By Vernon Summerlin
What’s changed in our rivers in the last 30 years? Think about it. For one thing largemouth, smallmouth and Kentucky bass populations have increased, but, as the doctor says, this is a symptom, not the cause. Back in the 1970s the Cumberland River was closed for a while because it became a fire hazard. Some flammable substance covered the river’s surface near Nashville. A lot of us thought it was funny that a river was in danger of catching on fire. It wasn’t funny; it was a sign of the times.
If you are old enough to remember the 1960s, you might recall that state and federal agencies began a campaign to clean up our major rivers, to get rid of the pollution that was killing fish and threatening humans. The cleaning of our rivers allowed bass to reproduce and flourish again. As you know, not all waterways are cleansed of pollutants but many are in far better shape than they were. Where rivers run cleaner, you’re likely to be astonished to find more bass swimming there.
The Character of River Bass
River bass avoid direct, swift current because fighting the current burns calories. You may have noticed that river bass are more lean and mean than lake bass. River bass are more streamlined than their lake counterparts which are lard-bellied softies that bask leisurely in the shallows waiting on a meal to swim by.
River bass prefer the slower flow of eddies, seams close to the swift water and holding behind some underwater obstruction in the current. By positioning themselves facing the flow close to the swift water they can see food, dart out, eat it and return to calmer water without expending much energy.
Three Factors of River Fishing
Current, turbidity and water levels affect bass. Current below dams is not constant. There is more flow in the winter and spring than in summer and fall. Since we are interested in wintertime angling let’s examine the flow for this time of year. In a word, it’s unpredictable.
When the river is high, some of that water flows into creeks, raises the water level and creates a place for fish to get out of the current. Many of these creeks may run turbid from run-off after a heavy rain but clear up long before the main river does.
Many times I have anchored in the mouth of a creek during high water to fish the mudline. A big river’s muddy current will move into a creek’s clear water. If the water in the creek is rising, the mud will flow up the creek. If the river is falling, the mudline will be at the mouth. Bass “hide” in the mudline to ambush baitfish they spot in the clear water.
Noisy and/or flashy baits get the bass’s attention. I’ve found that pulling the bait parallel to the seam of muddy water in the clear water works best. This is how you make turbidity work for you.
Turbidity is suspended sediment – dirt and silt from the banks and bottom dispersed in the water. There is usually little turbidity in mountain rivers because the banks and bottom are mostly rock. Some flatland rivers are nearly permanently turbid or at least they run muddy with little provocation.
All fish seem very sensitive to rising and falling of water levels. This fluctuation can be a blessing and a curse.
When the water is rising, bass turn on. They move into the shallow areas along the bank. Water on the way up offers baitfish and bass more feeding opportunities.
Water rising on areas that have been dry may provide worms and other forage. This applies to banks, the mouths of small streams and run-off. Look for ditches and small streams that run into the river after a rain. These are rich with food and fish congregate to take advantage of the smorgasbord flowing their way.
These places may hold many species. If you are strictly bass fishing, then your choice of baits will help you select for bass. If you use minnows you can catch most any predator, the same with small jigs and spoons, but if you put on a “bass bait” (four inches long or longer) you cull smaller fish. Four-inch shad and shiners are another excellent choice for this type fishing.
If you’re fishing from the bank near the junction of the river and run-off, let your bait wash naturally with the flow from the run-off. Let it go as far as practical and retrieve it along the seam where swift water meets calmer water near the bank.
Bass hold in depressions, behind objects that break the current or in the calm water. If you keep in mind that bass won’t waste energy swimming in full current and fish those areas of less water pressure, you’ll put your bait where the bass are.
A floating, diving crankbait works double duty in this situation. It looks like an injured baitfish floating downstream and it looks like a feeding baitfish as you reel it in against the current.
From a boat, you can position yourself at an angle to the flow or in line with the flow. If you have a choice, begin by staying out of the flow and working the water much like I described for fishing from the bank.
There have been times when I could only put my boat in the flow. When this is the case for you, start casting 100 to 200 feet downstream from the mouth. Larger bass tend to hold farther downstream than the eager buck bass, especially if the river is flowing slower than the run-off.
You need to adjust your angling to current, turbidity and water level. Current that is too swift, water that is too muddy, or falling water levels are the three worst fishing conditions. If the water is too swift, you can’t make a presentation. If it’s too muddy, fish are inactive. And if the water level is dropping, fish head for deep water and become inactive.
To compensate for swift water you can drift, presenting your bait vertically. Motor to a starting point and drop your bait. Drifting requires your bait be near the bottom, be it minnow, shad, jig or another lure. Bass will hold where there is a break in the current, behind a rock, log, hump or in a depression. Drift fishing is fairly easy but you must remain aware of your presentation.
Drifting allows you to locate the areas bass are holding. You can drift for several hundred yards or for miles. Once you catch a fish, mentally mark your position with reference points on land. You may wish to note more than one spot before returning upstream to drift again.
To compensate for very muddy conditions, I go home. I have no confidence in that kind of water. There are things you can do, however, to pursue bass. As mentioned, noise and flash help bass find your lure and to seek places where clearer water enters the river.
The next best technique is to find an eddy or area of water where you can tie up or anchor and still-fish with live bait. Let the scent of your bait attract the fish.
Dealing with falling water is not as bad as muddy water but the fish are just about as uncooperative. You have to fish the deep holes and the drops along the bank. A sonar is a handy tool to locate these bottom features. Bass use the ledges of the main channel as their highway and the deep holes are resting places. I recommend concentrating on the ledges or shelves.
Anglers have been avoiding the rivers for decades due to pollution and the decline of bass populations. Many haven’t noticed the bass are coming back in large numbers. Your chances of catching a river bass is better than in a reservoir because they tend to concentrate in rivers. Bass are more active due to food constantly being swept along.
The angling opportunity is there, all you have to do is go fishing for river bass. Happy Hooking!