September 30, 2010
From the Tennessee border downstream to Wilkinson County, the old Mississippi River cutoffs offer a world of bass fishing waters. Here's a closer look at this spring action. (April 2008)
With the right tactics, it's possible to catch largemouths from the oxbows regardless of water levels.
Photo by Polly Dean.
Like most Mississippi River bass anglers, Lena's Newt Ford learned to let the rise and fall of river levels guide his selection of fishing tactics in the oxbows connected to the Father of Waters. He would look for more-stable waters, and go elsewhere else during rapid increases or decreases.
However, the luxury of making that choice -- afforded most regular anglers as a matter of course -- wasn't available to Ford when he was participating in a tournament. On the day of a contest, he had to fish whether the lakes were holding steady or heading up or down. Levels meant nothing.
"That's one of the reasons I learned to fish through any condition," said the successful tournament angler, who worships the river lakes. "And I eventually learned how to catch fish in each. I'm glad I did, too, because I love those river lakes. And I particularly love to catch those river bass: They are always so mean, and strong -- and they fight like no other bass."
Ford is so fond of river lakes that he has a camp on one of his favorites, Lake Whittington, north of Greenville. But his affection isn't limited to oxbows still connected to the river: He also likes those now outside the levee. "When you start talking about fishing river oxbows, you have to break it down into two categories: river-connected and non-connected lakes," he said. "Both are entirely different fisheries.
"River-connected lakes have levels that fluctuate with the river; non-connected lakes are stable. River-connected lakes have willow trees; non-connected lakes have cypress. River-connected lakes don't have piers; non-connected lakes have a lot of boathouses and piers. And, finally, river-connected lakes are all oxbows of the Mississippi River -- and not all of the non-connected oxbows, including some of the best, were ever part of the Mississippi River."
Following Ford's definitions, then, we'll review the two types of oxbow separately.
"I fell into the same trap that most fishermen did -- and many still do -- and that was letting the river dictate fishing," Ford remarked. "River levels, or the rise and falls, don't mean as much to me as they used to. It took me a long time to realize that bass were still catchable in any situation, especially in the spring months of April and May. They'll bite -- you just have to know how to do get them to do it."
To do that, fishermen have to absorb the same lessons and break the same habits that Ford did. "First, they need to forget about always fishing the banks in the spring," he offered. "Bass fishermen in the spring get into a trap of always fishing banks, thinking bass are always shallow in the spring. I learned that they do stay shallow, but that doesn't mean they are always in shallow water -- they just stay 'shallow' in deep water."
So in Step 1 you stop chasing the shore with the rising water and pulling back to fish the original bank as the water recedes, and instead target obvious structure. "In river-connected oxbows that means willow trees, plain and simple," Ford said. "Bass relate to the willows trees in shallow water when the lake is low, and if the lake goes on a fast rise, they relate to the same willows. They don't necessarily move to shallower willows.
"I have found that most of the fish stay close to the same trees they were on, even if the trees they were on were in 5 feet of water and a week later they are in 15 or 20 feet or, two weeks later, 25 feet. They stay close to those same trees. They hang pretty tight to them, too, and when they are hungry and actively feeding -- which make them easier to catch -- they really get tight. You can catch them right on those trees."
Such behavior on the part of the fish could actually be an advantage for bass fishermen in this situation. "Here's the deal," Ford said. "When you find the fish that are biting, all of the fish that will be biting that day will be in similar water. Once you figure out two things, you will be able to stay in productive waters all day.
"First, you have to figure out the depth of water that they are in. I'm not talking about the depth the fish are suspended, but the actual depth of the water around the trees they are holding on: If it's 10 feet, then all of the fish will be in 10 feet; if it's 25 feet, then they will all be in 25 feet.
"Second, you have to figure out the depth that the fish are holding, and that's the level at which they are suspended. You need to know both of those, but once you establish them, you have put yourself in the best position to catch fish."
