Big River, Big Bass

Big River, Big Bass

The name "Mississippi" comes from Native American words for "big river" -- and that big river holds plenty of equally big bucket mouths. You just need to know where to find them. (June 2006)

There are two kinds of largemouth bass anglers in Iowa: those who love fishing for bass in the Mississippi River -- and those who've never fished for bass in the Mississippi River.

"I've never met a serious bass fisherman who has fished on the Mississippi who didn't love it," said Iowa City resident and Hawkeye Bass Fishing Club member Mike Burcham. "There are so many places to fish, so many different kinds of habitat, and such a strong population of bass, that you could fish only on the Mississippi and never need to go anyplace else. Until you've fished there, you can't understand the potential it has."

Bob Hutchcroft agrees. The owner of Bob's Marine in Belleview, he has fished the big river for over 40 years and regularly scores well in bass tournaments on the Mississippi and other locations around the Midwest.

"The Mississippi River has better bass fishing than any lake I've ever been on," Hutchcroft asserted. "The sheer numbers of bass you can get into when conditions are right are amazing. My partners and I have had days when we caught 50 to 75 fish.

"And: The average size of bass in the Mississippi seems to be increasing. We used to figure the average bass in the river was a 2- to 2 1/2-pounder, but we're seeing a lot more bass in the 4- to 4 1/2-pound range. The biggest river bass I've had in my boat was 6 1/4 pounds -- but I've heard of guys pulling in 7-pounders.

"It may be because more guys are doing catch-and-release," continued Hutchcroft. "Or maybe it's just a cyclical thing, and we're on the good side of the cycle. I'd never say the Mississippi is the place to go if you're after a trophy bass, because I think the current and other conditions don't favor a lot of the bass getting real big. But what they don't have in sheer size, they make up for in numbers.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's Iowa's No. 1 fishery for largemouth bass."

WHERE AND HOW ON THE MISSISSIPPI

Burcham seconds Hutchcroft's assessment of bassin' on the Mississippi, but warns that the learning curve can appear steep for anglers unfamiliar with its uncounted islands, channels, cuts, backwaters, chutes, lakes, ponds and sloughs.

"The first time I fished the Mississippi, it was like a foreign land to me," Burcham said with a laugh. "So much water, so much habitat -- so many places to look! And then you add in the extra challenge of having to consider the river's current, and it was overwhelming.

"But when you think about it, bass fishing is bass fishing -- you just have to figure out on a given day where they are, and what they're biting on. Don't be intimidated because the river is so big and there are so many places to look for bass; focus on one small area that looks 'bassy' to you, do what catches bass for you in other places, and you'll eventually put bass in the boat."

Bertram and Hutchcroft agree that backwaters should be the first focus of anglers in search of Mississippi River bass in late spring/early summer. Water levels are stabilizing after winter and spring run-off, and bass are in search of shallow waters for spawning and for summer post-spawn habitat.

THE UPS AND DOWNS OF FISHING ON THE RIVER

One of the biggest ongoing challenges for anglers on the Mississippi River is coping with fluctuating water levels caused by the continual battle between Mother Nature and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in which each tries to control the amount of water flowing down the river on any given day. In general, rising waters encourage bass to explore new habitat made available by the extra water, so veteran river anglers explore the far ends of backwaters and push into the interiors of flooding islands when water levels are on the rise.

"There are some ponds on Beaver Island in Pool 14 that are fantastic for bass," said Hutchcroft, "and the only time you can get back there is when the river is high and there's enough water so you can follow streams and channels to get to them. The other consideration when the river is high is that the water is usually muddy.

"If you can find a tributary that's bringing in clearer water, or a backwater that's emptying clearer water into the main river, there's sometimes an actual mudline. The bass will set up on the cloudy side of the mudline and ambush baitfish swimming by in the clearer water. There have been a couple times when I really clobbered bass by pulling a crankbait or spinnerbait right along the clear-water side of a mudline."

A falling river generally signals tougher fishing, as the receding waters pull bass out of the shallowest backwaters and send them in search of deeper waters. This localized migration makes it difficult to pinpoint their location until water levels stabilize and the fish set up in distinct locales.

