It's 9:30 the night before your first bass fishing trip of the spring. You've got your rods rigged, your tackle organized and your boat spit-shined. As you head from the garage to the kitchen to make a baloney sandwich for the outing, it starts raining. You turn on the Weather Channel and learn the bad news: a major storm is moving into your area. By midnight, over two inches of rain has fallen; 3-1/2 inches by the time your alarm goes off at 5 a.m. You arrive at the lake at 6, just as the rain stops, only to find the water has already risen into the launch ramp parking lot.
"High water often means increased current, and bass react to the heavy flow by moving extremely tight to current-breaking objects," Dance explaines.
Another spring bass trip ruined by high water? Most bassers would turn around and head back home, but once you put the following advice from bass fishing legends Bill Dance, Ron Shuffield and Jim Rivers into practice, you'll view high water as a golden opportunity rather than a disaster.
TIP # 1: FISH FLOODED TERRITORY
"When a lake rises dramatically, it inundates acres and acres of cover that's absolutely brimming with feeding potential for bass," says veteran Bismark, Ark. bass pro Ron Shuffield. "All sorts of vegetation, including grass and bushes, becomes covered with water. Bluegills pack into the newly-flooded shallows to feast on worms and insects, and bass are right behind them."
Shuffield recalls a regional tournament he fished at Millwood Lake, Ark. one March weekend. "It rained for eight days straight prior to the tournament and by the time I arrived, the lake had risen past the marina parking lot. Two hundred fishermen had registered for the two-day event; 80 of them dropped out when they got there and saw how high the water was." But Shuffield hung tough and ended up coming in second with 20 bass weighing 71 pounds. "I caught all my fish from flooded fields," he said. "I used my trolling motor to maneuver as far back into the newly-inundated fields as I could, then ran spinnerbaits with big Colorado blades around flooded fences, logs, any wood cover I could locate. There was a bass on nearly every piece of wood. I remember hooking a 4-pounder that wrapped my line around some cover; when I went to free the line from the obstruction, I discovered it was a submerged fence post with a 'No Trespassing' sign nailed to it, totally underwater. The guy who won the event had over 80 pounds; all his fish came from flooded fields, too."
Since newly-risen water is often murky to downright muddy, Shuffield opts for big lures that create plenty of vibration. "The hard-throbbing Colorado-blade spinnerbait worked great in this scenario because bass hanging tight to cover didn't have to see it, they could feel it," he explained.
TIP # 2: BUMP COVER
Bass fishing superstar Bill Dance taught me about the sensational fishing potential in rivers during high water. I hooked up with the TV fishing host below Pickwick Dam, Tenn., one April morning, only to find the Tennessee River a raging torrent.
"Back the boat in," Dance requested. He was obviously eager to get fishing.
"You gotta be kidding!" I laughed. "This fishing trip is toast. The river's in the trees and the current's at least 15 mph. You can't catch bass under these conditions!"
Wrong! As it turned out, we had a spectacular day of bass fishing, boating over 40 bass between us including a 7 pound largemouth and a 6 pound smallmouth. And we did it all by bumping cover.
"High water often means increased current, and bass react to the heavy flow by moving extremely tight to current-breaking objects," Dance explained. "Large rocks, stumps and logs provide especially good shelter from current. Bass hold close to the downstream side of this cover. Smallmouths may rush out into the fast water to grab passing prey; largemouths are more likely to hunker down tight to the object and avoid fast water entirely."
An hour into our fishing trip, the score was Dance 9 bass, Wirth 0. I started paying closer attention to what the master was doing: he would maneuver his boat very close to shore and pitch his lure, a black and chartreuse jig dressed with a pork chunk, right against the bank. Every one of his bites came immediately as the lure sank out of sight. "The fish are holding real tight to rocks and stumps that have been covered by the high water; if you don't actually bump the lure into the cover, you won't get bit," he instructed. "You've got to literally drop the lure on their heads. These fish aren't moving an inch to strike." I followed suit; my first bass was a 5 pound largemouth. On my next pitch, my jig was snatched by a monster smallie that ran under the boat and popped 15-pound mono.
As Dance proved, short, accurate pitches to current breaks were mandatory -- a miss was as good as a mile. Long casts resulted in the line being swept downstream, pulling the lure off its mark.
