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Mix & Match: James River & Gaston Bass

Mix & Match: James River & Gaston Bass

Here are some expert tips on how to catch bass this month from two very contrasting fisheries here in Virginia. (May 2009)

When they were much younger, a fishing buddy gave the bass-fishing Morris brothers of Virginia Beach the nicknames "Drivin' Ivan" and "Ridin' Rick."

By whatever names they're known now, Ivan Morris and younger brother Rick Morris remain two of the Old Dominion's best bass fishermen. They grew up fishing just about anywhere they could wet a line, and they're really experts on the waters closest to their homes: the James River and Lake Gaston.

Rick Morris, a pro fisherman who was runner-up in the 2006 Bassmasters Classic and a three-time Classic qualifier, has a three-word answer to almost any question about fishing the lower James River in May: "dead-end water."

Ivan Morris, a force in local bass tournaments who has narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Classic, has a three-word answer for the same questions about fishing on Lake Gaston in May: "main-lake pockets."

"There isn't much difference from one end of the river to the other when it comes to fishing in May," Rick Morris said. "It's basically spawning time. In tidal water, bass tend to spawn a little later, because of the current.

"If you were to fish Buggs Island (John H. Kerr Reservoir), the spawn would be around the full moon in April. If that's near the end of April, the spawn will last into May. But in tidal water like the James, the spawn will be in May -- even into June."

And that's where "dead-end water" comes into play.

"Obviously, you want to fish the backs of creeks and canals, places that don't have a lot of current flow -- places where the water just rises and falls a little -- dead-end water," Rick Morris said. "Dead-end water is going to warm up quicker; it's going to be clearer and cleaner and better for sun penetration; and it's going to be more protected from the elements: wind, water and current. And they've got to get out of the current to spawn.

"In the lower James and Chickahominy (river), they'll come out of the rivers before they spawn. They want manmade places that are dredged out like all the barge pits up toward Richmond or the manmade harbors that were dredged out for those waterfront communities farther down the river."

Rick Morris divides "dead-end water" into two categories: natural and manmade. Natural dead-end water is typically a backwater area -- maybe a slough off a main creek or river with no current -- filled with cypress trees, and usually featuring a sandy bottom.

"You don't want to fish places where the water can get muddy," he said. "You can go in the backs of some creeks that are clean and clear, but then they get a big rain and it muddies up. Bass won't spawn in that kind of place because their eggs will get covered up and die.

"But if you can find some natural dead-end water that won't dirty up, that's better than manmade. Those places will be awesome."

As far as manmade dead-end water, dredging is the key. In harbors for waterfront communities, bulkheads are the norm; there are plenty of docks; and the dredging has removed about all of the silt from the bottom. Plus, instead of there being a lot of horizontal tidal flow, the water movement against the bulkheads is more vertical, and bass will feel more comfortable moving in to spawn in those areas.

"Fish are going to find places to spawn that they won't have to leave," Rick Morris said. "A place with a lot of tidal movement will affect the spawn. That's why places that have been dredged out are great -- the water just comes in and goes out a little bit."

Once you've zeroed in on the kinds of areas bass will use for spawning -- and where they feed up right before the spawn, then the fun begins. Rick Morris puts his trolling motor in the water and just fishes -- pitching and flipping soft-plastic baits from RPM Custom Baits.

"You need to do a lot of pitching and flipping, and it's hard to beat a lizard," he said. "They'll hit a lizard year 'round, and it's great around the spawn. Depending on the color of the water, you can fish black, purple, watermelon or green pumpkin. When in doubt, pull out green pumpkin.

"I'll flip or pitch every little stick-up, dock post, duck blind, cypress tree and bulkhead. A lot of people will pass up bulkheads, but they can really hold fish. If I'm in a canal or on a bank that looks really good, I may make a couple or three flips or pitches to every piece of cover I think might hold a fish, but nothing out of control -- I'm not going to make a dozen pitches to anything."

If you make enough flips and pitches to good pieces of cover in spawning areas that meet Morris' description of "dead-end water," you're bound to run into plenty of bass. Unlike the bigger, heavier chunks found in reservoirs, river bass are likely to be a little slimmer but just as mean from fighting the current most of their lives. River fishermen, especially those in tidal areas, understand that a five-fish limit of 3-pounders is unusual, to say the least. A bigger limit is cause for celebration.

Morris has a couple of tricks up his sleeve in case the dead-end water bite is dead. He'll fish points on the outside edges of backwaters, because they're commonly staging areas for fish moving in and out. Current isn't as big a no-no in those areas, because fish are not likely to actively spawn there. But they'll stage there and feed, especially on the side of the point that's out of the current. In those situations, Morris will use a small crankbait, a spinnerbait or a Chatterbait.

And he'll pay special attention to lily pad fields or grass flats.

"They will spawn in a pad field," he said. "They'll spawn around the stems of the pads. By May, the pads will be up, so you have to pay attention to places like that and fish them. You need to fish the pads that are not totally out of the water on low tide, because the bass will leave those when the water gets too low.

"A lot of times, you can't get your boat back there in the pads to flip or pitch, but you can catch 'em making long casts with a buzzbait or a frog."

As the end of May approaches, Rick Morris will look at a lot of the same areas, but different parts of those areas, because he said spawning fish and hungry post-spawn females share different parts of the same general area. You just use different baits.

