By Larry Larsen
River fishing for big bass is just like lake fishing; you learn to identify those areas having the highest potential for holding a trophy bass, and you fish them, "guide Bob Stonewater told me. "You need to understand what the current does, where it hits the habitat, where drops are formed, and how the structure may be piled up on the bottom."
That sounds easier than it may be in reality, though, admits the 43-year-old guide. "Reading" the river involves an analysis of the bends, currents and existing structure, and just as important, it involves the knowledge of how trophy largemouths relate to such. Stonewater has developed his abilities to find and catch big bass by concentrating solely on rivers for 30 years.
The favorite water of this "river rat" lies along a 150-mile stretch of Florida's St. Johns River near his home in Orange Springs. Thousands of days on that river and its creeks have been kind to the affable guide. Stonewater and his clients have caught more than 600 10-pound-plus largemouths in the past 10 years. His ways of reading a river apply most any water that flows. There are very few differences between bass in Florida rivers and those elsewhere when it comes to selecting prime habitat for foraging.
"You should be able to figure out how the bottom slopes and where the current turns," explained the big-bass guide. "That's where any submerged trees will pile up. A sharp drop on either side of a point can also be ideal. With deep water right up against the bank, a big bass can trap the forage against it."
Largemouth bass that inhabit moving waters are, like their lake counterparts, structure-oriented. They seek out cover in which to live and feed. Most flowages offer numerous "holes" carved out by the currents or created by small sinkholes. Bass fishing in the depressions can be significant.
An obvious surface key to locating structure in the rivers is the bends. Contrary to some beliefs, the depths in creeks and streams vary greatly, depending on where you are looking. Outer bends offer the most current and are generally the deepest part of a waterway. On slow-moving tributaries, that's usually where the big bass will be.
A successful river angler must pick those spots with the best big-bass potential. In stained waters, the areas should have at least four or five feet of water present with some form of cover. A deep creek flowing into or out of an even deeper river channel is ideal. Even a four-foot-deep outlet that flows only during high-water periods can hold a big fish if the cover is sufficient.
"People won't go into places that are only 10 feet wide," he told me the day as we moved into a tiny ditch off the main St. Johns River channel. "Lunker bass will, though, because it's the depth of the water and amount of current that are most important, not the width of the creek."
River largemouths, like lake fish, are structure-oriented. Find structure and you'll find bass.
That trip took place in August, the hottest month of the year, yet Stonewater assured me and my wife, Lilliam, that big bass search for such spots to lie out of the river current and feed. A slight current moving into the tributary tugged gently at the shore-fixed weed patch that extended about four feet out from the bank in front of us. The water, no wider than 15 feet or so, was eight feet deep and had a sharp, sloping shoreline.
The ditch was actually a main-river fork that only flowed during relatively high waters. The small channel is dry in places downstream during normal water levels, and no flow exists then. The guide was right about there being big bass present on that day. We caught four bass from six to 8 1/2 pounds.
Stonewater was familiar with that spot, but I've seen him analyze others that he hasn't been to before and still draw the correct conclusion regarding their harboring big bass. On another abbreviated trip one year earlier, we caught two largemouths of bragging size. Together, they weighed more than 17 pounds, and they came from similar locations---miles apart! Because lunker bass rarely show themselves, Stonewater may go by hunch at times. Regardless, he's usually right.
In smaller or shallower rivers or creeks, brush and fallen trees often provide the only shoreline cover. The food base in the tiny waterways may be primarily small forage fish and crustaceans. Crayfish frequent the rocky shoal areas and deep undercut banks. Big bass will usually avoid high-current areas, preferring quieter waters adjacent to or below tumbling ripples.
Big bass in smaller tributaries are very aware of their environment and their accessibility to outside predation, so stealth tributaries are very aware of their environment and their accessibility to outside predation, so stealth may be of paramount importance. Keeping noise to an absolute minimum is usually wise because it lets you sneak up on a wise old bass. Before you wet a line, determine the area from which you want to cast, and identify the obstructions that you will have to avoid as you cast.
Tributaries that lead to "nowhere" are opportunities for bass anglers. Depths may vary from a few feet to 10 or 12, and the fishing will vary, too. Many are excellent fisheries, but some are too. Many are excellent fisheries, but some are not. Those with minimal water movement, however, may become stagnant and offer few sport fish.
A particularly good area along a waterway is any point formed by the intersection of two tributaries. Currents create well defined points where the greatest drop occurs. Fish the heaviest cover along that point thoroughly before moving to shallower water. Move the boat slowly through such areas for best results.
Aquatic plants that either grow from the bank and lay over, or grow out on the surface of the water, are prime cover for big river bass. If the bank has a quick drop, a large fish can chase the forage fish up underneath the weed canopy, and the prey cannot get away. Fishing such areas effectively may require some creative artificial presentations or the use of shiners "submarined" under the surface-bound vegetation.
The giants of the river will normally wait in such an area for a forage fish to poke its nose under the darkened environment Little bass actively feed several times a day, but as they grow older and bigger, they won't expend a lot of energy on foraging. Big bass are lazy and won't move far to feed. They'll simply remain in their hole, laying just out of the heavy current, and wait for an easy meal.
