Big bottomland river systems provide superb bass-fishing opportunities. Take the lower Mississippi and White rivers in my home state of Arkansas, for example. The vast network of tributaries and oxbow lakes comprising these ecosystems are favored bassing waters for thousands of Natural State anglers.
Fishing these ecosystems need be no different than fishing other prime bassing waters. Work the right cover and structure with the right lures at the right time, and you’ll catch bass. One tactic used by savvy anglers here, however, is especially productive, and few bassing aficionados know or understand it. Sometimes called “run-out fishing,” it involves fishing the “cuts” or “bottlenecks” that connect the main river with adjacent oxbow lakes. This tactic works best following periods of high water.
To understand this type of fishing, you must first understand the natural cycle that makes it possible. In a nutshell, it works like this.
The water level in a bottomland river varies throughout the year, and from year to year. Following periods of extended rainfall, a river may rise 10 to 20 feet or more, flooding adjacent lowlands. As the water rises, it spills over into floodplain oxbow lakes. When water falls again, connections between the river and oxbows are severed.
Bass anglers should pay particular attention to the latter part of this phenomenon, known as the “run-off.” As the river level falls and overflow waters recede from the floodplain, there comes a point when the only connections between an oxbow and its parent stream are small chutes or “run-outs” created by low points in the topography. In some cases, only one run-out exists; sometimes there are several. All run-outs, however, serve up extraordinary bass fishing for savvy anglers.
The key to run-out fishing is timing. The best fishing occurs during the few days before the river/oxbow connection is completely severed. Water constricted in the run-out chutes increases in velocity. Crawfish and other forage animals are pulled by current into the rushing stream of water and adjacent areas. Bass gather in great numbers to gorge on the resulting feast.
Some fish hold near cover at the head of the run-out, in the lake. Others position themselves at the run-out’s tail, where rushing water meets the river. All feed ravenously on the bounty before them, and any lure drifted through or along the run-out area is likely to be taken. Cover and current speed will, to some extent, dictate lure selection, but spinnerbaits, plastic worms and crankbaits can be used effectively in this situation 90 percent of the time.
To enjoy this type of fishing, one must, of course, locate spots where outflowing water is constricted. This may be a natural drainage point such as a slough or ditch. It could be the mouth of a drainage channel or where a raised underwater roadbed pushes water upward, speeding current flow.
Pinpointing such spots is easiest when the river is low. If the river/oxbow connection is still present, the run-out will appear as a channel of water, broad or narrow as conditions dictate, and with or without current, depending on the river level. If the river has fallen to more normal levels and connections are severed, run-outs will be noticeable low spots in the terrain, typically ditch-like and barren of trees.
Pinpointing run-outs during high water periods is an effort in futility. You’ll see nothing but a vast expanse of look-alike floodwater in which channels are discernable only to trained eyes.
Proper timing requires knowledge of the river-gauge level at which the parent river overflows into each oxbow. When gauge numbers are higher than this number, you know the river and oxbow are connected. When gauge numbers are lower than the “magic” number, the river hasn’t overflowed into the lake. Run-off conditions exist when the river level is just slightly higher than the magic number, and it is during the few days when this occurs that run-out bassing is at its best.
To obtain the magic gauge number, inquire at local bait shops or ask area anglers. You then can read the current gauge number in newspapers or by calling government hotlines to plan a trip during peak periods.
Be aware that run-out conditions may or may not exist from one year to the next, depending on the whims of Mother Nature.
The excitement experienced on a good run-out bassing excursion is exemplified by a trip I made recently. A friend and I were fishing the run-out on a Mississippi River oxbow. In less than two hours, we caught 40 bass, one after another, as quickly as we could shake one off and cast a spinnerbait back out there.
They hit in pecking order. The first five or six we caught were in the lunker class, up to 5 or 6 pounds apiece. Then the size began slowly tapering off. We caught some medium-size bass, 3- to 4-pounders, then some a bit smaller than that. The last few we caught were in the 1/2- to 3/4-pound range.
If you enjoy bass fishing in our big-river oxbows, or in the rivers themselves, give run-out fishing a try the next time big rivers overflow their banks. When you find a runout, you’ll find bass. And it’s a sure bet they’ll be biting.