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When the Going Gets Tough

By Nathan Coker
In Fishing with Kenny
May 31st, 2023


Recently I competed in a couple of Media Bass events on the Ouachita River, a team event on Saturday and an individual event on Sunday. Not long after we started fishing Saturday, my team partner and I began to realize just how brutally tough the bite was on the river. We simply could not get a bite. At the weigh-in that afternoon, our suspicions were confirmed as it only took a five-fish limit weighing just over ten pounds to win.

When preparing for Sunday’s individual event, my goal was simple: catch a limit of fish and let the chips fall where they may. After being pounded by forty of the best two-man teams in our area, I knew the bad fishing from the day before could only get worse and I was correct. While I didn’t catch a limit of fish, surprisingly, I won the event with four fish weighing just over six pounds, the lowest winning weight in the history of Media Bass.

I have always enjoyed fishing when the bite is off, and the other competitors are complaining about how bad things are. I feel these types of events are the easiest to win because all it takes is to figure out how to catch a few fish, and then run with it. No matter if you are the weekend angler or someone who chases their favorite tournament circuit, catching fish when the fish simply aren’t biting is one of the most intriguing puzzles in bass fishing. Let us take a closer look.

I have a mental check system I use when fishing tournaments on tough fisheries. While I can’t say it is foolproof, this system has served me well over the years. Using my system is what allowed me to place high in the money years ago fishing an ABA National Championship on Tennessee’s Old Hickory Lake while only catching five keeper fish over the three-day tournament period. To say the bite was tough was an understatement, but I was able to figure it out. This is how my system works.

Someone will catch them. They always do. No matter how tough you think the fishing is, or how bad you think the lake might be, someone will catch enough fish to win the tournament. With this in mind, why not put a spin on this thought process and say, “well if someone is going to catch them and win the event, why can’t that someone be me?” This is where a positive mental attitude is invaluable.

In tougher fishing conditions, most of your competition is beat before their boats are put in the water. Use this to your advantage. Don’t poor mouth the conditions or how bad of a struggle you think the day will be. Just allow yourself to believe, “one bite at a time, one fish at a time” and you will be amazed at how focused you become on the job at hand.

Stick to what you do. If you are a shallow water angler, fish shallow. If you like fishing deeper areas and fishing slow and methodical, that’s what you should do. No matter where I am fishing, when things get tough and I am struggling to get a bite or get anything going, I go back to the techniques I am comfortable with, (spinnerbait, topwater, small jig) and focus more on what I am doing.

A lot of guys do very well with finesse tactics, such as a drop shot or a shaky head, and I am not disputing their success, but it is not something I do a lot, so I generally use them as a last resort. My only exceptions to this are when I am fishing clearer water lakes like Caney or Claiborne, finesse tactics on these bodies of water are a must.

Adjust and adapt. Maybe you need to use a smaller soft plastic when you are flipping and pitching. Or maybe you should use smaller blades on your spinnerbait. Every fish is trying to tell you something, no matter if you catch him or not. If I have a fish or two hit at my topwater, and not take it, I automatically start analyzing what might be wrong with my lure choice. Is it color, size, action? Adjust and adapt until you figure out what might be wrong with the technique you are using.

A good example of this happened to me in a tournament I won on the Ouachita River almost 30 years ago. I was fishing a creek bank throwing a small buzz bait and I had three strikes without a hook-up. It occurred to me that maybe I needed something that made noise but not with a consistent movement. I switched to a Crazy Shad, a double propped topwater, and won the tournament.

Pay attention to the details. The question, “why?” should constantly run through your mind. Why was that fish on that piece of cover? Why did the fish strike my lure when I stopped it? Which direction was the wind blowing? What was different about that cypress tree? Why? Why? Why? The key to catching fish when no one else does, is being keenly aware of what is going on around you. The more subtle things you can figure out, the easier figuring out how to catch the next fish will become.

The attention to detail also applies to your equipment. Do you have the right rod for the proper technique? Are you using the correct line? What about your hooks, are they sharp enough or do you need to change them out? All these things, and so many other variables, can lead to your success or failure. Choose wisely.

Well, it looks like we have run out of time again for another month. I hope we have given you some information that might help make your next tough fishing trip a bit more enjoyable. Please be extremely careful on the water as more and more people are answering the call of summer to enjoy the outdoors. Take care, catch one for me and I will see you next month!