Anglers looking for a change of pace from the lakes this month should try fishing something skinnier. (June 2006)
River bass used to get no respect. Over the years, most of the attention focused on bass throughout the country has been concentrated on reservoirs in which bass grow to enormous proportions. But there are nice fish in the rivers, too, and serious bass anglers are starting to take notice.
Take the Red River, for example: Its system of pools, locks and oxbows produces some of the best largemouth fishing to be found in the northern Louisiana. Its five water-control structures might make it seem more like a series of reservoirs, but it's in fact a stretch of natural river, and one that harbors some serious bass fishing.
Back in 1997, B.A.S.S. held a championship on pools 4 and 5, and their pro anglers broke the record for the most pounds of fish ever caught during any federation tournament. In 1999, the same area broke records for total tourney weight and one-day catch: Tour pro Michael Iaconelli brought in 44 pounds, 15 ounces of bass in a tournament that saw 51 anglers take in 1,422 pounds, 6 ounces of bass in three days of fishing, according to B.A.S.S.
Since then the Red River has been red-hot, giving anglers a shot at catching lots of fish while offering a legitimate chance of reeling in a prized wallhanger. And -- by taking your river fishing to a new level through the use some offbeat tactics -- you can be one of those anglers.
BIG BASS IN HARD TO FISH PLACES
The waters of the Red River can be swift, which can pose a great problem for baitfish. Smaller fish like shad have a difficult time navigating current-laden water, so they often seek refuge in eddies that form in the river. These eddies are simply areas of slack water that might form just downstream of a logjam, or in a pool off the main river channel or off a bend in a deep creek. Bass have figured this program out, and will lie in ambush in these eddies, looking for an easy meal.
Targeting eddies is fairly easy: It simply requires the ability to hold position over one for long enough without running into it and disturbing any fish that might be there. I know that bass are not particularly spooky fish, but I've had some experience fishing eddies in the rivers, and whenever we ended up too close, it seemed as if the fish would shut off.
Try throwing a small spinnerbait in first to see if you get any aggressive responses. Make casts right against the bank and work from there; many of the bass in these eddies seem to want to hold tight to the banks and feed from there.
If that doesn't do the job, switch over to a Sassy Shad fished on a Carolina rig and crawl it slowly across the bottom. If the water's clear, go with the regular shad color; in stained water, use chartreuse or tomato. This setup mimics a wounded shad very closely and is a highly underrated choice. Most anglers think only of Carolina-rigging worms or lizards, but soft-plastic shad can be real killers.
Some of the best action is found on points of the main river channel. A variety of structure types will be involved.
"Some of the bigger river bass like to hold tight to structure in 12 to 20 feet of water where there is a sharp dropoff," said Warren Breaux, a Louisiana river bass expert with 40 years of experience. "If you watch your graph closely, you will find these fish just about logs and humps that come off the main shorelines, especially right where you have a sharp bend. Those are some of the best spots to target."
Breaux starts with crankbaits throughout the year, beginning with a Bagley Bugling B in craw/chartreuse or black/gold. "If the water is really turbid, I'll use the craw/chartreuse but if the sun is up and the water looks like tea, I go with black/gold," he said.
He fishes the crankbaits with a medium retrieve by marking the structure and making pattern casts toward the shoreline. "It's important to mark right where you get a bite," he offered, "because a lot of times there will be a bunch of them right over one particular piece of structure, and they will not be terribly cooperative elsewhere in the same spot."
Another sort of area that Breaux likes to target is in the mouths of bayous entering the river channel, especially the larger ones. "If there's a lot of water moving through the river," he explained, "I will tie on a 6-inch black/gold flake worm on a Carolina rig and work it over the secondary points of those bayous. Sometimes you will get little eddies forming, and if you do, you can bet there will be some bass there."
The bayous themselves can also be promising for bass at this time of year. Target the first 50 yards or so of the deepest cuts and the points at which they meet the main channel of the bayou. Texas-rigged firetail or watermelon-colored worms are smart picks here, but they need to be fished slowly to yield the best results.
Jig-fishing is (to me, at least) about as exciting as watching paint dry. You've got to fish the lure very, very slowly, and you'll be lucky if in the course of a day you get a handful of bites -- but chances are good that the ones you do get will be from nice fish.
Speaking of bites: Don't expect these fish to double your rod over when they strike. The rule of thumb is to reel your slack in gently, attempting to set the hook if you feel your line start to get heavy, or feel a thump of any kind. It's better to hook and reel in a chunk of driftwood or a cola can that someone dumped in the river than to miss a nice bass.
Other possible targets in the rivers: some of the old sunken boats and pirogues you'll come across. Certain of them are visible to the naked eye; others you can only see via sonar. These can hold some quite respectable fish.
Try slow-rolling a black 1/4-ounce spinnerbait around these wrecks. I like to fish with teardrop-bladed spinners in the bayous, as my fishing logbook shows that they've produced better for me over time.
If spinners don't get the job done, go to a jig and work the spot over thoroughly. That particular wreck might be the domain of a big bass that's just not going to get up and chase anything moving faster than a snail's pace.
