Mississippi's Oxbow Bassin'
September 30, 2010
These old bends of our river systems now provide some excellent options for largemouth action in May. Here's where you should be fishing this month. (May 2006)
John Alford took this bass from a hyacinth edge near the cypress trees at Little Eagle Lake. Photo by Robert H. Cleveland Jr.
With only about a jillion cypress trees, knees, logs and blowdowns to choose from, I picked the obvious one for us to start our fishing trip -- the first one we came to on the upper end on Little Eagle Lake.
"Can't hit them all if we don't hit the first one," I told my partner, John Alford of Brandon. "So we might as well start right here."
Alford flipped over the trolling motor and started easing our 18-foot aluminum bass boat up to the timber, all the while watching the front depthfinder. The water was deeper than it appeared -- 10 feet -- which didn't give us a lot of confidence.
It was early May, and the water temperature was still in the upper 70s and lower 80s at sunrise, which was just breaking to the east. The orange glow on the horizon made a spectacular show within the moss-laden cypress swamp that is this old oxbow.
"They shouldn't be this deep," Alford said. "We've got to get to shallower cover."
I agreed, but suggested that we fish our way into shallow water by first eliminating the deep stuff. After all, we had all day, and one led off by that beautiful spring morning.
With that, Alford flipped his 1/2-ounce jig and blue-rubber frog chunk past the right side of the tree. The line started falling as the heavy lure worked its way to the bottom. It never made it.
Both simultaneously seeing Alford's line curl up, he and I realized that something had stopped his offering's descent. Before I could holler, he had reeled up the slack and was setting the hook.
"Got him!" Alford said. "And it's got some size. Get the net."
A few seconds later, I was lifting a 5-pound largemouth over the side of the Tracker and handing the net to Alford.
"Not a bad start, big guy," he said. "Not bad at all."
That there was no more surprise or celebration than that is indicative of oxbow bass fishing in Mississippi: Do it enough, and you come to expect such success.
Our only surprise was that we'd caught one in deep water in May. That was atypical of late-spring oxbow fishing, and the more conventional order of things reasserted itself as the day continued: Of the 23 bass we caught that morning, the other 22 came in less than 5 feet of water, with most coming in less then 3. Eight of the fish were at least 15 inches, the biggest a fat, chunky 24-inch specimen weighing 7 1/2 pounds. All of the bigger fish came from horizontal cover -- either fallen trees coming off the bank or logs long enough that their bases were on the bottom of the lake, their tops exposed either at or above the waterline.
The biggest fish came on a slow-rolled 1-ounce single-blade spinnerbait in a submerged treetop, a form of cover plentiful in oxbows like Little Eagle. I was reeling the lure back along the trunk and then letting it fall through the limbs of the top. It was fluttering down when the 7 1/2-pound largemouth inhaled it.
"Had to be one in there," Alford said. "Had to be."
Ah, yes -- the wonders of oxbow bass fishing.
But wait, you say: oxbows? Aren't we talking about lakes connected to the Mississippi River, like those most famous of the state's oxbows, Tunica Cutoff, Whittington, Ferguson, Chotard and Albermarle? Well, all of those are great lakes -- but they have some drawbacks.
In the spring, the quality of the game fishing at the oxbows connected to the Mississippi is dictated by fluctuations in water level. During May and even into June, when water from the spring thaw in the northeast and upper Midwest makes its way down the Big Muddy, conditions at connected oxbows are rarely consistent for more than a day or two -- surely not enough to offer bass anglers a sure bet. And that instability puts the spotlight on inland oxbows, even those that were never a part of the Mississippi River.
Little Eagle is one of the best, as are nearby Wolf and Bee lakes, all of which are just a short drive out of Yazoo City and within an hour or a bit more from the Jackson area.
If you try to figure out which river system gave us those three oxbows and a few others in that area, you might be surprised. It wasn't the Sunflower, Yazoo, Pearl or Big Black. Try the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. Believe it or not, solid geological evidence indicates that the Ohio/ Tennessee river system drained through Mississippi.
"That's true," acknowledged Ron Garavelli, chief of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "Research done on soil types and even on fossils turned up examples that are solely related to that river system."
