Prowling America's Backwaters

Posted by  Friday, March 28 2014 6:00 am
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In this article: Finding Good BackwatersBoots & Equipment | Tactics | Other Backwater Opportunities


Backwaters. They're the places anglers used to fish before big reservoirs came along.  

BackwatersFishing 1Creeks and rivers, farm ponds, oxbows, swamps, beaver sloughs, borrow ditches, watershed lakes, mining pits. Today these bantam waters lie mostly in obscurity, overshadowed by Johnny-come-lately impoundments where bass boats can run 80 miles an hour. Oh, these smaller, quieter waters still attract a few fishermen, but usually they're loners, and they breathe barely a word about where they go and what they catch.  

This is because southern backwaters offer some of the hottest fishing anywhere, and anglers who frequent them are like treasure hunters keeping tight-lipped about their secrets.  

Greg Richey of Central City, Kentucky, is one of the few exceptions who is willing to talk. For years, he's fished for bass in nearby Spring Creek drainage, a maze of cypress, buck brush and secluded open water holes. Richey says, "I've caught 50-60 bass per day over 15 inches, and some have gone six pounds and better. These are fish nobody else fishes for. They're not nearly as spooky as bass in lakes where fishing pressure is heavier."  

Jeff Lannom is another exception. Lannom lives in Greenfield, Tennessee, next to the Obion River, which empties into the Mississippi River. Years ago the Obion was channelized for flood control purposes. However, Lannom knows a two-mile stretch where a blockage diverts the current from the ditch back through the old meandering riverbed. From May through October, he goes there and routinely catches up to a dozen nice catfish in a few hours of fishing. "There's nothing complicated about what I do." he states "Anybody could do this, but I almost never see another fisherman on the old river."  

Sam Heaton has one more example of a hot backwater fishery. Heaton is a full-time guide on crappie-rich Weiss Lake in northeast Alabama. However, one of his better trips in recent years came in a beaver pond sealed off from an old river run in Weiss' headwaters. He recalls, "I'd duck hunted this pond for years, but I had no idea it held crappie. One day a buddy and I decided to try it just to see what we could catch. We wadefished with long poles, sliding jigs down flooded tree trunks. We caught the stew out of crappie, and they were big ones! I don't think anybody had ever fished for those fish before."  

Get the picture? Similar overlooked waters exist all across the country. They take more than a little effort to find and investigate. They also require some specialized equipment to reach and to fish. But for anglers who go to the trouble, these hideaway waters can yield some of the most consistent catches in the region. Following are details about where and how to find them and how to make them pay.  

Finding Good Backwaters  

Veteran backwater anglers aren't used to being spoon-fed like their big waters brethren. They can't waltz into the bait shop and ask how deep the fish are. They can't pick up a map and check the location of fish attractors. They can't rent a space on a fishing barge or motor out and look for a collection of boats to learn where the action is.  

Instead, backwater anglers must first be detectives, cycling through a three step process: (1) actually finding potential fishing holes; (2) figuring out how to get there (and gaining permission, if necessary); and (3) test-fishing to learn if fish are present and in what number.  

The list of possibilities is long; overlooked fishing spots exist in virtually any angler's backyard. Finding them requires a simple commitment to a search, then following through.

"One of the best ways to start is by obtaining topographic maps of areas you're interested in checking," continues Sam Heaton. "You'd be surprised how much you can learn by studying these maps. They'll show all sorts of small waters that are fishing possibilities. They'll also show roads and other prominent features to help you get there."  

Several years back, Heaton noticed a series of small watershed lakes in the Talladega National Forest in east-central Alabama, many of which were in remote areas. His interest piqued, he began test-fishing them, and he found several with bountiful populations of crappie and bass. He has since fished these small lakes many times, and he's rarely seen another angler.  

Heaton says, "These little lakes are on public property, but nobody pays'em much attention. I don't think many people know they're there, and those who do don't make the effort to fish'em. They'd rather head down the road to the bigger lakes and concrete boat ramps. That's fine with me!"

BackwatersFishing 2
Small ponds, conservation lakes and other backwaters can produce fast  action for anglers who ferret out these overlooked fishing hotspots.

