Martin may be credited for the name, but observant bass anglers had actually been pattern fishing for many years before Martin coined the term.
Since then, the term "pattern fishing" has probably been the most used — and most misunderstood — term in bass fishing vernacular. An angler goes down a bank and picks up a couple of swimmers on a floating worm, and proudly proclaims to his buddies at the ramp that he was on a hot floating-worm pattern.
But, was he really?
Could this angler have simply stumbled across a few suicide fish that couldn't take it anymore and just wanted to end it all? Or maybe he was on a pattern, caught a few fish, but failed to take full advantage of what the bass were telling him.
Most modern bass anglers are full aware of what pattern fishing is all about. They've learned about it since they were old enough to read fishing magazines, and they've seen it in action on the water or so they thought.
Even with the amount of bass fishing knowledge that floods our senses today, probably the most difficult aspect of bass fishing to understand is whether you're actually on a real pattern or if you just got lucky and caught a few fish.
The question is, and probably always will be, how can you tell when you're really on a pattern?
The best way to recognize a real pattern, according to Southpaw Guide Service owner Russ McVey (318-987-3833), is to recognize what isn't.
"A perfect example was a recent trip I made on the Red River," he said. "We caught eight fish up to about 3 pounds by noon. It was one of those deals where you think your on a pattern, but after laying down and picking up about a dozen different baits you realize you weren't really on anything. We wound up with a decent bag of fish, but we basically just got lucky."
McVey believes most bass anglers have had days like this. You wind up catching a bass on a worm and set it down for a spinnerbait about 30 minutes later bam, a bass. You fish the spinnerbait 30 minutes and set it down for a crankbait bam, another fish. After 30 minutes with the crankbait, you set it down for a topwater bam, one more.
"This is the typical non-pattern day," McVey said. "You wind up catching a few bass, but every one is caught on something different. As a guide, this is one of the most frustrating days you can have on the water because you can't get on a good pattern."
McVey believes the essence of pattern fishing is those patterns known as seasonal patterns. Seasonal patterns are patterns anglers often hear characterized as a spring spawn pattern, fall dock pattern or summer grass pattern.
"That's a mighty broad brush to be painting a picture of a pattern," said McVey. "We hear somebody talking about a typical spring pattern, but there are so many different spring patterns that information really doesn't help you. It's kind of like page one of a 200-page book."
It's typical for anglers to break pattern fishing down into three separate components — location, circumstances and presentation.
The location component includes types of areas to fish. The circumstances component includes things like season, depth, water clarity and cover. And the presentation component includes the type of lure and how to present it.
"I typically let seasonal patterns direct me to the best locations," McVey said. "For example, during the spring, I'm going to look for bass on shallow spawning flats. During the summer, I'm searching deep water and shallow grass beds. It's important to remember that these are just starting points. They can vary somewhat, but seasonal patterns do a good job of getting you in the right ballpark."
One angler who has worked seasonal patterns to their fullest extent is Jim Dillard of West Monroe. Dillard spent last fall fishing the Bassmaster Southern Opens in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. He used his knowledge of seasonal patterns to help him eliminate water in the far-off fisheries he had to fish during the tournaments. This approach to eliminating water helped Dillard finish the year ranked 57th out of a group of over 200 of the nation's best professional anglers.
"Being that I was fishing so far away from home, I really didn't have time to fish every inch of every lake we fished," Dillard said. "In order to find fish quickly, I had to let seasonal patterns establish my best locations for me."
According to McVey, the most important part of the circumstance component of pattern fishing is to determine the correct depth.
"Figuring out the depth is the key to everything else," he said. "It's the key that unlocks the rest of the pattern."
McVey had the importance of depth hammered into his head recently at a tournament on the Red River. He was fishing an oxbow lake and had a couple other boats keeping him company for much of the day. McVey and his partner were fishing 2 to 4 feet deep, and were catching fish up to 3 pounds. He and his partner finished the day with 13 pounds.
The other boats were fishing the same oxbow, but at about 6 to 8 feet deep, and each of those boats wound up catching more than 20 pounds of fish.
Cover is another important part of the circumstances component.
"If you can find the right cover after you find the right depth, you'll be well on your way to establishing a strong pattern," McVey said. "Take Lake Bistineau for instance. At certain times of the year, the fish will relate to certain types of cypress trees.