Fishing patterns vary. Some fishermen pull spinnerbaits right past the trees, while some others use buzzbaits adjacent to the trees' Ford uses a jig. Asked to give a list of five lures he'd want in his boat for fishing connected oxbows in April and May, he didn't hesitate.
"I'd want a jig first," he said, grinning. And then a jig, a jig, a jig -- and another jig Is that five? Well, how many ever it is, my point is I'm going to be using a jig. I rarely vary in the spring. It's dependable. Color is not important, as long as it's dark.
"But weight does matter. I use a 3/4-ounce jig because I want it to fall fast and I also want it heavy enough to crash through those thick limbs on the surface. The fast fall is probably the most important factor, because I'm fishing for the most aggressive fish. I want that lure to be falling fast, so that when it passes his face, he eats it before he knows he did it -- the classic reaction strike."
Of course, Ford's not the only angler on these waters. "I know there are a lot of other bass fishermen who are successful doing other things," he admitted. "Many use spinnerbaits; many use crankbaits. Those are baits that can be kept down in that active feeding range. But you'd be surprised how many fish are caught using buzzbaits fishing above those fish."
Another detail of fish behavior involves the choices that bass make as to the kinds of trees to hang around near. "In the spring the trees start to grow leaves, and finding those trees with green leaves is important," Ford pointed out. "I don't know the reason why, but bass only like those trees that have green leaves. Say there is a greening. The water jumps up 5 feet and then goes back down. Leaves on some of the trees will have died, and the brushy stuff at and just below the surface will b
e dying and turning brown. Bass will not be on those trees."
According to Ford, it's a popular misconception that a connected lake's bass spawn much later than do bass in regular lakes, because the water is cooler owing to melting ice and snow feeding into the river's upper-Midwest headwaters. "There may be a week or two delay, but that's it," he said. "Of all the factors in the spawning, I think water temperature is the least important. I think they instinctively know that the time is right, based on the length of daylight. Another factor is the moon phase.
"It took me a long time to learn that connected oxbow bass don't spawn on the lake bottom like other fish, because they can't. I don't know if it was instinct or not, but they obviously learned that spawning on the lake bottom was not going to work, because the lake level is usually in constant change.
"I figured out that they spawn on logs that rise and fall with the water level. These are logs that are just below the surface that have been wedged between trees. They stay in place, but go up and down with the water. That way they are pretty much at the same depth all the time, giving bass a stable place to spawn."
All of that may seem to matter little, since sight-fishing for spawning bass in river lakes is generally impossible, the water being too stained most of the time to see them. But Ford asserted, fishermen who know where the bass are spawning know where to fish.
While Ford's willow-tree pattern works throughout April and May (sometimes even later, depending on the length of the snowmelt period), eventually the water level drops inside the banks for the summer and fall. "Then it's simply a matter of moving to the steep banks and fishing those," he noted. "Buzzbaits on the banks early and then crankbaits, spinnerbaits, jigs -- whatever you've got in the tackle box -- will work. Fish will be on the bottom."
Asked to rank the top five river-connected lakes, Ford provided six: "No. 1, Ferguson; No. 2, Log Loader; No. 3, DeSoto; No. 4, Palmyra; No. 5, Whittington. And I have to include Yucatan as No. 6."
Lake Ferguson is in Washington County adjacent to Greenville; Log Loader Chute is in Bolivar County near Rosedale. Lake Whittington is also in Bolivar County, but farther south near the communities of Benoit and Bolivar. A bit farther north near Clarksdale, DeSoto Lake is in Coahoma County. Palmyra Lake is just south of Vicksburg, situated in an enclave on the far side of the river and forming the state border. Finally, Yucatan Lake is also across the river from the Grand Gulf Nuclear Plant to the northwest of Port Gibson.
"There are actually dozens of lakes, and all of them are good, and that includes many on the Mississippi side plus those in Louisiana and Arkansas, Ford stated. "I like Ferguson and Log loader the best because they have been the most consistent in recent years. It's probably not a coincidence that both of them are deep-water river ports. That's probably the key."
