Ditch Digger

Many Toledo Bend anglers concentrate springtime fishing on the shallows, but this guide focuses on the ditches bass use to reach those spawning grounds.

The wind whipped across Toledo Bend the day after a front passed, and Joe Joslin wasn’t look forward to running north from his camp to the relative protection of Six Mile Creek. “That wind is blowing right out of the north, and it’s going to be rough,” the veteran guide said.

When we reached the landing, his prediction proved true. White caps danced across the main lake, promising to pummel any angler silly enough to venture into open water.

Joslin and buddy George Jeane Jr. discussed the situation, finally deciding it would be worth the 30-minute drive up the Texas side of the lake to the public launch in the back of Six Mile.

“We can get out of the wind there,” said Jeane, who has made a name for himself on the local bass-tournament scene. “And there should be some grass up there.”

Joslin agreed, and the three of us set of.

Less than an hour later, Jeane was wrestling the first of the day’s fish to the boat.

“That fish pounded the bait,” Jeane said as he flipped the 4-pounder into the boat.

The strike came while we were working crankbaits over submerged grass beds. The boat was positioned in a creek snaking around the edge of the flat. On the other side of the creek was a veritable logjam of old, decaying trees.

Although fish came from both sides of the creek, the most-productive waters covered the flat on the edges of the submerged creek. The key was the sparse grass covering the bottom.

That’s particularly important this month, as fish begin moving up to spawn.

“Anywhere there’s grass there’s going to be fish,” Joslin said.

What the guide and Louisiana Sportsman field reporter looks for are grass beds that lie in anywhere from 2 to 16 feet of water.

“I usually fish 2 to 12 feet deep, but behind a front, I’ll even go as deep as 16 feet,” he said. “Those fish will pull out when a front rolls through.”

The spawn begins first on the northern end of the lake, and works its way southward.

“The water’s more dingy on the north end, and it’s shallower,” Joslin said. “That means it warms up quicker up there.”

Joslin, however, makes his living in the southern reaches, so he’s still generally fishing pre-spawn bass in March.

“On this end of the lake, most of the fish spawn on the full moon in April,” he said. “If the full moon happens to be in the latter part of March, they might spawn then, but it’s usually in April.”

This year, the full moon in April occurs on the 14th, so Joslin predicts that’s when most of the spawning will take place. That means he’s looking for fish this month that are just beginning to move toward spawning grounds.

“I fish the points that lead into the drains in the early spring, but I follow the bass into shallow water as the fish move up,” he said. “I’m fishing the edges of the drains. Sometimes a point will come out in the ditch, and if it’s got grass on it, that will always hold fish.

“That’s a perfect setup.”

Joslin said these drains form predictable routes for bass. These ditches and drains are like small highways, with bass using them to travel into spawning areas. They also lead into the deeper waters of the lake, providing quick access to consistent water temperatures when fronts blow through.

“I mainly focus on drains and ditches that lead into large coves, and fish up and down these drains, according to what phase the bass are in as far as spawning,” he explained.

However, Joslin rarely follows bass into the very backs of the major bays.

“The water tends to get muddy back there,” he said. “I prefer to stay closer to the main lake, where the water stays clearer.”

Joslin’s perfect setup is a cove in which the drains lead to ridges, points and humps featuring fish-holding cover.

“It usually has hydrilla on it, and it has logs on it,” he said. “It comes up to about 12 to 13 feet.”

The southern reaches of the lake, particularly on the Texas side, offer many of these areas. His favorite waters stretch from just south of Mill Creek Bat to the northern side of Six Mile Bay.

“The main reason is that’s where the best grass has been,” Joslin said.

Great starting points are Texas and Louisiana islands, situated just north of the dam and east of the southeastern point of the mouth of Mill Creek Bay.

“They’ve got primary points and secondary points,” Joslin said. “There are some flats on them, and there’s also some drains that come off of those flats.

“You’re following them in (to the spawning areas). That’s your main thing.”

That means Joslin can fish a relatively small area and find all of the necessary ingredients for spring success: He simply follows the fish up the drains to the points and flats as the spawn progresses.

Lures are customized according to the portion of the islands he fishes.

“I would fish the windy side with spinnerbaits, crankbaits and jerkbaits,” Joslin said. “I would have a tendency to fish the calmer side with soft-plastics.”

There is one problem with the islands, which are situated in the middle of the lake.

“Wind is an issue,” he said. “If it’s 15 mph or less, you can handle it and fish the islands. If it gets windier than that, you can’t do it.

“It’s treacherous water when the wind gets too bad.”

When the wind blows too hard to stay out on the main lake, Joslin moves into Mill Creek, working the points of the cove.

“Mill Creek is a very overlooked part of Toledo Bend,” he explained. “You just don’t hear a lot about it, but it holds big fish, and it’s fairly protected.”

He concentrates most of his efforts on the southern side of the cove.

“The northern side doesn’t have a whole lot fish,” he said. “The fish spawn on the points along the southern shore.”

Mill Creek is one area that serves as an exception to his rule about staying away from the backs of the coves.

“The water stays clear in there,” Joslin said.

So he goes back as far as Eagle Point, working ridges, points and flats along the way.

Six Mile Creek is next on his list, but Joslin focuses on any points and other structure he can find on the northern side of this bay.

“They get more sunlight (than the southern contours), and they’re going to warm up a little bit faster, and they also have protection from the north winds,” he said.

While he’ll work all the way to the bank in Mill Creek, Joslin rarely gets very close to the bank in Six Mile.