TIP # 3: FISH RAPID WARMUPS
Jim Rivers is a living legend among smallmouth anglers. The Ringgold, Ga. basser has had his name in both the IGFA and Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame record books numerous times over the years for his catches of giant smallmouths from Pickwick Lake, Ala. He'll tell you that day or night, the first high water of spring is prime time for mega-bronzebacks.
"Usually by late winter, the water at Pickwick is around 40 degrees, and the fish are very inactive," Rivers said. "But when the first warm rain hammers the area, normally in late February or early March, the lake level rises dramatically and the water temp can jump up 10 degrees overnight. If it rains hard enough for them to open the flood gates at the Wilson Dam upstream, a torrent of warmer water washes downstream, and you get a tremendous movement of baitfish and bass into the headwaters of the reservoir."
In high, fast water, Rivers uses a method that at first sounds unlikely, but upon reflection makes a great deal of sense. "I spool a stiff spinning outfit with 4 pound mono and fish a sparsely-tied 3/8-ounce hair jig dressed with a small grub or pork eel. The biggest smallies will be holding tight to rockpiles at the base of bluffs. My goal is to make every cast as accurate as possible; you've only got one shot at a piece of structure when you're drifting in 20 mph current. Heavy line and big, bulky lures create way too much drag. The line gets a big bow in it so you can't feel light strikes, and the lure is washed yards off its mark. Light line and compact baits, that's the ticket in high, fast water."
TIP # 4: RATTLES RULE
"In high water, you gotta make some noise if you wanna catch some bass," Bill Dance says. He proved his point one March morning when we fished a muddy oxbow lake off the Mississippi River near Tunica, Miss. Several days of torrential rain had risen the lake level by two feet. Dance showed up at the ramp with his aluminum bass boat and announced, "Get set for a day of stump bumpin'!"
The picturesque lake was a maze of flooded cypress trees, so many of them that a trolling motor was almost useless. Grabbing cypress knobs, Dance and I pushed and pulled our way into the newly-flooded perimeter of the lake, and began casting rattling crankbaits into water only inches deep. We caught a bunch of good bass that day, fat prespawn largemouths up to 6 pounds. Dance put the two biggest fish in the livewell; when the light was perfect for some grip-n-grin photos, he opened the lid and exclaimed, "Look what these girls have been eating!" I peered inside to see four big crayfish which the bass had spit up.
No wonder rattling lures worked so well! The rising water had apparently sent crayfish on a scavenger hunt in the shallow margin of the lake; bass, sensing a feeding opportunity, moved in for an easy meal. "Crayfish make a clicking sound as they crawl across the bottom," Bill pointed out. "Rooting those crankbaits with rattle inserts against the bottom was a convincing craw imitation."
Dance doesn't just opt for rattling crankbaits in rising water. He'll use jigs with rattles inside the head or attached to the hook shank, and has been known to cement a glass worm rattle to the wire arm of a spinnerbait, too.
TIP # 5: FISH THE TWILIGHT ZONE
"Clear lakes can be a bear to fish in spring," Ron Shuffield said. "They're the last lakes in your region to warm up, and bass in them can be real sluggish. You can catch 'em on a suspending jerkbait, but you have to fish these lures super-slow. In tournaments, I opt for a faster approach."
Once seasonal gully-washers have caused the lake to rise into the trees, Shuffield puts his bass rig into warp drive and heads for the back-ends of feeder creeks where he looks for the "twilight one" where clear and muddy water meet. "I run up the creek as far as I can go, looking for a dramatic variation in the water color. If the rain occurred the night before the tournament, I usually find muddy water pouring in. If it rained two or three days previously, the mouth of the creek may be muddy, but the inflowing water at the back may be clear. I don't care what color the water flowing in is, as long as it's different from the main body of the tributary. Bass will stack up where the water colors mix."
Shuffield fishes a crankbait, jig or spinnerbait where dark and clear water meet. "This is a tremendous predatorial edge for bass. They'll usually sit in the murky water, sometimes in places only a foot deep, where they can prey on crawfish and shad passing by in the clearer zone."
Crawfish colors are Shuffield's favorites for this pattern: brown or green jigs, red crankbaits, etc. He also likes a spinnerbait with two small Colorado blades, "just big enough to create a little flash in that discolored water."