Hutchcroft generally does a search-and-find routine to locate bass as water levels fall, often focusing on dropoffs into deeper backwaters and channels, or near rocky points and deeper habitat. He pays close attention not only to the size and location of bass he finds but also to their sizes and numbers. He's noticed that if he picks up only a few smaller bass in areas prone to hold fish during periods of falling water, it sometimes pays to throw away the book and look ultra-shallow.

"One time," he recalled, "the river was dropping fast and they should have been moving to the deeper spots, but we couldn't find them. We ended up pushing back into some backwaters so far that we actually push-poled the last couple hundred feet and then cast as far back into the shallows as we could throw -- and that's where we finally found them. We joked that for the size of the fish, and as shallow as the water was, that they must have been swimming sideways to keep their backs in the water."

FISHING IN THE SLOP

One of the benefits of the myriad backwaters provided by the big river is that, no matter the water level, backwaters with enough water to support bass and emergent vegetation are always present somewhere during the summer. Hutchcroft and Burcham grin and reach for their "slop tackle" when they see floating greenery.

"I love to see lily pads with duckwort in between the pads," stated Burcham. "Ideally, I want a couple feet of water under a layer of lily pads and duckwort just thick enough so that you see a little surface wave move through them when you toss a frog on top of it. Then I dance a Scum Frog, Tournament Frog or something like that over the top, just like you see a real frog skitter across the top of slop. When a bass comes up through all that junk

and nails your frog, it will just about stop your heart. I love that sort of fishing."

Burcham uses braided lines most of the time he fishes in heavy vegetation and snaggy backwaters. "At one time I was using 50-pound-test, 12-pound diameter, and experimented my way down to lighter test and real small diameter," he said. "I backed away from the real small diameter braided line because the small diameter line tends to bury itself in the coils on the reel, and backlashes pretty bad. Right now I'm using 30-pound-test line with 8-pound diameter, and I get along real well."

Hutchcroft is a "mono man": He uses 14- to 20-pound clear-blue Stren in most situations. "I like the give of mono," he offered. "And the high visibility is critical. If you wait to feel a bite, you're going to miss a lot of bass. A lot of the time I set the hook when I see the little twitch, or see it move maybe 2 inches to the side. If you can't see your line, you're missing fish, especially if you're fishing with soft baits."

Soft baits such as worms, tubes and other plastics work well in the Mississippi's cluttered backwaters. Hutchcroft likes to use small plastic worms to finesse bass made stubborn by the clear blue skies and high barometric pressures common after a cold front. A 4- or 6-inch black plastic ringworm with a chartreuse, white, fire or yellow tail, rigged Texas-style, is often his choice when bass are neutral about topwater lures.

"Drag it along the edge of the weeds, through any fall-downs, or wherever there's any structure in the water," he said. "Guys on lakes like those big 6- or 9-inch plastics, but smaller worms work better for me on the river."

Hutchcroft noted that sunlight-or the lack of it-plays a role in where he fishes in backwaters. "Early in the year, before the vegetation gets going, early morning and low-light conditions are good times to catch bass," he remarked. "They're more active then.

"But in the summer, when you're fishing weeds, midday actually works a little better, because the sunlight penetrates those shallow backwaters and drives the fish under the weeds. That helps concentrate them in specific areas, so you don't have to work the entire backwater. You can focus on the shaded areas and save time."

CURRENT FAVORITES

If backwaters don't yield as anticipated, Hutchcroft's quick to look for areas of mild current associated with his second-favorite place to search for bass on the river.

"I really like fishing around closing dams," he said. "Closing dams are rock barriers that the Corps of Engineers puts across the upper ends of chutes, to help retain water in the main channel."

Chutes are passages on the backsides of islands, or alternate channels away from the river's main channel. Closing dams create a rock sill across the openings of chutes that can be several feet below the water, or barely below the surface, depending on river level. Either way, the ripple of turbulence attracts fish.

