Locks, Tops and Barrels

Pool 2 of the Red River is a tough fishery, but one angler has found a way to up the odds greatly in his favor.

Few Red River bass tournaments held out of Alexandria are won with fish landed in Pool 2.

The pool is just that tough.“I compare it to a PVC pipe that twists and turns,” said Woodworth angler Nick Jorgensen. “There aren’t many oxbows; it’s just a straight run. You don’t have a lot of options to find fish.”

So anglers generally make the long run upriver to pools 3 and 4, where there are more backwater areas that allow fish to get away from the hard current of the main river.

And Jorgensen often joins the pilgrimage northward.

But those long runs, which include unpredictable lock-through times, are hard to make when fishing the weekly dogfights held out on the pool.

That means anglers pile up around the rock jetties, beating the fish up, but pulling a few fish out.

Jorgensen won’t be found doing that.

No, he’ll be fishing in the main river, working structure that few others even now exists.

That’s because he put the structure there.

There are dozens of tops lying on the bottom of the river, just waiting for the Teams Yamaha and Skeeter angler to drop a lure to, and all but his closest confidants just pass them up on the way to the lock at the top of the pool.

“We’ve got some spots where we can pull up and kill them,” Jorgensen said. “Sometimes you pull up on one top and catch 10 or 15 fish.”

And the effort often pays off.

“We usually catch our limits, and most other anglers will bring in one or two fish,” he said. “Every Wednesday-night dog fight, we caught good fish and were culling.”

Placing tops isn’t necessarily a major secret; after all, many anglers collect as many Christmas trees as possible each New Year, tie cinder blocks to the trunks and drop them in their favorite fishing holes.

But what Jorgensen does is as foreign to that simplistic process as fishing for bass is to angling for tuna.

The reason is simple: The current will wash away a traditionally sunken treetop.

Remember, the only places to sink tops are in the main run of the river, so current is always an issue. Even if a cinder block stays put in the summer, when river levels are low and current relatively slow, it will be swept away during winter flooding.

So Jorgensen has broken new ground.

The ingredients to this fish-catching recipe are simple: wooden shipping pallets, rocks and tree tops.

But his first rule is to never use live, green trees.

“Fish like dead wood,” Jorgensen said. “Dead wood doesn’t put of any sappy scent.”

Also, there the issue of dissolved oxygen levels.

“When you put tops with leaves in the water, when the leaves die, it robs the water (around the top) of oxygen,” he explained. “If there’s no oxygen, the fish aren’t going to stay there.

“If you use live trees, you’ve got to wait too long before they’ll hold fish.”

Also, Jorgensen said he believes fish actually like leafless structure better.

“Fish don’t like to get in areas they can’t escape from quick,” he said.

So what he likes to do is pull his boat up to the river bank, grab his bow saw and lop off a couple of small, dead treetops.

When he’s ready to assemble the ingredients, he decides where to place a top and throws a pallet, four rocks and one top onto the sandy banks of the river.

Deciding where to place a top is critical to success.

“I don’t go and put tops out and hope fish come to them,” Jorgensen said.

On the contrary, he carefully chooses locations to coincide with where fish already are holding.

That’s a tall order on a stretch of river that runs 75 miles, but Jorgensen cuts out most of the waterway by only considering the insides of bend.

“My ideal top-spot is 3 to 4 feet of water, inside the bend in the river, with nothing around but a couple of nasty logs or stumps on a flat,” he said.

He chooses areas that will be under that 3 or 4 feet of water during the summer so the tops are still fishable when the river drops after spring flooding.

Bass flock to these bends because they are provided with some current, but at a much slower pace.

“They’ve got to have some little bit of current,” Jorgensen said.

He begins by looking at any natural structure, such as logs, log jams, stumps or even small limbs.

Then he fishes them to make sure they are holding bass. This is important, because not all structure — no matter how fishy it looks — will attract bass.

“I found a bunch of stumps that I just knew would hold have fish, and I put a top out and never caught a fish on it,” Jorgensen said.

Once he’s caught a fish or two off the log or stump, he’s ready to place a top nearby.

He doesn’t, however, put it right next to the existing structure.

“Those fish meander around on those flats, and it doesn’t matter,” Jorgensen said.

While the main-river bends are where he focuses his attention, he admitted that the mouths of the few oxbows on the pool and near the rock jetties can also be productive.

Of these two choices, he prefers locating tops near the jetties — but not where most anglers would think.

“Where do most anglers fish? On the ends of the jetties,” he said.

To get away from that crowd, he places a top on the inside of the jetty where the rock wall meets the bank.

To prepare the top for placement, he faces the pallet upside down in the shallow water near the bank. Then he rips out a couple of the inside 1-by-4s to make room for the rocks.

The rocks are placed in the hole, but only after positioning the pallet until just the edge of it is above the water line.

“When you put rocks in it, you’ve got instant suction,” Jorgensen said. “If you build it on the beach, you’ll never move it.”

Once the rocks have been added, the top is laid on top of the now-heavy pallet and tied on securely.

Rope can be used to secure the tree, but Jorgensen prefers decoy line.

“I could use rope, but you get hung up more when you’re fishing,” he said.