That said, anglers with serious patience and a penchant for locating the very biggest bass in the rivers might want to focus on some of the structure found on the main body of the river out as deep as 25 feet. Those targeting deep bass on the Red River use the kinds of lures mentioned above but, instead of targeting rocky bluffs, hit ledges in the river channel, logjams and dropoffs.
According to tournament veteran and fishing guide Roger
Bacon, some of the biggest bass do indeed come from deep water, but they're not easy to catch.
"These bass are big for a reason," he remarked. "They avoided being caught when they were younger, and as they get older, they just don't move around a lot and become more reluctant to take a lure."
To get to some of the deeper bass, Bacon recommends, work a Senko lure. "It's a slow-moving bait," he said, "but it has such a lifelike action that it can really grab the attention of bass that might not otherwise take a lure. It's one of those lures you just throw out and let it do its own thing."
If currents are too strong to permit freelining a plastic bait, crankbaits slow-rolled over structure can pay big dividends. If you run the river channel and notice fish suspended over sunken logs and other structure, there's a pretty fair chance that a lot of those are bass. Fishing with a crankbait like a Fat Free Shad or a Bomber 9A is a savvy means of locating those fish.
Actually, trolling these types of areas isn't a bad idea -- and it's an approach that certainly allows you to cover more ground. Simply rig your crankbaits in rod holders, let the line out so that you can reach the desired depth and move your boat slowly. The hardest part will be learning the correct trolling speed. Start as slow as you can go; gradually increase your speed.
"Breakaway" rigs are also effective for trolling, and will enable you to use soft plastics like a Sassy Shad or other baitfish imitators. This requires using two rod-and-reel outfits: one to fish with and the other to get your bait down to the depth at which you want to fish.
Hook a soft plastic rigged on braided line; then, take a rod rigged with a 1-ounce weight attached to a swivel, and attach it to your line with a thin rubber band tied to the swivel and to the braid. Let the baited line out first, and then attach the rubber band and weighted line out once you have, say, 20 yards of line behind the boat. This will allow you to troll your bait freely a substantial distance behind the boat, and to adjust the depth at which it runs. Once you have a fish on, the pressure will cut the thin rubber band on the sharp, braided line and let you fight the fish freely.
Troll plastics slowly; you might want to start by using your trolling motor. If that's not doing the trick, speed things up a bit by switching to the big motor.
Another tactic that might seem totally offbeat, and that's certainly not one much employed in deep water, is known as "dead-worming." This involves anchoring out over a particular piece of structure, casting out a large soft-plastic worm on a Texas rig and letting it sit; raise it up and down gently every 20 seconds or so. The point is to let it sit so that the flow of the current moves the worm, perhaps enticing a hard-to-impress trophy bass to take a bite.
FUN WITH SCHOOLIES
Schooling bass don't get very big, but they're sure fun to catch, and there are lots of them in some of the bayous and oxbows during the summer. Add topwater plugs to the occasion, and you can get in on some truly exciting fishing action in these backwaters at this time of year.
Last fall I had the pleasure of fishing with Capt. Ronnie Doucet of Cajun Outback. We had a ball watching bass blow up on a new topwater soft plastic from ReAction Lures called the Ribbit. I found this frog to be quite easy to fish, and attractive to the bass, which hit it with vigor.
"That's one of the key lures we've been catching our bass on," Doucet said. "It's pretty much weedless, and fishes a lot like a buzzbait -- and the bass just eat it up."
While evacuated from Hurricane Rita, I met up with a friend to fish the Red River, and threw the Ribbit in a winding cut early in the morning. I hammered the bass. Most of them were in the 1/2- to 1 1/2-pound range, but I had a very enjoyable time with them. Many bass of that size will be encountered throughout the system, quite of few of which will take surface lures like the Ribbit, Tiny Torpedoes, white 1/4-ounce spinners and small buzzbaits.
Look for schools of shad in the bayous, especially in the cuts intersecting the main body of water. At this time of year, a combination of moving water and shad will bring about the conditions you want when seeking schooling Red River bass.
Speed too is important. The smaller bass act completely different from their larger, wiser relatives: They're willing to work harder to get what they think is food. Working surface plugs with a fast retrieve can prove extremely profitable; you'll very likely get more strikes than you would by fishing as if you were after a big fish. When the bass are schooling, you're not going to catch any monsters -- so enjoy the ride and fish for little guys with as much zeal as you would for their grandparents.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Officials with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries keep the Red River stocked with largemouths of the Florida variety. The Red River Waterways Commission donated $50,000 to the LDWF Foundation, which then distributed the funds to the LDWF for the stocking of 58,000 Florida bass fingerlings into the river last December.
An LDWF press release noted that the bass are pure Florida-strain largemouths certified to be entirely free of largemouth bass virus. The 5- to 7-inch fish, considered Phase II fingerlings, are being released to help introduce their superior genetic traits to the Red River, which will in turn result in larger bass for local anglers.
Quoted in the same release, Tim Morrison, LDWF program manager, said, "LDWF is very grateful for RRWC's generous donation that will improve the bass population in the Red River. These Florida largemouth bass will improve both the quantity and quality of the catch, which is great news for Louisiana anglers."
RRWC officials point out that the LDWF stocks millions of Florida-strain largemouth bass into Louisiana waters each year. With the LDWF continually stocking this unique and productive river system, the future for bass and bass anglers looks promising indeed.