Transitioning for Bass on Enid And Sardis

Targeting bass on these north Mississippi lakes in August means night-fishing or deep-water angling, but as fall arrives, that changes. Here's how to fool the fish throughout this transitional period.

By Robert H. Cleveland Jr.

Ugh! If there are hotter places than Sardis or Enid lakes in August, Lyndall Helms doesn't want to go there. Put 100-degree temperatures, steam rising from the two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundments and the lack of a breeze together, and what you get is a daylong sauna.

"That's OK," Helms said. "I know how to deal with that. You have to take the bad with the good, and dealing with the heat's not so bad."

Especially not when you're catching fish - and on those two lakes few fishermen can catch bass like Helms does. After 35 years on Sardis and Enid, he knows how to deal with the heat and how to find and catch fish; he's learned how to make the dog days work for him.

It doesn't hurt, Helms notes, to keep one eye on the coming months. He knows that the transition from summer to winter, which lasts all fall, brings the best fishing of the year at both of the lakes. That's a refreshing thought.

"I don't think there's any doubt that if you pooled 100 fishermen who fish for bass regularly on Sardis and Enid, you'd get 100 of them to tell you that the fall is the best period even though the lakes are going through dramatic changes," Helms said. "Once we get through August, which is productive, the Corps starts the process of dropping from summer pool to winter pool, and that really turns on the fish.

"At Sardis, they have to drop the lake about 28 feet to reach low pool, and that takes the entire fall period to accomplish. As they are drawing it down, they are creating current and that triggers a bass bite that lasts for months."

So sit back and learn. Today's class is Bass in Transition 101. Professor Helms will take us through the end of the dog-day cycle of August and September right through to December.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

NIGHT CLASS: AUGUST ON THE BIG WATER

The best way to escape the heat on Sardis and Enid is to fish at night.

"It is the only way to beat the heat," Helms emphasized. "A lot of people don't like the idea of fishing at night, but once you've done it and learn how to catch them, you will love it. It is amazing."

Actually, according to Helms, there's not a whole lot to distinguish fishing in the heat of the afternoon and at night, except for two things: Night's more comfortable, and the fish relate to the bottom in a rather different way. "Otherwise, you're fishing in the same areas for the same fish you'd be fishing for in the afternoon," he explained. "The thing about summer fish on Sardis and Enid is that they don't move very much. Once you locate a school of fish on a deep point or river bend, you can fish that school of bass for a month or more without fear of them moving."

The prime nights to fish come in the week of the full moon in July, August and September (only if it's early in the month, in the case of the last), but any night you can be on the lake is a good one.

Helms starts his night trips before sunset in order to get a chance at some fun topwater action before dark. "We get a topwater bite in the summer in the old sloughs off the river right at sunrise and again at sunset," he offered. "A lot of people don't think you can catch a fish on top when it's so hot, but you find an old cypress slough, and I promise you that you can. That's how you are going to catch your biggest fish that time of the year. You can walk a plug in shallow water around cypress trees and wham! They'll knock the fool out of it.

"The problem is that you only have those two little windows at sunrise and sunset. Then you have to go back and fish deep, whether you're fishing through the day or night. On Sardis and Enid, in the heat of the summer, the biggest schools of quality fish will be relating to the bends of the old river runs. They will be in 12 to 14 feet of water right next to where it falls to 20 to 25 feet. The best spots are in the outside bends of the river where a lot of structure like stumps were left on the edge of the channel. They love to get in that structure and hang out. Once they find a good spot like that in the summer, they stay there."

At night, Helms ties either of two lures: an 8- to 10-inch plastic worm or a black/blue jig with a trailer. "The key is to stay with a dark color pattern, either black or a dark purple or something just as dark," he said. "On worms, I fish them strictly on a Texas rig, because at night, fish tend to relate more to the bottom. In the heat of the afternoon, if I'm fishing a worm, I'm fishing it Carolina-rigged, because the fish tend to suspend up off the bottom.

"On Sardis, my favorite spot is the mouth to Toby Tubby Creek, out near the river. There are a lot of humps, mounds and structure out there to hold fish. Clear Creek is another one with deep cover close to the river that produces a lot of fish. A lot of the other creeks have structure, too, so you need to check them all.

"At Enid, I like Bynum Creek on the north shore because it's close to the river channel and has deep structure falling into the river. On the south side, I like the points off Dew Creek and Longbranch Creek."

Once you get the hang of fishing by feel at night, Helms said, you fall in love with it. "I did," he mused. "I learned that the fish are more active at night. Once I learned that they will eat a worm or jig at night, and stuck with it, I was amazed at how productive it can be. I have sat on a school at night and caught 40 or 50 bass and never moved. You can fish it all day long and catch a few. At night, you catch a bunch."

DOG-DAY AFTERNOONS

Helms' daytime August trips always begin in the river sloughs at first light.

"No doubt about that," he said. "I always go up the river and find a cypress slough and work a topwater. It doesn't last but about 30 minutes or an hour at the longest, but it's worth it. Then you have to start heading back to deep water and finding them on the edge of the river and on points.

"Points get the most attention, so I like looking for bends in the old rivers away from the points and then fishing the outside where there's structure. In the morning, after sunrise and up through about lunch, you can get away with fishing with crankbaits. I use a Series 200 or Series 300 Bandit crankbait, not only because I work for Bandit as plant manager here in Sardis, but also because they catch more fish for me."

