Pond Hopping – strip mine lakes

Pond Hopping – strip mine lakes

May 29, 2015

Tale of Two Lakes: Tapping deep –- and not so deep – strip pit secrets!

By Mike Pehanich

Small Waters Classification: Strip Mine Lake

Location/Season: Private lakes in central Illinois/mid-June

Conditions: Water temperature -73 degrees; air temperature – 80 degrees; overcast to mix of clouds and sun.

Fish Calendar Period: Post-Spawn/Pre-Summer

Summer is around the corner. It’s time to revisit some of my favorite strip mine lakes. I thought SWF readers might like to revisit this 2013 account of one of many memorable strip mine outings. — Mike Pehanich

I met with Nate Herman of Herman Brothers Lake and Land Management this week to gather more insights into fish and lake management. The Peoria, IL-based lake and fisheries specialist’s busy schedule kicks up a few more notches in spring and early summer. So between my meetings with Nate, I joined Todd Kent, chef supreme at Jim’s Steakhouse in Peoria, on privileged visits to a pair of privately owned strip mine waters at Brotherhood Farms southwest of the city.

Chef Todd spends as many hours as possible on the water –or inside tackle shops — as the food life permits. If he could bottle just his enthusiasm for food and fishing alone, I’d be the first customer in the spice line.

Chef Todd Kent’s “peanut butter and jelly” (PBJ) jig combination accounted for a pair of six-pound strip pit largemouth on the deep breaklines.

Tale of Two Lakes

As with most strip mine lakes, largemouth bass and bluegill/sunfish make up the bulk of the fish population in each. Other than encouraged catch-and-release practice, the only “management” of the fish in the first lake has been the addition of rainbow trout. The owner added yellow perch and walleye to the second lake two years ago.

The two lakes, owned by Ralph Sedgwick, fished completely differently. The contrast offered lessons in the types of pits you are likely to encounter and how important it is to adapt your presentations to the conditions.

Lake #1: Classic Steep Pit

The first was a classic long and relatively narrow pit with depths averaging about 30 feet, dipping to an estimated 70 feet in some areas.

High banks rimmed the water, but no hills. Several pockets and bays with extended flats held healthy vegetation and good numbers of bass. The primary structure throughout the lake was a short lip where depth ranged from zero to five feet followed by a pair of stair-step dropoffs – the first to roughly 10 feet, the second to 20 feet with bass working both breaklines.

We caught bass in the shallow bays and on the short shallow lips surrounding the lake on both Flick Shake rigs and jigs with plastic trailers. But many of the bass, including the biggest fish, were already in summer patterns 10- and 20-foot breakline down to what may have been 25 or even 30-foot depths.

Predictably, Chef Todd’s recommended presentation at the first pit had a “food” theme. He had taken his largest ever largemouth from the lake a week earlier – an eight-pounder – on a combination that he was confident would pry even more monsters from the lake.

“We aren’t looking for pounders; we want giants!” he proclaimed. “PB& J is my secret recipe. It’s a peanut butter and jelly all-purpose jig and a peanut butter and jelly beaver-style trailer that I have modified. When you pop that jig, the tentacles spread apart as it is coming down.”

Steep banks reflected the classic stair-step dropoffs in the first strip mine lake we fished.

And, indeed, the big bass of pit #1 enjoyed the chef’s PB&J “seafood” presentation. Todd took two six-pounders with that combination. We also took two five-pounders — one that fell for a topwater bait and another that I cranked up through an alley of vegetation in roughly five feet of water. The Flick Shake caught a lot of fish in the three-pound range and one that topped four pounds.

SWF will detail our approach in a coming Pond Hopping account.

Lake #2: Bumps, humps and milfoil

The second lake spread in a loose arc around the Sedgwick home.

It was noticeably more fertile and had a greater fish-carrying capacity than the first lake. It featured weedy humps, bars, a vegetation-filled neck area and extended flats between deep basins. Much of the vegetation – milfoil primarily — grew to within 0.5 to 1.5 feet of the surface.

Between the humps and extended bars and sunken islands were deep holes dropping to 30 and 40-foot-plus depths. Vegetation grew down the dropoffs, too.

We caught more bass – 54 in all – than we had at Lake #1, but they averaged considerably smaller than the 3-pound bass we had averaged the day before.

Lake #2 also packed plenty of education with the action.

Neighboring lake #2 — a stone’s throw away — offered an entirely different set of conditions. We capitalized by fishing on the edges and over the tops of healthy vegetation with swim jig/swimbait combinations and a hollow body frog, the Nories NF60.

I searched the lake with a swim jig/swimbait combination and hooked a three-pound largemouth on my third cast. Several more fish followed on that combo and the ever-reliable Flick Shake worm.

Chef Todd, meanwhile, tied on a Nories NF60 frog and began probing for bass over the tops of the milfoil. He had action within minutes, and the frog bite – like the swimbait bite — continued for most of the day.

In between our work over the milfoil tops and along the sloping breaks, we took several bass on 9-inch worms on a dropshot rig and a few on Todd’s PBJ combination which had been so deadly on the neighboring lake a stone’s throw from the back bay of this one.

Never tell the fish what they have to eat, we reminded ourselves!

The key to our catch on Lake #2 was covering water! The swim jig/swimbait combo was deadly. Long casts with the paddle-tail swimbait made it easy for numbers of bass to see it as it came through alleys and pockets in the vegetation or passed along the breaklines.

The Nories NF 60 frogs were perfect for working over the tops of the submerged vegetation. By chugging and walking them at a slow to moderate pace, the bass had plenty of time to zero in on them. (More on this and our Lake #2 patterns coming up!)

Our hearts thumped when we the frogs hit openings in the pockets where many of our hits came, including the biggest bass of the day, Todd’s five-plus-pounder!

I wrapped up the day with several nice fish rising to a wake bait, the Jackall Mikey Jr. – in a perch/bluegill finish.

Our grass bass had positioned themselves not under the moss mats but at ambush points in the vegetation. Nearly all of our hits on the Nories NF 60 frog came over the tops of Eurasian milfoil that had grown to within a foot and a half or closer to the surface.


If we had tried to force-feed the bass on Lake #2 with the same baits that proved so productive on Lake #1, we would not have enjoyed a fraction of the success we had.

On Lake #1, where we had far less vegetation, the bass we targeted in the deep water had no trouble seeing and reacting to the Flick Shake and Todd’s PB&J jig combination. With little cover on the deep breaks, the slow fall of the Flick Shake worm on 1/16- and 3/32-ounce jigs caught the attention of lots of deep-lying bass during the bait’s vertical drop.

The PBJ jig combo proved highly effective working down the breaklines themselves and crawling along the base of the breaks.

Todd Kent modified the beaver-style plastics to “stretch” the legs and add swimming action to his baits. The adjustment gave his bait more action on the initial descent as well as during his lift-and-drop presentation. (More on this coming.)

On Lake #2, we found countless places for bass to sit in ambush. Covering water efficiently with our swim jig/swimbaits and frogs at moderate speeds enabled us to pass the bait past more ambush points and more fish – hence our success.

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