On a cold, rainy Saturday morning several years ago, I decided to flip a few channels and watch someone else fish for a change. I’ve always enjoyed Bill Dance Outdoors – maybe because he never catches a fish that weighs fewer than 4 pounds. And they always jump, whether they want to or Bill just wants them to. Regardless, if he is catching bass on a private lake, I’m still going to have an opportunity to learn something about bass behavior. In the end, a bass is a bass, and its overall tendencies are the same, whether it’s a 10-acre private lake or a 10,000-acre impoundment.

I always compare fishing to the game of chess. Just like a chess player anticipating the next move of an opponent, a good angler does the same with his opponent – the fish.

Bill Dance takes a scientific approach to fishing. He gives us a meaningful explanation of where, when, why and how we are able to catch fish. Of all the topics he has discussed on the show, his emphasis on depth has always been of primary importance in maximizing the catch.

In this particular episode of Dance’s show, he said that depth was the most critical factor in catching fish. He could have mentioned a certain type of cover like wood or rock, or something like points or current or any of a thousand other variables that could be at play.

As I had more time to analyze his point, it made more sense. By finding the correct depth, an angler can quickly narrow down the area being fished and stay around the fish for a greater percentage of the time. Once the correct depth is ascertained, the other variables can be determined from there, such as the type of cover and the best bait and presentation for the conditions. Even with the perfect bait, around the perfect type of cover, success will be limited, at best, if fishing is at the wrong depth.

The million-dollar question is, “How do I determine the correct depth to fish?”

Here are some tips that could help to answer this question.

One of the quickest ways to determine at what depth fish will be holding is to consider seasonal patterns. As a bass angler, I break seasonal patterns down into five phases: pre-spawn, spawn, post-spawn, fall and winter. Once I combine the seasonal patterns with water conditions, it’s much easier to predict the depth range that fish would most likely prefer.

Keep in mind that optimum depth could vary depending on the water clarity, water temperature, weather, etc. Also keep in mind that the optimum depth could vary, depending on the part of the lake. Break the lake into sections, such as upper, middle and lower; or larger creek arms into front, middle and back.

When you find a productive depth in one of these sections, look for similar areas, and focus primarily on that key depth range.

For this article, let’s discuss the preferred depth ranges for fish on Lake Martin by seasonal pattern.

Pre-spawn

The key to finding the right depth during the pre-spawn is to consider the term itself. Pre-spawn refers to the period prior to the spawn, meaning the water is still relatively cool but should be warming soon. Most fish that have beds, like bass, must spawn shallow enough for sunlight to reach the nest and incubate the eggs; therefore, the desire of the fish during this period is to move shallow when the conditions allow. Combined with the fact that Lake Martin is generally beginning to rise at this seasonal phase, and the water clarity is lessened due to frequent rains, you have a perfect recipe for fish to hold in 10 feet or less.

Spawn

During the spawn, fish will occupy shallow water that they may not visit the rest of the year. Their sole purpose is to propagate the species, so pay close attention to extremely shallow water this time of year. For largemouth, focus on depths of 6 feet or less, depending on the water clarity in your area. Since spots will often spawn a little deeper than largemouth, focus on the 4-foot to 10-foot range. If the water is off-colored, fish will typically spawn much shallower. If the water is very clear, the fish may spawn in slightly deeper water, but as a general rule for Lake Martin, 8 feet is the max for both species.

Post-Spawn

Once the bass have finished spring break, they will remain in the shallows near the nest for a brief period, but their ultimate destination is the deeper, cooler water that serves as a refuge while they recuperate. As spring progresses into summer, the fish move deeper to occupy cooler water that holds more oxygen.

Current has a similar effect for those fish that are lazy and choose to move toward an active feeder creek versus the main lake.

As a general rule, bass will occupy the deepest water during the most extreme conditions, like the hottest part of the summer and the coldest part of winter. The deeper the water, the less susceptible it is to harsh conditions like heat and cold.

Oxygen is critical to survival for most species of fish. So focus on the section of the water column just above the thermocline and/or chemocline. The depth of the thermocline on Lake Martin varies according to which part of the lake you’re fishing. With a good set of electronics you can see this zone, and often, you’ll notice that even the shad prefer a particular depth. Find structure, such as points or humps that meet this depth, and your bait will be in the zone.

As a general rule, the primary depth in the upper portion of the lake will be 7-20 feet. In the lower half of the lake where the water is much clearer, the fish may be holding in 20, 30 or even 40 feet. 

Fall

During the Fall, turnover can scatter the fish to a variety of depth ranges. Even though there can be fish ranging from extremely shallow to 20-plus feet, there will be a depth range that proves more productive.

Shallow patterns can be more productive because the fish relate to cover better. There may be fish relating to deep-water structure, but they are oftentimes suspended. When fishing for suspended fish, it’s always best to keep your bait at or just above the depth at which you think the fish are located in the water column. Sometimes, this means keeping a bait at 10 feet or less throughout the retrieve, even if the fish are hanging over 20 feet of water. This is one of the reasons anglers prefer to stay shallow and cover more water during the fall.

Winter

As fall gives way to winter, many of the fish begin to pull back from the shallows and migrate towards deeper water once again. With each harsh cold front, the fish will migrate further from the shallow flats that are more susceptible to cold weather and, therefore, colder water temperatures. I’ve found schools of bass in 55 feet of water during the winter.

By finding the right depth, you’ll improve your efficiency on the water. Understanding the preferred depth ranges of fish according to seasonal patterns is a great way to anticipate the move of your opponent – the bass.

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