David Wharton likes to remember a hot summer on Sam Rayburn shortly after he began guiding there in the late 1960s. For weeks he'd been taking his clients to the local worm holes and catching more than enough bass to keep everyone happy.
Then the worm holes stopped producing. In a matter of just a few days, Wharton recalls, it was as if the fish had simply vanished.
"I remember going out one day by myself just to find some bass for my next clients," says the veteran Bassmaster Tour pro, "so I started at the mouth of one of Rayburn's largest tributaries, Harvey Creek, where I knew sooner or later I'd have to run into them.
"The water temperature was in the low 90s, but to my complete surprise, I found bass in 3 feet of water in the very back of Harvey. I thought if they're here, they might be in the backs of other creeks, too; and they were.
"Ever since that day, I have realized that even during the hottest part of summer, you can still find and catch bass in shallow water if you know where to look."
Years of tournament competition on reservoirs throughout the United States have shown Wharton that summer bass utilize a number of warm-weather habitats, depending on what's available to them. Not all bass in a lake move shallow when the temperature soars, of course, but certainly enough of them do to make exploring places like the backs of creeks worthwhile.
Here are several shallow water options Wharton suggests anglers consider when looking for largemouth this summer.
1. Vegetation: If a lake has shallow vegetation in the summer, I don't look anywhere else because I know bass will be in it," emphasizes Wharton, "and it doesn't have to be thick, heavy hydrilla like we have on Rayburn and Toledo Bend. It can be something as simple as scattered pondweed, lily pads or small patches of shoreline wiregrass. Regardless of the species of vegetation, it will attract and hold bass."
A number of lures can be used to fish shallow vegetation, continues the Texas pro, ranging from early morning topwaters to plastic worms.
"If I start the day fishing the vegetation, I'll usually work a small topwater popper along the deeper outside edge of the grassline," he says, "and if the vegetation has matted on the surface like hydrilla and milfoil will do, I'll usually try a plastic frog or rat over the top. Small, shallow running crankbaits, spinnerbaits and even buzzbaits can be used, too.
"It's important to remember where you catch bass doing this, because you can probably return to the same spot later and catch more fish there with a 10-inch plastic worm. Something in that particular spot has attracted bass, and it will continually replenish itself."
2. Backs of creeks: In lakes without vegetation, as well as in river systems in which current is largely controlled by releases through dams, summer bass frequently move to the backs of creeks. The most important requirement for a creek to hold summer bass, says Wharton, is current, with cover a close second.
"When I talk about going to the back of a creek, I mean going back so far you can usually make one cast completely across from bank to bank, and the water will seldom be more than about 4 feet deep. When you travel this far back in a creek on most lakes, you're probably in water that doesn't get fished that often.
"Is it reliable? Absolutely, and it works everywhere. I know anglers who have qualified for the Bassmaster Classic just by fishing this pattern on different lakes around the country."
The current is critical because it keeps the water oxygenated and a few degrees cooler, especially if the creek is spring-fed. Creeks without this current tend to become stagnated by late summer and do not usually offer good fishing.
Cover is also very important in this pattern, and the best types tend to be stumps, trees and laydowns. If bass can use the channel itself as cover, then stumps and trees may not be required, says Wharton, but the very back of a creek will always be more productive if other cover is available.
"What I like to do in situations like this is slow roll a small spinnerbait along the bottom and bounce it off the stumps and laydowns," he explains. "Sometimes I'm making long casts into water just 15 inches deep because I don't want to risk spooking fish with the boat. Then I just slowly start winding the lure back.
"Another lure I often use is a small, square-billed crankbait that can be fished slowly along the bottom and come through cover surprisingly well. Plastic worms and craw worms can be productive, but this is really one place where spinnerbaits are easily the top choice for most anglers."
3. Mouths of small creeks: On river systems and occasionally on lakes where power generation produces a noticeable current, the mouths of small tributaries may provide another shallow water option, although it isn't as reliable as the backs of them. Specifically, this pattern works best on the downstream point and when current is present.
"Basically, the current usually forms a small eddy around the downstream point where bass may gather to feed," Wharton explains. "The actual size of the productive zone may be quite small, so accurate casting is important. I've seen this pattern work often enough to remember it when I'm fishing river systems."
This is a time to fish small plastic worms or jigs, pitching them slightly upcurrent from the point and letting the water wash them down across the point and into the eddy. It's not a pattern that tends to produce a lot of fish from a single spot, but if you're heading upstream or downstream and see such a point, it's always worth trying.
4. Boat docks and piers: Most reservoirs have some boat docks and piers, and they can offer another shallow water alternative in the summer," Wharton continues. "I prefer piers supported by pilings rather than the floating piers, but both will attract bass.