Centuries have passed since then, but the changes wrought in that bygone epoch have combined to give modern-day fishermen a myriad of oxbow opportunities -- and spring, especially when it's dry, is one of the best times for taking advantage of what nature has provided.
"Give us a dry May and June and the oxbows will give you a great bass season," said Jackson bass angler J.B. Richards. "Too much rain is the only thing that can ruin those oxbows. Being in the Delta, all of them share most of the shoreline with agricultural ground. The run-off from those rains can ruin one of those lakes for a week or more; it can turn clear water into chocolate milk and leave it that way for a while.
"But when it is clear, in the spring, after the spawn, the fishing is outstanding. Let me give you this tip: Stock up on spinnerbaits. It is the lure of choice -- at least, it is for the bass. They want them."
Oxbow fishing is quite different from reservoir, pond or river fishing. Actually, Richards asserts, it's a combination of all three. "There is no current, like a lake and some reservoirs," he said. "But unlike lakes and reservoirs, there are no big flat areas with ditches and creeks, drops and ledges; in that respect, it's more like a river. You will have a shallow shelf along the bank that at some point will drop sharply -- like a river channel. Siltation has given each of the lakes their own personalities."
Little Eagle, which is off state Route 12 about 15 miles northeast of Yazoo City, is
the most unusual. Over time, each end of this long oxbow, both banks of which are still tree-lined, has become more like a cypress swamp.
"What I like about Little Eagle is the varied fishing structure," Alford said. "You can fish timber -- and I mean you can fish timber every day for a week and not have to fish the same piece twice. That was always good, but in the past 10 years the lake has developed other patterns related to vegetation.
"I remember one day about 10 years ago when we came up here and had the best day we ever had. And the best pattern was slow rolling a spinnerbait over the top of a submerged grassbed that topped off 2 feet deep in 6 feet of water. In the past five years it's been more of an emergent grass pattern -- like flipping the edges of the floating mats of hyacinth. I like to key on the mats that have gotten caught up on a log or a group of cypress. That gives the fish two forms of structure to utilize and seems to hold them."
Bee Lake, adjacent to U.S. Highway 49 East between Yazoo City and Little Eagle Lake, has also developed a pronounced vegetation pattern, heavy mats of hyacinth and other grasses having spread out densely in some areas.
"The good thing is that they form a filter system that helps keep the lake clean even after a heavy rain," Richards said. "You can look at the water along the bank and see it really stained, and then fish the inside of the grassline and be looking down into clear water just 20 yards away. I love to flip along the edge of the vegetation. You can cover a lot of water in a day and pick up some good bites."
For Richards a "good bite" comes from a big largemouth. "But at Bee," he resumed, "if you aren't getting bites that way, and if the lake is clear, my favorite pattern for numbers is to fish the standing and laying timber on the west bank in 3 to 6 feet of water with either a worm, spinnerbait or crankbait. You may not get a big fish -- and a big fish at Bee is anything over 5 pounds -- but you can get on a hot area and catch several in the 2- to 3-pound range."
At Wolf Lake, bass fisherman Wayne Bullock of Jackson treated me to one of my more memorable fishing trips of the past decade. It was in early May on a surprisingly cool morning -- we had to put on windbreakers or a sweatshirt -- just after the spawn.
"You can bring as many rods as you want, but there's only two things you'll need to have tied on," Bullock said. "Make sure you have at least a 1/2-ounce spinnerbait and a 1-ounce spinnerbait, and have a midrange and a deep crankbait.
"What the big sow bass do after the spawn at Wolf is move out to the old river-channel ledge. If you can find a spot where the shelf is pretty wide off a bank but drops suddenly off into about 10 or 12 feet, you will catch fish."
Bullock knew of several such places -- but we only needed to hit two of them. Mixing up a combination of slow-rolling the big spinnerbaits and running the midrange crankbaits off the deep drop paralleling the bank, we stayed busy, managing a dozen big fish of more than 4 pounds each in just a few hours.
Over time, Alford and I have come to call the combination of Wolf, Bee and Little Eagle "the Yazoo Trinity." They're excellent places at which to start your oxbow exploration -- but by no means should they be the only ones you visit.