Note that he isn’t tying just the bottom of the trunk to the pallet: He ties it securely to the pallet on a horizontal plane.

That’s vitally important to make a top effective in the currents of the Red River, he said.

“If you stand them up, they move in the current, and fish don’t like that,” Jorgensen said. “They want a solid object. You’ve got to take both ends and tie it tight to the pallet.”

And once that is done, he’s finished with assembly.

“There’s not much to it. The biggest problem is this damned pallet,” he said. “But it’s the only way I’ve found to make the top stay.”

While he could tie several trees on a pallet to make a larger piece of structure, Jorgensen said he’s actually found that fish prefer single trees.

The reason, he believes, is that the more trees you tie together, the more dense the structure becomes.

“You actually make it more accessible to the fish when you use one,” Jorgensen said. “Sometimes when you put five or six tops on a pallet, you make it too tight for the fish to get in them.

“I’ve tried to put five or six tops, but it doesn’t seem to increase the number of fish.”

With the more open configuration made possible by using one tree, fish will tuck behind the individual limbs throughout the top.

“You end up holding more fish with one tree than with a bunch of trees,” he explained.

At this point, he walks the pallet into position, which isn’t as difficult as it sounds.

“Once I pull it off the bank, it’ll semi-float,” Jorgensen said.

This can be tricky in the current, so care should be taken, and it’s probably wise to ensure someone is in the boat nearby to help if needed.

Jorgensen thoroughly checks out an area with his depth finder before wading it because he wants to ensure there are no holes or drop-offs.

He also uses a pair of chest waders to keep from getting soaked.

The entire task, from assembly to placement, could actually be performed by an angler in a boat, but Jorgensen said there are two problems.

First, the pallet will scratch the fiberglass of a bass boat.

Secondly, he knows where it ends up when he is in the water.

“I can control it better,” Jorgensen said. “I’m only in 3 or 4 feet of water.”

If he places a top and a few limbs stick up, he’s doesn’t worry with it.

If a lot of larger limbs protrude from the surface, however, he goes to work again.

“I just break them off,” he said. “I don’t want everybody knowing where I’ve got them.”

It doesn’t take long for one of his tops to attract the attention of gluttonous Red River bass.

“I can put a top out and come back in three or four days, and there’ll be fish on it,” Jorgensen said.

The trick to successfully catching these bass is to understand how fish orient to each top and to use the right baits.

Accomplishing the first part is actually pretty easy.

“Bass will face upstream,” Jorgensen said.

That’s obvious, but he added that each top has its own characteristic, so fish hold on different places.

“I use an Aqua-Vu (an underwater video camera) to look at them and see how they act,” Jorgensen said. “It’s pretty neat.”

But even knowing where fish hold on a specific top isn’t enough sometimes — fish will often act differently from one top to another.

“I’ve got one top that if you retrieve a lure through it, you won’t get a bite,” Jorgensen said. “You have to troll up to it and jig a worm up and down right over the top of the top.

“If you do that, a fish will slam the bait.”

Generally, however, he pulls up to a top from downriver and casts his lures past the top.

“I pull it down the sides of the top more than once, and then I come across the top,” he said.

Dragging a bait through the center of a top really isn’t necessary because he said most of the bass will be positioned toward the top of the structure.

“When you pull it across the middle of the top, you’ve got to keep the bait higher, but the fish are right there on top, waiting,” he said.

Lure choice, the second part of the fishing equation, is fairly easy.

“There are three things that work on the river in these tops,” Jorgensen said. “That’s a worm, a spinnerbait and a worm.”

His choice of spinnerbaits is a Stanley Golden Shiner with double willowleaf or Indiana/willowleaf blade configurations.

“That’s a killer,” he said.

The spinner works much the same as a crankbait without the problems associated with the treble-hooked lures.

“Slow-rolling a spinnerbait will give you the same bites, and you don’t get snagged and disturb the fish,” Jorgensen said. “If you have to shake the top to get unsnagged, you might as well move on.”

A 5/16-ounce spinner is usually best, he said.

If the spinnerbait proves unsuccessful, Jorgensen moves to a worm.

“I don’t care what anybody says, red shad is it,” he said, adding that junebug is a good backup.

He varies the size of worms from 7 inches to 11 inches to fit the season.

“Early, when it starts heating up, I throw bigger worms because there’s big Kentuckies in this river,” Jorgensen said. “I’m talking 3-pound Kentuckies.”

Regardless of which bait he chooses, however, Jorgensen said it’s vital to use a relatively small-diameter line.

“Line is the key. In the summer, it’s clear,” he explained.

Twelve-pound P-Line is his favored line, but he will sometimes move to a bit stronger mono if heavier fish move into his tops.

“When the fish are real big, I’ll use 15-pound P-Line,” Jorgensen said.

The tops are so effective that he can work the same tops more than once during a tournament and catch fish every time.

“I work all the way to the lock and back,” he said. “And when I come back, there’s more fish on them.”

About Andy Crawford 863 Articles
Andy Crawford has spent nearly his entire career writing about and photographing Louisiana’s hunting and fishing community. While he has written for national publications, even spending four years as a senior writer for B.A.S.S., Crawford never strayed far from the pages of Louisiana Sportsman. Learn more about his work at www.AndyCrawford.Photography.

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