Turn Christmas Trees into Brush Piles
As the holidays approach, thoughts turn to a new reel for
Christmas and all those Christmas trees laying around the
neighborhood just waiting to become a brushpile. Since no doubt
the lake levels will be raised a couple of inches from all the
wood that's going to end up on the bottom, it seems like an ideal
time to think about just how to sink a brushpile and what makes
some piles hold fish while others don't. Besides, if you're going
to the trouble to put it down there, and I'm going to the trouble
to find it, it might as well be a good one for both of us.
By Paul Crawford
What Makes a Good Brushpile
In summary, Location, Location, Location. You have to realize
a brushpile does not manufacture fish. Nor will it draw a fish
from across the lake. A good brushpile takes advantage of an
existing population of fish, in an area they already frequent.
All the brushpile does is congregate the fish in a small area,
making it a time effective way to fish a particular spot. You
will seldom catch a fish that you would not have caught had you
only worked the surrounding area thoroughly without the presence
of the brushpile.
Given a good location, there are still differences between
brushpiles and their ability to attract and hold fish. The
Berkeley Research Center in Nebraska did a study on the effects
of location, number, and size of limbs. They found fish will
gravitate to an area where the limbs are just big enough for the
fish to comfortably fit between. This means lots of little limbs
close together will hold lots of little fish. Big limbs spaced
widely apart will hold pretty much nothing at all. Limbs spaced
between 6" and 18" will attract and hold large numbers
of legal size bass. What this research should tell us is a
Christmas Tree is just about the poorest choice we could make for
something to sink. With it's tightly spaced limbs, bait fish will
simply have a good place to hide from being eaten. Now there
still will be a few predators about, and no doubt a few bass, but
chances are slim any bass will actually take up residence and
wait for you to show up. You'll pretty much have to meet him
there and trust to timing. For a better effect, prune several of
the limbs out of you Christmas Trees and leave room for a bass to
get between the branches. Research and experience suggest you'll
much improve your chances of finding a bass at home.
So, given location and limb spacing, anything else? The next
most important factor is strong vertical presence. This simply
means given a choice, a bass will prefer a tree standing straight
up to one lying flat on it's side. We've all seen bass hold to a
dock post or around a partially submerged stump. Same thing for
submerged cover, horizontal is good, vertical is excellent.
If you're going to all this work, some consideration should be
given to how long before the thing falls apart. Once again
Christmas trees are a very poor choice, ( if they weren't so easy
to get you'd never fool with the things.) Soft firs have a life
expectancy of a few months under water before they simply fall
apart. The vertical trunk will still be there, but those fish
attracting limbs will fall to the bottom quickly. Hardwoods are
the obvious choice. Fair size Oak wood will stay together for
years. Orange Trees are the preferred material for the state
attractors which can last 5 - 10 years underwater. If you have
some branches off a hard wood tree, add them to the brushpile
mix. The fir trees will give your pile some bulk and the hardwood
will help keep it active over the long haul.
Where to Sink a Brushpile
If you ever had a reason to be a good structure fisherman, a
brush pile would be it. Offshore structure is always a good
choice for reliable fish, and a brushpile can make picking those
fish up embarrassingly easy. Although a brush pile can
concentrate fish where ever they are found, a deep water brush
pile can actually seem to manufacture fish. The reason for this
is simple, a brush pile located in or near deep water will become
the home turf of bass that are normally found suspended over deep
water. Now they can't always be caught even on the brush pile,
since they are commonly inactive. But, at least you'll know where
they're at and have chance at a reaction bite.
Start you location search with a favorite offshore area. The
prime location will have deep water access to the main lake body.
Points, humps, cuts in ledges, all of the traditional structures
are good candidates. An ideal location will also have a slight
current, such as from an inflowing creek or the main lake dam
draw. Too much current will make the brush pile a feeding
station, but will prevent the bass from taking up residence. And
after all, you'll looking for a reliable location for those tough
times, not just another place to catch a few when they are
active. When looking at currents, don't overlook the possibility
of a wind induced current. Many offshore structures have
surprisingly good current flow when a strong prevailing wind is
blowing. Just make sure you'll be able to effectively fish the
brush if the wind blowing. It doesn't do much good to know where
they're at if 3' waves keep you fishing in a cove.
Although it's not a hard and fast rule, about 20' deep seems
to be the best for brush. This will allow you to put some
significant vertical cover down with the tops at a safe depth.
The 20' mark is easily fished with a variety of lures, including
worms, jigs, crankbaits, spinner baits, and suspending jerk
baits, while still being deep enough to make the inhabitants feel
secure. Keep in mind the changes in lake levels when selecting
the area or you may find your carefully constructed brush pile
either buried in 40' or sticking out of the water half the year.
