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River Bass During the Spawn
written by Keith Sutton

Lake fishing is fun, but if you want to experience the most exciting and most challenging form of bass fishing, big rivers are where it's at.
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River Bass During the Spawn
Anglers need to understand bass movements in spring in order to enjoy successful river fishing during the spawn.

The first river bass that day fell for a Rebel Pop-R.

Kersploot! I ripped the chugger beside a stump, producing a noise not unlike that made when a 2-pound rock is dropped 10 feet into the water.

"That thing is noisy," my fishing companion complained. "What are you trying to do? Scare all the bass away?"

Without answering, I tightened my line and waited. Then I waited some more. The chugger slowly turned toward me. I twitched it just enough to make it shudder and send out little ripples.

Off to the side, I glimpsed the almost imperceptible wake of a fish moving beneath the surface toward the lure. I waited a few seconds, then, kersploot, I jerked the lure again. The water beneath my plug erupted like a geyser.

If I lived to be 100, maybe sometime I'll manage to be ready when a bass hits. It seems they always catch me with my drawers at half-mast, even when I know they're coming. Yet despite the suddenness of the smashing strike, I hooked this particular fish.

It raced for cover. Three times it jumped. Then finally, I got a lip-lock on it and heaved 5 pounds of largemouth bass over the transom. Before I released it, my buddy had caught a bass on his spinnerbait. And as usually happens, his fish was even bigger than mine.

It was an exceptional day. We landed 50 or so largemouths. Most were small -- 1 to 2 pounds each. But our tally also included several 4- to 6-pound hawgs.

River Bass
Backwaters and other "off-channel" areas out of the main river produce the best bassing during the spring spawn.

As we trailered our boat that afternoon, another man motored in. "You guys do any good?" he asked.

"We caught a few," I said.

"I haven't had a strike all day," he said. "For the life of me, I can't figure out where these river bass go when it comes time to spawn. It's like they migrated to the Gulf of Mexico or something."

There was a time when I believed the same thing. I grew up fishing big bottomland rivers such as the Arkansas, White and Mississippi. During summer, fall and winter, it wasn't difficult to locate largemouths and spotted bass. I'd work visible cover along the river banks, islands and points and usually find plenty of bass. During spring, however, when spawning season began, you couldn't find bass in these same locations. It was like ... well, like they had migrated to the Gulf.

That wasn't true, of course, but the bass had indeed left their usual haunts. Years passed, however, before I understood why they had moved, and where. If you experience problems similar to those just described, the things I've learned about river bassing during the spawn could help you enjoy superb fishing days such as the one described in my opening story. Read on.

Seasonal Movements

To successfully fish big bottomland rivers, it helps to think like a duck hunter. You see, river bass are like ducks in a way. They can't fly, but just like waterfowl, bass in flowing waters migrate with the seasons. These movements don't cover thousands of miles, as is the case with our feathered friends. But seasonal shifts are significant enough to be worthy of our attention.

River Bass
Bass in rivers often move into shallow flooded woods to spawn, and anglers may need a smaller boat to access prime fishing areas.

In its most basic form, the river bass migration works like this. In summer and winter, extremes of heat and cold drive bass to deeper portions of the river, usually in or near main river-channel structures. Spring and autumn offer more moderate water temperatures, allowing bass to invade shallow, off-channel areas.

The problem is that many anglers fish in-channel structures year-round without taking into account these seasonal shifts in location. When bass move to off-channel areas, these anglers experience a notable drop in fishing success. If we use the duck hunting analogy again, it would be like mallard hunting in Saskatchewan year-round. You could do it, if the law allowed, but you wouldn't kill many mallards in winter because most have migrated far to the south. Likewise, if you seek bass around a big river's main-channel structures during the spawning season, you won't catch very many because most bass have migrated to off-channel areas.

As I've noted, bass may invade shallow, off-channel areas in fall as well. During this season, however, the locational shift isn't as noticeable because it involves fewer fish. Fall bass move to off-channel areas because they can, not because they are compelled to. In spring, on the other hand, bass are driven to off-channel areas by the spawning urge. Mature bass need relatively shallow water with negligible current in order to successfully carry out the reproductive process. Thus, the majority of adult fish migrate out of the river proper and into off-channel areas such as large bays, river-connected oxbow lakes and backwaters.

Additional Factors

We can further improve our efficiency by understanding additional factors that influence bass location during this season. Water level is one such factor.  A river rises or falls in concert with rainfall levels in its basin. Bass in off-channel areas move to different areas as the water level changes.

Let's use the lower White River in Arkansas as an example. On average, three years out of five, the river will be high and muddy during spring. As the water rises, the river floodplain becomes inundated. Areas previously high and dry are now flooded. And it's in these extensive, shallow "edge" areas many bass go to spawn.

River Bass
Donning waders or crawling into a belly boat may be the best way to reach river-bass hotspots during spring's spawn.

