Fishing Laydowns

February 4, 2009 by  

Joe Zentner

Submerged trees attract fish at most times during the year

Submerged trees attract fish at most times during the year

 Bank sloping trees that have fallen into the water, known as lay-downs, attract fish throughout the Midwest. Long-time anglers are keenly aware of the value of immersed trees. The primary cover choice of freshwater fish is, in fact, submerged wood.

A lay-down is a tree that has fallen into the water and is somewhat if not totally submerged. The fall may be natural—resulting from erosion, rot or wind—or caused by human activity. Lay-downs undeniably attract fish.

Why Fish Seek Cover

When the weather warms, predatory fish often swim under overhanging trees and bushes. From the day fish hatch, they are continually tested on their ability to survive. They need cover to avoid being devoured by larger fish, fish-eating birds, aquatic mammals and other predators. Even with excellent cover, nature takes a toll. Adult fish use cover to protect their nests, so that they do not have to guard all sides of it.

Many fish find feeding easier when they use a lay-down. A submerged tree provides cover for large numbers of baitfish. Hungry fish can hide in the branches to ambush dinner. Fish also use cover to escape predators.

Kinds of Cover

Trees and bushes ideal for North Dakota fishing purposes are those that have lead-in cover, such as weeds and lily pads, so that fish can move in and out relatively unseen. Trees that extend out into deep water provide fish an escape route, when needed. Trees with foliage on them provide more cover for baitfish to hide in, and therefore will likely attract hungry freshwater predators. Newly-flooded trees, with small branches intact, oftentimes make better cover than do older trees, many of whose branches may have, over time, rotted away.

Water depths are crucial to a lay-down’s attractiveness, and to the seasons when fish are most likely to use them. Shallow trees are popular to scurry around in, particularly in the spring. Mid-depth lay-downs (extending into ten to fifteen feet of water) are best from spring to late fall.

To determine how far a tree extends into the water, look on the bank for a tree with approximately the same sized trunk as the lay-down. When you spot one roughly the same size, look at the height of the standing tree in order to make comparisons. How far into the water would it go, if it fell?

Lay-downs also provide bank anglers with excellent shoreline fishing opportunities. Use an extra-long pole to reach out and drop jigs into the branches of a submerged tree.

Some bank anglers use a jig to vertically fish a thick lay-down. Jig size depends primarily on the type of action one desires. Ultra-light 1/32-ounce jigs have a slow fall and enticing movement, while 1/8-ounce jigs can penetrate most foliage. They’re also easier to free when hung up on a limb. A 1/16-ounce jig makes a good compromise. Try fishing all three sizes to determine which works best for you.

Using slip bobbers around flooded timber has become one of the most reliable ways to catch walleyes on Devils Lake

Using slip bobbers around flooded timber has become one of the most reliable ways to catch walleyes on Devils Lake

Minnows are ideal for fishing lay-downs, particularly those located near a riverbank or lakeshore. A minnow rig should include a float and heavy sinker. When fishing in deep water, use a slip-float to facilitate straight up-and-down minnow placement. A heavy crimp-on sinker keeps a minnow from swimming far and possibly hanging up on limbs.

Cover is as important in water that is flowing as it is in still water. Boulders, logs, bridge pilings or any objects that break the current and create eddies attract hungry fish. If you can find a North Dakota fishing location with all these elements together, you more than likely have found a hotspot.

Finding a Lay-Down

Finding a fallen tree with limbs sticking out of the water is not difficult. One discovery method is to simply motor along a lakeshore or riverbank looking for obvious limbs and a trunk. A second method for finding lay-downs is to again motor along a bank, but look for less obvious signs, such as part of a trunk above water, but with no exposed limbs. Another good indication of a lay-down is a partially or fully exposed root.

The third method is time-consuming, but often the most rewarding. Begin by slowly motoring about 30 feet from a bank. Watch for telltale signs of a treetop under water. Scan the bank for any trunks or roots just beneath the surface of the water. Also, stumps on a bank that are hard to spot because of undergrowth are oftentimes good indicators of fallen trees. Due to less fishing pressure, these difficult to spot lay-downs can be, I have found, very productive.

Factors to Keep in Mind When Fishing Lay-Downs

Wind can at times make boat-handling a real problem. Always anchor or tie onto sturdy, exposed limbs. Strong winds can cause fish to seek the down-current side of cover. Rising or falling water may move fish up or down, or closer to protective cover. Sunshine oftentimes leads fish to move to shadier portions of a lay-down.

Some anglers struggle hard to try and find fish under overhanging bank-side trees or around lay-downs, and eventually conclude that no fish are there. Wrong. Good-size fish are often around but simply won’t bite what anglers are offering them. Why?

If you were to observe a row of trees in the water on a popular fishing lake on any given day, you would, more than likely, see an endless procession of boats approaching. Each angler would use what he or she considered to be the ‘right’ fishing approach. Many would pitch or flip this or that lure. To cover a partially submerged tree more quickly, some anglers will throw bait around the outside edges, thereby seeking to entice a fish to strike. Every so often a person hooks one; however, many don’t.

Have all the fish gone? Have they all been caught? No. It’s because many anglers fish basically the same way. A particular location may well be an ideal spot (at least in your mind) for fish to hang out. But imagine, if you can, a fish swimming under a partially submerged tree seeing the same presentation of the same lures, repeatedly. How many times will the creature be attracted before concluding that maybe it should not go after those same old (and, perhaps, in the fish’s mind, suspicious-appearing) lures?

