Over the years, Bassmaster Tournament Trail veterans have prided themselves on being able to compete and catch fish under virtually all types of weather conditions - including snow and ice storms, wind and high waves, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. No one actually enjoys fishing in such adversity, but nonetheless, anglers have learned how to deal with them.
For many pros, it seemed as if the 2003 CITGO Bassmaster Tour season (as well as part of the Open season) simply moved from one rainstorm to the next. BASS Rookie of the Year Mark Kile of Arizona remarked that it was the first time in his career a rainsuit had been as important as his fishing rods, while Ray Sedgwick acknowledged that he had worn out three rainsuits during the season.
In two of those tournaments, the May Tour event on the Alabama River and the September Bassmaster Southern Open on Lake Wheeler, respective winners Kenyon Hill and Denny Brauer showed remarkable skill in dealing with the problem of rapidly rising water and its effects on bass behavior. Because flooding water is one of the more common adverse weather conditions anglers face, a lot can be learned from studying the successful techniques of the pros.
"The major problem in fishing fast rising water is locating the fish," says Brauer. "Rising water pushes bass shallow, and often it moves them quickly. The bass scatter, simply because food is being washed in, and new cover becomes available."
"Everything you may have established in practice can basically go out the window overnight," adds Hill. "Forage may become more abundant, but it is also much more widespread. And changing water conditions can become a key factor in a matter of hours, too. Even though bass may become more aggressive during flooding, the fish are moving, and that in itself makes a pattern harder to establish."
Looking for bass in flooding water
Both Brauer and Hill agree that because bass are moving shallow, the first thing an angler should concentrate on is the shoreline. Still, simply casting randomly at the "new" bank doesn't automatically mean you'll find bass.
"There will be areas where bass do move," Brauer explains, "but there will also be vast areas without any fish at all. Fields, for example, may look good because of shallow, flooded vegetation, but you may spend all day fishing a 60-acre field and never locate the bass.
"In situations like this, I suggest looking for areas that do not have as much cover, or perhaps a different type of cover, such as scattered stumps in that field.
"On the other hand, if hundreds of acres of shallow bushes have been flooded, look for a pattern within the bushes, such as the point bushes, or maybe those slightly separated or more isolated from the others."
Hill suggests looking at higher shorelines, where the water is blocked from spreading out as much. These would include steeper bluff banks, major shoreline points, and riprap walls.
Studying water quality
Any angler who has ever fished in rapidly rising water has watched relatively clear water turn muddy practically before his eyes. The speed at which this happens depends on the amount of rainfall as well as the condition of the watershed around the lake.
Whatever the situation, both Brauer and Hill emphasize the importance of finding the clearest water possible.
"You should nearly always look for the best water quality available," states Brauer, "which is one reason those big fields are so tempting. Vegetation helps filter out mud. At the same time, however, you have to look at the cover and what's available."
"In many instances, the main river itself will bring in the most mud, so I immediately consider the lower end of a lake, which will be the last to turn muddy," adds Hill. "Fishing the mudline, wherever fresh and muddy water are mixing, is not dependable, since it will be constantly changing. Generally speaking, the lower end of any reservoir is more stable and always has more bass, anyway."
Still, the old adage "first to muddy, first to clear" is always worth remembering, both pros note, especially in smaller tributaries.
"It's always a gamble," says Brauer, "because you don't know how long it will take for the water to clear. One of the things I really like to fish in flooded water is what we call 'sawdust,' which is just flooded debris that washes in and accumulates in small tributary pockets.
"If you have freshwater flowing into the back of a pocket, both forage and bass will migrate back to it. At the same time, the flowing water will wash in leaves, sticks, pollen and all kinds of other stuff that just piles up against the bank. Bass suspend right below this debris, and they're definitely catchable."
Flooded water lures
Lure choice in flooded conditions depends not only on the type of cover, but also on water clarity. Hill's philosophy is to try to make bass come to him, which means fishing buzzbaits and spinnerbaits; but only if conditions are suitable (reasonably clear water).
Brauer, not surprisingly, fishes a lot of jigs, although he frequently begins by throwing a spinnerbait just to cover the water until he gets a strike.
"Because the bass are usually shallow, normally
3 feet or less, they're often spooky and jumpy," notes the former Classic champion. "They'll suspend around flooded brush, so I like a jig because I can present it from further away, get a quiet entry and slow fall, and still penetrate the cover if I need to.
"Another pattern I sometimes fall back on, especially when conditions are really flooded, is to look for deeper, isolated cover that might be 12 to 15 feet deep. Bass will suspend 3 to 4 feet down, above this cover, and they'll definitely hit a jig or tube that falls down beside them," Brauer explains.
Hill likes spinnerbaits, and varies the lure size according to conditions. For example, he will try a 1/2-ounce spinnerbait with large willowleaf blades (for flash) in dingy water, but often downsize to a 3/8- or even
1/4-ounce model with a size 5 willowleaf for slow rolling.
"You want to use lures and lines that take care of you, because of all the cover," Hill smiles. "I'll fish 25- or 30-pound Sensation, or even 65-pound braided line if I'm forced to fish where the water is really off-colored."
Both pros like tubes, usually assembled as a weedless Texas rig with a pegged sinker. This combination is compact and bulky, as well as easy to flip and pitch.
"Worms and lizards can also be used," adds Hill, but he cautions that it's easy to lose control of large, bulky lures, like lizards and craws, particularly in high current conditions.
Fishing flooded river systems
Hill won his CITGO Bassmaster Tour event on the Alabama River, and cited his knowledge of trout fishing as a primary factor in his victory. Often, he says, fishing flooded rivers is more about reading the water than reading the cover.
"Current positions the fish in eddies or protected spots, such as logjams, boulders and channel bends," Brauer explains, "so it's not too difficult to figure out where the fish are. The real key is lure presentation - you want your bait to appear as natural as possible.
"You have to let the current itself present the lure, drifting it to the fish."
On the Alabama River, this is just what Hill did, hopping his jig gently downstream in the current.
"You can do it in rocky areas where there isn't a lot of cover to get snagged on," explains Hill, who caught his bass fishing down a bank and then around a point. Although Brauer will work current when he needs to, he reminds fishermen in flooded water to always remember other options, especially calm water areas adjacent to current. These areas don't need to be large to hold one or more bass, either, he adds.