While the spawn might be over for most of the state, May is prime time for river backwaters. Locate these gems, and you’ll have all the action you can stand.
The Ouachita River backwater was littered with a maze of live cypress and detritus from trees long since fallen.
Mark Smith had idled five minutes through flooded button brush to reach the spot, and now he was pitching lures to an area thick with wood.
An angler already in the deep oxbow was banging away at the banks, but Smith zigzagged between trees and logs in deeper water to those along a shallow shoreline.
Everything looked like it should hold fish, and Smith’s path seemed erratic.
He fired his jig rapidly, letting the black/blue crawfish imitation settle briefly before shaking it and moving to the next target.
“I’ve learned that if you don’t get a hit the first or second pump, you’re not going to get a bite,” the West Monroe angler said. “It doesn’t do a lot of good doodle-bugging around.”
Finally, the effort paid off when Smith’s jig settled on a log and a big fish thumped the lure.
The next bite also came from a log, but this time the line didn’t hold.
Smith just shook his head, grinning, and tied on another jig.
All the time, he was moving in a dizzying pattern through the jumble. One minute he’d be in 3 feet of water, and then he’d move out to 8 feet.
But it all made perfect sense to Smith.
“I think 90 percent of the fish spawn on logs and the sides of cypress trees,” he said.
Therefore, he didn’t have to stay along the shallow bank.
And even though the spawn was peaking in some areas of the state on this late March day, Smith knew his Ouachita River bass were just getting started.
“There will still be fish spawning in May,” the V&M pro said. “The waters in these river systems are so cool that it holds up the spawn.
“The river current holds cold more than your lakes.”
This is the case whether the river is the Ouachita in Northeast Louisiana or the Pearl in Southeast Louisiana, he said.
The key, then, is to figure out where they’re spawning.
And it’s a fairly simplistic answer: As far from the cold river current as possible.
That means backwaters are prime targets in riverine systems throughout the state.
Accessing these old oxbows, flooded fields and inundated woods can be a challenge, but Smith said it’s simply a matter of idling through the trees, bushes and log jams along the river.
“Usually in April and May, you’re going to have the highest water of the season,” he explained.
Once in the backwaters, though, finding spawning bass rarely involves fishing the banks.
“Most of these river lakes don’t have a good, clean bank,” he explained.
So fish are forced to use logs and trees as bedding areas.
“That’s the only hard bottom they can find,” Smith said. “They’ll actually spawn on the sides of the trees on any type of knot, a root, anything.”
So Smith’s focus moves from the banks themselves, which many reservoir anglers are used to fishing, to nearby wood structure.
One exception to this is when it comes to flooded oak trees on the edge of the water.
“I catch some nice fish off those oaks sometimes,” Smith said.
V&M’s Eddie Borne, sharing a front deck with Smith, explained why.
“Those oaks have a lot of roots that go out along the banks,” Borne said.
Those wooden fingers provide plenty of spawning habitat.
Flooded road beds, whether along the shoreline or cutting through a backwater, offer another exception.
“I like a road bed,” Smith said. “There might be 12 feet of water in a lake, but that road bed rises up and gives the fish a hard bottom to spawn on.”
However, most of Smith’s time will be spent fishing flooded cypress.
“They just seem to prefer those cypress trees for some reason,” he said.
Water conditions dictate how close to the cover Smith fishes, and he oddly doesn’t like finding clear water.
“I like stained water,” he said. “Stained water pushes the fish tighter to cover.”
That’s very important because the spawn is a different beast than many anglers believe.
“Fish aren’t feeding when they’re on a bed. They’re just biting (a bait) to kill it,” Borne said.
Plus, Smith said, the big sows spawn out very quickly.
“The big females are only on the beds for 24 hours,” he said.
Therefore, the majority of the bass caught during the spawn are those getting ready to move onto beds or those just leaving after dropping their eggs.
What Smith wants is for those fish, which are more likely to bite than an actively spawning bass, to be as tight to the wood as possible.
“If you have fish that aren’t spawning, they’ll be tight to that cover in stained water,” Smith said.
Borne also pointed out another benefit of stained water.
“The fish aren’t as spooky as in clear water,” he said.
Once he’s found a lake with the proper cover and adequate stain to the water, Smith focuses most of his effort on water no deeper than 5 feet.
“The general rule of thumb is to get on the north bank and try to find your logs and shallower trees,” Smith said.
That being said, Smith might be fishing quite close to the bank, or he could be yards from the water’s edge.
“Each lake has it own personality,” he said. “Some have steep banks, and some are flat with a lot of timber.”
The steep-banked backwaters will generally have a halo of trees near the bank, and that’s where Smith concentrates his efforts.
Trees will be fairly evenly distributed in those lakes with slow-sloping banks, so Smith might find suitable spawning cover 30 yards from the shoreline.
However, Smith also sometimes looks for fish in water that plunges past the 5-foot mark.
