How to fish river lakes

Experts claim that a bass is a bass, no matter where it lives, but tell that to a Michigan Yooper after he's cast around a muddy Louisiana bayou, or a Cajun who has spent a few days on Lake Michigan's crystal Grand Traverse Bay.

While bass living in those waters have the same basic needs, catching them requires an understanding of the differences in how fish live and feed in such dissimilar environments.

That goes for reservoirs, too, where the differences aren't as vast, yet certainly noteworthy. Whereas all impoundments began as dammed-up rivers and tributaries, there's a difference between basic watersheds and the lock-and-dam river lakes that offer excellent bass fisheries throughout the country.

Good examples would be the prolific flowage impoundments along the Tennessee, Coosa, Arkansas, Red, Cumberland and Mississippi rivers. The dams along those rivers create lakelike pools, some of which bear notable names (i.e., Guntersville, Old Hickory, Logan Martin, Pickwick), while others are simply known by their proximity to local towns or the river that feeds them.

Regardless of what you call them, these lock-and-dam river lakes have characteristics that must be considered when planning your attack.

"The thing that sets them apart from other reservoirs is they have a more dynamic biology about them," says Oklahoma pro O.T. Fears, one of the Tour's top river system anglers. "They are constantly changing because of the current, the washing of nutrients into the impoundment from upstream, and the fluctuation. While some sections may silt in over the years, others may develop new channels cut by the flowing water. Those changes make each system unique."

Like most pros, Fears prefers fishing river systems over stand-alone impoundments for a number of reasons. They produce hardy bass populations sustained by an abundance of food and excellent spawning habitat. Those facts, combined with current, provide a fishery in which bass live shallower most of the year.

"Anytime you have current, the fish are shallow most of the time," notes Fears. "They will move out to the river ledges and offshore structure during the summer, but there are always some fish shallow."

Alabamian Tim Horton, who has guided on Tennessee River lakes, says you rarely find largemouth bass deeper than 20 feet on the river lakes.

"Current, be it from a steady flow of fresh water coming in from upstream or because the dam is used to generate electricity, keeps fish shallower," he insists. "The current keeps the oxygen on top of the water column, which means the shallower water provides livable conditions for bass, even during the heat of the summer."

It's important to note that river lakes used for flood control will fluctuate often — and rapidly. Anglers must watch the rise and fall and move accordingly with the fish

"When the water falls, the fish pull off the bank," explains Horton. "When it rises, they move shallower. And that can change overnight."

Kentucky pro Mark Menendez believes river lakes are easier to pattern because the bass' position on the structure is more predictable, making it easier to present lures properly.

"Current-dwelling fish are nearly always faced with their noses upstream, so lures worked with the current tend to produce more strikes," he says.

However, notes Horton, you still have to be precise with your casts.

"The bass will school on the structure, but it may be in one little piece of that structure," he explains. "If you miss that spot by 10 feet, you may not catch a fish."

That's why Horton fancasts the primary area, picking it apart with an assortment of lures before giving up on a spot.

And what about smallmouth? Due to the influence of current and good habitat, some Southern river lakes yield quality smallmouth as well as largemouth. However, fishing for smallmouth in a river impoundment is different from tactics used in the Great Lakes region.

"The fish in the Great Lakes will get on huge flats, so you must cover a lot of water to catch them," notes Horton. "When fishing for smallmouth on a place like Pickwick, you can anchor and fish one spot."

There's another interesting difference, according to Horton. "For whatever reason, the smallmouth and spotted bass seem to grow bigger and faster in the river lakes, whereas largemouth seem to grow larger in highland reservoirs and natural lakes."

Seasonal patterns

Once winter rolls into spring, bass begin to gang up on structural changes on or near the main river. These prespawn areas may include humps, dips or ditches close to the channel. Offshore structure located between spawning bays and the main channel, such as long grassy points, stumpy creek channels or ditches, can be deadly.

"That's where they gang up while waiting for the right conditions and water temperature that will draw them to the bank to spawn," says Menendez.

Prespawn bass will attack a number of lures, although slow rolled spinnerbaits, crankbaits (especially lipless versions) and jigs may be best.

When the water warms, the bass migrate out of the current into the pockets and bays, where they spawn. You can save time by concentrating on the shorter pockets off the main river, says Menendez.

"There will be some fish up major creeks, but you can create a milk run of the shorter pockets and cover more productive water that way," he describes. "The fish are either going to be at the front of the pocket, in the middle or at the very back. That shortens your search time considerably."

Once Menendez has figured out that pattern, he will probe larger creeks, but only in the sections in which he found bass in the pockets.

"If I find them in the middle of the pockets, I'll concentrate on the middle of the creeks," he explains.

While many anglers opt for Carolina rigged or Texas rigged lizards to find spawning bass, Arkansas' Scott Rook employs spinnerbaits and tubes.

