By Nick Simonson
Seeing a fish come in behind a lure is one of the most exciting moments in angling. When the water is clear and the shadow of a pike or muskie becomes a distinctive, magnified image of what I’d imagine Leviathan looked like in legend, few things in the outdoors get the heart racing as fast. When the wake forms on a largemouth zeroing in on the plop-plop-plop of a surface popper, it’s hard to tune out the adrenaline rush. Even on a recent outing for crappies, angling over a shallow rocky area for pre-spawn fish that were stacked up from three-to-seven feet deep, it wasn’t uncommon to have the flash of silver-green or dark black shoot up at a jig even if it was just a few inches below the surface and right alongside the boat. While I knew they wouldn’t be bigger than the 11-to-12-inch fish that made up the top strata of the several dozen we had caught, it still provided a surge of endorphins and a quick flip back for a second chance at the nearly-missed slab.
Converting those opportunities provided by followers requires some discipline but can turn a top experience into the best one with a hooked and landed fish. While it’s often easier said than done, tamping down the natural surge of energy that comes with a following fish is key in staying focused on what to do next. While muskies have a mythos all their own, much can be learned from what triggers them in terms of changes in speed and direction and some of those tactics spill over into other species. Speeding up or slowing down a retrieve can set following fish off and has been known to take their less picky kin, the northern pike, with spoons and other lures.
Other tactics that set off those trailing fish in hot-to-moderate pursuit of a lure incorporate breaking the steady rhythm of a retrieved lure – such as a spoon or spinner for trout and smallmouth bass – with a pause, twitch or jig. Incorporating a quick series of pulses or pauses can set off fish and turn lookers and chasers into biters and landed lunkers. Allow bladed baits to pause, flutter and fall for a split second and the payoff can be arm-jarring.
For fish following topwater baits, or those near the surface that ignite a wake-inducing chase followed by an explosive strike that turns calm water into white water, give them a second before setting the hook. This makes sure that in all the commotion, the hooks find a home in the jaw of the fish. With the mounting rush of an oncoming fish coupled with an instinct-overriding delayed hookset, powering the bait into place on a topwater hit is one of the most challenging tasks to pull off consistently in the outdoors.
If none of those tactics connect with following fish, it’s time to do some follow-up work of your own. Any close encounter typically means there’s some sort of interest from whatever species is being angled for and if the fish turns, swings and misses or simply spots the boat or senses something is amiss and bolts with a last second 180, go back after it. Follow up with another cast to the same spot and work the lure back to the boat or shore, adding in a few tweaks to speed, rhythm and twitches to see if that fish comes back or another moves in on the excitement. If one is handy, try flipping another bait back into the area, substituting a tube when a bass nips at a spinnerbait, or a marabou jig when a trout spurns a spinner. These baits, typically with slower presentations, will often convert fish that just didn’t have the energy to slam a fast-moving offering.
While following fish can be a lot of fun, and certainly provide their share of freak-out and frustrating moments on the water, getting the hooks into them makes for mind-blowing memories. Try these tips out this spring in summer when fish come into sight, keeping your eyes out for fast approaching excitement that will be right behind your lure…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Follow Up Work. For common sight-fished game species like pike, muskies, bass, and trout, a follow or a missed strike doesn’t mean the game is over, go back with a new perspective to find success, like this 19.5-inch largemouth which came on a slowed-down stickbait after an initial swing and a miss. If a fish doesn’t take a bait, go back after it with the same lure and a modified retrieve or something different and perhaps a bit slower. Simonson Photo.