Florida's Overlooked River Bass
September 30, 2010
Though January is the coldest month of the year, the moving waters of Sunshine State rivers often hold actively feeding bass. Let's see which flows offer the best options for some bassin' action.
By Bud Reiter
During the decade I spent as a bass fishing guide on the St. Johns River, I considered myself to be a pretty good fisherman. But I was also convinced that given the choice between skill and luck, I'd take luck any day of the week. Running into a large and stupid fish when you had paying customers onboard was about as good as it got. There was one particular day when the bass I was looking at right over the side of the boat was about as dumb as they come.
I'd left the dock that January morning with a pair of clients, run straight to the Oklawaha River below Rodman Dam, and turned into a side creek a half-mile or so up from the mouth. There was a nice hole on an outside bend where floating vegetation had drifted into some toppled trees to form a prime piece of cover. I tied up to an upstream tree limb and got one corked shiner locked into the cover, but the second bait didn't want to cooperate.
After a couple of casts, this baitfish was still convinced he wanted to be in the middle of the creek, so I was going to convince him otherwise. It was when I was reeling him in for the third cast that I saw the bass following him just as I lifted the bait from the water.
It was a good fish and appeared totally oblivious to our presence. In fact, when the shiner came out of the water the bass just eased under our boat!
Like I said, I'll take luck anytime, so I dropped the bait over the side and handed the rod to the customer.
" Watch this," I said.
Big bass will be feeding in the moving water whenever the temperatures rise a bit, even when the trees are bare in winter. Photo by Bud Reiter
As if cued, the bass slipped out from under the boat and gently sucked in the shiner. The fish weighed a bit over 8 pounds and was a fine one to start the day with! That was especially true, since the still air temperature on our dockside thermometer read 38 degrees and there was a 25-mph wind blasting straight out of the north. Those are not ideal Florida bassin' conditions, and certainly no day to be on the open waters of any decent-sized lake. You don't really fish on days like that. You just try to survive.
Unfortunately, working guides don't always have the option of staying home. You fish when the customers are there because the rent comes due regardless. That's why I always considered rivers as my bad weather "aces in the hole."
There are a number of reasons why rivers can provide decent angling when a severe cold front wipes out most shallow lake action. The most obvious is comfort. When you are tucked up into a 40-foot-wide creek surrounded by trees, you get some protection from wind and don't get beat up by the waves.
You also find river bass in a much more cooperative mood. Moving water largely buffers the effects of severe weather. A hard front that quickly drops the surface temperature in a lake - and cleans out the shallows as the bass move to deeper, more stable water - has much less impact in a flowing river. Temperature changes are far less drastic, and the fish just carry on normally. If they do decide to drop deeper, they can do so within mere feet of the bank and don't completely vacate the area. But river bass in bad weather often move shallower, which puts them more easily in reach of anglers.
River bass also don't receive the angling pressure suffered by those in the more popular lakes. This is just a basic fact of contemporary bass tactics - lakes rule and rivers are ignored. Few anglers fish rivers, but the streams still hold plenty of bass. Unlike still-water bass, river fish must be more aggressive if they are to survive.
Current carries food, but it also often moves that food quickly. A bass in a moving-water situation has noticeably less time to decide whether or not to eat the item in front of him before it escapes downstream.
River bass are normally a bit quicker to bite. Since they don't see that many anglers to begin with, they are far less choosy about what they try to eat and when they bite. Lakes that receive a lot of pressure can contain some pretty educated bass - some of which may have been caught and released multiple times. River fish don't have Ph.Ds. In fact, many don't even have a first-grade education. Like I said, dumb fish are a guide's best friend, and rivers offer a much better chance of encountering them.
If the above reasons are not enough to put a few rivers on your angling calendar this winter, there is one other factor to consider. The winter months are the best times to fish rivers because this is the dry season.
When river levels are high, the bass move as shallow as they can. Flood 100 feet of river swamp bottom back from the bank with a foot or so of water and a lot of bass are so far back into the trees that a squirrel dog might be a better choice than a spinnerbait for finding them. During low-water cycles, however, the bass are confined to original river channels and are much more concentrated. They are a lot easier to find, and since they are going to be more active than still-water bass, the low-water winter months are prime times for targeting them. Nor do you have to look very far to find quality river fishing, regardless of where you are in the Sunshine State.
In the northeastern portion of the state, the St. Marys River, Black Creek, and the Oklawaha River (both above and below Rodman Reservoir) are excellent bets. In the Big Bend area, the Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers are well-known largemouth fisheries, but don't overlook the Waccasassa River either.
Among those rivers that should be on your South Florida list are the Peace River near Port Charlotte Harbor and the Kissimmee River between State Route (SR) 60 and SR 70. Although the Kissimmee River has been heavily channelized, there are plenty of bass-holding side creeks.
Central Florida anglers find the St. Johns River in the Deland area another top spot. Unlike the river to the north, once you get south of Lake George there is no tidal influence, making it a true free-flowing river.
Getting in on this "moving experience" isn't difficult. During my guide days, I had a very simple approach - I fished live shiners when I had customers onboard.
One of the most effective techniques was to slow-troll those baitfish under floats, using only the trolling motor. Moving upstream and into the current in the smaller side creeks was an important part of the fishing. With a pair of shiners 50 feet behind the b
oat, I could use the trolling motor to slowly steer them along the edge of whatever cover looked good. By moving into the current, I was also able to pause them by just tapping the trolling motor to hold my position for extended periods next to obvious fish-holding objects. It was simple and highly effective. Under even the worst weather conditions, I could normally count on a dozen bass a day. That may not sound remarkable, but some of my cohorts who opted for the windswept waters of nearby Lake George were often grateful just to make it back to the dock in one piece.