The Series 200 lures dive down to about 5 to 8 feet, while the Series 300s get to the 8- to 12-foot level. "I prefer catching them in the summer on crankbaits," Helms continued, "because we can cover a lot of water and work those shelves on the edge of the river. After lunch, in the heat of the day in August and September, you pretty much have to switch off to a Carolina-rigged worm, because the fish get less active and go deeper."

FALL TRANSITION: SEPTEMBER THROUGH NOVEMBER

Because he can fish a crankbait all day, Helms really loves it once the dam is opened and the water is being drawn down to winter pool levels at Sardis and Enid.

"They usually start drawing down at Sardis in late August or early September, and they won't hit winter pool until sometime in December," he said. "At Enid it can start later and end sooner. During the drawdown, on both lakes, it's like magic."

A smaller reservoir, Enid doesn't exhibit as dramatic a drop in elevation along its shoreline. The impact of the drawdown is immediate on bass. According to Helms, a lot of fishermen think that it's the change in weather that moves the fish, but he insists that it's the water level.

"When they create the current and the water starts falling, even only a fraction of an inch a day, fish notice it," he said. "They just get more active, and they bunch up more in tighter schools. The schools stay together, just like they do in the summer, but they move with the drop in the water. Current will pull them out to the river channel, and as it really drops, it will pull them down the lake toward the dam.

"You might find a big school in one spot one week, and the next week the school will still be together but only a quarter-mile away. They move that much, especially in October and November."

The night-fishing tapers off in September and is over by the middle of the month or after the full moon. And that's OK - because even though it can still be a little warm outside in late September or October, the fishing action is enough to keep your mind off it.

In the fall, Sardis and Enid (and, for that matter, their cousin Grenada Lake, about 40 miles south) differ from most bass waters in terms of the way the fish act. At Barnett Reservoir, for instance, bass move up out of the deep water and head toward the shallows. Fishermen who've been pounding schools near the river channel start finding fish around dying lily pads.

"That's because there is no big drawdown at most lakes other than those big flood-control impoundments in north Mississippi," said Ron Garavelli, chief of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "When you have a big drop in water level, fish react differently. Instinct tells them to pull out with the water, and instead of going shallow, they follow channels to deep water."

God bless them for that, Helms says. "It makes fishing so much better," he noted. "All the fish that were either up the river in the sloughs or up in the creek coves will be pulled out to the deeper areas, like the creek mouths and main lake points. In the summer, that's where most of the fish are. In the fall during the draw down, that's where all the fish are.

"It's still a challenge in that you have to find the hot spots. Like I said, the drawdowns move fish. They will not stay on the same points like in the summer. In September, at the start of the draw down, you have schools on the bends of the river and on points from the river to the dam. As the fall progresses, those schools on the upper end will be pulled with the water toward the dam."

Logic would suggest, then, that as the fall progresses, the fishing gets better, because more schools are stacked on fewer spots. "That is so true," Helms said with a twinkle in his eye. "You get into October and early November, the bass will be stacked on the river bends and on the points closer to the dam, and you can really go to work on them with crankbaits. You can wear yourself out in a day's time. They are hungry - I think the current created by the draw down actually increases their desire to eat.

"I love to sit in the river channel on the edge of a bend that has a stump row in 8 to 12 feet of water. You can throw a crankbait up in the shallower water, drag it through the stumps and off into the river and they hammer it. All day long they hammer it. You don't have to worry so much about changing to a worm or a jig like you do in the summer - the crankbait bite lasts all day long."

Helms offered one other tip for the drawdown period. "Get ready to move," he recommended. "When you get on a school with a crankbait and start catching them, you can work on one school on one spot for a while and then the bite will stop, especially at Sardis. Then you just move to the next bend or point and start chunking. You have to do this all day long - work one spot and move to the next. It's good to have eight or 10 spots you can hit.

"At Enid, it's different. You don't need that many hotspots. What bass do there is hit for 30 minutes or an hour and then stop for 30 minutes or an hour; then they turn right back on and bite like crazy again for 30 minutes or an hour. This can go on all day, so all you need is two places near each other and you can switch up. When the fish are on at one spot, fish them. When they slow, move to the other spot, and then keep changing one to the other."

Helms prefers Sardis for several reasons. "Obviously, there's the size difference," he said. "Even at winter pool, it is a much bigger lake than Enid, and it has more fishing holes. Both lakes get a lot of fishing pressure, but on Sardis, because of the size, it isn't as bad, or at least it doesn't seem like it. Another thing that its massive size affords you, especially in the summer, is more variety in patterns that work. On a given day in August, there may be six different patterns I can fish that produce bass, from fishing the sloughs in 4 to 5 feet of water to fishing topwater along the rocks at the dam to fishing 18 to 25 feet of water off the points with a Carolina rig. I like that variety.

"Another reason I like Sardis is because I've always fished it more. I know it better. It's not as good as it used to be, I don't think. The really hot period on Sardis was 1985 to 1990. It was truly phenomenal how many big fish you could catch in a day back then. You still catch a lot of fish now, but you just don't see the numbers of big fish - 5 pounds and up - like we used to. You catch 10 fish on Sardis now, and you're likely to have some small keepers and a several that fall in the slot."

The slot limit on Sardis is 14 to 18 inches. Bass of that size must be released.

Actually, according to Helms, Enid has more big fish. "If you catch 10 fish at Enid, odds are good that one of them will be a big one," he asserted, "again, 5 pounds or bigger. That's been the case the last five years or so."

Either way you go - Sardis or Enid - you can, with a little work, find bass throughout the transition period of the fall drawdown, when the moving water bunches the fish up on th

e points and the bends. You just have to find the productive ones.



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