By Joel Nelson
As a young angler, I hated weeds of all kinds, to the point of fishing anywhere I could to avoid them. They seemed, at the time, a needless and frustrating part of fishing.
But as bluegills captured my interest, and eventually bass, walleyes, and a host of other species, I came to develop more of a love/hate relationship with lake weeds. I observed times in which they were crucial to finding and catching fish, although they still seemed an impediment to the actual “catching” part.
Fast-forward to today, and those weeds have become “vegetation,” mostly because calling them such does away with the negative connotations of the other terms, and embraces them as a collection of fishy habitat.
Yet, not all vegetation is created equal, and depending on your species of interest, there are definitely some preferred types of veg.
There are a number of floating-leaf plants in freshwater that most anglers refer to as “lily pads.” That’s rightly so, as the majority of the plants have a flowering lily as a portion of the plant, although the pads are what provide the shade and haven that bass and panfish species enjoy.
These broad, green, floating platforms serve as the perfect rest or ledge for frogs, weedlessly-rigged plastics, and other topwater presentations, while the gaps in pads provide the perfect ambush point for all species. Edges of pad fields also provide valuable ambush points for predators, and serve as great locations for early morning or evening crappie and bluegill fishing.
Make no mistake about it: Pads equal fish throughout the entire spring and even summer warm-water periods.
Anglers can focus on vacant holes of any kind of pads, as fish focus on these edges and variations. Many lakes are studded with them, putting even more focus on gaps in them, or inside turns and points on the edges of them.
Some lakes even have them along sunken humps or midlake structure, making those spots even more valuable than back-bay portions because of their access to deep water.
Consider using braided line, even for panfish, to make snags less of an issue.
Unlike pads, coontail is a submergent type of vegetation often associated with deep weed edge growth, but it will grow in all depths. It has a long, pliable stalk, with tips that look bushy like a racoon’s tail.
Coontail can grow as deep as the 20-foot range in clear water, and is a favorite of mine for walleyes and bass on deep edges. It can grow densely, which does cause problems in shallow water, but that wall of weeds on either the outside (deep) or inside (shallow) edge will hold fish. That’s especially true near steeper breaks or well-defined edges of the vegetation.
Like many favorable vegetation species, it’s a holder of all kinds of biological life. Certainly, more life equals more food for game fish of all sorts. Many times, I’ve seen crayfish along its edges in shallow water, and found all kinds of invertebrate species inside its mats.
Young baitfish and game fish alike use its cover as haven from predators, making it important nursery habitat as well. That said, it can be tougher to fish around, as coontail is somewhat more “snaggy” than plenty of other types of weeds. That makes weedless rigging inside coontail more essential.
Perhaps the all-star of vegetation in terms of fish and fishing is cabbage of any kind. Green and red varieties dominate many of the lakes I fish, and both have some serious fish-holding capacity.
Cabbage stalks are a bit more hardy than those of coontail, and the cover cabbage provides game fish of all kinds is second to none. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be cabbage by a long shot, and that’s because of all the species that seem to use it.
Deep-holding walleyes, crappies on the shallow and deep edges, as well as bluegills – not to mention bass, muskies, and pike, and really anything else that swims – like cabbage. In fact, you can often find a single cabbage bed holding different fish species throughout the various parts of it, each taking advantage of the rich invertebrate life, cover, and shade it provides.
Dense beds of it hold fish in slightly deeper water, and during windy days, those same fish will rise toward the tops of the cabbage bed and be ready to eat.
Walleye anglers who learn to love cabbage will fish with spinners and other live-bait rigs behind small bullet-nose weights, where windy-day walleyes will swim up to smash anything offered just above their heads. Bass and pike are often doing the same thing on those days.
As with any weedbed, inside turns, dense pockets, or broad openings within can really be the spots on the spot – the areas to focus on for fishing. The deep edge of cabbage or even the sparse portions toward that outside edge are great for rigging for walleyes as well.
Muskie anglers burn blades over the tops of the beds or bring a variety of topwaters over them throughout the summer. Or, they key in on deeper, dense edges and points with big plastics as the water warms. It’s important to note that the lake’s top predators are there for two reasons: food and cover.
Other weeds … er, vegetation
Honorable mentions include both emergent cattails and bulrushes (pencil reeds). These emergent and tall-standing plant species can be indicative of certain bottom content that may attract fish, along with the cover they provide.
In the case of cattails, these plants often are found in soft-bottom, marshy environments, and the immediate edge can hold panfish and bass. As for bulrushes or simply “reeds,” these species often prefer sandy, hard bottoms, which hold crappies in the spring and bass or muskies throughout the summer.
I find both cattails and bulrushes to be better in a big wind, where you can even find walleyes off the edges during low-light periods, no matter how shallow the plants grow.
Whether you target any or all of the game fish mentioned here, it makes good sense to know your aquatic vegetation. Rarely do any of them exist without some other form of vegetation nearby or bordering, and it’s exactly at these junctions that can hold fish.
Being observant of small variations in the density, specialization, and shape of aquatic vegetation can be a big factor in getting fish bites out there, so the sooner you learn the fishy weeds, the better.