“I target primary points, secondary points, drains and ditches,” he said. “We’re actually fishing where other people have their boats positioned.

“Most of the cover I fish really isn’t visible at all.”

He said such a strategy is particularly important during the spring, when heavy pressure can make bank-fishing difficult.

“When you get a lot of boat traffic, you have to find some places to fish that don’t get as much attention,” Joslin said. “Those fish in shallow water just get pounded.”

He said ignoring deeper structure is a mistake many anglers make.

“A lot of anglers, especially those coming from South Louisiana, are so concerned with having to fish something they can see,” he explained.

His preferred lures include crankbaits, spinnerbaits, hard-plastic jerkbaits and dead-stick plastics.

Lipped crankbaits like the Frenzy Medium Diver are important through March, when fishing deeper waters for fish moving in to spawn.

“As you get into the spring, you’ll fish more of the 6- to 12-foot depths, but in the early spring, you’ll fish 12 to 16 feet of water,” Joslin said.

That’s where these lures shine because they dive deep enough to tempt bass suspended and waiting to move shallower when the water warms up.

Using line no heavier than 12 pounds helps get these crankbaits down to the proper depths, he said.

Spinnerbaits and lipless cranks come into play once the fish begin moving out of the ditches and onto the spawning flats, but Joslin said grass is critical to success.

“I don’t fish a spinnerbait or Rat-L-Trap a whole lot unless I’ve got grass,” he said. “You’ve got to have grass.”

The key is to keep the lure in that fish-holding vegetation.

“A lot of times, I’ll start up on the grass with a spinnerbait, especially if I’ve got wind,” Joslin said. “I’m just tipping the grass. You want it in the grass.”

His favorite spinners range from ¼- to ¾-ounce models, with the specific weight dictated by the depth of the grass.

“My retrieve is pull, let it fall, pull, let it fall,” Joslin said. “It’s kind of a yo-yo retrieve.

“A lot of the bites come on the fall.”

When he moves to the heavy lures, Joslin matches the weight with a big blade that really puts out vibrations and calls in the big girls.

“You usually don’t have to measure one when it hits that bigger bait,” he said.

Lipless cranks also can be extremely productive, particularly for hammering pre-spawn bass.

Again, Joslin wants to make solid contact with the grass.

“You rip it out of the grass and let it fall,” he said.

When those lures fail to produce, Joslin turns to more subtle presentations.

Dead-stick or cigar-shaped plastics, such as the Berkley Gulp! Sinking Minnow, are his preference for customers when fishing waters that aren’t too deep.

“It’s according to how high the grass grows,” Joslin said.

As long as the top of the grass is no more than 10 feet deep, these lures are extremely productive no matter the actual water depth.

If grass isn’t present, it’s best to use these baits in no more than 10 feet of water, he said.

The best strategy when using these baits is to try not to work the lures too much.

“You throw it out there and let it fall, and just let it do its thing,” he explained. “You really don’t want to add any action to it.

“You just want to lift it and let it fall.”

Most of the bites will come on the fall, so it’s important to carefully lift the lure to feel the fish.

“Sixty percent of the fish will hit it on the initial fall,” Joslin said. “When you tighten up, the fish is there.”

Proper line selection is critical, however.

“One of the biggest mistakes a lot of people make is they use too big a line,” Joslin said.

His preference is 10- to 12-pound line.

“If I’m using monofilament, I’ll use 10-pound Big Game,” he said. “If I need something a little heavier, I’ll go to 12-pound Trilene Sensation or Vanish fluorocarbon.”

The light line simply allows the lure to work as it’s designed.

“It’s going to give that lure a lot more-natural presentation,” he said.

While mono often works fine, Joslin said he actually leans toward fluorocarbon.

“You have a transparency issue,” he explained. “The water on this south end of the lake is clear, and that fluorocarbon disappears under water.”

However, there’s another reason for his preference, particularly when he’s in deeper water.

“It helps it sink a little bit,” he explained. “It soaks up water, and pulls the bait down.”

Jerkbaits can be used in both grassy and grass-free areas, with suspending versions coming in handy when trying to snag suspended fish in deeper water.

Later in the spring, when fish have moved up into the shallows and the grass has reached the water’s surface, Joslin said frogs become great choices even for spawning fish.

“That bait will work over beds,” he said.

However, Joslin said he simply fan casts over mats of vegetation.

“I’m fishing anywhere from 1 to 10 feet of water,” he said.

His choice frogs are Stanley Ribbits and Berkley Gulp! Bat Wings, and he fishes them with a 7-foot rod and 50-pound Spiderwire.

“I use braided line exclusively on that frog,” Joslin said. “One of the problems you have (with a frog) is getting the fish hooked and in the boat once you get it to bite.

“When you get a fish on and it gets down in that grass, that braid helps cut that grass and get the fish in the boat.”

Joslin also said the line helps keep the frog from balling up in the grass during the retrieve.

“That braided line floats,” he said.

But when fishing gets really tough, Joslin turns to a 5-inch Berkley Gulp! Wacky Crawler on a 1/0 to 2/0 Daiichi round hook.

“I rig it wacky style, and I take a 1-inch finishing nail and stick it in the nose,” he said. “That’s the only weight I use.”

This natural-looking lure will produce bites even when bass turn their noses up at anything else.

“They just love that bait,” Joslin said.

Joe Joslin can be reached at (337) 463-3848 or joejoslin@cox.net.

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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