more than a little alien to most anglers. With this in mind, the Joliet Junior College Angler’s Club sponsors a variety of free local bank fishing events that feature instruction in these versatile methods. Anglers interested in attending any JJCAC event, or learning more about the club’s activities, should check the calendar page of this site for details, or feel free to contact me directly.