Some structures that attract bass are clearly visible to the naked eye, and practically scream, “Fish me!” Points are a prime example. Any bass angler, even one with marginal skill and experience, can locate and catch fish on something so prominent and obvious. What’s more, they can easily replicate their success running from one point to another.
Likewise, locating offshore structures that are equally dramatic in character, such as the main river channel in a sprawling reservoir, is a piece of cake with today’s sophisticated sonar.
Yet there’s a type of structure that’s so subtle, so elusive, even some of the top bass pros have difficulty locating it. And if they do, they seldom talk about it, zealously guarding its location. It’s a submerged ditch, a topographical phenomenon one pro describes as the Holy Grail of bass structures.
“There’s been a ton of money won on submerged ditches in major tournaments over the years, yet the pros who fish them seldom mention them,” he says. “Most of the time, when interviewed after the tournament, they’ll just say they caught their fish on a main-lake flat or a shallow point, but in reality the bass were stacked in an obscure little ditch that snaked across this more prominent structure.
“That’s the thing about a ditch—bass will pack into ’em like commuters on a New York subway, especially in spring. If you can pinpoint the ditch, chances are you’ll hit the mother lode of bass.”
To most people, a ditch is the man-made trench that runs alongside a highway and collects storm runoff from the road. But many bass anglers don’t realize that a network of ditches often runs across the bottom of many of the reservoirs and natural lakes they fish. More importantly, they hold bass!
Jay Yelas, one of the pro circuit’s elite, is among the few who really understand just how productive these small, inconspicuous structures can be. “Ditches are especially common in large river systems,” he says. “I like to think of the main river channel as an artery, tributaries running off the main channel as veins, and ditches as capillaries. They’re small (just inches wide and deep), but they serve an important function: funneling water that runs off the surrounding terrain into the river system. The way this complex drainage system links together is readily visible in an aerial photo of a river.”
These elusive structures can be either man-made or natural, he adds. “In highland reservoirs with a cavernous channel and banks that drop off quickly into deep water, ditches may be visible along the shore as ruts or depressions in the sides of hills. When it rains, runoff collects in the ditch and is channeled into the lake.
“What you may not realize is that the ditch you see on a sloping bank probably extends beneath the surface as well, most likely running away from shore until it intersects with a creek or river channel. It was there before the river was dammed, and it’s now part of the reservoir’s topography.”
Man-made ditches are most commonly found in lowland lakes, especially those in agricultural regions. “Here, ditches were often dug to drain swampy areas and divert the flow of water away from crop fields to prevent flooding and erosion,” says Yelas. “Man-made ditches can be a dynamite bass pattern in relatively shallow lakes in Florida, Texas and the Tennessee Valley. I’ve also been on a strong ditch pattern in bayous and tidal bass waters.”
Ditches may be mere indentations in a slick bottom, or have some form of cover associated with them. “Those that are lined with stumps, grass or weeds are easier to locate and can hold lots of fish, but I’ve also caught heavy limits from ditches with little or no cover on them,” he explains. “This tells me bass use them both as a migration route and an ambush point.”
So why don’t ditches have a higher profile as prime bass-holding structures? “Because they’re so darn difficult to locate!” Yelas says. “Over time, submerged ditches fill in with silt and lose their well-defined profile. Most of them are minor structures to begin with, sometimes a mere rut on the bottom. Most of the reservoirs we fish today were constructed 40 or more years ago. After decades of siltation and bottom erosion, you’re talking about looking for a needle in a haystack. No wonder some ditches are so subtle, they’re hardly even there.”
It doesn’t take much of a ditch to attract bass, Yelas emphasizes. “During prespawn, as water temperatures rise, bass migrate from their deep winter holding areas to shallow spawning grounds via a network of pathways that include river and tributary channels and ditches,” he says. “They follow a ditch running up a slow-tapering point or flat, just like a car getting off an exit ramp on an interstate highway. Often large numbers of bass will stage along these ditches, waiting for the water to warm up enough for them to move into shallow spawning coves.
“Typically the most reliable ditch bassin’ occurs in spring when the water temp is in the 50s, but I usually start checking ’em anytime there’s a quick rise in the lake’s temp following a few days of unseasonably warm weather, or after a warm spring rain.”