"On docks with pilings, normally the pilings themselves hold the fish, and most often bass will be on the shady side near the bottom. On floating piers, bass frequently suspend underneath the dock itself, and shade becomes the key ingredient. Normally, I think the docks with pilings are more reliable and tend to hold bass longer, too."
Wharton's preferred lure for pilings is either a Texas rigged worm or a tube lure; either can be pitched or skipped underneath the structure, then hopped along the bottom around each piling. For floating docks, Wharton prefers a 1/2-ounce spinnerbait that he runs just out of sight underneath the floats. If the spinnerbait doesn't produce, he'll usually switch to a light swimming jig and work it the same way beneath the dock.
"The easiest docks to fish are those in shallow water because you can fish them faster," notes Wharton, "so these are the ones I generally fish first and gradually work my way deeper. Normally I start in the larger tributaries, too, simply because they'll usually hold more fish, as well as more docks."
5. Standing timber: On many of the deeper clear water lakes of the West and Midwest, where oxygen is often depleted in late summer, bass frequently suspend in or over standing timber. Even though the trees may be in water 50 feet deep (or deeper) and not even visible, the fish themselves may be less than 10 feet below the surface.
"I have only seen this on lakes like Table Rock, Bull Shoals, Mead, Powell and a few others," explains Wharton, "but I know it happens on other deep water lakes with little shoreline cover. The bass simply move vertically rather than horizontally.
"This is a great time and place to throw a big topwater lure like a Zara Spook or a jointed Redfin, and just slowly wobble it across the surface. Your boat may be in 100 feet of water out in the middle of a cove, but the bass aren't deep at all, and they'll absolutely smash a topwater lure like this.
"It's a pattern that most believe originated on Bull Shoals where anglers were fishing for striped bass," Wharton says, "but it works for largemouth, too."
6. Bridges: The bass fishing world certainly remembers how Aaron Martens finished second in the 2004 Bassmaster Classic by fishing a single bridge for three straight days, and Wharton acknowledges the pattern is often overlooked in today's fast -moving bass world.
Wharton believes that rather than studying the piling structures themselves, anglers should study the bottom very carefully for some type of change. This may or may not be the actual river channel itself, but instead a pile of rocks on the downstream side, or perhaps a washed-out hole along an abutment. Many larger bridges also will have logs, brush and other debris piled against one or more abutments on their upstream sides. These will help attract and hold bass at a bridge, too.
"It's important to remember that an entire bridge — every piling or abutment — will seldom be productive," he emphasizes.
"Years ago I used to fish a spot under the Hwy. 147 bridge that crosses Rayburn. I caught a lot of bass there, but not around any of the pilings, which never produced much for me. Instead, I found a hump right in front of one piling where the bottom rose from 20 feet to 12, and it had some of the piling's brush around it.
"Those are the kinds of features that truly make a bridge a good place to look for summer bass."
Wharton's two favorite lures for bridges are shallow crankbaits or plastic worms, but he adds that spinnerbaits and even buzzbaits fished right beside the abutments can also produce amazing results. For the most part, he says, bass are suspended and thus will readily come up for a surface bait.
7. Riprap: The riprap around bridges, dams and other places on a lake also offer excellent warm weather fishing opportunities, notes Wharton. The rocks themselves often have algae growing on them that attracts minnows, crawfish and smaller fish that feed there and may use the cracks and holes between the rocks for shelter. Bass, of course, prowl the riprap looking for these morsels.
"Riprap may look intimidating at first, especially if it stretches half a mile or more across the water, so I look for several features that often eliminate a lot of unproductive areas," he explains. "First, I like larger rocks rather than smaller ones, and if there's a small area of larger rocks surrounded by smaller ones, so much the better. Don't ask me why, but it just seems bass prefer the larger rocks.
"Next, I look for corners in the riprap, places where the wall of rocks creates a bend or even where it ends. Not only do these places offer something different, but they are also transition zones where the bottom conditions may change. The ends of a riprap wall, especially, may mark a shallow place that soon drops to deeper water."
Slow rolling a spinnerbait parallel to the rocks and bumping them with the lure is Wharton's favorite technique here, but he also may use one of his favorite square billed crankbaits, covering water down to about 4 feet. More recently, he's also seen how productive swimbaits can be when fished this same way.
"There are other patterns that will also work in shallow water during the heat of the summer," Wharton concludes, "and I'm sure many Bassmaster readers have discovered them on their own lakes.
Overall, the most important thing to remember when both the air and water temperatures are scalding hot is that bass will be in shallow water where the conditions fit their needs, and you can catch them there, just like I learned that day on Harvey Creek."
Steve Price's popular book, "America's Best Bass Fishing," details more than three dozen techniques tournament pros use regularly to locate and catch bass on reservoirs and rivers around the country. It's available from Globe Pequot Press, 888-249-7586, or www.globe-pequot.com for $16.95 plus S&H.