Bill May: A master's tips on shallow water fishing

In a scene repeated hundreds of times, Joe Bruce boated a pickerel from a Delmarva pond.
In a scene repeated hundreds of times, Joe Bruce boated a pickerel from a Delmarva pond. (Bill May photo)

At a time of year when most fishermen are still getting their boats and tackle ready, fishin’ buddy Joe Bruce has already fished 13 days and boated and released an average of over 30 pickerel per day along with a handful of bass and panfish.

His latest book, “Shallow Water Tips & Techniques, Rigging for Success” has just come out, and he gave an illustrated lecture on pickerel fishing at the Free State Fly Fishers in Davidsonville last Saturday. What follows are a few of many tidbits from the book and lecture.



The first step is to scout the waters you intend to fish. Joe recommends the free app Google Maps to see the layout of a body of water and then tracking the timelines in the lower left corner, which will often reveal features like shallows, and weed and pad fields.

Joe regularly switches back and forth between spinning and fly tackle, employing unorthodox leaders systems for both. His fly tackle mainly consists of 7- and 8-weight rods with floating and intermediate sinking lines. For waters holding such toothy species as pickerel, pike, walleye, snakeheads bowfin and bluefish, he uses a 5-foot leader, with a 2-foot butt section of 50-pound monofilament and a 3 foot tippet of 40-pound monofilament. The leader loop is made with a Double Surgeon’s Knot attached to the fly line with loop-to-loop connection.


A Double Surgeon’s Knot is also used for the junction of leader pieces. The fly is attached via either a 100% Loop Knot or a Homer Rhodes Loop Knot. With the latter knot, he leaves a ¼-inch tag that allows the knot to be untied and retied for changing flies.

His go to fly is an unweighted Articulated Bullethead Darter of his own design, tied with a 1/0 or 2/0 hook in yellow and other natural contrasting colors.

For spinning he uses 6 ½ to 7-foot medium spin rods and quality matching reels loaded with 10 to 15-pound braid. A 16-inch leader of 40-pound mono is attached to the line with an Improved Albright Knot and the lures attached with the above loop knots. His go to lures are 3 ½ to 4-inch paddletail grubs in white or such natural colors as sungill or Houdini.

“The surest way to catch more fish is to sharpen your hooks,” Joe assets. He mashes down barbs, slightly offsets hooks for flukes and bendback patterns and for the jig hooks he uses on flukes, reduces the deflection angle between eye and shaft creating a better bite angle. (His book also contains info on creating circle hooks and adding weedguards to hooks.) Just before launching, he uses a very fine stone to create diamond-shaped points on fluke and fly hooks.


Joe fishes from a Native Watercraft 12-foot kayak, customized to his fishing style. He always uses a “two-pronged attack,” having a second rod at the ready to cast back if a fish misses a lure or fly or follows without striking.

As part of his presentation to Freestate Fly Fishers, Joe demonstrates his kayak setup. The device in front of his left knee is his photo rig.
As part of his presentation to Freestate Fly Fishers, Joe demonstrates his kayak setup. The device in front of his left knee is his photo rig. (Bill May photo)

When he hooks a fish he immediately drops anchor and fan casts the immediate area, varying tempo and action of retrieves to see what’s working. This time of year, the flukes are largely attractors and the flies are the fish catchers.

As waters warm and lily pads and spatterdock emerge, the more active flukes may get more action than flies. Frog lures and flies and spinnerbaits may be added to his arsenal later.

Joe targets pad fields, flats and woody shorelines, particularly in depths of 2 ½ to 3 1/2 feet at this time of year, constantly moving and searching. When fishing shorelines he recommends a TCS approach — 10 to 20 feet from shore for the first cast, next cast CLOSER, next cast on SHORE.

When fishing pad field, fish around the outside in the morning; move into the pads later in the day.

He always wants to cast into the wind, and fishes the leeward shore first. Right-hand casters should go down the shore with the left shoulder facing shore; left-handers should fish the shore on their right shoulder.

At his Freestate talk Joe showed some of his kayak tricks, including adding washers to rod holders to give a wider range of settings, making a rope harness on the front thwart to assist in standing and leaving the boat, using a section of rope with clips on each end to “anchor” the kayak on pads, PVC rigs for taking “selfies” with fish and other rigs to lift rods and lines off of pads when digging a hooked fish out of pad fields.

A Few Pickerel Tips

They can be social; sometimes find one and more will be around;

They like “a roof over their heads;” it can be wood or pads;

They do not like wind-riffled waters; fish the leeside first and work lures and flies under the surface;

Unlike bass, pickerel do not feed at night, and, at least in cold weather, seem to be more active in the afternoon;

A jaw spreader can help in unhooking fish;

Target breaklines and debris lines in 2-4 feet of water.

“Shallow Water Tips & Techniques” includes tips on flies, lures, leaders and fishing techniques for local freshwater and saltwater species including panfish. The book and Joe’s flies and rigs can be purchased from joebruce.net.

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