The Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated, “No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”
If you chase river smallmouth, few quotes ring truer. The river is in constant change, it rises and falls, it is muddy, it clears. Day to day, week to week, month to month, and year to year, it is in constant change. To remain successful, anglers must also change and adapt to what the river is doing. The river is never exactly the same, and with knowledge gained, neither is the angler.
Muddy, high water seems to be the most difficult conditions for anglers to overcome. And for good reason, it has many challenges. These challenges include an increased flow, heavy stain, and a minefield of debris, and that is just for starters. That stated, there are many eye-opening lessons that anglers can experience by fishing heavily stained water. One lesson for anglers is that bass rely less on sight than anglers realize. My hope here is to shed a little light on the different stages of targeting bass in ‘High Water’.
Fishing the Initial Rise
This is by far the most productive time to fish high-water. The moment river smallmouth sense there is a rise (increased current, reduced visibility, turbidity), they retreat to protected areas. Just as we do when there is an approaching storm, we head for home, perhaps stopping along the way for eggs, bread, and milk. These protected areas are generally spots in the river that eddy up and slow the flow of water as it rises. Deep cuts or off-chutes on banks or islands create such eddies. Some will be large; others may be as small as a bathtub. Large or small, they serve as protection from current and debris.
During the initial rise, bass will retreat to cover, and anglers have the advantage as bass will feed heavily along the way. Since it generally takes the river hours to go from clear to chocolate milk, those anglers who catch the rise early will find plenty of action. In general, the slower the rise, the better the opportunity. A quick rise will produce more debris and turbidity, which can limit the types of lures anglers can use. As the river starts to gain color, lipped and lipless crankbaits, spinnerbaits and chatterbaits are solid choices. Each of these produce vibration and noise that will help bass locate them as water clarity diminishes. Buzz baits are surprisingly productive if floating debris is not an issue. As the river clarity drops, jigging tubes, ned-rigs, creature baits and swimbaits slowly through these areas will be incredibly effective.
Fishing the Crest
When the river reaches the peak of a given rise, there are additional factors to consider. The amount of debris, stain and turbidity will be at the crest. On a modest rise, visibility may be inches to even a foot. With a more substantial rise, visibility could be near zero and debris can be so thick, it makes fishing impossible because the surface of these eddy areas are 100% blocked. Regardless of visibility, if the floating debris is not heavy, bass can be caught.
For these situations, I honestly believe that dark (i.e., opaque) color tubes, creature baits and jigs are your best bet. Black, blue, brown and June bug are among my favorites. However, the trick is to hold the lure up to the light, if you cannot see through it, even pearl white classifies as opaque in my book. Another helpful hint for these situations is to add a little flavor to these soft plastics. In this case, the attractant is not to help them find the lures, it helps them hold on to it a few extra seconds. In high water bass are constantly picking up and spitting things out of their mouths. The attractant helps keep the artificial jig in their mouth an extra second or two.
Fishing Falling Water
For me, the initial drop as the river recedes is often the most difficult time during high water fishing. The reason is simple, as soon as the bass sense the flow is reduced, they leave these safe eddy areas and return to current. The reality of 95% of the bass holding in 5% of the water is no longer true. As they spread out, bass can be much harder to locate due to the water color and flow.
Spinnerbaits and chatterbaits are recommended lures for these conditions. These are perhaps the most productive lures as they can be moved slowly and still create a fair amount of vibration. They also come through debris better than most lures. As the river continues to drop, the amount of debris becomes less of an issue. Anglers can start adding lipped and lipless crankbaits to the mix. I tend to choose darker or colorful patterns. Firetiger, solid black or black with orange, red or even pink bubblegum bellies work well.
Take special notice of flooded grass areas. As the water recedes, vegetation acts as a filter to clean the water that flows through. The slightly cleaner water can be seen easily as you approach these areas. Whether they are shoreline or mid-river, these are target areas for finding bass. It may also be time to add buzz baits to your high-water arsenal. Top water can be very effective during this stage.
Targeting bass in high water can be quite rewarding. Anglers generally catch larger bass and it sure beats sitting on the couch. It is also a great way to increase the number of fishing opportunities. Just a note on safety, fishing high water requires an added level of caution and planning. Heading out during flash flood warnings or when the river is heading to action stage is never a wise move. I avoid conditions when debris, trees, wood, logs, branches and other large items fill the water. It makes navigating difficult and adds risk for clogging the jet intake on the boat. The focus here is dialing in bass when the river rises to a modest level, not fishing during a major flood.