Getting Shallow and Away from Crowds in Summer with Mark Menendez

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by Mike Ferman

Up a creek on a hot day where you'd think the fish would be in the channel but instead were in the brushpile super tight to the bank.

Backwater Areas Like this Hold the Key to Solitude in Summer for Mark Menendez

Summertime bass fishing can be a challenge for even the most skilled anglers. It seems these days the overwhelmingly popular choice of pattern to catch them in the heat of the summer is to head offshore and probe deep water. While that may work great for some anglers, I personally HATE standing in the sun on a boat deck staring at a sonar screen with no shade to be had.

Call me a sissy, but if I have a choice I’d prefer to be in the shade if possible. While I knew there were some fish shallow and would go there throughout the day to try and get what I could out of that depth range; I never had the confidence to stay there all day and make it or break it on that pattern and would commonly find myself back out with the masses in deep water.

At ICAST this year I had the pleasure of rooming with Strike King Pro Mark Menendez and all of that changed. Mark is a bastion of knowledge on all things “different,” if you’re looking for an alternative solution he is one of the key guys to ask.

With over 25 years of professional fishing behind him; Menendez has seen, thought about, tried, failed, and succeeded at more mainstream and alternative fishing solutions than most of us will ever even know existed. That being said, he and I got to talking about alternatives to fishing amongst the masses out in deep water during the heat of the summer and I wanted to share his unique perspective on that with you here.

Where to Look
“I believe 80-percent of our bass population is a transient population that makes basically two journeys to shallow water a year,” said Menendez. “They are out deep in the winter & come shallow in the spring to spawn; then head back deep for their summer refuge before move shallow again in the fall to fatten up for winter.”

As for the rest of the population, he has his thoughts there as well. “The other 20-percent of our bass live shallower than five feet year round and never go any deeper,” Menendez said. “I also believe that as fish-finding technology strengthens and grows making it easier to fish offshore, that 20-percent is often overlooked. I think most anglers don’t see that as a viable pattern in the summer. Now it doesn’t work on every body of water, but if you have certain parameters; I would absolutely bet my last plastic worm there will be a population of shallow fish available to you.”

Mark Menendez Backwater Hookset

Mark Menendez with a Powerful Hookset in a Backwater

Ingredients
He described what different components to look for when deciding if this pattern will work on a particular body of water. “The first thing you need is naturally inflowing water, either from run-offs or springs,” he said. “As long as you’ve got moving water coming in that water is going to be cooler and more oxygen rich, and you will be amazed at the size and quality of the fish that you can get yourself around. There will be some awfully good ones high and tight in these situations.”

To more precisely narrow it down, he continued, “The further you go up these creeks or up the river it also gets narrower overhangs and natural shade lines also become a very important ingredient you can’t find on the main lake,” he said. “Warm water makes fish less active and less likely to chase after a bait, but shade can in fact play such a large role that you don’t need a hard target to hold fish.”

He elaborated further. “Shade creates a natural ambush point which helps the fish feed easier,” he said. “Choosing these shallow water oasis spots not only helps keep me out of the pack and away from other anglers, but because the water temp is almost always cooler than it is on the main lake, the fish I am going after will be more active, willing to feed, and in turn easier to catch.”

Extra Considerations
For tournament anglers out there Menendez mentioned a few other factors that need special consideration. The first is distance. “You may have to make a long trip to find the right factors to make this pattern work,” he said. “You will generally find these areas in the top third of the fishery or far up a major creek and as such may have to make a very long run.”

Along with the distance are other factors. “You need an environment that is capable of sustaining its own fish population,” he said. “It has to be a relatively long creek or a long stretch of fresh oxygen rich water coming in to hold those fish.”

Two of the main tools the Paducah, Kent. pro uses to get into these places are his boat and the GPS trail on his Lowrance unit. “My Skeeter drafts only 15 inches of water which allows me to get places that in a non-tournament situation most would only want to access with an aluminum boat,” he said. “Also, the GPS technology now available makes it a lot easier to not only get into these areas but most importantly get back out of them.”

The areas can be constricting and unforgiving. “In a lot of situations there may only be one way in and out, and with today’s mapping technology I can zoom all the way in and use the GPS Trail on my map to follow the exact way I came in back out,” he said. “This is really helpful and not only keeps me safe and the boat in one piece, it saves me time and keeps me from replacing a lower unit each trip.”

PAA Neely Henry - Day 1 Weigh In to show how hot it was that day - Photo Credit Mark Menendez

Mark Menendez on the PAA Tournament Stage

Another factor are environmental conditions. “In the summer the main outside factor to consider for this pattern is weather,” he said. “If it rains the night before or even up to two days prior to the start of your event these areas we are talking about will usually either be flooded, washed out, or the water will be too dirty for this pattern to be the best choice.”

He offered some advice for when to fish this pattern around storms. “You want to fish these areas at least two days after a storm so the water color and clarity have a chance to stabilize,” he said. “These areas are generally going to have a bit of natural color to them because of run off and inflowing water. More inflow will cause these fish to move even shallower which helps us catch them. However, you don’t want to be fishing this pattern in chocolate milk either.”

