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Scout out some new spots before the season starts

A problem with scouting is that it often requires you to tune out the gut-level instinct for instant action.

Tournament winners separate themselves from the chumps who run up the first-place payouts by demystifying the quest to put fish in the boat.

Zach Harvey

They see the fishery for what it is: an endless chain of semipredictable scenarios — combinations of pinpoint location, seasonal and tidal timing, sea conditions and angling methods — that reliably surrender good catches. The most consistently successful anglers are those with the greatest number of such scenarios committed to memory.

The big question for most of us, then, is how to find productive new spots and learn their secrets — “spots” defined here as those fish-rich junction points between place and time. With several basic resources — paper or electronic charts, tide and current charts, and perhaps some assistance from one of the experts at a good local tackle shop — you can begin to lay out a reconnaissance plan.

Scouting strategies

It’s a given that few of us get to spend anywhere near as much time fishing as we’d like. Regardless of the time you can commit to recon this season, if you’re serious about adding a few promising new reefs, ridges, riplines or rock piles to your logbooks, you’ll need to approach the work with the right attitude.

A problem with scouting is that it often requires you to tune out the gut-level instinct for instant action. It’s not an activity to undertake on the weekend your nephews from Kansas are in town or when you’re trying to justify a boat purchase to your father-in-law. Feeling your way around a new plot of seabed can get tedious in a way that makes tax preparation feel like bungee jumping.

As you get the hang of spot-work, your best bet is to keep your ambitions on a short leash. Choose relatively confined areas, ideally those within easy striking distance on your way to or from favorite destinations. Consistency and frequency are the operative concepts, so at least while you learn the finer points of bottom recon, it’s best to avoid the big-water places situated a Hail Mary’s steam from your slip.

The idea is to observe your new pet real estate under a range of tidal and sea conditions. Plan to hit it for at least a few minutes every time you’re out (within reason). You’re better off giving the place half-hour licks on 50 days than trying to unravel it in two 12-hour days of pure drudgery. And no matter how unforgettable you’re sure the details will be the first time your new haunt throws you a 35-pound striped bass or 10-pound summer flounder, never, ever trust your brain with the particulars. Keep a detailed logbook, recording every available tidbit of data. Over time, you’ll learn which details help and which constitute old-fashioned navel-gazing.

Ready, set …

Learning the lay of new sunken land can be tedious - but worthwhile.

Thankfully, you needn’t wait to get started. In my own household, the paper charts generally come out around the time the Ides of March are safely in the rearview and I feel safe exiting the house without plate armor. Last year, I borrowed an ancient, yellowed copy of a current-chart book put out by the publishers of Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book, cross-referenced the two and ultimately marked up one of my standard NOAA charts with arrows to indicate directions of tidal current in several areas of interest. A big part of spot recon is cultivating a thorough understanding of the tidal influences that affect your target spot.

If, for example, I were eyeing the Montauk Rips at the east end of Long Island, N.Y., it would be important to know that current velocities can surpass 2 knots on the strength of running tides. It also would be important to know that on the outer rips tides run in a northerly direction on the flood, southerly on the ebb. Knowing that most critters I enjoy catching will line up on the down-tide sides of high spots, current charts might give me a good idea as to where to set up a drift.

At the same time, I’d want to be able to cross-check current marine forecasts and/or buoy reports against my newfound knowledge of tidal-flow directions to avoid a memorable beating one late-May morning when 20 knots of southwest wind are clashing with 1-1/2 knots of southbound ebb tide. Knowing a spot’s “big picture” not only will refine your search for prime bottom structure and the fish it gathers, but also spare you some horror shows in the weather department.

Get smart

I’ve heard the phrase “fish smarter, not harder” so many times that I occasionally catch myself doing powerfully stupid things out of sheer spite for that angling platitude. Nevertheless, I’ll admit that there are a number of smart things you can do preseason to cross off likely dead zones, as well as planning to fish with a will during what should be prime stretches of the fishing calendar.

In line with the idea that top anglers tend to keep things simple where their quarry is concerned, my teachers have emphasized the importance of playing to my target species’ basic biological wiring. Fish are slaves to the endless balancing act between energy expenditure and caloric intake. In monster bass fishing, for example, most of the largest specimens I’ve landed (or gaffed/netted for others) have crossed transoms around the ends of the biggest tides, coming up on slack water, particularly around the summer moons. As the theory goes, these calorie-conscious cow bass will hang hard on the bottom through the strength of a given tide, then sneak out when the current has eased off to a trickle and they can wallop a substantial meal without burning a load of hard-won energy in the process.

Accordingly, I’ll comb through my current copy of Eldridge’s in search of those windows when the strongest tides around the new and full moons align with my free weekends, then mark these all-important slots on the kitchen calendar with a bright-colored marker. I also fish through a couple of recent fishing logs for stretches of dependably excellent doormat-fluke fishing, and politely decline any wedding invitations that could threaten or even derail my late-May or early-September quests for a 15-pound flatfish.

Outside of the scenarios I’ve uncovered, I’m always looking to unlock the next great, seemingly foolproof fishery to fill a gap between the known constants. Coming up on two decades of fishing mindfully, it’s that inscrutable convergence of time, tide, submerged real estate and the mother of all bites that keeps my mind racing through the years — certain, beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt, that the next drop, drift or cast is going to be the beginning of the next great event. A new year of it, just boiling over with promise, will be upon us before we know it.

April 2013 issue