I remember well one of the first times I fished for bass from a canoe.
The proprietor of a local bait shop, when I inquired if any of customers had been catching fish lately, told me about a small backcountry river in the heart of a national wildlife refuge.
“It’s a remote stream,” he said. “It’s full of blowdowns and snags. A big boat won’t make it through, but you can slide a canoe in at a county road bridge and fish it just fine. A buddy of mine was there last week and caught 20 decent largemouths in just a little over an hour. And he didn’t see another soul while he was there.”
The man pulled an atlas from beneath the counter and showed me the put-in point. The next day, as the sun was peaking over the horizon, a buddy and I were there. We carried his canoe down the steep, muddy stream bank and slid it in. We loaded a small drink cooler, a couple of fishing outfits apiece and a small tacklebox full of lures, and then shoved off and began paddling downstream.
The shores were lined with cypress trees and button willow thickets. It looked like ideal bass habitat, and pretty soon, we proved it was.
I tied on a 1-ounce jig, added a No. 11 pork frog, then cast toward the cypress knees. The lure hit the swirling current just shy of a huge cypress, and I started working it back with a jerky retrieve.
The lure didn’t go far before I saw a flash of silver and felt a solid hit. Instantly, a 3-pound largemouth went airborne. The next 30 seconds of acrobatics were enough to make an Olympic gymnast blush with shame, but I soon gained the upper hand and boated the fish.
“Way to go,” Jim said, smiling. “Our first bass of the day. And it’s a dandy.”
Jim took the next bass at the mouth of a feeder creek. Casting beside a treetop, he waltzed his jig-and-eel through the bass refuge.
A not-so-subtle tap telegraphed the largemouth’s strike. Jim’s pole rainbowed when he set the hook. I watched excitedly as the 4-pounder tailwalked across the water. Slugging it out to the finish, the emerald-hued fish finally came to the boat. Jim released it, as I had done the first.
From many of our selected targets, a feisty bigmouth raced out to wallop our offerings. By the time we canoed to our take-out point, we had caught 16 largemouths ranging from 2 to 5 pounds, and a host of smaller fish.
That day was a turning point for me. You see, prior to that time, it never occurred to me that a canoe offered special advantages over other crafts used for bass fishing. I learned, however, that some waters, like that small backcountry river, can be properly fished no other way. A canoe provides access impossible in a bass boat or even a small johnboat. A canoe carries you past snags, over boulders and around gravel bars that larger craft couldn’t navigate. A canoe lets you fish where other anglers rarely go.
You can fish from a canoe on almost any type of water, of course. A pleasant experience can be had in a quiet cove on a large reservoir, or floating a popular stream in a national park. It’s adventuresome forays into the backcountry, however—trips to the back of beyond where few anglers go—that make paddle bassing among the most memorable of all ways to pursue black bass.
Remember, however, that proper pre-trip planning is very important when you’re float fishing in a canoe. If you’re fishing in mountainous areas, for example, you should know the class rating of the stream you plan to visit, based on the international scale of difficulty. The best bassing waters tend to be Class I or II, rated Easy or Medium because there are few or no obstructions or rapids, and the correct course is easy to determine. Class III, IV, V and VI streams are rated Difficult to the Limit of Navigability. You’ll probably want to avoid these. The water moves too fast for accurate casting, and the dangers are considerable.
You also should determine if you’ll be able to fish a pool or two of the river then paddle back to your put-in point, or if you’ll need to arrange a shuttle—using your own vehicles or service from a local outfitter—from your take-out point back to your launch site. If the latter method is your best option, be sure you’ll be able to navigate from the put-in to the take-out in the amount of time you have allotted to fish, or be prepared, if necessary, to camp overnight. If camping is involved, you may need permission from private landowners.
A canoe will carry you, your buddy and a surprising amount of gear, making it ideal for extended backcountry fishing excursions. You can carry some luxury items such as air mattresses and a tent, but you’ll probably need to limit the number of rods and reels, and condense your fishing tackle into one small tacklebox.
If you rent a canoe, check its condition thoroughly. Call the outfitter’s attention to any damage before you accept it. Carry three paddles per canoe—one for you, one for your buddy and a spare. Have a life jacket for each person, and wear it or keep it properly secured in the canoe and readily accessible.
When you cast off, be sure your cargo and passengers are balanced from side to side and end to end according to weather and water conditions, and the canoeists’ and cargo’s weight. Pack your clothes, bedding, etc. in waterproof float bags, and secure the bundles with shock cords to prevent shifting. When you stop to camp or fish, carry your canoe well up from the water’s edge. Stow it upside down in an area out of the wind.
If you canoe where portages are necessary, know how to portage the right way. A single man can bear a regular canoe tilted back on his shoulders, if you fasten two paddles on top of the middle thwarts to form a portage yolk. On a long overland hike, wrap extra clothing around the portion of the paddle blades resting on your shoulders to prevent irritation. Don’t exhaust yourself. The pace should be comfortable and as untiring as possible. Let one man carry the gear, the other the canoe, and swap places as necessary.
Pick your fishing gear carefully so you’re not overloaded, but be sure to stow a spare rod and reel and extra lures in a safe place in case of mishaps. Many companies make great multi-piece pack rod combos ideal for this kind of fishing.
Pick a time to travel when weather conditions are good, then prepare yourself for the adventure of a lifetime.
There’s a little cypress lake on a 17,000-acre wildlife area I once only dreamed about fishing. I walked to it often while squirrel hunting, and knew it probably harbored abundant largemouths, if only because of its remoteness. The lake was a mile from the nearest road. It’s doubtful many people ever fished there.
I took a friend one time, at the end of a hunt. “Would you look at that?!” he exclaimed. “I bet there’s bass in there long as your leg. We gotta come back and fish it.”
“Maybe you haven’t noticed,” I said. “There aren’t any roads coming in here, and there’s no way to fish it from the bank.”
“Then we’ll bring my canoe,” he said.
I didn’t relish the thought of portaging a canoe a mile through the woods, but the prospect of fishing that little lake was too much to resist. The next day we did it, and to my surprise, carrying my buddy’s canoe wasn’t much worse than toting a big tacklebox. In less than an hour, we traversed the woods and launched the canoe. And though we didn’t catch any bass as long as our legs, the fishing was extraordinary. It wouldn’t have mattered if it wasn’t, though. The experience of fishing a scenic lake that probably hadn’t been visited by another angler in decades was enough to make the effort worthwhile.
Bassing from a canoe may seem like a lot of work at times, but almost invariably, the extra efforts prove worthwhile. No other form of bass fishing can better soothe the soul of a man weary of the modern world. Best of all, paddle bassing makes memories you’ll always cherish.