If your lake is one that routinely sees a 20' difference between
summer and winter pool, then a pair of brush piles positioned
correctly for the season on the same or adjoining structures can
be the answer.
Try not to overlook the obvious. Be able to find your way back
to your brush pile BEFORE you sink it. I don't know how many
stories I've heard over the years about brush piles that
magically disappeared when their makers tried to return. Use
shore structure, radio or water towers, houses with street
lights, etc. to line up exactly where you want the pile then put
down a buoy before dropping the first bundle. Most brush is sunk
at night to prevent prying eyes from knowing the exact location.
When sinking at night and using shore lights as the mark, make
sure it's a permanent light, not just someone's back porch lit up
for a barbecue. I prefer to use towers when available since they
are visible for miles and even a tree line silhouette works well
for lining up. Try to select the intersection of at least a
couple of shore marks. Not only does this make it easier to find,
but when fishing in a wind, a second and third mark can help you
stay on target if your main mark ! is down wind.
And please don't make the mistake of solely relying on a GPS.
First, they really aren't accurate enough to exactly position you
on something that is only a few feet across. Second, the drift
error changes day to day so even if you get back today, you may
not tomorrow. Third, you'll end up spending several minutes
idling around with a depth finder to locate the exact position
and may be disturbing the fish while you're at it. After all, the
whole reason for the brush pile was time management, wasn't it?
And last but not least, the coordinates and drift change between
units even of the same brand are not exact, so if you replace
your GPS with a new one, chances are you'll loose your exact
locations even if you had them. And that should answer any
questions about finding a small brush pile from your buddy's GPS
coordinates as well. If you just can't stand it and have nothing
except a GPS, then at least position the pile on some unique
feature such as a secondary point or c! ut on the main structure
so you ccc can find it easily with your depth finder once the GPS
has put you close just by monitoring the depth change.
How to Construct a Brushpile
There seems to be two generally accepted ways to sink brush
depending on the materials at hand, the expense, and the trouble
you're willing to go two. You can tie the brush to concrete
blocks, or you can embed the brush in a bucket of concrete.
Either way, the idea is to get as much vertical cover down as you
can, so just tying a block to the side of a limb and throwing it
overboard isn't what it's all about.
Selecting the brush to sink should be more than simply
community service on a handy tree on the lake shore. We've
already talked about hardwood with lots of forks, but how about
size? You'll have to get these things to the bottom, and that's
not really as easy as it might seem. I've seen more than one case
of some carefully selected full size branches and trees merrily
floating along with a brick or bucket attached. Even if it starts
to sink slowly, I've also seen large branches float sideways in
current 100 yards before settling to the bottom. When selecting
branches or trees, don't get carried away. A 6' - 10' branch with
3 or 4 forks is about the most you'll get down with a single
weight. Branches without leaves or greenery sink better than
those fully populated. A neat trick to harden the wood for a
longer stay is to burn the branch before sinking. This will also
get rid of the smallest twigs, letting you put more of the large
wood on the bottom in a single bundl!e. Although the majority of
the brush does need to be strong limbs, a bundle or two of twigs,
(or a small Christmas tree), will attract bait with it's safe
haven and get your brush pile off to a quick start.
For those endowed with an excess of 5 gallon buckets, a bag of
Ready Mix and some fair size branches and trees, and you're all
ready to go! Cut the bottoms of the branches to leave a straight
section about 2 1/2 feet long to put into the bucket. Mix up a
bucket of concrete, insert branch, (again it may be surprisingly
difficult), and let it set up. When inserting the branch, you
will probably have to weight down the upper portion to keep the
truck all the way to the bottom of the bucket, (trees float in
concrete as well.) And make sure the branches are balanced and
standing straight up. If they are crooked in the bucket on dry
land, they'll be on their sides soon underwater.
If you prefer the concrete blocks from the local building
supply, pick up so nylon twine while you're at it. The twisted
100 - 500 lb test works well. Turn the block on it's side, with
the holes facing up. Cut the branches this time with a fork about
1 foot above the bottom then insert the branch in the block. Use
the twine looped on all four sides of the hole to keep the branch
upright. Again, if it's not balanced out of the water, it won't
be underwater either. If the brush is going on a soft bottom, I
like to leave about 3" of limb sticking below the blocks.
This extension will spear itself into a soft bottom when you drop
them and help anchor the cover upright. I've seen a similar thing
done with concrete buckets by driving a few 20 penny nails
through the bottom before pouring the concrete, (be careful of
the boat finish if you try this one.)