Different approaches to fishing lay-downs should be tried, depending on how aggressively hungry, fish are at a particular time. Oftentimes, fish are hanging out in and around a particular lay-down, but they may be in different fishing modes. By employing different angling methods, you increase the odds of catching fish.

If fish are active, I use an unweighted crankbait. Work around the outside of a lay-down first. Submerged trees around the perimeter oftentimes hold several fish. When I work from the outside inwards and from the surface downwards, I increase my chances of catching fish.

Some anglers try and get super close to a lay-down. But when they reposition their boat using a trolling motor, anglers oftentimes send a blast of water right under a lay-down, thereby spooking fish.

I fish lay-downs using a 7-foot-long medium-heavy action spinning rod, with the reel’s drag set tight, spooled with 10-pound test. This line casts well, has no stretch, and is so sensitive most anyone can feel just about anything on the line.

I pull up to a lay-down, cut off the outboard, and approach ever-so-quietly from some distance away, with the trolling motor on low. An almost inaudible purr, I have found, spooks fish far less than when you have the motor on a higher setting and keep hitting it in staccato-like bursts.

Initially, I keep some distance away from the lay-down and cast around the outside, underarm, so that the bait lands ever so gently. I let it settle for a second or two. Then, I move in closer and cast the bait and again let it settle.

This batch of submerged trees outside of Fargo offers good fishing throughout the open water season.

This batch of submerged trees outside of Fargo offers good fishing throughout the open water season.

At times, I skip the bait, just like you would a stone, into the lay-down, targeting likely looking fish holding spots. Using this technique, I can oftentimes get into hard-to-reach places near the back, which places may hold lunkers. Because many anglers do not try to get a lure into such places, few fish lurking there are caught.

With practice, baits can be skipped 40 feet. They should carry just enough weight to skim the surface. Learning how to skip baits isn’t difficult. Most anglers can become proficient after an hour or so of practice.

Some anglers scoff at this technique, arguing that skipping baits across the water scares fish away. However, I have found the opposite to be true. One thing that causes fish to attack food is the so-called ‘scared baitfish’ action. If you have spent much time on the water, you have undoubtedly seen baitfish jumping off the surface, trying to escape predatory fish that are chasing them. Skipping baits mimics this action and causes hungry fish to look up by getting their attention.

Remember: the key to catching fish from under partially submerged trees is to zig when others are zagging. You must get bait in to where the fish are. It is possible to stay well away from a lay-down and skip bait 30 to 40 feet, right into the back, where few anglers can (quietly) reach, and the fish aren’t aware of your presence. Thinking and fishing differently from other anglers can oftentimes reward a person with a sizable catch.

Fishing older lay-downs involves dealing with a main trunk and limbs. Casting and vertical jigging are ideal ways to present tempting baits. An older lay-down that is almost totally submerged may not receive heavy fishing pressure and for that reason is likely to be one of the more productive fishing holes.

For a newer, clearly visible lay-down having many limbs, I use a straight up-and-down vertical presentation. Vertical tight lining a jig is an excellent way to penetrate fish hiding spots and present them with bait.

Should a hooked fish wrap itself around a branch, don’t try and force it out. Instead, open the reel’s bail arm and let the line go slack, thereby taking pressure off the fish. If a fish thinks it’s free, it will oftentimes swim out from an obstruction within seconds. When it does, close the bail arm and haul the fish out.

Laydowns offer great structure for all species of bass

Laydowns offer great structure for all species of bass

I  am particularly fond of using lay-downs when fishing for smallmouth bass. The smallie is a member of the black bass family. It prefers lakes and streams with cool, clear water, a gravelly or rocky bottom, and scant vegetation.

All bass are spring spawners, with nest building occurring in mid-May when water temperatures are in the high 50s and low 60s. Spawning smallmouths are found in areas with gravel and boulder bottoms. In the summer, they will stay in deeper water than largemouths because they like the cooler temperatures. Look for smallmouths along rocks near drop-offs.

Several methods may be used to take smallmouths, including fly-casting with floating bugs, and trolling or casting with a plug or spinner. The most common and successful method is still fishing with live bait such as worms, minnows, and crayfish. Fall brings them back into shallower water, which awakens a drive to eat and put on weight for long North Dakota winters.

In North Dakota, weather fluctuations and temperature changes signal the arrival of spring. Right before waters warm is an ideal time to fish for bass, crappie, walleye, northern pike and panfish.

Anglers often find finesse tactics to be highly effective in catching fish. Many different kinds of freshwater fish fall for loud, splashy displays and may bite out of fear, surprise or anger when jigs suddenly interrupt their naps. However, at other times, weather conditions and fish disposition may require a lighter touch.

“You are not usually looking for a reaction bite; it is more subtle than that,” notes professional guide Henry Pitchford. “A fish is apt to carefully inspect a lure before inhaling it. Unlike a reaction strike, where something goes by fast, with finesse fishing, an angler is just dangling a lure in front of a creature’s nose; after a while, the fish can’t stand it anymore.” The objective is a blend of vulnerability and subtle annoyance.

Fishing lay-downs calls for experimenting; even seasoned anglers spend considerable time fishing lay-downs without getting a strike. But the rewards, both nutritionally and emotionally, can be great. Once fish have been located, and provided you understand the basic principles behind fishing lay-downs, the action oftentimes can be excellent. Plus, fish frequently will stay in the same general area, or at least the same depth, for several days. And do keep in mind the adage: “Give me a fish, and I will eat today; teach me to fish [lay-downs] and I will eat all my life.”


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