A changing lake requires moving baits up in the water column

Lake Martin is a special place to me. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to build so many great memories from the times I spent on the lake. Many times, that was just me and Lake Martin. I cherish the times I’ve spent with others, as well as the times I’ve had the lake all to myself.

Much of Lake Martin is still very much the same as it was 30-plus years ago, and at the same time, much has changed. The fishing on Lake Martin has changed some as well. I suppose that happens often. Fisheries change, and the populations of fish that occupy those fisheries adapt to the changes. Sometimes, anglers consider the changes good and sometimes not, depending on our expectations.

In my opinion, Lake Martin is in a state of change as we speak. Indications are that the changes are for the good, as the bass have a relatively new source of food, and habitat has increased with the development around the lake with man-made habitat (brush piles) that has been added over the years. The biggest change I’ve seen over the past five years or so has been the effect of the blueback herring in the lake.

My first introduction to a lake where blueback herring were a factor was on Clarks Hill Reservoir in Georgia. Clarks Hill was loaded with hydrilla at the time. Most bass anglers get excited about fishing any lake with hydrilla or other vegetation because it means the fish are usually bigger and somewhat easier to target because of the many grassline edges.

To my surprise, the hydrilla seemed to be an afterthought to the bass. I would be fishing a grassline like an angler is supposed to do on a grass lake, and the fish would explode on the surface over 80 feet of water. To say that blew my mind would be an understatement. The fish did not stay on any one spot either. They exploded on bait in one area, and as I tried to position my boat on that particular spot for the next episode, they reappeared 150 yards away from me – out of casting distance.

That’s when I realized that the herring had a different effect on how the fish fed and related to structure and cover. Many of the South Carolina and Georgia reservoirs have blueback herring in them, and it’s important to know when you fish one of those lakes that your mindset may have to change.

Smith Lake near Jasper is the first lake I heard of in Alabama that had blueback herring. In the case of the South Carolina and Georgia lakes, they supposedly established as a result of routes connecting the freshwater lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. The presence of locks means fish can move from one fishery to another, just as commercial barges and recreational traffic move through.

In lakes that didn’t have locks, it was suspected the blueback herring got in through anglers fishing with live bait. Herring are just as good or better live bait than threadfin and gizzard shad, so live bait anglers may have hauled live bait tanks to the lake and then dumped the remaining bait at the end of the day. Blueback herring are a prolific species and apparently adapt well to deep, clear freshwater lakes. It only takes two to get things started; and then, the population is off and running.

Over time, the impact of blueback herring on the South Carolina and Georgia lakes was noticeable. It seemed the overall fish population thrived. The fish were healthier for more of the year, and more big fish were caught. These are all positives to which any angler would give a thumbs up.

The downside was that the way the lake fished also changed, and the fish could be more difficult to target because they were more willing to move.

As I learned at Clarks Hill years ago, the old rules of engagement no longer applied. Methods and locations to which we were accustomed in lakes dominated by traditional forage – shad, bream and crawfish – weren’t as effective as expected.

I’m not sure how the blueback herring got into Lake Martin. There are no locks, so migration upstream from the Gulf didn’t happen. They might have been imported as live bait or possibly were stocked purposely because of the positive impact they can have on fish populations and health.

Whatever the case, Lake Martin is quickly becoming what many of us in my profession call a herring lake. That term is a clue that we will either have to make some adjustments to our presentations or choose locations that are less likely to be affected by the herring population.

I’m not an expert on fishing herring lakes, but I’ve gotten a lot better and have picked up a few tips that have helped me adapt.

The most important tip I can provide is that herring are roamers. They don’t seem to need cover as much, as they relate to structure and suspending over deep creeks or river channels as home. The fish seem to use structure to herd the bluebacks to locations where they are easier to catch.

Blueback herring are good swimmers. I’ve heard that they are the fastest swimming shad species, and if you’ve ever been fortunate enough to witness a big spotted bass running one down, you’d probably say it’s true. Blueback herring must taste extremely good, or the fish must think they’re getting more bang for their buck with them.

Another common phenomenon I’ve noticed is that when I fish an area that is dominated by bluebacks, it’s almost pointless to try to mimic any other prey. Sure, the bass are opportunistic, and I’ll catch a few on other stuff, but rest assured, the majority of the bass in that area are herring hunting.

The first rule to remember, and probably the most difficult adjustment, is that the fish can be anywhere at any time. The fish no longer seem confined to specific locations and depths. They adapt their hunting strategy to open water; that’s where the food is. Blueback herring are suspenders. They seldom relate to the bottom of the lake. As a result, the fish become accustomed to looking up. One of the cool things about herring lakes is that the fish are likely to school on the surface at any time of year, even in the middle of the day in the hottest part of the summer. That means topwater is an option all the time.

When the fish are looking up in clear water, they are going to get a better look at your bait. It becomes more important to get color, profile and action right, or you’ll get a lot of fish following the bait but not taking it.

Instead of rigging mostly bottom bouncing baits and then one or two surface or suspending baits, it may be best to flip flop. When fishing herring waters, rig more baits that can suspend or be fished over the fish’s head and less of the bottom bouncing stuff.

Overall, I think the fish in Lake Martin will benefit from the blueback herring, and that’s great. Selfishly, I’m a little less excited about it because I have to throw a lot of what I know about Lake Martin out the window. These new baitfish are changing the dynamics of how the lake fishes.

As a whole, I think the blueback herring in Lake Martin will prove to be a good thing. I expect to see heavier and healthier bass caught throughout the year, as well as some ease of the tension between the bass and striper populations.

Greg Vinson is a full-time professional angler on the Bassmaster Elite Series and PPA tours. He lives in Wetumpka and grew up fishing on Lake Martin.