Dock fishing 101

by Gord Ellis | July 25, 2022
Woman Fishing On Dock

No matter where you go in Ontario, docks are a focus of much fishing. They provide access to water that might not be readily accessible from shore, and draw everything from pike to bass to bluegill. They are a fun place to fish and are often the place where a love of fishing takes hold.

Memory lane

I have two dock-fishing memories from my youth that stand out. As a kid growing up in Thunder Bay, urban fishing was available, but not always in the prettiest spots. The lakeshore of Thunder Bay was not as pretty or manicured as much of it is today. In fact, it was mostly grain elevators, dumped concrete, and docks. Lots of docks. One that I often fished was called Parry’s Dock. It was wooden, older, and stuck a decent way out into the harbour. It also smelled like a mix of creosote and seaweed.

Here, my buddies and I would cast large red and white spoons and catch pike. Sometimes we could see pike sitting just under the dock in the pilings, waiting to ambush. We would tease a fish into striking by dropping the spoon in front of its nose, or swimming it right by its strike window. We caught the occasional perch as well, and at least one steelhead. A lot of fond memories were made there.

The other dock was at my late grandfather Ora Ellis’ hunt camp near Little Current, on Manitoulin island. It was a classic old piling and slats dock on a channel with significant current at various times of the day. Smallmouth bass would often hang around, as would pike and even muskie. There were also hordes of very hungry rock bass.

I can’t imagine how many fish we pulled off that dock over the years, but the structure created a current break, a source of food (tons of crayfish and minnows), and shade when it was bright. This is where I first looked through the slats to see bass sitting just below the surface, as the mid-day sun burned down. You could occasionally tempt one out by dropping a live crayfish on a bare hook, but as often as not they were not having it. It was such a cool place to spend a summer day, watching fish come and go.

Simple is suitable

Not all docks are great for fishing. Angling is prohibited on some, while others are too crowded with people or boats. Yet, there are many docks that are perfect for fishing and even designed for it. I’ve seen public docks that had fishing areas built into them, with seating and cleaning areas. Most docks aren’t that fancy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a great experience.

Fishing off docks does not require fancy equipment. You can usually get away with a simple set-up. Perhaps the most consistently effective technique on a dock is using a float. This visual technique is perfect for kids, but just as deadly for adults. Set the bait just off the bottom and have a float of a size that can suspend a light jig head or hook that’s baited with a leech, minnow, or worm. You might need a couple split shot to get the bait down and float sitting properly. Very few fish species are not vulnerable to float fishing. The best thing is you can fish without worry of snags. Although you can prop a rod up on a dock when float fishing, you might want to secure it. I’ve seen more than one rod fly off a dock when a fish took hold.

One common mistake many dock anglers make is to assume they have to cast as far as humanly possible. While this may be OK if you are targeting open water fish on the Great Lakes, such as brown trout, steelhead, or salmon, often closer is better. Keep in mind fish are drawn to docks for the cover they provide. The larger the surface area a dock covers, the more likely fish will use it as home base. Over the years, I’ve seen nearly every species of game fish at docks, including walleye, which many might assume stay deep and offshore. Make sure you fish the water close to the dock thoroughly before blasting the long bomb casts.

Dock rules

As fun and as accessible as docks are, they have some inherent danger as well. Young children should wear a PFD or life jacket while on a dock. Having a throw rope close by with a float on the end is also important.

Public docks in Ontario are usually marked as such. But be mindful of private property and don’t assume you can fish on an unmarked dock. Also, when boats are pulling up on a public dock, make room for them and don’t cast towards the boat. A little extra thoughtfulness will go a long way when dock fishing.

Plan ahead

When dock fishing, have a landing net close by. Dock platforms are usually a few feet up from lake level and not conducive to hand landing larger fish. I’ve lost my share of larger fish over the years trying to lift them out of the water. If the line doesn’t break, your rod does. A long-handled net with rubberized mesh will be easier on the fish and allow a quick, safe scoop and unhooking of a fish.

Docks are a wonderful place to fish, whether you are a seasoned angler or brand new to the pursuit. They have provided many cherished memories for Ontario anglers. I am sure this tradition will continue for many years ahead.

Originally Published in the July 2021 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine

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