A shallow ditch often becomes a sanctuary during prespawn cold fronts, Yelas adds. “On mild early-spring days, bass scatter across a big piece of structure like a stump flat and forage for crayfish, shad or bluegills. But when the inevitable frontal passage occurs, they’ll pack into a nearby ditch and lay low until conditions improve.
“Most anglers think bass always back off into a deep channel during a spring front, but I’ve caught ’em in ditches that were only a foot deeper than the surrounding terrain. Just a slight depression is all it takes to attract them.”
Finding The Needle
Pinpointing ditches is a matter of paying close attention to your sonar screen, and more importantly, studying the terrain surrounding the area you’re fishing, according to Steve Dodson, one of Tennessee’s savviest bass fishermen. “You hardly ever find ditches on a topo map,” he says. “You’ve got to rely on your powers of observation.”
Dodson’s Triton is equipped with a Lowrance X15 on the bow and a LMS480 on the console. “I tend to pinpoint ditches more easily with the bow unit because the transducer is mounted on the trolling motor, right under my feet,” he explains. “I start by idling into an area that links deep and shallow water, like a main-lake cove or a big tributary flat, and scanning the shoreline for any signs of a depression or rut running along the bank or down a hillside and entering the water.
“When I see something on shore that looks promising, I shut down the outboard and use the electric motor and sonar for a closer inspection. Cruising slowly in a lazy S-pattern, watching the screen for any sign of a dip or depression and tossing out buoys to mark the depth change, I can zero in on the ditch.”
Knowing what to look for is essential, Dodson says. “Most anglers conjure up an image of a roadside ditch, but they usually aren’t anywhere near that well-defined. I’ve fished ditches on Kentucky Lake that were 15 feet deep and 12 feet across, but this is extreme. A good ditch can be a foot across and mere inches deep. In fact, I prefer fishing the silted-in ditches common in older reservoirs because they go unnoticed by the vast majority of bass anglers. Get on one of these and you can fill the livewell in no time.”
Though locating a subtle, imprecise ditch on a vast flat or point is a major piece of the puzzle, fishing it correctly is just as critical. A variety of lures will trigger strikes from ditch bass, according to Yelas and Dodson, but particular presentations work much better than others.
Diving cranks: “Cast a big- or medium-billed crankbait across the ditch, then root it down the drop,” says Yelas. “Hold the rodtip low and steady and use the reel handle to grind the bait into the bottom.
“The lure will careen like a fleeing crayfish, triggering reaction strikes from sluggish bass. If the water is murky, choose a chartreuse or firetiger crankbait pattern, which mimics a small bluegill.”
Lipless cranks: “I like to burn one of these noisy baits down the ditch, stopping occasionally and letting it sink on a tight line,” Dodson says. “Bass suck the lure in as it’s falling. Red is an awesome early-spring color for these lures.”
Jig-and-pig combo: “They’re my standby ditch lures during severe spring cold fronts,” says Yelas. “Bump them down the drop and hop them around and through cover like a craw. You can’t beat black-and-blue in the spring.”
Tubes: “When the water temperature is bumping 60 degrees and bass are about ready to spawn, a tube hopped through a shallow ditch will get your string stretched big time!” Yelas says.
Spinnerbaits: “The water is often murky due to spring rains, so I’ll use a hard-thumpin’ spinnerbait with a big willow leaf or Colorado blade. Flash isn’t as important now as vibration,” Dodson explains. “Cast the lure across the ditch so your retrieve slices it at an angle. Slow-roll it, speeding the retrieve slightly when you feel the lure contact bottom, then slowing down as it crosses the drop-off. Let the lure flutter down into the ditch on a tight line.”
Other artificials the anglers recommend for probing ditches during prespawn include a finesse worm rigged on a jig head with the hookpoint exposed, a heavy metal tailspinner for big, deep ditches and a suspending jerkbait if the water is clear to slightly stained.
Worth The Effort
Instead of targeting the same easy-to-find structures you’ve relied on for springtime bass in the past, put time and effort into locating submerged ditches. Be forewarned, though. Besides a good sonar unit and a set of marker buoys, there’s one other thing you’ll need—perseverance. In fact, you’ll need more than most bass anglers are willing to muster.
It will be well worthwhile, however. More than likely, you’ll be among the very few anglers to ever find and fish these spots. Once you’ve unlocked the mystery of submerged ditches, you’re practically guaranteed to tap into more and bigger bass than you ever dreamed possible.