While shiners were my preferred bait when guiding, they're not the only option for taking river bass. Artificial lures can be very productive, and standard bassin' tackle works just fine, although savvy river rats invariably tote one or two shorter rods in the 5- to 5 1/2-foot range. Some river situations require short, very accurate casts that may have to be made sidearm or even underhand to slip under shoreline trees. Less is best under these conditions - at least as far as rod length goes. At the same time, don't forget a flipping rod. Some of the best bass-holding cover in a river environment is where floating vegetation has drifted in around lily pads or treetops to form an overhead mat. Flippers can get right into them, while non-flippers can only dance around the edges.
Lure selection is fairly simple, and you don't need a lot of baits. A Texas-rigged plastic worm is one of the top choices, since it can handle about any cover you find, including flipping situations. All you have to do is vary the weight. Also be certain to have some 1/4- to 3/8-ounce weights on hand for casting. You may need heavier lead in the current than you would on still waters. June bug is a good color to start with, but if the river is running relatively clear, which is not uncommon during the dry season, green pumpkin or tequila sunrise can be effective. Black with a blue tail can be deadly in murkier waters, while red shad is never a bad choice.
Safety-pin-style spinnerbaits are another versatile option, and most river veterans carry two types - a tandem willow leaf blade in the 1/4- to 3/8-ounce range and a 3/8- to 1/2- ounce single blade with a No. 4 or No. 5 Colorado or Indiana blade. The light tandem lure is an excellent choice for probing shallow lily pads, while the heavier single-spin can crawl easily through deeper brush tops and sunken logs. While a combination of gold and nickel blades matched with a white-and-chartreuse skirt is considered standard for most of Florida's lake-bound anglers, river rats may find a crawfish or black-and-chartreuse skirt matched with gold or copper blades more effective.
Another lure that river veterans won't be without is a weedless soft-plastic jerkbait in the 4- to 5-inch range. Any of the "fluke type" lures work well, and a goldish new-penny color is often best during colder weather. These are excellent choices for working pad beds in low current areas, but their best use is probing the narrow, but often highly productive, band of water between the inside edge of the pad beds and the banks. This is an area very much overlooked by anglers who are used to working outside-edge conditions. But river bass often find the shallow, slow-current, heavy-cover situation to their liking. If bass seem scarce on a warm afternoon, this narrow band of shoreline cover is probably where a lot of them are, and few lures work it as well as a weedless soft-plastic jerkbait.
These three lures can handle a surprising number of river bass chores, but there are a few more that should be on hand, and one of the best is a slim minnow-imitating hard-plastic jerkbait. This is an excellent bait to use to draw fish from cover and can be twitched lightly on top or dropped down using standard jerkbait tactics. I learned long ago to keep one of these with a gold back and an orange belly stripe handy on a "comeback rod." On more than a few occasions, I have seen a bass flash out of a brush top at a quick-moving spinnerbait but not take the lure, and then be caught on the bait by the angler working it by the fish more slowly. Such lures are the best imitations available of a shiner, which is the prime forage for river bass in the winter.
The last two lures I want with me on any river trip are a lipless crankbait and one of the newer shallow-running square-billed crankbaits in a gold or red crawfish pattern. The lipless model can be retrieved quickly in current and is a great searching lure. Run it fast along the outside edge of cover and it may not catch a lot of fish, but if fish are there, some will "flash" at it. Then you can work the area more slowly with other baits.
The square-billed baits do the same job, but they can get a bit farther into woody cover, since they normally bounce off and don't hang up nearly as often as the lipless baits.
Locating river bass is a bit different than finding them in still waters, but there are some specific situations that should always be checked. Lily pad beds create premier river cover, especially if they are in low-current areas that have a reasonably quick access to deep water. This could be along the banks, on extended points, or even on mid-river bars. Regardless of where they are, bass use them unless they are in a very strong current. Not only do the pads provide shallow cover, but they also hold a wealth of forage. Savvy anglers check the outside deepwater edge with crankbaits and worms and then probe the inner areas with spinnerbaits and plastic jerkbaits and flip any matted cover. Finally, don't forget to check the inside shallow edge with plastic jerkbaits and worms.
Fallen shoreline trees and brush tops can be equally productive. This is especially true if they are located on a deeper outside bend, along deeper sections of straight shoreline, or where a shallower section of flat connects them - no matter how short it is - to the actual shoreline. The best trees often are those that extend farthest into the river and have matted surface vegetation drifted in around them to form overhead cover. Crankbaits and minnow lures can draw fish out from them, but even if no fish show, they should be flipped.
For using shiners, surface matted cover, or a large fallen treetop, on a steeply inclined outside bend is like discovering gold.
Canals, oxbows and dead-end side creeks can be highly productive during the spawn, or during a warm afternoon following a severe cold front. These shallow non-current areas tend to warm quickly, and as long as they have a mid-depth of 4 feet or more and some shoreline cover, bass move into them.
Intersecting creek mouths are other targets that should not be overlooked. Some bass may be holding where the creek drops into the river, where they may take worms, crankbaits or large slow-rolled spinnerbaits. But many other largemouths are likely to be snuggled up to any cover that lies within 50 yards downcurrent of the creek.
River bassin' isn't complex. Current and cover dictate where the bass are most likely to be, and the fish don't have a wealth of options in that regard. For anglers looking to avoid a miserable day on a freezing windswept lake, that makes rivers a pretty attractive option when Mother Nature decides to introduce Florida to some Canadian weather.
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