You don't hear much about it on the victory stand of major tournaments. It isn't a lure, pattern, technique or piece of equipment.
Yet world-champion Rick Clunn credits it for playing major in all four of his BASS Masters Classic championships. Paul Elias remembers it as a fundamental key to his Classic victory. Basil Bacon attributes his eight qualifying tickets to the Classic, largely, to it.
But not a single headline has ever been written about it in the tournament reports in major fishing magazines.
“I think boat positioning is the most overlooked part of fishing there is by fishermen of all skill levels,” Clunn claims. “It is the single aspect of bass fishing that can make or break you, yet even some of the top pros don't put enough emphasis on boat control.”
On the national tournament trail where the competition is so fierce, it is the more subtle aspects of fishing that usually separate the winners from finishers. And although you don't hear much about it, boat control and positioning is just as crucial as any facet of the sport.
Boat position affects how well you can cast and retrieve a lure, fish an area most effectively, and even how you'll get the fish to the boat.
Boat control is the ability (or inability) to approach a piece of cover or structure from the position that best allows you to take full advantage of the situation. It is the ability to position yourself to create the best possible casting angle to both work the cover or structure, as well as present the bait properly to its inhabitants. It also involves the ability to maintain that proper positioning as Mother Nature works against you with unfavorable winds or currents.
Good boat positioning is necessary to properly fish every type of cover or structure, both visible and submerged. It is just as important with fishing a main-river ledge as it is working a weedline; casting to the bank; “doodling” a worm over a deep-water hump; flipping a fallen tree or vertically jigging a brushpile.
The best tournament pros understand that. So do the better guides and non-competitive anglers. It is an overlooked aspect of fishing that is well worth a little extra consideration.
“I can't emphasize enough that a bass boat is a part of your equipment that is as important as a rod, reel or anything else," says Gary Klein, a 20-time Classic qualifier from Texas. “And you aren't getting everything out of your boat if you aren't concentrating on boat positioning.
“There are so many different things that boat positioning does for you. Boat positioning determines how you cast and retrieve your lure, but I think beyond that. Each cast is planned and, at our level, we're thinking several casts in advance. Not only that, but I'm thinking about the fight back to the boat after I've hooked the fish. So you have to try to control the boat so that everything is to your advantage, whether it be deep water or shallow water, light line or heavy line, big fish or small fish.”
For the vast majority of bass fishermen, boat positioning is a subject relegated to their subconscious thoughts. All conscious thought on the water is usually reserved for what they consider to be the most crucial aspects of catching bass—casting, retrieving, interpreting electronics and paying close attention to the area they are fishing.
“Because your conscious is occupied, your subconscious is in control of operating the boat,” Clunn explains. “That’s the way it is with almost all experienced fishermen.
“When you first start getting serious about bass fishing, most people are much more conscious about boat positioning. Through experience they get their subconscious fairly well programmed about what they should be doing with the boat. And although it becomes mostly a subconscious effort after that, you should still allow your conscious thought to double-check your boat positioning from time to time while fishing. That's the biggest mistake—never giving boat control any conscious thought.”
Boat positioning while on mental autopilot.
“Boat control determines so much about your success,” Clunn continues, “and it's not so much what most people usually think about—spooking the fish.
Part of good boat positioning is establishing the perfect range for casting, flipping or pitching ... and staying there.
“What really brought this into focus for me was the technique of flipping. Here was a technique where you brought your boat close to the target, so boat control suddenly became more critical. You had to be more conscious of how you could keep the boat just the perfect distance away, keep it at the perfect speed and keep it at the perfect angle. I gradually translated this into what I was doing even when I wasn't flipping.”
Perhaps the most single important aspect of boat positioning is finding the perfect range and maintaining it, according to Clunn. The perfect range means being able to reach the target with an accurate presentation and from the proper casting angle. That is easier than it sounds, however. Frequently, most of us find ourselves too far away to make that pinpoint cast or so close that the next breeze blows the boat over the cover.
Proper boat positioning begins with your boat's equipment, Clunn emphasizes. That includes being comfortable enough with either a foot- or hand-operated trolling motor to use it without giving it any thought. It also includes using a trolling motor with enough power to fight a steady wind or the proper prop for invading jungle-like vegetation.
Wind: The Ultimate Adversary
Above all, there is one main enemy of proper boat positioning—wind.
“When we buy a boat, most of us visualize good-weather fishing,” Clunn says. “We don't visualize the normal fishing trip. That's when the wind is blowing you around and it blows you in too close. Or it blows you away and you've really lost control of the boat. On those days, boat control is even more important to your enjoyment.
“Good boat control means trying to work with the elements—the wind, the current, the grass—to catch fish. For me, that means not trying to fight the wind, in most cases. That is just a rule of thumb. There are all levels of wind, but I usually will work with the wind and try not to let it bother me mentally. There are certain situations and techniques, though, where you need to go against the wind. But if you get to the point where you stop and your mind says ‘Wait a minute, trying to fight this much wind is stupid,’ listen to your instincts and try something else. Find a better way to approach the situation, even if it means letting the wind blow you through an area and then cranking the big motor and running upwind to make another drift.”
Veteran Missouri pro Basil Bacon is one of the eastern pioneers in the technique of flipping. After its introduction by western pros in the mid-1970s, Bacon developed a system of flipping into an art form. It is largely responsible for his eight Classic appearances.
Proper positioning becomes especially critical with a close-range technique like flipping.
“Boat positioning and control is probably as critical as any aspect of flipping,” Bacon says. “I give it so much importance because you are so close to the fish the entire time.”
When flipping, Bacon's two most emphasized considerations are the sun and wind, which he tries to use to his advantage. The sun will usually help a fishermen pinpoint the areas to fish on a piece of flipping cover or structure like a fallen log, tree top, stump or willow tree because bass, generally, prefer the shady spots. The bass, usually, will be not be positioned toward the bright sunlight.
But that sun and shade can work against the angler in this close-quarters approach to fishing if your shadow falls close to the fish, warning it of your presence. Bacon approaches such structure with the sun to his back, but not from an angle that drops his shadow near the bass. With the sun at his back, Bacon can approach the bass (which is facing the opposite direction) without being spotted, being careful to watch the direction of his shadow. If you approach the tree with the sun at your face, the fish will often be able to note your presence, Bacon claims, and will spook.
“There usually is no easy answer to fishing in wind,” Bacon explains. “Obviously, you cannot flip with the wind. You just can't do it. You start easing up to this log in front of you, make one flip and before you can actually complete that one flip, the wind has pushed your boat right up on that log. So you have to move the boat into the wind, regardless of how slight it is.”
The ingredients of proper boat positioning are various, ranging from strategic to the equipment involved. Upon examination, it is a subject with more depth than most of us ever expected. But it is an aspect of bass fishing that separates the elite fish-catchers among us. And a part of fishing that is well worth a conscious effort.