This is maybe one of the most common questions I get from friends new to fishing. Everything underwater is a mystery on land. Are the fish just on the side? Are they way out in the middle? How could I possibly know how far I should be casting into the water?
Like all things fishing – it depends. Weather, water conditions, time of the year, and the species of fish you’re targeting can all make a big difference. I will go into all of those in-depth below to give you a well-rounded answer. But in the majority of cases, if you are fishing somewhere between 5 feet off the bank to 10 yards, you will be able to catch some fish.
How to always know where the fish are
The rest of this article will focus on how far out to fish if you aren’t able to tell where the fish are located. Thanks to modern technology though, you have something at your disposal that will tell you exactly where the fish are.
It’s the Deeper Smart Sonar which is a castable fish finder that connects to your phone. So before you even start fishing, you can cast it out and see exactly where the fish are before you begin fishing. While it isn’t foolproof – it’s a very handy device that will let you know exactly where fish are located in any fishery.
But if you can’t afford the $250 price tag or want more info, let’s continue like you don’t have eyes under the water.
How time of year affect how far fish will be from the bank
Maybe the most important thing that will make you a better fisherman overall is understanding how all fish move during different times of the year. Most all freshwater species have a very similar annual pattern. In winter, they head as deep into the water as they can to find whatever heat is left. This means usually they are very well off the shore and you need to cast as far as you can if you want a chance at catching them.
As spring begins, fish will begin thinking about spawning. Spawning is simply fishing terminology for fish reproduction. Unlike many other animals, almost all freshwater fish reproduce by females laying eggs in shallow areas, which are then fertilized by males. Weeks later, the babies hatch and the fish which moved shallow to spawn will begin moving deeper once again into the beginning of summer.
So how does this affect how far out you fish? As spawn begins (usually around the beginning of March) most species will move from their deep water hangouts to as shallow of water as they find. This is a gradual process though, they don’t go from the deepest to shallowest overnight. In April and May they will spawn and be in as shallow of water as possible, and then start moving back to the deeper water again.
So from February until May, you can catch fish in a variety of distances from shore all the way up to a few feet from the bank. Just time your distance from the bank with the spawn. Are they just moving from their deep water in? Then fish a good 10 yards from the bank. Can you see their spawn beds on the side of the water? Then fish as shallow as you can.
After May the spawn has finished and fish will be moving back to the deeper water in preparation for the hottest days of summer. Again, this is a gradual move back. So expect in May for fish to move from the shallows to about 20 feet out. Then in June another 20 feet. By July and August, they’ll be back as far as you can cast again.
Then when summer comes to a close and fall begins, the whole process happens all over though not as slow as in spring. Many fish will move between deep and shallow areas and begin feeding before the cold of winter starts. So this is the time I enjoy fishing a variety of depths from the bank and seeing what works. You can catch fish a few inches from the bank to many yards. But the fish are so active, if you get it close to them they’re more likely to bite.
How weather affects how far out from shore fish will be
Understanding the annual pattern that fish make during the time of the year leads us well into understanding how weather will affect where fish locate. I mentioned that fish hang out in deep water in winter and summer because of the high or low temperature. So amidst the large-scale changes fish go through over the year, the daily changes in weather can also impact how fish locate near or far from the bank.
For example, it could be the middle of March and you’ve had days beginning to slowly warm. Okay, so according to the annual pattern above, you’re thinking the fish are moving shallow so you won’t need to fish as far out to get some bites. But then your fishing day comes and it drops 20 degrees from the day before and you find there are no fish on the edge of the water at all.
That is because fish will immediately move during periods of extreme, or even sometimes minor, weather change. If they are making their move to the shallow because it’s getting a little warm, but then it freezes randomly overnight, they will go back out to the depths where it’s warm and wait for better weather to come back up again. It never stops their annual movement in whole, but it can slow it down or revert it for a day or two.
Vice versa, if you have a very cloudy, cool day in the middle of summer you may find fish cruising the shallows happily feeding. The sun behind the clouds and cool temperatures won’t be forcing the fish into the deeper water and they will happily get close to the bank and easy to catch. Many fisherman beg for cloudy, cool days just for this to happen in summer.
So when deciding how far out to fish – first think of the annual fish pattern to know where they should be locating. Then take into account the weather. Is it hotter or cooler than previous days? If it’s summer or fall and it’s cooler day than usual, chances are the fish will be closer to the bank. If it’s winter or spring and a cooler day, they’ll actually be deeper. Remember how fish want to move and how heat and cold affects them. It will help you pinpoint their exact distance from the shore.
How water conditions can affect how far from the bank fish will be
A final consideration to consider how far from the bank you should fish are water conditions. Specifically, how the water level is and how clear the water is.
As rain washes into bodies of water it can increase the water level and make it muddier. Both of these factors make fish move shallower. Most fish feel uncomfortable in muddy water because they cannot see as well. This makes them run towards the bank and hard cover where they can sit against hard features for safety. Generally, the closer to the bank the more of these features exist.
As water levels rise, fish also move closer to the bank to feed on the variety of new organisms that are introduced to the water. Essentially, smaller fish like panfish or bluegill will move in to feed on the bugs and other organisms now available from where the water has risen. The species that prey on these smaller fish then have to move shallower as well to eat them. It creates a cycle of all fish moving shallower as long as water levels continue to rise.
So as expected, as water becomes clearer or water levels drop, fish tend to move out deeper. This is mostly for safety and security, as fish sense dropping water levels and move out to deeper water farther from the bank for safety. Fish are often more free to move and see in clearer water, so won’t stay near the bank where other species of prey will see them better and potentially eat them – such as herons. So if the water is clear, fish move further from the bank.
When you get to the lake, try and determine the clarity first. If it’s brown and you can’t see very far out, know that fish may be hanging a little closer to the bank. If you can see where water levels have decreased and there is land showing which obviously had water previously, know that you should fish farther away from the bank.
There are many factors to consider when determining how far out from the bank you should fish. But think about the three posed above and you will quickly hone in on the area you should be throwing in. First think about the time of year and what the fish you’re after should be doing at that time. Then, determine how the weather will affect this pattern. Finally, assess the water conditions and determine if the fish should be closer to the bank or farther from water clarity and water level. With all this information considered, you should be able to know how far out to fish and hopefully pull in a few fish on your next trip!