Summertime Oxbow Bassin'
September 30, 2010
These cut-offs along Mississippi's western boundary offer good prospects for catching some largemouths in the hotter months. Join the author as he explores these options.
By Robert H. Cleveland
It is a beautiful picture, even when drawn with words instead of paint brushes or camera lenses. Just use your imagination as you read, beginning with the sounds of wild birds flying overhead. You might hear an old owl hoot in the distance, which evokes an answer from another on the other side of the lake.
Now, see the egrets, posed with their white brilliance emanating like bright polka dots against the green tree tops, and the great blue herons standing about half a leg deep in the edge of the water, their heads frozen as they watch for any sign of a meal swimming by.
Moss hangs from the trees above as you glide the boat around and between the cypress, the willows and the old oak trees. Other than the sound of a few squirrels running through the branches, it is tranquil here beneath the bosky beauty of the canopy on the shoreline of the oxbow lake.
SPLOOSH! Now forget all that peace and quiet junk. There's a big bass, rising up from the dark tannic water to explosively strike a topwater bait just a few yards from the boat. The fight is on and the fisherman is hollering.
"Get the net! Get the net! I've gone and hooked old Newt!" he yells at his partner. "It's the big boy."
A few wild moments and a couple of heart-pounding seconds later, the net slides under and up with the big fish. The fishermen high-five in the boat and pose for pictures, each holding the big fish as the other aims and clicks the camera.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Welcome to oxbow bass fishing, Mississippi River style - peaceful, beautiful and poetic one moment . . . exciting, exhilarating and loud the next.
When it comes to summertime bass fishing in Mississippi, few lakes offer the combination of breath-taking scenery and breath-stopping excitement of powerful strikes from largemouths. The fish are naturally strong and sassy from fighting the river and fat from feasting on its bounty.
From the Tennessee line south along the Arkansas border to Louisiana, bass anglers have several great old oxbows to choose from. Some are still connected to and controlled by the Mississippi River; others stay connected only during high-water periods. Yet others were long ago separated from the Big Muddy by manmade levees.
Although known more for their bream and crappie fishing, most of the oxbows are now being recognized for what they offer bass fishermen.
"They've always been great bass fishing holes, but in the last 25 years, as bass fishing has exploded, they have become more popular," said Trip Hadad of Vicksburg.
A successful tournament angler himself, Hadad owns a sporting goods store that caters to fishermen who frequent many of the state's top oxbows.
"Most of them are still just as good as bream and crappie lakes as they ever were, but that has started taking a backseat in recent years to the bass fishing. You know that would never have happened if they were not great fisheries."
From Desoto Lake and Tunica Cutoff near Memphis to Lake Mary at the Louisiana corner, anglers have dozens of oxbows to choose from.
"The thing about it is, once you determine what works at the different kinds of oxbows, the patterns hold true in the others of their kind," noted Paul Jameson of Natchez. "What I do on Lake Mary or Deer Park down here in the summer will also work on other lakes in north Mississippi."
Instead of going lake by lake, let's go lake-type by lake-type and discuss the different patterns that are proven winners in the summer and early fall months. One important lesson to remember about summer on all types of oxbows - call it Oxbow 101 - is that they were once all bends in the Mississippi River. Like all bends, the deep side is the outside of the bend, and in the summer bass relate to deep water. Stay to the outside bend when fishing this month.
RIVER CONNECTED LAKES Few of these oxbows maintain access to the Mississippi River throughout the entire season. The most famous is Lake Ferguson, at Greenville, which stays connected to the river 12 months out of the year.
"The peak bass season on Ferguson is late summer and fall and you do not want to miss Ferguson when it's at its peak," said Clyde Magee of Greenville, who operates The Sportsman sporting goods store. "You can catch good bass here year 'round, but until you've fished it between August and November, you can't say you've really fished Ferguson.
"In the spring and early summer, when the prime topwater bite is on, the water is usually very high from the spring thaw in the upper Midwest. That pushes the fish out into the flooded fields and timber and scatters them. By the late summer, after the fish have gotten fat and sassy, the water has fallen back within the lake's normal shoreline and the fish get concentrated around what cover is available."
In Ferguson, which has served as a major river port for centuries, that cover is plentiful. It ranges from natural cover like standing timber or sand bars and points, to manmade and man-discarded stuff that ranges from sunken barges and old grain loading equipment, to rockpiles and sunken brush to boat piers. That latter category also includes even casinos!
One of the oddest bass reports posted on Web sites last year in Mississippi was "a topwater bite fishing Bang-O-Lures around the casino barges in Ferguson. Hit the shady side at daybreak and then the opposite and yet shady side at dusk."
"Yeah you name it and Ferguson's got it, and you can bet people have figured out how to catch bass around it," Magee said.
Topwater is a good choice every morning for the first hour, fishing around any shallow bank cover you can find.
"Anything irregular you see on a bank, make a cast at it," Magee said. "You never know."
But what makes the lake famous is the deep structure that starts holding large schools of big bass every August. That's what brings fishermen back year after yea
r to Ferguson.
"You can take the deepest-diving bait you got, park your boat over a rockpile or a barge, and start chunking," said Harold Sanders, a successful tournament angler from the Jackson area who is a longtime fan of Ferguson. "By the day's end, you will be a whooped puppy. Your arms will ache. Your hands will be blistered in places you didn't know you could blister.
"But you get on the right spot, you will also always finish the day with some of the finest stringers of fish you ever see in a tournament. When I used to fish the statewide tours, we'd be averaging 2 or 3 pounds per fish in a winning total. Then we'd go to Ferguson and if you didn't post a five- or seven-fish limit with a 5-pound average, you weren't close to the money."