The Third factor is fish management. In a way, this is probably the most important factor as you’ve already chosen to fish for the smaller percentage of the lakes population. This makes managing that portion of the population even more important. You need to be able to determine the size, amount, and health of the fish in these areas and whether or not it is an entirely resident population or if other fish might move in to replace those you take out.

Menendez breaks this concept down in more detail. “In a multi-day tournament I may only find one viable location for the fish that fits the parameters, so fish management becomes exceedingly important,” he said. “I don’t want to shoot in there on the first day and catch 40 fish if there are only 41 back in there. So you have to be careful and get a realistic basis of the fish population in that area.”

He said this can be a tricky process. “Most of the time when you get all the way to the back of a creek those fish are a captive population and once you pull one out another might not replace it,” he said. “So, you have to manage them over three days if you only have a limited number of places.”

One of the few stops Mark will make on his way up or out of a creek... Bridge pilings = current - Photo Credit Mark Menendez

Mark Menendez Shows off a Bass taken from an obvious Fallback Spot

Fallback Areas
On the occasion that the lake gives you all the necessary requirements to make this pattern work but you are unable to catch fish there are a few alternatives to this pattern that will help save you from joining the group out in deep water and staring at your graph all day. His fallback areas are fairly obvious. “The next two stops for me in order are power plants or industrial centers followed by tailraces,” he said.

A lot of anglers hear power plants and industrial centers and assume the water would actually be warmer than it is on the main lake. However, Menendez knows differently. “Although the water coming out may in actuality be warmer than the surrounding water, the current generated by that release will almost always bring the temp down just enough to make it feel cooler and more palatable to fish in the area,” he said. “It not only helps to cool and oxygenate the water, but it also flushes out many of the food sources that might have been living in the outflow areas or pipes. This gives the fish even more reason to become active and easier to target and catch.”

His final alternative location to attack is tailraces, which like the primary and secondary locations provide the needed current, forage, and cooler water to activate the fish in the area. Menendez had this to add one thing however. “Tailraces are not a secret, so you’ll have to expect to see other anglers targeting those same areas,” he said. “It won’t be as packed as it is out over deep water but it’s rare to find a tailrace or current rich section of a creek or river that you will have entirely to yourself, especially over a multi-day event.”

The Gear
One of the benefits of this pattern is how easily you can cut back on the amount of rods on the deck and limit your tackle selection. “Your basic fishing style is going to be pretty simple, it’s mainly power-fishing techniques like Flippin’ and Pitchin’ cover, or you’re probing that cover with reaction lures like a KVD squarebill, Tour Grade spinnerbait and buzzbait or a Sexy Frog,” he said. “That’s basically all you need lure wise to make this work.”

His simplified collection would include the following. A Flippin’ and Pitchin’ setup on a 7’6” medium-heavy Lew’s Custom Speed Stick paired with a Team Lew’s LTE 7.5:1 gear ratio reel spooled with 20-pound-test Seaguar Invizx fluorocarbon line.

Skinny water doesnt generally mean skinny fish - Photo Credit Mark Menendez

While the majority of Anglers are Offshore Fighting it Out, Mark Menendez often finds chunky bass like these shallow

He typically selects more compact baits to tie on this setup. He usually chooses smaller, more finesse style baits because he finds the further you get up most creeks the smaller the forage becomes on the whole. However, as with any bait choices the main objective is usually to match the hatch; if you get up the creek and find the forage has size to it don’t hesitate to size up to match.

His favorites are Strike King’s Bitsy Flip jig with a trimmed down Rage Tail Menace Grub or a KVD Perfect Plastics Game Hog; he matches the color to the prevalent forage in the area.

He added a not in regard to lure weights. “Don’t think because I am downsizing my bait that means I am using traditionally finesse sized weights,” he said. “One of the key factors to this system is the presence of current and as such I may have to upsize my weight to get or keep my bait in the strike-zone and properly present it to the fish.”

He also has a crankbait setup geared for target casting. For this he prefers a 6’9” Lew’s Custom Speed Stick matched with a 6.4:1 gear ratio Lew’s Tournament Pro and 17-pound-test Seaguar Invizx fluorocarbon line

He selects crankbaits depending on the size of the forage. He generally likes the KVD 1.5 and 2.5 squarebills. However, if the forage is really small he will not hesitate to pull out the tiny 1.0 size. Again, he chooses colors based on local forage base.

Because he is targeting specific cover, he will generally use short roll casts as most of his targets are within 25 feet or less of the boat. He likes to mix up his retrieves utilizing both a straight or stop and go retrieves until he dials in what the fish in that particular area want at that exact moment.

His wire baits are thrown on a 7’2” medium- heavy Lew’s Custom Speed Stick and 6.8:1 gear ratio Team Lew’s LTE filled with 20-pound-test Seaguar Invizx fluorocarbon. With this setup, he makes short casts with Tour Grade spinnerbaits and buzzbaits to specific targets like with the cranking set up and employs a straight, medium speed retrieve.