Getting off the beaten path is easier said than done, and doing so can present a feast-or-famine scenario. One prime example is tributary creeks.
Adding his sixth Bassmaster title during the 2021 Elite event on the Sabine River, Oklahoma stick Jason Christie demonstrated his mastery of small creek fishing by camping on a modest ribbon far upriver and collecting four limits that amassed a winning total of 43 pounds, 15 ounces.
Christie’s performance presented a tactical tutorial on prospecting such backwaters.
Sizing it up
Consider these criteria for site selection.
Isolation: Christie’s well known for his crowd avoidance, and this preference clearly influenced his Sabine decision. The spot he fished was about 20 miles past the last significant tributary and, therefore, less likely to attract other competitors.
Conversely, isolated creeks are more likely to harbor larger fish populations.
“If on one side of the lake (or river) I have three creeks in a row and the other side, I have one, I would probably start in that one,” Christie said. “All of the fish in the area would probably use that one, as opposed to (spreading) among three.”
Size: Christie said this is all relative to the fishery. For example, his Sabine River creek was barely wide enough to turn around, but the main river channel was maybe 50 yards wide.
“As long as that creek has some deep water in it, you can catch them year-round.”
Layout: Semi-straight or winding? Creek form varies greatly based on the interaction of a carving water source with land features. Christie may judge a particular creek’s course based on how long he needs to fish it.
“With fewer bends, those fish are going to be in fewer areas, but more bends may give you an opportunity to have more fish in the creek,” he said. “Especially in a four-day event, the more area in a creek you can get, the better your chance of the creek lasting for four days.”
Increased outflow from the Toledo Bend Dam dramatically altered Christie’s playing field and tested his water management skills. Arriving Days 2 and 3 to find his spot inundated, Christie decided to make do.
For one thing, committing nearly half of his day to round-trip running time, he didn’t really have any options. But more importantly, his narrow creek felt the back flow inundation mostly in the outer half’s flatter reaches. Toward the back, Christie found the steeper banks he needed to pin the fish in predictable areas.
“If you’re in a creek and it gets out of its banks, it’s probably a good idea to leave,” he said. “I was fortunate that, for the most part, the lower end of my creek came up and I was able to move farther up and get away from that really high water.
“Usually a creek gives you limited targets and when you fish it, you feel like you’re covering everything and you’re not leaving any rock unturned,” he said. “The fish are concentrated when that water’s 3 to 4 feet deep with a few targets, but you flood that creek and those fish scatter. That makes it really tough to catch multiple fish.”
As Christie notes, moderate rises of a foot or two, bring more shallow cover into play. However, there comes a point — and he saw this on the Sabine — where the water extends so far into the forest that the fish become unreachable.
Conversely, falling water can simplify the creek search by pulling fish out to the ends of laydowns and other shallow cover adjacent to deeper water. But this, too, may reach a point of diminishing returns.
“The extremes, one way or the other, can make it tough,” Christie said. “If the water drops a lot, you’re probably not going to be able to get in or get past the first bend or two. And if it comes up (too much), it’s just going to scatter them all over the place.”
Prior to his creek’s inundation, Christie successfully leveraged a few current seams to pick off opportunistic bass. When the water rose, the number of seams increased and the advantage diluted.
For stable or moderately falling water, Christie’s comfortable picking apart visible targets with a jig or a Texas-rigged YUM Christie Critter. For extreme high water, he knows his best chance of intercepting fish is to cover water with a moving bait.
His Sabine bait — a 1/2-ounce chartreuse/white/blue Booyah Covert spinnerbait with tandem nickel and gold Colorado blades — handles most rising, stained water scenarios.
“If the water had been clear, I could see myself using a Pop-R, or something like that,” Christie said. “The water on the Sabine wasn’t muddy, but it wasn’t clear; it was really good fishing water.
“I call it ‘pretty water’ where those fish feel comfortable. They can still see your bait, they’re aggressive, but it’s not so clear that you feel like you have to make really long casts or use finesse stuff.”
Another point: “On a tidal fishery, where you have 30 minutes of no current (before a tide switch), these fish are going to move around and you may switch from flipping to a buzzbait, or a bladed jig where you can fan cast, cover water and pick them off as they’re moving around.”
Give it time
Patience and perseverance serve us well in many angling scenarios, but creeks can really highlight these virtues. In Christie’s view, creek failure often stems from underestimation.
“Someone may make a pass, fish everything in the creek, catch fish and then think, ‘That’s all that’s here,’” Christie said. “There’s (often) more fish than what you think in there — and big fish like to hide in those creeks.”
Part of this, Christie said, is simply a matter of timing. One pass my not coincide with a fish’s move to accessible positioning.
“There’s fish that are out in the channel resting or suspended, and whenever they decide to feed, they’re going to pull up there to targets you can catch them on,” he said.
Ultimately, Christie’s convinced that creek consistency requires flexibility and adjustment.
“You may throw a spinnerbait and then flip a Christie Critter on a log,” he said. “I like to treat a creek like a lake and it is like a small lake. You have channel bends, you have flats and stuff like that. So be thorough and adapt.”