Understanding Oxbow Lakes: A Bass Angler's Guide

Oxbow lakes serve up exceptional bass fishing; if you want to add a new dimension to your fishing, learn how to understand oxbows and how to fish them

It was a perfect bass hideout. Buckbrush lined a ditch coursing across the bottom of the oxbow. Adjacent the brush was a long log, the upper end of which was suspended atop two cypress knees. The bottom end projected into the brushy edge of the little ditch, creating a shady hiding place ideal for a big bass.

A bass was home, alright. But when my buddy Jim knocked on its door with a spinnerbait, he wasn’t prepared for the fish’s response.

Jim’s cast was exemplary; the lure fell right beside the log, sinking into the shadowy recess below. He’d barely turned his reel handle when the fish struck. The bass inhaled the spinnerbait, shot for cover and did a perfect loop-de-loop around the butt of the log. It mattered not that a 190-pound man held the end of the line opposite the bass. The fish, a 6- or 7-pounder, broke the water’s surface, made one flip of its tail and was gone.

Jim reeled in his slack line and laid down his rod. He pulled out a bandanna and wiped beads of sweat from his forehead.

“I hate to whine,” he said. “But that son-of-a-gun didn’t really play fair.”

It’s true; the term “fair play” seldom enters the oxbow bassin’ equation. Bass in these waters are brawlers. They fight dirty and make their relatives in bigger, man-made lakes look like a bunch of wimps.

Maybe it’s the extraordinary fertility of oxbow lakes that gives bass the upper hand. In these natural waters, every fish seems to have an extra measure of strength and stamina.

Maybe it’s the marriage of confined living space, generally shallow water and dense cover that makes oxbow bass so good at line-busting and throwing hooks. These fish know every inch of their home territory, and they use that familiarity to discomfit their human antagonists.

Maybe it’s the beauty of oxbows that causes these problems. When you’re fishing in the shade of 500-year-old cypress trees, the serenity of it all can lull you into a state of total relaxation. Reflexes get sluggish, and consequently, lots of bass are lost.

Who knows? And more to the point, who cares? Oxbow lakes serve up exceptional bass fishing, and if oxbow bass get the jump on us more often than usual, it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being there.

For many inexperienced anglers, catching oxbow bass is like trying to read a secret message. Try as they might, it seems impossible to break the code, and many go away frustrated, vowing never again to fish an oxbow.

But contrary to the opinions of some unfortunate fishermen, the only real “secret” to oxbow bass fishing is preparing yourself with an in-depth knowledge of oxbow dynamics. In many physical respects, oxbows are vastly different than man-made lakes, and each oxbow has characteristics making it different from other oxbows. Unless one knows and understands these differences, fishing for bass may be nothing more than a waterhaul.

Oxbow Origins

A lowland river left to its own devices will twist in its valley like a head-shot snake. The river erodes earth in one place only to deposit it somewhere else, and though a river may always look the same to a casual visitor, it’s never the same two days in a row.

Over the years, a lowland river plows a new channel here and abandons an old one there, always following the path of least resistance. Sometimes, when a meandering stream erodes the shores of its broad bends, loops of water are severed from the main stream. The ends of the loops are blocked by sediments deposited by the parent stream, and a crescent-shaped lake is left behind. The shape of these lakes resembles the U-shaped piece of wood on an ox yoke; thus they are called oxbow lakes.

When an oxbow is severed from the river, its character immediately begins changing. The absence of continually flowing water allows sediment carried in from seasonal flooding to build on the bottom. The old meander scar becomes shallower and relatively flat-bottomed. Water-tolerant plants like cypress, tupelo, buckbrush and willow take root along the lake’s edges. In years of drought, some shallow oxbows dry up, allowing plants to gain a foothold and encroach still farther into the lake. It’s because of this cyclic process that many oxbows have large cypress trees growing in the middle of the lake, or have a ring of living trees and shrubs extending 100 feet or more from dry land.

Many oxbows provide fantastic bass fishing. The annual cycle of winter/spring flooding that gradually chokes these lakes with silt also figures heavily in making them the outstanding bass fisheries they are.

The annual flooding cycle stimulates oxbow bass to go on a feeding binge as waters recede to normal levels. The feeding binge puts them in excellent spawning condition, and because of the fertility of river oxbows, heavy spawns usually follow each winter/spring flooding cycle. Spawning still occurs in years of drought, when flooding is absent, but it doesn’t happen with the gusto that characterizes post-flood spawns.

For more tips on where to target river bass during the spawn, check out:
8 of the Best Places to Find Spawning River Bass.”

Finding Fish

Finding oxbow bass isn’t unusually complicated. Work all available cover carefully, probing every nook and cranny in the brush and every likely log and cypress tree, changing baits and presentations until you find what works best.

One thing to remember is that even though most oxbows are relatively flat and of uniform depth, the outside bend of the lake is usually somewhat deeper than the inside bend. This is important when water temperature rises above the bass’s 70 to 75 degree comfort range. When this happens, bass concentrate on the deeper side of the lake where the temperature is more to their liking. In most oxbows, the amount of deep water is very limited, so you needn’t look far to find fish.

When bass are shallow, they relate to some sort of cover. Cypress trees skirt the banks of many oxbows, and working crankbaits, spinnerbaits or plastic worms around their broad bases and knees is a good way to catch bass. Buckbrush and willows are also prevalent on many oxbows, and many bass are caught in the thickest such cover available. Other prime fishing spots include fallen trees, beaver lodges, sunken Christmas tree shelters, lily pads, shoreline riprap, stump fields and boat docks.

If you’re on an oxbow when flood waters are receding, try fishing around run-out chutes between oxbow and river. These attract fish with the promise of an easy meal. Look for sloughs and natural cuts where out-flowing water is constricted, then work a lure around surrounding woody cover. Key your efforts to periods when water is falling three to six inches a day; a faster fall makes it hard to locate fish.

One final note: when you’re considering where to go, think small. Although some oxbows cover several thousand acres, the real jewels are much smaller. It’s harder to pinpoint bass on the larger oxbows, and fishing them isn’t much different than fishing the nearest Corps of Engineers mega-lake.

For the true oxbow experience, visit small lakes off the beaten path. It’s not uncommon to fish all day on one of these little oxbows and never see another boat. The scenery is splendid, and when the bass are biting, there’s only one way to describe it: heaven on earth.

Understanding oxbow lakes and how to fish them will add a whole new dimension to your fishing. The facts presented here should help you get off to a good start, so you, too, can enjoy the magic and majesty of these blue-ribbon bass lakes.

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