Many other types of waters and sources for finding them exist. Fish and wildlife agencies can be mother lodes of information, or more specifically, biologists and game wardens can be. Angling prospectors should contact these people, explain what they're looking for, and ask for suggestions. Many agency employees will recommend tucked-away streams or still waters — big fishing opportunities in little packages.  

Also, contact other agencies or companies which have large land holdings: TVA, Corps of Engineers, national and state parks, national forests, timber companies, etc. Ask to speak to the land manager or fish/wildlife biologist. Most of these agencies and companies keep such specialists on staff. Many times they will know of fishing possibilities that are rarely publicized or utilized.  

Basically, ferreting out backwaters is a matter of having the gumption to do so. Greg Richey learned his way around the Spring Creek bottoms while trapping. However, he says other anglers could drop a boat in the creek, explore its swamps and enjoy the top-rate action he's had virtually to himself for years.  

Sam Heaton has one more idea. "Here's a real secret. Everybody knows somebody with a small airplane who would be glad to fly'em around for an hour or two. Take your maps, and go scouting from the air. You'll be amazed what you can find. You can see little ponds and streams and sloughs everywhere. You can also figure out the best way to get to them. This is how I learned the best way into those watershed lakes in the Talladega forest, and I've enjoyed fishing there ever since."  

Boats & Equipment

This is where the specialization comes in. Forget the big rigs with all the electronics and power accessories. The best backwater boats are lean and mean. They are transportable, and they can be launched on a muddy bank or hand-carried to the water.  

Specifically, backwater boats include one or two-man pontoon boats, kayaks, small johnboats, canoes, inflatables and other similar craft. They are powered by paddle, trolling motor or a low horsepower outboard. All can be carried in the back of a pickup or on a lightweight trailer.

"I use a small pontoon — a two-man bass buggy — to fish the watershed lakes in the Talladega," Sam Heaton continues. "I carry it in my pickup, and I pull a 4-wheeler on a trailer. When I drive as close to a lake as I can, I unload the 4-wheeler, move the bass buggy to the 4-wheeler trailer, then transfer the trailer from the truck to the 4-wheeler to tow it to the lake. This way, I can get my bass buggy into some pretty remote places."  

Greg Richey and Jeff Lannom both fish from small johnboats. Richey uses an electric motor, a push pole and a paddle to reach his fishing water. Lannom runs to his with a 9-1/2-horse outboard. Other gear is kept to a minimum: flotation seat cushions, anchor and rope, cooler, bait bucket.  

For float-fishing on small streams, a canoe is a better choice than a johnboat, owing to its minimal draft and maneuverability. A canoe is easier to drag through shallow riffles or carry around logjams. Also, a canoe made from high density polyethylene is quieter than a metal canoe, and it has some give when scraping across rocks.  

One other option may be the pinnacle of backwater boats: the Go-Devil, made by Go-Devil Manufacturers of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This boat/motor combo is specially designed to penetrate hard-to-get-to areas. It runs easily in inches of water and slides off stumps and over logs with no damage to the hull or motor. "I have a friend who owns a Go-Devil, and he goes places other people can't dream of going in a regular boat," Sam Heaton declares. "Now, this rig is heavy; you have to back the trailer in the water to launch it. But once it's floating, it's the best. In my opinion, it's the ultimate shallow water machine."  

Of course, boats aren't totally necessary for fishing southern backwaters. An excellent alternative is a float tube ("belly boat"). This innertube/seat combo has its advantages and disadvantages. In the former column, a float tube is highly portable and can be carried and launched virtually anywhere. Its drawbacks are that if offers limited mobility, and it provides a low casting angle. Sometimes this can limit an angler's casting distance and accuracy. Also, a belly boat is more practical in warm weather, though insulated waders make it usable in cool months.  

Then there is the final option for fishing backwaters: fishing afoot, either in the water or out. Wadefishing or fishing from the bank are the simplest way to go, and they are both highly practical and efficient methods, especially on smaller waters. In cool waters, waders are a must. In warm streams or ponds, shorts and wading shoes are the ticket.  

Actually, Greg Richey wadefishes most of the time, using his boat only as transportation to and from his fishing areas. "I wear waders, and when I get to a good hole, I'll climb out of the boat. Wadefishing is quieter. It's also more thorough, since you can take your time and fish every conceivable spot where a bass might be holding."  