"Normally these waters are stained, so it's not easy to sight fish for bedding bass," Rook explains. "Once I catch a few on the spinnerbait, I slow down and flip a tube."

After the spawn, the bass move slowly back to the main river/lake areas, stopping on points of the pockets and some of the same areas they used when schooling during the prespawn. Carolina rigs and topwaters can be deadly during this period.

Oklahoma pro Kenyon Hill says postspawn bass also will suspend around standing timber close to spawning areas and adjacent to deep water. He casts shallow running balsa-body crankbaits, and isn't concerned that the lures don't get near the bottom because fish hang just below the surface around the wood.

"Balsa baits are buoyant, making it easier to maneuver them through the cover," he explains. "A lot of people use spinnerbaits, so the crankbaits offer a different look around heavy cover that gets a lot of pressure."

Summer bass offer anglers two options —: you can target the classic structure on the main lake or river, or work a shallower pattern around the banks and creeks.

"Because I'm a shallow water fisherman, I prefer to hit the brushpiles, weedbeds and logs around the bank and in the backwater areas," says Rook. "Or, I will hit the riprap areas of the main lake, especially along the outside river bends."

Whereas Horton prefers to look for big concentrations of bass on main lake structure, Rook likes a run-and-gun approach, hitting riprap, logs and brush on main lake banks and points.

"The key to my style is to move often," he remarks. "If you hit a lot of different spots, you're going to catch more fish."

Rook also believes smaller baits produce best on the river lakes. He opts for small, shallow running crankbaits, flipping tubes and 6- and 7-inch worms.

Like Rook, Fears concentrates on shallow water in river lakes. In fact, he heads upriver, where the impoundment is more fertile, shallower, and the water tends to be more stained.

"In that environment, the fish are used to feeding in muddy water; otherwise they would starve to death," he says. "The dirty water moves them shallow, and that's where I like to catch them."

His favorite lure for fishing shallow, muddy water is a Bulldog Lures' multicolored spinnerbait that has a red- or orange-colored blade, white/chartreuse skirt and gold blades.

When fishing structure, Horton leans toward Fat Free Shad crankbaits, but if the fish want soft plastics, a 4-inch grub is his favorite. Because the water is usually stained, he opts for bright colors.

Menendez also prefers deep running Fat Free Shads for cranking bars and points that run toward the river channel. When the current is running or the wind is creating a natural flow of water, the bass will stick to the structure and are more catchable; when it's calm, they tend to suspend and are more difficult to catch.

"During the hot periods of summer, start looking for corners, points, creek bends and changes in bottom contour," Menendez adds. "And if you can find a mussel bed out there, it's probably going to hold fish."

Mussels will create a hard bottom on a high spot near the river channel, where the current is a little stronger, he explains. If there's cover (stumps, brush, etc.) mixed in, it's much better.

The depth varies from lake to lake, but on Kentucky Lake, those areas may lie in 9 to 12 feet of water near the river ledge and may only cover a 50-foot stretch, Menendez adds.

"The deeper fish are just like the shallow fish —: they're going to set up on the best available cover," he says. "You've got to really hunt for the sweet spots, but when you find them, you can go back there day after day and catch fish."

If the crankbait isn't getting the job done, Menendez switches to a 3/4-ounce spinnerbait, which he slow rolls over the structure.

"If that doesn't work, I'll slack line a half-ounce black/blue jig tipped with a Beaver Tail Chunk," he offers. "By slack lining, I mean we jerk it far off the bottom and let it drop on a slack line. That's a good summer technique for the river lakes."

Carolina rigs are excellent choices, too, but Menendez prefers fishing Texas rigged 10-inch worms for probing channel ledge bass. He begins with a 1/2-ounce sinker, but if that's not producing, he'll reduce the weight to slow the fall.

"You catch more fish on a Carolina rig, but you'll get bigger bass on the Texas rigged worm," says Menendez.

The Texas rigged worm is one of Fears' favorites when fishing around heavy cover.

"It's a bait a lot of anglers have gotten away from, so the fish don't see it as much as they do other lures," he says. "I've gone back to using it more and more, and I've had a lot of success with it."

In the fall, bass will begin to pursue shad schools that move into the tributaries and bays or over shallow river flats.

"It's a time when you catch them just about everywhere," says Rook. "Again, you've got to move around a lot because the fish are moving, too. You can't rely on yesterday's information."

Topwaters, buzzbaits and lipless crankbaits are reliable fall lures, but Arkansas pro Mike McClelland prefers to fish shallow crankbaits around isolated wood in the creeks and bays.

"Big bass relate to smaller clumps of cover more often than they do larger ones," he explains. "I've also noticed that you can go back to the same log several times a day and catch other fish from it. It may hold only one fish each time, but it's usually a good one."

There's no question that McClelland's tactic and the others mentioned here will catch bass from other bodies of water. But anglers who recognize the subtle differences in what bass do on river lakes and apply the appropriate measures are going to enjoy more success throughout the fishing season.

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