Depth Control - The Essential Technique

The ability to work your lures at precise depths is crucial to consistent lure fishing success. By feeling your way around a swim as I have described previously you get the mental image that is the starting point for depth control, or if you are afloat you can use the fish finder to add more detail to the picture. Even if the image is not exact, once you get a take you should log in your brain the precise point where it came, both in relation to the features present and the depth being fished.

With sinking lures this will be done by counting the lure down before commencing the retrieve, and gauging the exact speed and pattern of retrieve. Duplicate the successful formula and, provided there is more than one pike present, the chances are you will see more action. Very often the taking depth will be consistent from spot to spot on any given day. So, by replicating a retrieve depth that worked in one spot when you get to a similar place you are stacking the odds in your favour.

One thing that is well worth remembering is that the taking depth can vary from session to session. This was brought home to me on a recent session when Nige Grassby and I were on one of our favourite spots where previous trips had produced to deeply worked baits. However, the water had warmed considerably and the pike had spawned. Unusually, I was four to two up when I heard Nige say "You're not letting it sink, are you?" The look on his face when I turned round was a picture and all I could say was, "Am I not?" I had also sussed out the spot to cast to and the speed of retrieve that allowed the lure to work down the slope and come away from it at the depth that seemed to provoke the pike to come after the lure. The fish weren't hitting the lure close to the slope but between it and the boat, some requiring a trigger to make them hit. The trigger would either be a speeding up, or a pause to allow the lure to fall. Two of the best triggers going.

Another thing that I was doing in order to replicate my retrieve was not only to ensure that I cast to a precise spot, but that I cast from a set distance to it. It is not widely realised that the length of a cast has a significant bearing on how the lure fishes. Floaters and sinkers are both affected by the cast length. On this particular day we were starting our drifts well off the mark, but I had quickly sussed that only two, or maybe three, casts per drift were getting action. So I was sitting it out until we were close enough for a long cast to reach the spot, judging the distance to cast from by watching the bottom coming up on the finder. Odds on it would be the second cast from my starting point that would do the business

This shorter cast was putting the lure at just the right depth, while the longer one was bringing it in a little deeper. We returned to this spot later on, having decided to rest it. When my lure reached the boat, as we got just close enough to the spot on our first drift, a nice fish turned away on a deep follow. I reckon the pike had dropped down the slope following our hammering of the spot earlier on, and the longer, deeper running, cast had pulled that fish. By my reasoning from what had gone on earlier in the day it should have shown up on the following cast! Sadly the pounding we had given the place in the morning had put the fish off and nothing else showed itself.

To replicate a retrieve depth with a floating lure you have to remember how you got it down in the first place, and cast length plays its part in this (long casts will get lures deeper than short ones) as do other factors. Was it a steady crank, or were you using a fast retrieve to work it deep then slowing it down to maintain a depth. Or perhaps you were fishing a floating jerkbait like a Suick and used a particular series of jerks to get the bait down. Some floating baits can be made to run deeper by a series of hard, rapid twitches or jerks before commencing a more steady retrieve. Many minnow baits can be fished a couple of feet deeper than their standard running depth by this process. Same goes for some jerkbaits. Three or four staccato jerks might be needed to get the depth before slowing the retrieve to that which the pike are showing an interest in.

This subject brings to mind a particular hobby horse of mine! I have little time for the obsession that some people seem to have for making many of their lures suspend. They get so intense about this that they have to balance their baits to a standard trace which must never vary in weight unless it should affect the way their lures hang. Now, I am not trying to take away from the concept of extended hang times. Keeping a lure in a follower's face for longer is a good idea as is the capability for a lure to work really slowly at times, but I do think that some people take it to extremes. I prefer my baits to either sink or rise when they are paused. The hit usually comes a split second after the lure's forward motion ceases anyway.

