Just about the time a fisherman figures out the best pattern for flowing water, a capricious river changes its flow and throws everything out of whack.
Almost overnight, raging river currents can rip new channels, flood backwaters, deposit new sandbars, tear trees from the banks or leave flats bone-dry. In tidal rivers, the water rises and falls every few hours, complicating angling efforts even more.
"The biggest difference between a river and a reservoir is that a river is always changing," says Rick Morris, a Bassmaster Classic veteran from Virginia Beach, Va. "They change much faster than reservoirs. Sometimes, they change hourly."
Complicating matters is the fact that anglers might find just about every type of bass holding structure imaginable — almost within casting distance of each other — on a major river. With so many choices available, bass can usually find something they like at any time in these rapidly changing conditions. The challenge for fishermen is finding what fish prefer in each situation.
"The most important thing about river fishing is knowing how to fish in current," notes two time Bassmaster Classic champion George Cochran of Hot Springs, Ark.
Like trout in mountain streams, bass also use rocks, holes, logs or other irregularities to break current and conserve energy. They typically face upstream and watch for succulent morsels to come to them. When they see something they like, they dash out to gulp their lunch, then retreat to their slack water lairs.
"The biggest mistake people make is not presenting lures in the right fashion," Cochran explains. "Most people float downstream and bring their baits upstream. When they do that, their lures are in position to catch fish only about 1 foot of every cast. Put the boat against the current and bring the bait perpendicular to the current or with the current. When a lure comes up behind bass against the current, it either spooks them, or they don't see it."
There are exceptions, of course.
"On the Tennessee River, I fished a stumpy flat one day," recalls Todd Faircloth of Jasper, Texas, the fifth place finisher in the 2001 Classic. "Fish were behind stumps sticking out of the water. The next day, the river came up. The tops of the stumps were 2 feet under water, and the current was ripping. With the river flooded, the fish were inactive and holding tight to structure. I threw a big Fat Free Shad (crankbait) beyond the stumps and pulled it behind them. The only way I could get them to bite was to swim the lure in the slack water behind them and hope they would turn and strike it."
Most people understand that rocks or other objects break current, creating slack spots behind them. However, tiny pockets of slack water also form on the upstream side of obstructions. In strong currents, water piles up against an object and briefly "bounces" backward, almost like a ball hitting a wall.
That creates a slack pocket, tight against the upstream side of structure.
Such pockets might only provide room for one or two bass, but big fish usually take priority. In such an upstream pocket, bass can face upstream to watch for flowing morsels without having to fight the current.
Using a jig or Texas rigged plastic bait, probe slack spots all around structure in heavy current. Often, water hides submerged current breaks or secondary structure. Slow down and work an area thoroughly. A crawfishlike creature bait or a tube lure might work in slack pockets when flipped at close range.
In late summer and fall, anglers encounter slower flows as rivers typically drop to their lowest levels. You'll find the best action where water pours from backwaters and tributaries, concentrating bait and bass in main channels, where current flow provides cooler temperatures and increased oxygen.
"In the winter and spring, I try to get out of the current," says Jay Yelas of Tyler, Texas, a perennial Classic competitor. "In the summer and fall, I like to fish in the current. I don't necessarily fish the main river current. I like to fish side currents or secondary channels, which usually are narrower and more confined and offer more ambush points."
On many large rivers, wing dams are built at intervals to protect shorelines from erosion and to keep channels swept clean of silt for commercial traffic. These form major current breaking structures and provide outstanding bass cover.
Wing dams also provide habitat for lizards, frogs, insects and other creatures. Frequently, waves or winds push them into the water, where bass devour them. Pockets in wing dams might also harbor shad, minnows or crawfish until bass flush them into deeper water.
You'll find current eddies on either side of these jetties. In addition, the flow scours holes at the ends of the structures, providing a sanctuary where bass can escape current while watching for baitfish to pass overhead. As baitfish drift by, bass pop up and smash them before dropping back into the holes.
Probe these scour holes thoroughly with plastics or deep running crankbaits. Also try Carolina rigged lizards or creature baits in red shad, watermelon, green pumpkin, junebug or black neon, depending upon water color. Since many creatures adapt to their environment for camouflage, use the darker lures when visibility is reduced by silt or cloud cover.