Some folks like to tie milk jugs or similar containers to the
top of the trees to keep them upright underwater. The success of
this depends on where you put them and the water where you sink
them. If the water is clear, the jugs may attract every fishing
guide in miles since they can clearly be seen a few feet
underwater, (I've found more than one brush pile that way.) If
you do use jugs, tie them directly to the main truck and use them
to steady the cover, not to try and hold it up.
When you're ready to drop the bundles, use your trolling motor
to get you close to where you've got your buoy. Try to drop
bundles all the way around the buoy so your markings will remain
accurate. About 5 or 6 bundles make an excellent brush pile. It
gives plenty of cover without spreading out too much. I've seen
several cases where folks have put down 8, 10, even 20 bundles in
a single pile. Your purpose was to concentrate fish, not frame a
house. With too many bundles, the fish will select one or two,
then you have to fish ALL of the bundles to figure out which two!
All of a sudden, it would have been quicker to cover the entire
area with a Carolina rig that it was to fish the brush pile. Kind
of defeats the purpose, doesn't it? And scattered brush just
opens up the area, again giving you too much water to quickly
cover. Keep the bundles close so you can fish the entire pile in
a few casts.
How to Fish a Brushpile
There are a couple of ways to approach a brush pile, depending
on the mood of the fish and personal preference. The key to the
selection is realizing the aggressive fish tend to be in the top
branches while the neutral and negative fish tend to hug the
Approach One is to pick off the aggressive fish first. For
this, an aggressive bait is called for, and current thinking
suggests a deep diving crankbait as the preferred tool. Cast well
beyond the brush pile and crank down to depth. Use the feel of
the line as it crosses a limb to anticipate the lure hitting the
limb, (read as "time to slow down.") When the bait hits
the limb, give a bit a slack allowing the bait to float above the
limb before restarting the retrieve. Most bites come on the pause
or the first movement after the pause. Cranking brush piles is
hard enough, and getting the fish out is another chore all
together. With treble hooks flying, the fish's first instinct is
going to be to dive into cover. You'll need a rod that will not
pull out the treble hooks yet still has the backbone to keep the
fish out of the limbs. It's an acquired skill that takes some
practice, but the results of the recent years of professional
tournaments shows it's a skill worth acquiring. Another good
option is a spinner bait brought through the upper 1/3 of the
brush. When you hit a limb, bring the spinner over the limb and
allow it to drop on the near side. Most strikes will come on the
fall. Jerkbaits, or even top waters can coax aggressive bass from
the top branches, and many times without disturbing the other
fish relating to the pile. The problem with Approach One is it is
cherry picking the bass. You normally have a fish that will run
back into the pile, flushing the remaining fish from the brush
during the fight. And those neutral fish were going to be hard
enough to catch anyway.
Approach Two is to fish for the neutral fish first. Use a worm
or a jig worked slowly in the branches on, or near, the bottom.
You really can't approach this too slow, because dead worming for
a minute or two can catch the biggest fish in the pile. These
bites will seldom be vicious hits, more likely an exploratory
mouthing of the bait. When you set the hook, set hard and don't
wait too long. Every second the fish has the bait and you're not
pullin', he's doin' something you REALLY don't want him to do
with it. If you get tied up in brush, give the fish some slack
and a chance to swim out of it. When hurt, the fish will
naturally try to escape to open water, and a lot of times will
simply take your lure with him. You're going to loose a few that
tie you up, so expect it and accept it as part of the game. Try
not to tear up or tip over your brush, or to kill a big fish,
just for the sake of landing a fish that's wrapped around a limb.
Better to cut your line, (don't just pull until it breaks or
you'll turn the fish inside out), and wait for another day.
Which ever approach, try the other approach before moving on.
There is likely both aggressive fish and neutral fish on a good
pile at any time, so give yourself a chance at both.
When you do catch a fish, give the pile a rest for a few
minutes and let them settle back down. Fish the surrounding area
since chances are the last fight caused a few fish to scatter
away from the pile. These scattered fish are disoriented and a
little shaken up. This means if they stumble across an easy meal
they will avail themselves of the opportunity. If there are
several fish on a good pile, it's not unusual to catch 3 or 4 off
of the pile, and another 3 or 4 a cast or two away from the pile.
When looking for scattered fish, you can almost bet they will go
to the nearest cover. For this reason, a grass bed right next to
the brush pile can be a gold mine.