Tactics

Greg Richey keeps his lures and presentations simple by choice. Again, he's not fishing for bass that have PhDs in angler avoidance. The fish he catches are mostly virgin to the seductive appeal of artificial lures.  

He continues, "I use a medium-heavy baitcasting outfit and 10- or 12-pound test monofilament since the water's usually very clear. I prefer a short rod (5 1/2 feet), since I make a lot of side and underhand casts beneath tree limbs and around brush and beaver dams.

"In lures, I use spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, stickbaits and plastic worms. One of these four lures will normally catch'em. There's no reason to take a tackle box full of baits. A big selection just causes confusion."  

Richey simply moves and casts, from one open hole or patch of flooded cypress to the next. He pushes and paddles his boat along beaver runs and sloughs, then climbs overboard to work a new spot. In the process, he consistently catches and releases more bass than most anglers ever dream of.  

Jeff Lannom's catfish tactics for the Obion River are even simpler. Lannom uses strong baitcasting tackle and 17-30 pound test line. He fishes with a bottom rig. First, he runs a 1-1/2 ounce egg sinker up his line, then he ties a barrel swivel on the end of the line. He adds a 12-18 inch leader on the other end of the barrel swivel and adds a heavy 1/0 hook. Lannom uses a variety of baits, including catalpa worms (when available), nightcrawlers, shad guts, shrimp and liver.  

"I'll run a mile or so upriver and fish my way back down," Lannom relates. "I'll hit deep holes where the channel turns, treetops, logs or any other likely structure. When I decide to fish a spot, I tie or anchor my boat unstream just a few yards, then I cast my bait out and let the current take it into the hole. When it settles to the bottom, I'll take up slack, lean my rod up against the boat's gunnel and wait for a bite."  

Lannom fishes two rods at a time. When he gets a bite, he waits for the catfish to start moving with his bait before he sets the hook. However, if he fishes a hole for 15 minutes with no action, he reels in his lines and moves to the next spot. "It's a rare morning when I can't catch a good mess of catfish by doing this," Lannom says. "I'll usually take one or two from each hole."  

Sam Heaton uses a standby method for bagging crappie from beaver ponds and watershed lakes. He rigs a long panfish pole with 8-12 pound test line and a small jig, which he dangles around and in any visible cover: trees, stumps, cattails, brush, etc. "It doesn't get any simpler than this," Heaton attests. "Anybody can copy this method and catch fish with it. It's a real no-brainer."  

Heaton says his success comes through two things: fishing where few other people do; and sheer persistence. "If you're in a good place, and you keep on poking that little jig into cover, you're going to catch some crappie. It's hard to get skunked doing this."  

Other Backwater Opportunities  

Different methods produce in other backwater situations. Many small streams are loaded with smallmouth and spotted bass, bream, catfish and other species. These fish can be taken on small jigs, in-line spinners and crawfish crankbaits. Best places are at the bases of riffles and under/behind logs and rocks along steep banks.  

Farm ponds traditionally give up the biggest bass each year. These fish exist unbeknownst to many anglers, and they grow pot-bellied over the years. They are most vulnerable in early spring, when they spawn along shallow banks. Try jig-and-pigs, spinnerbaits and topwaters around any visible cover.  

Many small tributary streams in reservoir headwaters receive big influxes of spawning white bass in early spring. When the run is on, these fish congregate in enormous schools in eddies and below shoals adjacent to strong currents. Anglers who find them can catch dozens on small jigs and spinners.  

This list could go on and on. The point is that great overlooked fisheries are numerous and scattered throughout the country. Finding them takes some sense of adventure and a dose of determination. However, once they're uncovered, the actual catching is easy. You just lay your bait in front of the fish, and they do what comes natural. They don't know anything else!  

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Last modified on Friday, March 28 2014 11:44 am
Wade Bourne
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Wade Bourne is one of America's best known outdoor writers/broadcasters. In the past 37 years, he has published more than 2,500 articles in America's leading outdoor magazines. He has hosted a daily syndicated outdoor radio show for 28 consecutive years. He has hosted outdoor TV shows on TNN (Advantage Outdoors) and The Outdoor Channel (Ducks Unlimited TV). He's also won numerous awards for his journalistic expertise.

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