It's still the same way, Magee said, only now a new pattern has emerged for fishing the same deep structure.
"Used to be it was all deep cranking, but now you see just as many people using Carolina-rigged worms," he explained. "The smart guys are the ones who alternate cranking and Carolina-rigging."
That was exactly the pattern used by David Fritts to win the FLW Tour Championship on Ferguson in 1997.
PARTIALLY CONNECTED OXBOWS The majority of the oxbows are those that are connected to the Mississippi when the river is high. By August, the river has usually fallen low enough to leave most of these lakes disconnected. In this category are most of the popular bodies of water, including Chotard and Albermarle, near Vicksburg; Whittington, north of Greenville; and Tunica Cutoff, just south of Memphis.
When the river is up and in these lakes, the fishing is dictated by what the river is doing. If it's rising at all, or on a fast fall, the fishing generally is poor. If it is at a standstill or a slow fall, then grab your rods and go.
With every few exceptions the river is flowing into or out of the lakes in August. It usually leaves in June and is gone no later than July. Once it leaves for good, the fish settle in more comfortably and into a more reliable fishing pattern.
Just in case it is available, if the water does get up and starts falling, find any spot on a lake you can locate where there is concentrated current. One perfect example is the connecting channel between Chotard and Albermarle lakes. A 20- to 30-foot-wide channel runs about 500 yards connecting the two. When the water is falling, even in the hottest of summer months, concentrate your efforts above the channel in Albermarle and below it at Chotard. The falling water pulls baitfish toward the channel and bass stack up at both ends to gorge. They can often be seen blasting into baitfish schools on the surface.
But the prevailing pattern will be standing water levels.
"That means two things to me," said Sidney Montgomery, an Eagle Lake resident who fishes Chotard often. "First, it means I am going to fish the steep banks and I am going to look for fresh springs. That will mean cool water, and at first light you can find a big fish or two on topwaters and spinnerbaits around the springs. It also means that as soon as the sun is good and high, I'm moving out to the first deep structure - anything over 6 feet - like trees or brushpiles, and I'm cranking and worming.
"This isn't brain surgery or rocket science - just good fishing," Montgomery continued. "Stay on the steep banks and fish shallow early and then deeper as the morning progresses. You can fish fast and cover a lot of water early, but once the sun is up you must slow down and fish very deliberately around the brush and timber."
Of course, like any major Mississippi bass hole in the summer, it pays to keep your eyes and ears open.
"Bass school and feed on the surface when the shad are on top," said Tommy Jones of Memphis, who loves Tunica Cutoff. "You need to stick to the steep-bank pattern, that's for sure, but always be on the look for fish blasting on the surface. You'd be surprised at the quality of oxbow bass that feed on top in schools. They can average 4 or 5 pounds.
"They won't stay up long, and one thing I learned a long time ago that is different from regular lakes like Sardis, Grenada and Ross Barnett Reservoir is that you can't just sit there and throw in the same area once the school goes down. You can try it and maybe pick up a straggler or two, but oxbow schools are highly mobile. They may blow up here now, but a minute from now the school may be 100 yards or more up the lake," he concluded.
LAND-LOCKED OXBOWS The oldest oxbows, like Horn and Flower lakes, near Tunica in north Mississippi; Lake Washington, near Glen Allan; and Eagle Lake, north of Vicksburg, are no longer connected directly to the river. They either sit completely outside the levee or are connected only by other waterways. These offer great bass fishing in a more stable environment.
However, they share fewer similarities with each other than the other two types of oxbows. Each of these has its own unique fishing pattern that separates it from the rest.
At Eagle, for example, its shores are heavily populated and the lake is lined with fishing camps, big homes and weekend getaway cabins, all on the deep side of the lake. Many of those have piers or boat docks, and in the summer the structures hold the largest number of bass. As Eagle is one of those lakes that has been best known in the past for bream and crappie, landowners there have placed a lot of brush fish attractors around their piers.
"Early in the morning and on overcast days, you can do good with topwaters, like a buzzbait or a Chug Bug or even a Fluke," said Eagle regular Robbie Hayes of Brandon. "Otherwise, the best bet is worming or cranking around the brush on the piers. You have to do some experimenting and find the piers that hold the most fish for your particular fishing speed. I know I have some favorite piers that other people don't like and I know some of their favorite spots and I can't get a bite there. The thing is, there's enough to choose from that you eventually find a few favorites.
"But you need to know one thing," he continued. "It helps to find a pier that is in combination with something different, like a change in the bank from grass to riprap or from a clear bank to a stand of trees. You put that together with a pier with brush and you have a good starting place."
Lake Washington is altogether different, even though it has its share of piers and docks. Here, however, the bass relate more to where bream bed, and that can be on the shallow side, too.
"The best bet, however, is to find where bream bedded on the deep side in May, June and July," explained Will Forrest of nearby Greenville. "Bass hang around a spot like that all summer picking off bream fry. You can work on them with a small crankbait. At daylight, though, throw a Fluke in those areas."
Up north at Horn and Flower lakes, the bass ca
n be hitting on many different patterns, from frogs and buzzbaits around pad fields, to flipping jigs on deep stumprows, to throwing spinnerbaits in the blue holes. These lakes are on the river side of the main levee and can get river water as it backs up through Tunica during extremely high water periods. That, won't, however be in August or September.
GETTING THERE Most major oxbows have good access points, through private, public or, as is the case at many lakes, both public and private boat ramps. Information on ramps, river stages and current fishing reports is available 24 hours a day on the Web site of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, at www.mdwfp.com. Once you're at the site's home page, make a cast toward the fishing icon and follow directions from there.
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