It's worth noting that your Mississippi fishing license is valid for the lakes on the Arkansas and Louisiana side of the Mississippi as long as the lakes can be reached by water from the river.
"The thing to know," Ford said, "is that every one of the oxbows share similar conditions: a deep and shallow side and flooded cypresses. What works on one will work on the others, albeit at different depths, due to different contours."
Many of Mississippi's best oxbow fisheries are no longer connected to the Mississippi River, and, in fact, never were.
"There are several great oxbows that were once part of the Mississippi, like Washington and Eagle, but there's even more that are in the south Delta that are so far inland from the river that it's obvious they were never connected to it," Ford explained. "Some were part of the Yazoo and Sunflower system, but as I understand it, several of them were part of the Ohio River system."
That's true, according to historians and geologists, who base their findings on fossils and shells of species native only to the Ohio River that have been found in lakes like Bee, Little Eagle and Wolf -- all inland oxbows north of Yazoo City.
"I don't care so much about their origin or their history," Ford said. "All I'm here to tell you is that all of them are great bass fishing lakes. I love them, even though they are entirely different from the connected oxbows.
"Like I said, the big difference is that they have a stable water level, but they also have totally different cover. Instead of willows they have cypress, and they have piers and boat houses that are good."
In the spring Ford looks for bass relating mostly to the banks because of the spawn. Owing to stable water levels, bass spawn on the bottom. "When April arrives, bass will be spawning and that means they will be between 6 inches to 2 feet," he said in describing the depth the largemouths use. "But forget about sight-fishing -- too stained."
Agricultural fields surround all inland oxbows, and thanks to spring run-off, the lakes stay muddy throughout the season. Even in 2007's spring drought, only a few were clear enough for sight-fishing.
"All I know is that if you throw a lizard in the shallows, and throw it enough to drag it through enough bottom, eventually you are going to put it in front of a lot of bass," Ford stated. "My feeling is that if you put a lizard in front of a bass, especially one on a bed, it's going to hit it.
"As the month progresses, the bass, especially the big sows, move off the beds and head for shallow cover to feed."
Three basic patterns are used for fishing these lakes in the spring. The first is targeting the cypress trees, followed by piers. The other is to cast to the banks. Whichever one of these is the hot pattern, that's where all of the fish are going to be.
When the fish are relating to the cypress trees and stumps, Ford said, the No. 1 choice of most fishermen is the spinnerbait, "But really anything will do," he observed. "Fish on the trees hit anything, but mostly I use jigs. I just like a jig. If I can get a jig in front of a big bass' face, he can't help it; he has to eat it.
"Spinnerbaits and even shallow crankbaits are good because they cover more water more quickly, but I still like the jig."
When the fish are under piers, Ford uses something he can skip or throw as far as possible under the structure. Obviously, a jig works for that, too.
"But when fish are actively feeding, they come out from under the pier to hit a spinnerbait or a crankbait that is thrown and retrieved parallel to the pier," Ford added.
As for fish on the banks, it doesn't really matter. Ford suggested throwing the lure you have the most confidence in. Lizards or other soft plastics, spinnerbaits, buzzbaits or shallow
crankbaits all work.
Choosing his five favorite non-connected lakes, Ford pointed to Lake Washington near Glen Alan in southern Washington County as easily No. 1. It was once a part of the Mississippi River. "It is a shallow-water fisherman's heaven," he said. "I don't care what month it is -- bass are always shallow. I've never caught a bass there over 3 feet deep, at least not in consistent numbers. The best pattern has always been shallow."
The rest of his list in order has three Ohio River system oxbows; Bee, Wolf and Little Eagle, all just north of Yazoo City. At No. 5 on the list is another Mississippi River oxbow: Eagle Lake, just north of Vicksburg.
Find more about Mississippi fishing and hunting at: MississippiGameandFish.com