An easy victim is one that can be trapped against a deep riverbank. Large bass realize the difficulty in striking a baitfish in open water. The prey often escapes because there is little to limit the direction of the fleeing forage. But the baitfish pinned against the bank can seldom escape a large predator.
River largemouths seem to prefer a feeding area with vegetation and some current that will aid in washing forage to them. An ideal feeding area would be a sand bank two feet deep that drops to 10 feet and then gets shallow again. Eelgrass on the inner bend in three to four feet of water would make the spot perfect. Big bass can lie in the deeper trough and move onto the feeding grounds.
These places are generally more productive after a rain. Even after a brief shower, the water flow in tributaries increases, and those natural feeding holes have additional current. Along with that current comes forage that has washed into the river. Such fare usually hugs the shoreline tightly as it washes downstream, so bass can easily pin their prey against the banks.
Conservation, Mobility And Patience
Stonewater has caught some monster bass from such feeding areas---he and his clients have caught nine bass topping 13 pounds---but it does require mobility, a conservative attitude and patience. In fact, the guide has to work long portions of the river, up to 150 miles. He doesn't fish just one area on the river---he moves about.
He searches for several good spots all along the St. Johns and encourages the release of most of the big bass caught. As he notes, you cannot concentrate on a small area and catch and keep several hundred largemouths weighing more than 10 pounds. The patience comes while waiting on a giant bass to feed. It may eat a mouthful and not feed primarily on big items when an opportunity presents itself. Because it is difficult to predict when the fish will feed, a successful angler may have to work a prime spot four or five times during the day. Sooner or later, the large predator will probably move to its feeding grounds.
Repeated casts to a potentially productive hole are often necessary to entice a large river bass to strike. Sometimes, as many as 40 or 50 casts to the same spot will finally fool a 10-pound bass. If the depth, current and cover are right, there will be a big bass feeding there at some time.
When Stonewater has discovered such a productive big-bass spot, his experience shows that only three or four strikes are possible before the action slows. As a result, after the initial flurry, he quickly moves to a similar area that may offer the same-size fish. Though he can come back and fish the first area later, he feels that his time will be spent more wisely by moving to a new flurry of activity. His strikes per hour increase that way, and his clients have a better chance of catching fish.
Natural Or Artificial?
Stonewater's clients are usually looking for trophy largemouths, so the guide is just not content with bass of lesser proportions. As a result, he uses the largest artificials and/or natural baits that he can find. He has used shiners as large as 14 to 16 inches in length within the prime river habitat.
Bigger baits catch bigger bass, he contends, and he quickly offers proof. On one week's tally of 25 bass, only two weighed less than six pounds. Oversize baits were responsible for such a catch. Stonewater enjoys casting giant crankbaits and spinnerbaits and has caught hundreds of seven and eight-pound bass on them, but large shiners are the guide's choice for consistently catching monster bass.
"The giants usually want the baitfish because they're a natural forage that the bass eat year-round," said Stonewater. "Of the more than 200 fish topping 10 pounds that I've taken, less then two dozen were caught on the big lures."
The guide does opt for lures occasionally, however, and has adapted the knowledge gained from fishing the big live baits to his plug techniques. These concepts have added to his productivity. During one month, he and his clients caught 27 bass between six and 11 pounds on shiners. They took another seven bass in the trophy range on large crankbaits.
"Big shiners give off slow vibrations when moving through the current," Stonewater explained. "Big crankbaits also have a slow wiggle and produce similar sound waves. On most rivers, the smaller, tight-wiggling lures primarily fool little bass."
If the waters are very clear, keep in mind that the bass have maximum visibility during the high-noon sunlight period. Lure and line selection then is critical. The new TriMax Photochromic is a monofilament that can be watched above water, yet is almost invisible below the surface. During low-light times, such as early morning or late-afternoon periods or on cloudy days, lure and line selections are still important.
Using the giant fare has resulted in trophy catches year-round. To believe that large river bass can only be caught during the spring is a mistake, according to his bass specialist. Stonewater's largemouths catches actually increase in the summer and fall, and the winter months also yield numerous trophy-class bass.
During the spring, he still catches plenty of big bass, but he is adamant about not fishing for bedding bass. Spawning fish are left alone. Others at that time will be feeding because not all large females move at the same time to their nest. Also, big bass are more concentrated in deeper water, and they are pursued less by the hordes of anglers that are out after a spawner in the spring.
In rivers and creeks, heavy angling activities and boat traffic in the spring can hamper productive trips. The conservative-minded Stonewater believes in letting the shallow spawners do their thing at this time, and he practices catch-and-release on all others year-round. In fact, he allows his parties to keep only a trophy that will be mounted.
The majority of big bass caught and quickly released by Stonewater's clientele were taken between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. His log reveals that less than one in 25 of the 10-pound-plus bass were caught before 8 a.m. The spring is when his bookings are heaviest, but he actually prefers the quieter periods during the remainder of the year. For more information on the St. Johns River giants, Bob Stonewater can be reached at 386-717-6289.