"By Memorial Day, I'm going to absolutely be looking for topwater fish -- buzzbait or spinnerbait fish," he said. "No. 1, yo

u'll have fish that are spawning, and you'll have fish guarding the fry, looking up toward the surface. And the big females that have left the beds will want to eat. They leave, come out on the end of the flat and go to feeding aggressively. You can catch 'em on a spinnerbait, a Chatterbait, a buzzbait or a small crankbait.

"Flats are better on high water. Bass will get on a duck blind on a flat after they move out, as long as there's plenty of water on it. And they'll get on grass. You take Chippokes Creek, for example. The grass will start growing, the bank grass will be all standing up, and on high tide, those fish will get into the grass. On low tide, they'll pull back out on the end of the flat."

Ivan Morris, who has a home on Lake Gaston and spends several days a week there bass fishing, is in the mood for main-lake pockets in May because he says that's where the best action remains.

"You can fish Lake Gaston three main ways in May: main-lake pockets and points, go up the river and fish Hawtree Creek and the flats, or fish the big creeks," Morris said. "My main pattern in May is to fish for spawning and post-spawn fish in main-lake pockets.

"You've still got spawning fish going in early May -- especially up the lake -- but I don't fish up as often as I fish mid-lake and down," he said. "I usually fish from Lyons Creek to the dam, fishing a lot of main-lake pockets and pockets off some of the larger creeks.

"Early in May, you're definitely going to have spawning fish, and I'll be looking for them. And I've won tournaments on Memorial Day weekend on bedding fish."

But Morris isn't looking to actually see spawning fish; he's just fishing in areas they frequent.

"Main-lake pockets are the last places that bass spawn. You're looking for key spots in those pockets that are holding those fish, and you're also catching post-spawn fish," he said. "They'll stay in those pockets for a while, and it doesn't take long to find them."

Morris usually rigs up a couple of spinning outfits when he heads into Lake Gaston's pockets. To the first, he'll have 20-pound braid spooled on his reel and a floating worm rigged "wacky-style" on the business end of the outfit. On the other, he'll spool up with 10-pound fluorocarbon and tie on a Senko, rigged weedless on a tiny worm weight or fished on a 3/32-ounce Shakey Head jig.

"My favorite way to fish is to take a floating worm and cast way out ahead of my boat as I go down a bank," Ivan Morris said. "I don't want to see the fish. You're just casting way ahead of the boat and working your floating worm along. You can go into places and just wear them out. I'll usually catch 'em before I'll ever see 'em, but if I do see 'em bedding, I can turn around and work 'em with a Senko.

"If they're really shallow or suspended, I'd rather use the Wacky worm because it won't sink as fast. If they're down on the bottom, I'll use the little Senko and a real light head. The last couple of years, the wacky-worm bite hasn't been a big deal, but I've had a lot of Senko fish. But you can catch a quality limit in one pocket, just throwing the Senko, letting it sink, lifting it up, letting it sink back down -- working it out to 5 or 6 feet deep before you make your next cast."

Morris said that bass will stage in pre-spawn mode on the way into the pockets, spawn there, and stage on the way back out. If he thinks the spawn is just getting underway in the pockets, he's more likely to fish a floating worm rigged wacky-style. If he thinks there are more post-spawn fish around, he's going to go more with a Senko.

"It really depends on when the spawn takes place, but you do get a long period of time when you can fish pockets and catch fish. As you get toward the end of the spawn, bass won't be sitting on certain spots; they'll be cruising a little deeper, but they'll stay in the pockets," he said.

When he's in a pocket, Morris is paying a little bit of attention to cover. He likes, as you would expect, to fish around docks and piers, along with any shallow stumps he stumbles on -- a lot of landowners have removed them from in front of their shoreline. There are enough docks in main-lake pockets on Lake Gaston that you can't fish them all in a week, much less a day.

"You can fish a wacky worm around docks and do great," he admitted.

Another reason that Ivan Morris likes to fish main-lake pockets is because they're where a lot of Lake Gaston's bream spawn -- beginning around the full moon in May -- and fishing for bass around bream beds has become a sure-fire way to catch largemouths.

"When you get to the bream spawn, the post-spawn bass stay packed in those pockets. I can get in there and work the edges of those bream beds, making real long casts with a Senko or wacky worm, and catch some real dogs," he said. "I've seen 'wolfpacks' or 3- and 4-pound bass in main-lake pockets around bream beds. I was astounded the first time I saw one. I saw about 30 bass just hanging around the outside of a bream bed. You can take a Senko on a super-light weight and a 5/0 hook and make a long cast, let it drop to the bottom, let it sit there, lift it up and let it slide back down, and you'll bust 'em."

"The shad spawn at Gaston isn't really red-hot like it is on other lakes -- like Buggs Island -- but the bream-bed bite is," he said. "And Gaston is so different, anyway. It's more like a river with pockets than a big reservoir.

Toward the end of May, Ivan Morris also keeps an eye out for Gaston's hydrilla to show up. The aquatic grass has helped make the lake's bass fishing great since it first showed up in the late 1980s.

"It depends on the spring, but by the end of May, if you start getting those first little sprigs of grass up, you can get a really good Carolina-rig bite in there," he said. "You can drag a lizard or a Brush Hog in there. That's one thing I look for if the pocket bite isn't working out. I'll go out and find those places where the little sprigs of hydrilla have grown up about 4 or 5 inches and work them with a Carolina rig. You can drag your bait out to about 7 or 8 or 10 feet and catch 'em. I've had some really good days doing that."

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