By Brian Haines
It was a glorious evening in the middle of June. The weather was warm, the lake was calm, and the daily coronation of the sun crowning the western horizon was about to begin. On the water, in the shallows, small swirls and little boils were everywhere as bluegill were coming to the surface to gulp the mayflies hatching there.
As for me, I sat at the edge of a dock with my feet dangling in the water, a fishing pole in my hand, and several plump bluegills swimming in a five-gallon pail at my side – it was the Lord’s work if I’d ever seen it.
The dock is a special place in the outdoors. It’s often where we are born as fishermen and women, where we catch our first fish. And when age prevents us from boarding our vessels, from the dock is the last place we will ever wet a line.
As we mature, continue our careers, and raise children, the dock moves to the back burner as we speed across lakes in motor boats and we fish with electronic locators and store our catches in livewells. There comes a time, however, when we get back to basics. Perhaps it’s when our children first begin to fish, or when we just need a break from the bustle occurring on the lake. It’s then that we revisit the place where our fishing dreams were born, and where they will one day come to rest – the dock.
It’s easy to scoff at the idea of fishing from a dock. We have so many expensive tools to aid us in catching fish, and besides, what would other anglers think as they go speeding by and see us standing at the end of a miniature pier? I find, however, that the skeptics are missing out, especially when a trip to the dock ends in quiet success.
Fishing from a dock requires little skill. Often nothing more is needed than a fishing pole, some bait, and a bucket to store your catch. What not everyone realizes, however, is that given the right time of year, and the right tactics, a plethora of fish species can be caught via dock. In addition, there are instances in which success fishing from a dock can be greater than that from a boat.
Time of year
Throughout the summer, you can almost always catch something from the end of a dock, but to catch a meal of fish for the dinner table, good timing is necessary. Spring and fall are usually the best seasons.
In springtime, panfish such as bluegills and crappies seek the warmer water of the shallows and begin spawning there right in late May and June. Bluegills typically look for gravel substrate anywhere in water a foot to 6 feet deep and can easily be caught from docks. Crappies will do the same, and they prefer to make their spawning beds around the pilings of docks and boat lifts.
Catching panfish from a dock is usually straightforward and simple. Whether you’re in a boat or fishing from shore or a dock, tie a hook to your line and fish under a bobber. For bait, I find it best to use something that both bluegills and crappies prefer. Wax worms are always a good bet. If you feel like being a bit more advanced in your approach, throw on a jig and a minnow and carefully cast next to your dock or your neighbors’ docks as you can.
Spring and fall are great times to dock-fish for walleyes and northern pike because they move into the warmer shallows in search of the baitfish found there. If you’re after pike, one of the easiest methods is called “lazy fishing” by some. Tie an oversized bobber to a line tipped with a plain hook and sucker minnow, release your bail, and let the minnow swim freely while you sit in a lawn chair and read a book or listen to a ball game.
A similar tactic is slip-bobber fishing. This allows you to cast into deeper water while not having to deal with several feet of line dangling from a bobber as you cast. For bait, leeches, fathead minnows, or nightcrawlers are great choices that both walleyes and northerns will take without hesitation.
You can find success by jigging a minnow along the edge of docks or by throwing spoons and crankbaits. Bring your net because landing large fish from a dock is no easier than from a boat.
It should be known that although you can find great success fishing from a dock, you probably aren’t going to catch fish if your chosen dock is not in a great location.
Shore/dock fishing, like fishing from a boat, relies heavily on the type of structure you’re fishing. Spring panfish probably won’t be found where docks extend to rocky depths past 6 feet of water, and walleye might not be found near floating docks over shallow, muddy flats.
If your dock isn’t in a prime location, you could ask neighboring lakeshore owners if you can fish from their docks. I’ve found that most people are more than willing to let you. Plus, if you get permission from their neighbors, you can “dock-jump” down the shoreline and greatly improve your rate of success.
Simplicity and ease are two things that always bring me to the end of a dock a few times each year. Although water levels and lake traffic can sometimes alter your chances, you can more than likely find some success if fishing with the right tactics, in the right places, and at the right times.
Speaking for myself, while I do most of my fishing these days from the seat of a boat, I never do tire of getting back to the basics and fishing from that place where it all began – the dock.