Several free-standing oxbows exist along the course of the Mississippi. Eagle Lake, north of Vicksburg, and Lake Washington, at Glen Allen, are two perfect examples of oxbows formerly joined to the main river that now never connect to it. Lying east of the main river levee, both provide fishermen with consistent fishing conditions throughout the spring.
Lake Washington is famous for its catfish and well known for its bream, and it can yield up some of the best crappie fishing in the state during the spring spawn or late-summer trolling. And it's one of the most overlooked bass fishing lakes in the state.
During late May and, especially, in early-to-mid June, Washington offers an outstanding bass fishery. The key: the timing of the bream's first bedding period.
"When they bed and the first hatch occurs, it's only a day or two before the bass find them," said Sidney Montgomery of Madison, whose family has a getaway house at Washington. "You can see the bass running through the beds, feeding on the fry. All you have to do is get in there near them and fish the edges with either a topwater bait, a spinnerbait or -- heck -- anything, when they're feeding. You can have a ball.
Believe it or not, solid geological evidence indicates that the Ohio/Tennessee river system drained through Mississippi.
"Thing about it is, you never see a lot of bass fishermen on this lake. There's always a lot of people catfishing and bream fishing. But bass fishing is overlooked."
At Eagle Lake, the bass spawn early, and by the beginning of May in most years, and by midmonth for sure, are past that slowed-down bite immediately following a bedding cycle. The fish are active and have dispersed from the spawning areas.
"It takes some looking, but the great thing about Eagle is that you really don't have to look too hard to figure out what the fish are doing," explained Montgomery, who added regarding the Mississippi side of the circular oxbow, "First, forget about the deep side -- there're some fish there, but the biggest concentrations will be over on the shallow side and on the end past Garfields Landing. Those are the spawning areas.
"My favorite May pattern is to move out to the isolated cypress trees on the outside edges of Australia Island. There're hundreds of them, and they provide you an easy course to follow, like in golf. You just pick out an area and start moving tree-to-tree, using whatever lure you have the most confidence in. If you like flipping or pitching, then a jig or a worm is great; if you prefer casting, and have the talent to skip a cast under some of the low cypress limbs, a spinnerbait is great."
In Montgomery's view, it's always a good idea to keep your eyes on the thicker cover, like buckbrush, closer to the bank for signs of activity. "If you see shad flitting around back there, you might want to abandon the isolate cover and go to the brush and work it with either a worm or a spinnerbait," he offered. "The bigger fish will come off of the isolated timber, but if the shad are in the brush, you can catch more fish in the cover."
The other spring option is to run all the way past Garfields to the end of the lake and find the pad stems. "I've killed the big bass in the pad fields in May and June," said Vicksburg's James Thornton. "You'll know when it's right. You will see bass blowing up on shad all over the pad stems. If it's a quiet day, there won't be very many times that you won't hear at least one big fish blow up every 15 or 20 seconds.
"I've caught them on everything from a frog to a swimming lizard, and from a spinnerbait to a buzzbait. The key is to keep the bait moving, no matter what you're using, because the bass are active, and it's like they want to chase something."
As for the river-connected oxbows, the best idea is to watch the nearest river gauge to each lake. Anytime you see a fast rise or fall, forget it.
"Oxbow bass don't like any kind of rise, and they don't like a fast fall either," Montgomery said. "You also need to know that the water temperatures on those lakes are going to be a lot cooler in May than what you will find in lakes and reservoirs. The water coming down the Mississippi from the Ohio and Missouri river systems are cool. But that doesn't mean that you can't have some outstanding days in May, and especially in June, if the water levels are fairly stable or on a slow fall."
For Chotard and Albermarle, which are connected by a channel, watch Vicksburg. Whenever the river is 14 feet or higher -- which, 99 percent of the time, it is in May -- it affects the two lakes. Watch for a period after a rise when the river crests and then has only a slow fall, Thornton advised.
"What I like to do in that situation is to run to the upper end of the lakes, as far as I can get away from the river, and fish the banks where the water is falling," Thornton said. "Seems like the water is warmest up there and that the bass will move up into those areas to feed during the rise. A rise opens up a lot of newly flooded backwater banks.
"After it starts falling, the fish will pull out with it, and I do good fishing tight to whatever cover is available each day.
"Now -- if it's a fast fall," he concluded, "forget it!"