"There's something about those closing dams -- the slight current, the rocks, the algae, the crawdads and other invertebrates living in the rocks -- that attracts forage fish," Hutchcroft noted, "and on the Mississippi, where there are forage fish, there are bass. My preference is to get below the dam and pull the bait toward me with the current, but I'll anchor above and pull against the current if I have to.

"Bass will be both below and above the dam. I'll usually start out with a crankbait like a Rat-L-Trap. Chrome with a black back, chrome with blue, chrome with green: I don't care -- as long as it's chrome. Chrome seems to match the color of the shad they feed on in the river.

"Sometimes I throw a buzzbait or spinnerbait when I'm fishing closing dams," continued Hutchcroft. "Depending on the clarity of the water, I'll start with a No. 4 Colorado blade to give it a little thump. If the water is real clear, I'll throw a Terminator (spinnerbait) with a white and chartreuse skirt and a combination of willow-leaf and Colorado blades."

If bass associated with closing dams are slow to react to noisy crankbaits or spinnerbaits, Hutchcroft tantalizes them with tube jigs danced over the rocks of the dam. "The thing about closing dams is that there are usually always a few bass around them because of the slight current," he said. "Any bass that's in the current is an active bass, so you've got a better chance of getting his attention. But when water levels are right, and forage fish are clustered around the dams, bass are in there by the dozens, maybe hundreds -- and it can be crazy fishing!"

As summer wanes, water temperatures cool, and the bite in shallow backwaters fades. Research conducted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources shows that bass on the Mississippi, along with most other game species, migrate to distinct deep-water wintering areas in selected backwaters and to deep, low-current holes in the main channel.

"Stumpfields can be good during that fall migration," observed Hutchcroft. "They stage in those stumps during that time of year. I like to use a spinnerbait with a big Colorado blade in the stumps. I'll pull it over the tops, or drop it down and pull it right between them. I've noticed that the bass I get from stumpfields tend to be maybe a pound or so larger than what I average out of backwaters. You may not catch as many, but you'll tend to catch bigger ones out of the stumps during that time of year."

Late summer and fall are promising times for targeting Brown's Lake, Bussey Lake and other backwaters dredged by the IDNR. Dredged cuts average 8 to 10 feet deep; bass are instinctively attracted to the dropoff from the shallow backwater into the deeper water of the dredge cut.

"Brown's Lake and Bussey Lake are good places for guys to start fishing in the Mississippi if they don't know anything about the river," said Hutchcroft. "Fish them like a regular lake: Work the dropoffs, work the fall-downs around the edges, work the weedbeds and weedlines; then, branch out into the other backwaters in the area.

"And learn as you go. There's never any guarantees when you're fishing, but I'd say that anybody who knows anything about bass fishing should be able to figure out bass in those backwaters and catch at least a few fish on their first trip to the Mississippi."

RESPECT THE RIVER

Hutchcroft's experiences as an angler and boat shop owner prompt him to warn first-timers on the Mississippi to respect its power.

"I run a 20-foot Champion bass boat with a 225 horsepower engine, and there are places even I won't go when the river is high and rolling," he cautioned. "The currents below bridge pilings and some of the other main channel structures can literally tear a boat apart. You've got to use common sense.

"Having said that, as long as a guy is careful, you can fish the river during it's highest floods and catch fish if you work the backwaters and stay out of the current. Actually, that's when I catch my biggest bass. Something about high water seems to make big bass more act

ive."

Burcham encouraged Iowa's inland anglers to make a trip to the Mississippi and try the national-caliber bass fishing available whether the river is high, or low or in-between.

"When you first hit the water, you'll think, 'Where do I start?' he said. "Just forget about the main channel and all that current, 'cause that's for towboats and walleye fisherman. Go find a decent-sized backwater, and fish it like any shallow lake you've ever been on. If you know anything about bass fishing, you'll eventually figure it out and catch bass.

"Once you get past that first intimidation, you've opened yourself up to what I consider to be the best public bass fishery in the state of Iowa, maybe the Midwest. If you're a serious bass angler in Iowa, and don't fish the Mississippi River, you're just plain missing out."

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