In this situation, catching bass may require you to fish in locations difficult to access. You may have to push, pull or motor your boat far back in flooded woods to reach locales where most fish are. If you have a large bass boat, it may be impossible to reach those areas in your craft. Instead, you may need a smaller craft, such as a johnboat or canoe. Or you may have to don some waders and wade to fishing spots.

Access isn't the only problem. Bass are scattered over a much wider area now and more difficult to pinpoint. The river has left the narrow confines of its banks and now sprawls over a surface area that is exponentially larger, so you'll have to work harder to enjoy success.

During springs when the river doesn't overflow, finding bass is much easier because there are fewer places for them to go, and those places are more accessible. Most bass will nest near dense cover such as brush tops, willows, cypress knees and stickups. So when searching for a good fishing area, start by looking for heavy cover in shallow areas off the main river.

Another thing to look for is warm water. Bass begin spawning in water that's 62 to 68 degrees, and they'll leave cooler water as soon as possible. The thing is, water temperature isn't the same everywhere in a river. It fluctuates from one spot to another. Bass may move from the main river into a warmer tributary. Or they may move to water that's a little muddier, because silty water warms quicker than clear water. It's important to find areas with the proper water temperature to find fish.

Be aware, also, that the river level can change considerably in just hours. Good river anglers track the rate of change by consulting local sources such as newspapers or government agency "hotlines."  If a river is rising fast or falling fast, bass fishing is unlikely to be good, even in backwater areas. The best bassing is when there's a slow rate of change or no change at all, so try to plan your trip when the river's stable.

Top Locales

Years of experience have allowed me to zero in on certain locales that tend to produce more river bass in spring. Some of my favorites include:

Run-outs. Narrow cuts joining the main river and adjacent oxbow lakes or backwaters often attract loads of big bass, especially just prior to peak spawning time when bass are feeding heavily. Shad and other baitfish are drawn to water moving through these cuts. Bass follow in search of an easy meal and will hit most shad imitations tossed their way.

River Bass
Run-outs connecting the main river to oxbow lakes and backwaters can be real bassing hotspots when conditions are right.

Backwater areas. If spring rain and runoffs are heavy, and the river is high and muddy, I scout to find areas previously unfishable. High water lets you get back into chutes, cuts and backwaters off the river you may not have noticed before. Water in these areas often is clearer and easier to fish. Topwater plugs, buzzbaits, minnow-imitation divers and crankbaits can be retrieved around cypress knees, timber, rocks, pilings and vegetation. Jig-and-pigs work around fallen logs and treetops.

Points. Some bass seem reluctant to leave their main river digs. You'll often nab these stragglers by fishing points where the main river channel joins a backwater area. Points covered with riprap seem especially productive. Work them with crankbaits, worms or spinnerbaits. Or try flipping shallow cover on the point with worms or lizards.

Wing dikes. Should the weather be unseasonably warm, wing dikes could figure prominently in your game plan. These long walls of rocks often stretch hundreds of yards on both sides of a river, especially near dams and along bends. If backwaters behind the dikes warm early, many bass hold along these rocky embankments. Crayfish and shad are attracted to these boulder-strewn hideouts, so artificials imitating these forage animals are among the best bass-catchers.

Conclusion

You need to fish a river often to know exactly how and where to fish. You have to practice at it. River bass are more aggressive because they've had to battle currents all their life. But they're more finicky, too, more likely to move around and change their behavior patterns. That makes river fishing tough.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't try it, though. There have been times, especially during the spawn, when I've caught a dozen nice bass in just an hour. Unless the water is extremely high, river bass tend to congregate in small areas, and if you get on a pattern -- the right lure using the right presentation in just the right spot -- you can tear them up.

Lake fishing is fun in its own right. But if you want to experience the most exciting and most challenging form of bass fishing, big rivers are where it's at. Give it a try this season.

WORKING WILLOWS

Secondary willows are great places to nab big-river bass during the spring spawning season. These are willows growing out into a backwater as the backwater silts in. The water level rises and falls, year after year, depositing more silt. As the silt piles up, the willows take hold farther and farther from the bank. Fishing the outermost willows in these areas can produce lots of dandy largemouths.

One tactic I find particularly effective when fishing dense stands of willows is similar to the old-time fishing method known as doodlesocking. To do this, tie a lure on a short line and work it around the cover. You can do this with a casting or spinning rod, but it's better to tie an 18- to 24-inch piece of heavy line to a 10-foot or longer cane or fiberglass pole. This allows you to reach farther, so you don't run as much risk of spooking the bass. Either way, you'll be fishing close, so stealth is important.

To the end of your short line, attach a surface lure, weedless spinner or weedless spoon. I prefer a prop bait such as the Smithwick Devil's Horse. Run the lure between the willows, as far back into the cover as possible. Then start working it back and forth on the surface, in short rapid bursts.

Don't let the lure sit until Thursday and barely twitch it every other hour. That type of finesse is out of place here. This is rowdy stuff. Your objective is to make as much commotion as you can with the lure. When a bass gets a bellyful of your plug making a bubble trail across its ceiling, it will explode on the lure. Strikes are violent to say the least. That's what makes this type of river angling so much fun.

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