Bank Fishing’s Top Five Strategies and Secrets
Part 1: Knowing 'What's There'

Patrick Mills

There are few more frustrating things in angling than devoting the bulk of one’s time at the water’s edge to watching a motionless bobber. After what often seems like an eternity without even a nibble, our thoughts typically turn to the usual nagging questions: What am I doing wrong? Am I in the right spot? Do I have the right bait and gear? In order to avoid such maddening self-conversations, anglers need only to implement a checklist of five simple strategies in order to ensure a successful day’s bank fishing. Specifically, these tactics include: knowing which fish species are likely to be present; understanding how to target these species; locating where these fish are likely to be; encouraging these fish to feed; and attracting more of the target species into the angler’s fishing area. In part one of this article, presented here, the first, and perhaps most important of these checkpoints is discussed; while the remaining four, more practical, key bankfishing strategies ware reviewed in part two of this piece, accessible though this site's Articles and Presentations page.

A central theme common to this, as well as each of the other four (more practical) keys to success, to be discussed in part two of this article, is recognizing, understanding and then capitalizing on the basic philosophical differences between boat and bank fishing. While these two branches of our sport have a good number of commonalities, notably in terms of the types of tackle and bait used, the application of such methods and tactics within the respective boat and bank fishing environments could not be more different. Taking ‘what’s there’ first, boat and bank anglers are exposed to two vastly different sets of fishing opportunities. Boat anglers typically angle for a desired species of sport fish, such largemouth, small mouth, walleye or musky and, consequently, are often classified as such specie specific anglers. Such classifications are made entirely possible by the use of dedicated fishing boats and hi-tech fish finding gear which, in turn, allow anglers to locate and then fish for the species of their choosing. Indeed, a bass angler’s day on the water typically involves pulling up to an attractive structural feature, angling for the active fish that are there, and then repeating this procedure by moving on to the next boat dock, weed mat or rock hump. This is not, and never can be, the case for the less mobile bank angler, whom by definition is typically limited to fishing from a fixed position at the water’s edge. Indeed, if we apply the boat angler’s approach to the bankfishing environment, we immediately recognize the primary cause of ‘motionless bobber syndrome’ – of the many fish present, only a small fraction will be of the desired sport species. Once these, typically one or two, fish are captured, angling for additional specimens quickly becomes futile as there are simply no more of these species remaining. While the boat angler can simply move on to the next feature, this is not so easy for the bank fisher. Thus, for the bank angler to have a successful day at the water, bank fishing tactics must be adapted in order to fish for ‘what’s there’.

An examination of electro fishing data (supplied by the DNR and featured within publications such as the ‘Northern Illinois Fishing Map Guide’, available through tackle stores) quickly answers the ‘what’s there’ question, and by inference also informs the bank angler which species should be fished for in order to ensure a successful day’s fishing. In essence, the DNR data supports what we all learned as school children regarding how ecosystems the world over, all the way from the African plains through to the Midwestern prairie, or even a typical back yard pond, have ‘come into balance’ in terms of the distribution of their respective numbers of predator and prey species. Thus, if we reference these examples, some eye opening facts emerge with regard to what must also be the case for essentially every (unmanaged) body of water. Prey species numerically dominate any environment – this may be gazelle or wildebeest on the African plans, through to rabbits on the prairie, or bluegill in a local pond. In most bodies of water, prey species typically include sunfish, shad and/or shiners. Statistically, 80 out of every 100 fish in such environments will comprise such species. Why is this? Prey species, by their very nature, provide food for the ecosystem’s predators. Thus, any prey species’ survival strategy depends upon being highly prolific, and essentially ‘out breeding’ loses suffered via predation. The obvious take home message is this - angling for sunfish or other prey species will ensure good catches. Indeed, the current US record is in the vicinity of ~511 bluegills captured over a 4 hour period!

Most Numerous: Young Max Ford with a spectacular net of ~400 fish (bluegill and shiner), taken over 4 hours from a suburban retention pond.      Greatest Biomass: Dara Finnegan with a near 90 pound bag of carp (biggest 22lb), taken in ~ 3 hrs bankfishing a downtown Chicago location.