He pointed out why while fishing a group of cypress trees in about 10 feet of water.
“You see that knot on the side of that tree a few feet down? The fish will actually spawn right there,” Smith said.
The lump of tree flesh a foot or so below the water line didn’t look like much, but it did offer a small horizontal perch on which eggs could be laid.
During the next few minutes, he pointed out other examples of such irregularities on nearby cypresses.
In each case, he pitched his jig to the area, allowing the lure to fall for a second before pumping his rod a couple of times and reeling in.
And that’s the key to fishing deeper trees during the spawn — a continued focus on the top 5 feet of the water column.
To do so in deeper water necessitates a change in typical pitching tactics.
“If I’m fishing the bottom, I’ll pitch past a tree so that when the lure sinks, it falls to the tree,” Smith said. “But when I’m fishing the spawn, I’m still focusing on that first 5 feet of water.
“So I pitch it right to the tree and let it fall down the side.”
Of course, his favorite targets — trees with plenty of brush or overhanging limbs — don’t even allow for any other strategy.
“A bass wants cover, and the more cover, the better off it’ll be,” he explained.
Submerged logs are pieces of structure that he never passes up, no matter what the water depth.
“Any log at a 45-degree angle or so, and your doing good,” Smith said.
There’s no complex reason for this: A log simply provides plenty of spawning room.
Lure placement is a little different than on trees, since the structure is more horizontal.
Smith’s approach is to pitch just past the wood, swimming the bait until it reaches the edge.
He then pumps and reels two or three times before reeling in and trying again from a slightly different angle and at a different depth.
What doesn’t change, however, is Smith’s focus on the top of the water column.
“The fish are still going to be in the first 1 to 5 feet of water on that log,” he said.
Interestingly, Smith isn’t looking for huge laydown logs.
“They will actually spawn on small logs, too,” he said.
The added benefit of fishing logs is that they generally rise and fall with the water level, so beds aren’t exposed if the river falls suddenly.
And while the two pieces of cover — trees and logs — are productive in isolation, Smith salivates when he sees them in combination.
“The best bet would be a tree with a log beside it,” he said.
When he finds such a promising target, Smith probes the structure repeatedly from every angle possible.
While knowing how to dissect a flooded backwater is important, bait selection is crucial to Smith’s success.
The tournament fanatic uses three primary lures: jigs, creature baits and tubes.
“I really prefer fishing with jigs. That’s what I’m confident in,” Smith said.
His confidence is borne of experience that shows bigger fish generally bite a jig.
“I fish so many tournaments that I’m only fishing for five bites, and I think the bigger baits just get the bigger fish,” Smith explained.
Plastics are Smith’s choice to tip his jigs, with the V&M V-Chunk and Bayou Craw covering all the bases.
“I like the chunk because of the profile,” he said.
But Smith quickly discards the less-bulky chunks in more-heavily stained water, and slips on a Bayou Craw.
“It’s a little more bulky, so I think the fish can see it better in that stained water,” he explained.
But he doesn’t use the entire craw worm.
“I bite the body off the crawfish,” Smith said. “That gives it enough bulk without making the lure too big.”
Jig weight also is an important consideration, with 1/2- and 3/8-ounce models being Smith’s preference. But water temperature dictates what he uses on a specific day.
“In colder water, I’ll throw as light as 5/16- or 1/4-ounce jigs,” he said. “As the water warms up, the 1/2-ounce is easier to pitch in those bushes, and the fish are more active.”
The reason for the lighter jigs in cooler water relates to a bass’s sluggishness.
“It’s all about the fall,” Borne said.
If a jig simply won’t produce bites, Smith moves to a High Tail, V&M’s creature bait.
A 1/4-ounce weight is matched to the buggy-looking bait, and Smith firmly pegs the weight.
“I find that if you don’t peg the weight, when you’re pitching it in that brush, the tail will get hung up,” he said.
The angler’s last option is a tube, again with a pegged weight.
But Borne has another suggestion — his company’s Corkscrew.
This is an unlikely looking bait, pretty much resembling a hunk of plastic with a curly tail.
However, Borne said it has become extremely popular as a replacement for a jig.
“It’s got the bulk of a jig, but it’s a lot easier to pitch, and that tail gives it incredible action,” he said.
The lure also has rings of plastic, which provide a soft, realistic feel that Borne said is critical.
“The fish just hold onto it longer than a jig because it feels real to them,” he said.
As the spawn peters out during the latter part of May, fish move away from the flooded trees and begin to pull into the flooded brush.
Smith simply follows them, replacing his favored jigs and plastics with topwaters like buzz baits and Devil’s Horses.
“You can catch them by working those topwaters around the points in the brush,” he said.
As summer approaches and water levels begin to recede, Smith continues following the fish out of the backwaters.
“A lot of people will sit at the cuts along the rivers and catch fish coming out of the woods,” he said.