Warm-water river systems across the continent hold decent populations of largemouth bass. The trick is catching ’em, especially in late winter and early spring, when high, cold water makes life miserable for bass and fishermen alike.
Bass pro and NAFC member Bill McDonald of Indianapolis, Indiana, showed me his system. When water temperatures reach 50 degrees in his native Ohio River, usually in mid- to late March, it’s time to begin exploring tributary creeks in search of prespawn largemouths.
“Creeks are your best bet then,” he says. “The good ones hold lots of bass; a mixture of fish that have moved in from the main river to spawn, plus resident bass that hang out there all year.”
Current, or lack thereof, separates productive creeks from bad ones. McDonald targets “flat-water” streams. “I prefer smaller creeks, say, 40 to 60 yards across, without a lot of flow,” he says. Rushing torrents hold few fish.
Once he locates a prime creek, he looks for hard-bottom areas with woody cover. “Even in creeks with a lot of siltation, you can find areas where the current has cleared off gravel or other hard substrate,” he says. “This is a key, because bass are looking for hard bottom on which to spawn.”
The wood factor is equally huge, he explains. “Woody cover is a magnet for bass in creeks,” he says. Lots of this wood is visible at or near the surface, but you’ll need to scout for trees lying in deep, stained water.
Crank ’Em In
While anglers cringe at the thought of cranking wood, McDonald embraces the presentation. “I love it,” he says. “You can cover water and trigger strikes so well, it’s my go-to method.”
His weapon of choice is a 2 5/8-inch D Bait. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t feel bad. A cool crank built by Gary Dees, the foil-finished, balsa bait’s rod-shaking action is murder on bass in shallow timber.
“I fish it right through the wood, feeling my way along, usually with a stop-and-go retrieve,” says McDonald, who favors the black-back and gray-back shad-imitating patterns for clear waters; firetiger for stained situations.
“Take it slow when the water’s cold,” he says. “Sometimes the fish follow but won’t strike, and it takes a long pause to make them commit.”
To fish a piece of wood, McDonald positions his boat so the bait will run through the cover with the current. “I experiment with the angles and boat positions,” he notes. “It may take a dozen casts to get it right.”
If cranks aren’t producing, or McDonald thinks he could siphon one more bass from a prime lie, he goes to 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jigs and Texas-rigged plastics. “Strike King Bitsy Bugs are good jigs for this kind of fishing,” he says. “I Texas rig a dark Zoom Brush Hog, Baby Brush Hog or Ultra-Vibe Super Craw with a True Tungsten weight; the tungsten is the best I’ve found for transmitting bottom information.”
While McDonald perfected the art of creek cranking on the mighty Ohio, it works wonders on rivers across bass country. Add it to your river fishing arsenal and you, too, could turn the grueling days of winter’s demise into some of the season’s best bassin’.