In great contrast to the pervasiveness of sunfish and other prey species, the least numerous species in any ecosystem are, by far, the predators. Examples include lions on the African plain, through to the wolf or coyote on the prairie, through to the bass, walleye or musky found in area lakes and rivers. Thus, these results become somewhat alarming for the angler intent on fishing for any of the sporting (predatory) species from the bank, since only ~5 percent of the total fish count in most waters is made up from these varieties. This again reinforces the point that, for the less mobile bank angler, angling for sport species becomes a largely fruitless exercise due to the fact that there are, statically, literally only one or two sport fish within casting range of the angler’s position! Is it then any wonder that the dreaded ‘motionless bobber’ is by far the norm for anglers utilizing bass or other sport fish specific methods and tactics from the bank? The take home message is reinforced – only fishing for ‘what’s there’ will ensure a productive day at the water’s edge. Unfortunately, this strategy will typically not involve angling for specific sport species, but should instead focus on non species specific methods and tactics tailored to catching the vast majority (~95%) of the remaining of the non-sporting species present.

While the symbiotic relationship between predator and prey is well know, another aspect of any ecosystem, which is often overlooked, is what I like to call the role of the ‘super vegetarians’ – species that are not predatory, yet avoid predation by growing very large. On the African plain, such species include the elephant or rhino, with the buffalo or bison on the prairie and, typically, carp or other cyprinid species within most bodies of freshwater. Such species fill an interesting ecological niche – they are less numerous than prey species, typically constituting on the order of 15% of all fish present, but, by contrast, provide by far the greatest biomass of any single group. What is biomass? Simply, biomass is the relative weight of a particular variety of fish within a given aquatic environment. For example, if it is assumed that a particular bank fishing spot contains 100 individual fish, there will likely be approximately 80 sunfish, 15 carp and 5 bass present. Now, if we consider that the average weights of these fish are typically on the order of 3 oz, 5 pounds and 2 pounds respectively, the biomass math takes an interesting turn: sunfish have a total cumulative weight of 15 pounds (15% biomass), bass 10 pounds (10% biomass) and carp an incredible 75 pounds (75 % biomass)! Clearly, for those who judge success based solely on the total weight of their catch, rather than the number and/ or species of fish captured, the ‘super veggies’ render themselves an attractive option for the dedicated bank angler. Indeed, in an era of shrinking creel limits and unpredictable water quality (where the bulk of any angler’s catches are, consequently, not typically kept for the table), it should perhaps not come as a surprise that the popularity of carp fishing has seen an upsurge in recent times, with both the Carp Anglers Group (CAG) and the American Carp Society (ACS) enjoying booms in membership. Both organizations regularly run well attended carp tournaments, whose winning purses are often counted in the thousands of dollars. Overseas, where bank fishing is by far the norm, the carp is revered as a sport fish ‘par excellence’. For example, throughout the United Kingdom, mainland Europe and Asia literally thousands of commercial (pay lake) fisheries dot the landscape. These fisheries are usually catch and release only, and are most often stocked to capacity with carp. This results in some fantastic fishing, with the current UK five hour bankfishing record standing at an incredible 414 pounds! Within the US in general, and locally in particular, there is also some fantastic carp fishing available. The current US four hour bankfishing tournament record stands 102 pounds (all carp), with verified daily catches in excess of 200 pounds of carp being recorded at venues such as Braidwood Lake, IL. This should not come as a surprise, as carp swimming in local waters typically comprise ~75% of the water’s total biomass, average ~5 pounds per fish, and grow in excess of 70 pounds! The take home message here is clear – bank anglers who choose target the ‘super veggie’ species (carp, buffalo etc.) will typically record catches whose total weights, by most common standards, seem astronomical. For example, a bank angler targeting carp on a typical retention pond, lake or river may be expected to catch half a dozen fish, possessing an average weight of ~ 5 pounds, over a four hour period. This yields a total carp weight in the vicinity of ~30 pounds. Additionally, since bank fishing, by its very nature, is species non specific (catches typically also feature bluegill and catfish); mixed bags of ~40 + pounds become the norm. Indeed, if the competition records of local bank fishing organizations (such as the Chicago Bank Anglers) are reviewed this is indeed seen to be the case.

In Summary, while bank and boat anglers share a common arsenal of terminal tackle, rods and reels, how such equipment is effectively utilized is greatly dissimilar. While, species specific boat anglers typically adopt a ‘hunting’ style approach, i.e. moving from spot to spot and angling for active fish at each location, the less mobile bank angler is forced to adopt a decidedly species non specific ‘ambush’ style strategy in order to be successful. This finding is based upon personal experience and a basic understanding of aquatic ecosystems, in which prey and ‘super veggie’ species (the bank angler’s primary quarry) outnumber sport (predator) species by a ratio of approximately 20:1. Thus, in order to be successful, bank anglers must target the overwhelming ~95% of ‘what’s there’ - such species typically encompass the sunfish and cyprinid varieties, with an emphasis on bluegill and carp.