Besides which, floating or sinking lures give you more control. Look at it this way. You are trying to work a bait over the top of weed that comes to three feet of the surface, feeling your way around again. If the lure suspends or sinks then every time it hits weed the cast is wasted as a twitch or pull on the line will drive it deeper into the weed. A floating bait, on the other hand, will back up and come clear allowing the cast to be fished out.

In another scenario you might be casting on to a shallow shelf and wanting the lure to work down the drop-off, as in the case described earlier. Here a sinking lure will fall as you slow it up or stop it, hugging the contour. A suspending bait would just do nothing, and a floating lure would require speeding up in order to get it to dive deeper. As you see, depth control and speed control frequently go hand in hand. For this reason I like to have lures which sink quickly along with lures which sink slowly, and ones which have the buoyancy of a cork plus some slow risers. I find these far more useful for giving me precise depth (and speed) control than critically balanced suspending lures. The slow risers and sinkers are my suspending baits.

When it comes to gliding jerkbaits, a particular favourite for the suspending fanatics, I want a range of lures that will work at different depths. This is most easily achieved by adding lead so they sink at different rates. There is no way you will get a glider that comes in six or eight feet down to suspend. That is the end of the rant. The point I am trying to make is that efficient, all round, depth control demands lures which either float or sink.

Basically a long cast with a floating crankbait will result in it attaining the greatest depth for any given speed. The same goes for a sinking bait like a spinnerbait, or even a sinking jerkbait. The difference comes when you speed these lures up, or slow them down. Speed up a crankbait and it will dig deeper, while the spinnerbait will rise up. Slow either of them down and the reverse happens. The crankbait runs shallower and the spinnerbait deeper.

Don't forget the effect that line thickness has on running depth too. This can play a big part in maintaining bottom contact in deep water, if that is a situation you find yourself in. Switching to a rod rigged with finer braid will make this much easier, as you won't have to work your baits so slowly. Remember, too, that you can also alter a lure's running depth by raising and lowering the rod tip. This is a handy trick when trying to bring lures in over or through weed, or up over gravel bars and so on. I also frequently give a minnow bait a couple of initial twitches with upward flicks of the rod top in order to make it dance just below the surface, before lowering the rod tip and twitching it deeper. Particularly useful when casting to far shelves on drains and canals, I find. You can always throw in these upward flicks in the middle of a retrieve to keep a lure at a certain depth, or even throughout the retrieve to make a lure work shallower than it normally would. it does throw a lot of slack line into the situation, and dealing with becomes more problematic than normal.

Knowing where your lures are and what they are doing is one of the major factors which sets apart the really successful lure anglers from the rest of the crowd. In fact, it is probably the most important factor, especially when presentation is depth critical as it can be at certain times of the year or on certain venues. If you ever spot me changing lures on every cast, odds on I am searching for one that will work the depth band I want to cover at the speed I deem crucial. It can be that getting an extra foot of running depth makes the difference between success and failure. I firmly believe that in many instances when a particular lure is proving successful, when apparently the wrong colour, it is because it is hitting the critical depth band. Same thing goes for those lures that always seem to outfish other similar baits, they maybe get a little deeper. I know I have more than one lure that does just that.

Fishing some burgeoning weed beds the other week, it seemed to me that lures had to be fished not over the top, but about a foot down from the top of the tallest strands. Kind of tickling the weed and picking up a strand or two in the denser pockets. There was no doubt that the pike were in the weed, but they weren't prepared to come right out of it to hit lures. Making occasional weed contact seemed to do the trick though.

All this was in less than fifteen feet of water, but even on deeper waters where pike could be anywhere from one to thirty feet (or deeper) precise depth control can also be critical. Sometimes pike will be high in the water column, or prepared to come up off the bottom. At other times they will ignore any lure that is more than a foot from the lake bed. Only by knowing precisely where your lure is, and by having lures that work a range of depths, can you come to terms with these preferences and work out where the pike are willing to hit your lures - and then duplicate the presentation. Depth control really can be considered the essential technique.

(This article first appeared in Pike and Predators issue 34)