Drift Fishing Structure for Saltwater Bass

By: Chris Bell


Both Rhode Island and Block Island waters contain many areas of structure that will hold bass, and there are many types of structure that attract them. Drift fishing is a technique used to fish structure. The key point to remember about any structure is what makes it useful to stripers. While bass can be very aggressive predators and chase bait across the surface for miles, they prefer in most cases to ambush prey, relying on their ability to make short bursts of speed which allow them to catch many types of baitfish. Structure alone is not always enough, it is usually tidal current running past the structure that makes it a good ambush point. To translate, if you have an area that has some large boulders on the bottom and a strong outgoing tide running past it, this can be an excellent spot to fish for bass. The current will eddie as it passes over and around these boulders, areas which can cause small bait fish to tumble out of control. This is the situation which a striper is looking for.

When you drift fish a spot, it is important not to motor over the top of the area of structure where the fish are holding, much like the many fishing charters which frequent RI waters. No matter how quiet your engine might be, it will spook some if not all of the fish. I have always noticed that even in deeper water (but still under 30’) you can troll a few times over a spot but then usually the bite will die off as fish are spooked by the motor noise. Some spots at Block Island and along the RI south shore are so sensitive that one pass over the top will ruin the fishing. So when you go back up-drift, do not motor directly back over your drift path. I cannot emphasis this point enough, I have seen too many anglers ruin good fishing by motoring over the top of the fish. I especially don’t sppreciate it when they motor over the spot I’m personally fishing. You should make it a practice to steer well away from someone who is fishing a spot unless you have a very exact idea of what that person is doing and where the fish are hanging, and how to approach fishing it. In any event, you should never get too close to someone else while bass fishing. When approaching a spot you intend to drift fish, do not approach too closely. Unless you’re very certain of the direction of drift, stop at least a quarter mile away and let the boat drift so you know what direction it will be going, this will allow you to approach and properly position the boat to drift over the structure. Do not get closer that 100ft to the structure under power. Use your GPS track to see how you drift and to avoid motoring back over that area. If you have the track turned off, you should turn it on and leave it on. If it gets too cluttered, you can always erase the current track.

What you use to fish an area of structure depends on the current hatch and how deep the area is. The “current hatch” means use something which resembles the bait they are currently feeding on. Depths under 20’ can be fished with plugs and soft plastic baits. Over 20’ can usually only be fished with soft plastic baits using lead jigheads. When retrieving a plug, you should vary your retrieve speed, as prey species cannot keep up a fast swimming speed at all times, they “pulse”, going fast then slow then fast in alternation, and predators like striped bass expect this behaviour and will strike during the slowdown. Reeling 4 turns fast – 4 turns slow and continuing to alternate can emulate this behaviour. When using soft plastics, you need to allow them to sink to the level where tha bass may be holding. For a ¾oz to 1oz jighead, this is 1 second for every 2 feet of depth. So if you are working in 18 feet of water, no more than a nine-count before you close up the bail and begin your retrieve. As with the plugs, it is necessary to provide a retrieve which pulses the bait. This is achieved by jigging the rod upward, then moving it down slowly, reeling as you go to keep the line tight. If slack is allowed in the line then you will never feel the hit, as they prefer to hit the bait when it is falling.

Drift fishing has three important aspects that you need to understand if you want to master it. Most important is boat positioning, this one is the hardest to get right. The next is bait presentation, which is just as important. The last is proper timing: you want to fish the spot when the fish are there and the tide is cooperating to give you the right conditions for the fish to feed. Keep these in mind and you will be able to catch more fish on your excursions around Rhode Island and Block Island.

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Captain Chris Bell has fished RI waters for many years and is now a professional fishing guide. Before that he was a PC Tech, Modelmaker, CAD trainer, and technical writer. Chris now guides Block Island sport fishing charters based at Jim's Dock in Jerusalem, RI.

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