"The absolute best place on a wing dam is the downstream side, within about 25 yards of the end," says Morris. "I approach from the downstream side and fish the end, go around the point and then fish the upstream side.
"I also look for breaks in a wing dam where the current runs through — these are awesome. They create a funnel for baitfish, which attracts bass. I fish on the downstream side, throwing up into the break and working the bait back."
Wing dams also create secondary cover, especially including piles of floating logs. Logjams give bass overhead protection from the sun and from predators. Where silt piles up around the rocks, weeds flourish. And floating vegetation sometimes forms dense mats at the bases of wing dams and logjams. All of these structures create excellent bass cover for working spinnerbaits, crankbaits and tube baits.
In addition, wing dams trap silt and form shelves that may drop into deep water. In the summer and fall, bass drop into deeper water to find cooler temperatures. When hungry, they rise to chase shad or other morsels on the shelves.
"A dropoff edge is a great place for a big bite," Morris said. "Anglers might not catch many fish along that dropoff, but they might catch a monster. Sometimes, I might hit a wing dam dropoff several times in one day until I finally get a bite."
Many lures work well around wing dams, but crankbaits and spinnerbaits probably score best. In clear or green water, run firetiger, red or shad-colored crankbaits parallel to jetty rocks. In muddy or tannic water, throw chartreuse, gold, orange or black. Also toss spinnerbaits into rocky pockets. If that doesn't work, flip tubes or Texas rigged worms along the rocks.
"I pick the cover apart to determine where the fish are," says Classic veteran O.T. Fears of Sallisaw, Okla. "My favorite river bait is a spinnerbait. I like to fish it around rocks, logjams and blowdowns. My favorite color is white, yellow and chartreuse with a gold blade and a small fluorescent red blade."
In main channels, commercial traffic can greatly affect fishing. Because they push so much water, ships, tugboats and barges can create or alter current that disrupts and confuses baitfish. Bass zero in on any struggling baitfish for easy feasting.
"If a barge is going into the current, it pushes water that bulges and creates turbulence," Faircloth explains. "That rising water pushes baitfish into the shallows. That was one of my keys at Lake St. Clair, Mich., a few years ago. Every time a barge came by, it stirred up the water. Baitfish would come up out of the deep water, and smallmouth were right there on them. It was phenomenal. Someone could have followed those barges up and down the river and loaded up on fish."
When a large vessel heads downstream, it sucks water from the banks. That creates an artificial tide, pulling bait from cover into open water, where it becomes vulnerable to hungry bass. Immediately, water rushes back toward the banks, creating a different current that again disorients bait. Opening and closing locks can produce the same effect.
At times, rocky shoals and sandbars also attract bass. In late summer and fall, bass chase shad into shallows, where they can hunt them down more easily. Bass also enter shoals to feed on overcast days with a slight breeze. Shad-colored crankbaits, white spinnerbaits or topwaters can hammer bass during these times.
Sandbars play a similar role in the feeding habits of bass. Bars typically form on the insides of bends, where the current is slower, and they often create placid, pondlike eddies downstream. Weeds can grow thick in calm water, making prime conditions for spinnerbaits, buzzbaits and topwaters.
"In rivers, I catch 90 percent of the fish in 5 feet of water or less," says Cochran, who rarely fishes deeper than that anywhere. "In the summer and fall, when the water is clear, fishing around sandbars can be great."
During temperature extremes, bass might seek deeper, more stable waters. With water moving faster around the outside of a bend than the inside, currents scour holes that trap sunken logs and other debris at the outside bends. These spots are ideal for working worms and jigs.
With so much cover available on major rivers, bass anglers must keep a variety of lures, rods and ideas handy to adjust to constantly changing conditions. As conditions change, something that worked at dawn might not produce later in the day. Anglers may need to experiment to find other patterns that produce.
"A river can present many different types of cover and structure in a short section," Faircloth says. "Look for something different — a little cut, a point or anything else that's irregular. Keep looking until you find the type of structure the bass want."
Fortunately, most rivers hold plenty of bass — certainly enough to make fishing interesting. And with so many structure types available, rivers offer something for everyone.
At times, any of several techniques can fill your livewell. But when a river's mood changes, you'll just have to experiment until you find that payoff technique.