During the spring I expect to find fish on the leaning trees. Once I determine that's the kind of tree they're on, I can basically eliminate all the other trees."
Does this mean that there aren't fish to be caught on the other trees?
"Definitely not," McVey acknowledged. "But if I know bass are on the leaning trees, why would I want to leave something I know for something I don't?"
Dillard believes an important part of finding the right cover is also finding the right way to present a lure to the cover.
"Just knowing they're on the leaning trees is great," he said, "but knowing that they're on the shady side of the leaning trees is even better. Or, maybe they're on the downcurrent side of the tree. Pay attention whenever you catch a fish, and you'll easily figure out exactly where the fish are positioned."
The third component of pattern fishing, presentation, means trying to figure out what lure the fish want to eat and how they want it presented. Which lure do the fish seem to bite best? Are they eating a jig while it's falling or after it hits bottom? Do they bite your spinnerbait after it deflects off a stump or when it's buzzed just under the surface?
"This is just another piece of the pattern," McVey said. "The more bites you get the more refined your pattern will become. I pay close attention to the weather conditions because a slight change in cloud cover or wind direction can put them off one lure and on to another."
McVey says he's seen times when he was getting bit on a watermelon seed lizard under sunny skies. However, when clouds moved across the sun, the fish would stop biting.
"Those fish don't leave," he said, "but they do want a different color — something like watermelon red or maybe watermelon with a chartreuse tail."
Dillard believes the most important aspect of figuring out a pattern is to understand that the first fish you catch is the best time to establish your pattern.
"Whatever you catch that first fish on, memorize it," he said. "And when you see something like that again, make sure to fish it. If you catch a fish, you're on your way."
All this stuff about pattern fishing sounds great, but how do you really know when you're on a pattern? Dillard believes that if you continue to catch bass duplicating the exact conditions of your first fish, you're on a good pattern.
"I was fishing Sam Rayburn in February, and was just catching a few fish here and there in the bushes," he said. "There wasn't really any pattern other than them being in the bushes.
"Late in the evening, I went through an area with a spinnerbait and saw a bush that was sticking up about three inches above the water with two or three twigs on it. I caught a 4-pounder on that bush. I immediately fished two more bushes that were just like the first one and caught a 3-pounder. I worked my way into the pocket and didn't get bit.
"On my way out the other side of the pocket, I saw another bush that was just like the other three and caught another 4-pounder — that's a pattern."
Dillard said that a strong pattern should take you all over a lake. As you move from cove to cove or flat to flat, and you find more stuff that fits your pattern, you should be able to catch fish off of it.
"If you find the same cover in another area of the lake and catch fish, you've established your pattern," he said.
Both anglers agree that where most people get in trouble with pattern fishing is trying to force a pattern after it has disappeared.
"When you've got them figured out, you can usually ride that pattern all day long," said McVey.
"Usually they won't change too much during a day unless there's a major change in conditions. If you go about an hour or so without getting bit on your pattern, then it might be time to poke around on some other stuff.
"Say you're catching them on leaning trees in the morning then go a while without getting bit. Try fishing some other types of trees as you make your way to the next leaner. This way, you can continue to check to see if anything has changed while continuing to fish your primary pattern."
Dillard believes that if your pattern doesn't pan out across the lake, it's time to go back to where you originally caught them to see if you can get another bite.
"Maybe you can expand on the area," he said. "Maybe what you were really on was an area pattern where the fish in that area of the lake are doing the same thing while fish in other parts of the lake may be relating to something similar but different."
McVey says it's important to remember that there are always multiple patterns going on at a lake at the same time.
"I think a lot of it is a mental state," he said. "You know in your mind you can pull up to a tree and catch a fish on a worm. At the same time, another angler knows he can cover water and fish a lot of laydowns with a spinnerbait and catch fish. That's why you often hear anglers say you can tell somebody the exact place, cover and lure your fishing, and they won't be able to go catch fish the same way."
Every time we go fishing it's not a matter of whether we're going to get on a pattern or not. On certain days, everything goes right. On other days, we luck up and catch a few.
"It's fun either way," McVey said. "But when you're on a productive pattern, it gets even more fun. You'll almost feel like you're a bird dog that can point out the next bass. When you get that feeling, then you'll know you're pattern fishing."