When fishing a brush pile, remember the fish will reorient
themselves on the brush just like any other cover. The direction
of the sun, (fish prefer the shadow side), any current, and the
day's barometric pressure can all change the way the fish relate
to the cover. Given a choice, always cast into the wind, bringing
the bait in from a natural direction with any wind current. If
they won't bite from one direction, move the boat and try a
different one. Keep the boat as far back as possible when
circling a brush pile to keep from spooking the fish. Remember
the boat can cast a long shadow underwater, and rarely will the
fish react in a favorable way.
Once the brush pile is down, with a little luck it will hold a
number of fish. The first step keeping the pile productive over
the years is to prevent overfishing. Nothing will kill a brush
pile faster than catching everything that swims by it. If you
plan on several return trips, take one or two fish from the pile
then leave it alone for a couple of days to recharge. I've seen
time after time good piles be fished out, while near by piles
with reduced pressure produce good fish for several years. Never
hammer the pile for hours, you're cutting your own throat for the
In order to keep the pressure to a minimum, it's a good idea
to keep the location to yourself. You do this in a number of
ways, number one keeping your mouth shut. Don't tell everyone in
your club about your brush pile or soon it might as well have a
public fish attractor sign attached. When you do show someone,
trust them that they will also keep it's location a secret and
not tell their next fishing partner. When you're fishing your
brush pile, try to avoid making it obvious by putting a buoy
down. A buoy in the water with a boat casting to it is one thing
I always take note of for future investigation. I've found more
than one brush pile by simply paying attention and hitting a
single button on my GPS while on a plane. I can then return
later, burn a little gas, and may add a honey hole to the spots I
There are exceptions to the rule, and the one exception I can
think of is when your pile in invaded by dinks. New piles are
prone to attract dinks, keeping the bigger fish at a distance.
You can reduce the effect by selecting the proper limb spacing as
we discussed earlier, but it happens even to the best ones. If
your pile is loaded up with dinks, then have some fun by catching
as many as possible. If your lake has a slot limit, do everyone a
favor and take them home for a fish fry. If they are under the
legal limit, then at least troll a few hundred feet away to
release them and hope they take the hint. I've seen a time when I
caught 30 - 40 dinks off a single pile and never caught a keeper.
Then, a week later, I pulled into the same pile and caught 3 nice
keepers in 3 casts, (might have caught more but just couldn't
stand to hammer it.) Dinks can be the death of a pile unless
managed so if you find a horde of unsized fish, catch them off of
If you have a favorite brush pile down for awhile, it's seldom
worth it to try and refresh it with new trees. Between being
hammered over the years, and the natural scattering of the brush,
attempts to refresh it will normally be less than fully
successful. Better to find a nearby spot and sink a new one. This
gives you a fresh start and fish will readily move from an old
pile of rubble to a fresh brush pile. To help the migration, try
finding a new spot on the same ledge or grass line, giving the
fish a natural road to travel to the new spot.
Once a brush pile is on the bottom, it is public domain. If
you find someone else's brush pile, you're free to fish it. If
you sink your own brush pile, you can almost guarantee someone
else will eventually find it. So, in order to reduce gun play on
the water, here are a few generally accepted rules about brush
First and Foremost, never share the location of a brush pile
you found with someone you wouldn't also share your own brush
pile with. You and the people you tell must show the courtesy to
the builder you expect yourself. That goes for throwing a buoy on
it, or leaving a bottle floating on it was well. treat all brush
piles you know about as yours, regardless of who sunk it.
Give courtesy to people fishing a brush pile. If someone is
already on it, chances are slim there is enough room for two.
Even if you just sunk it yesterday, if someone else is on it,
then give them the room. If invited in, that's fine, but don't go
blowing in where someone else is fishing just out of some
misguided sense of ownership.
If fishing a brush pile on a structure, give room to someone
fishing the rest of the structure. If you're just going to be
sitting in one place, don't be so rude as to interrupt someone
who has run a ledge for the last 1/2 mile. He already knows
you're fishing something or you wouldn't have sat there that
long. And he'll be trying to move on by without disturbing you.
Move your boat to one side and let them fish by. It won't hurt
what you're doing and chances are if you haven't caught that big
fish already, you're not going to in the next two casts either.
If someone does approach you and object, be courteous and
firm. You can explain you have the right to fish anything
underwater you find without being rude or antagonistic. If the
guy has taken the trouble to confront you, he's already having a
bad day. Don't run the risk of ruining both of your days by
getting defensive and starting a shouting match on the water. If
he wants it that bad, give it to him and go fish the next one.
This is suppose to be fun, remember?
Brush piles can be well worth the effort, especially in lakes
with little open water cover. Some well thought out plans can
create a little honey hole all your own. The pros sing their
praises after practically every tournament, and I think once you
try them, you will too.