Drop-offs and Creeks
By Ronald F. Dodson, Ph.D.
Bass are, by their nature, fish that relate to structure as a major governing factor in their daily existence. There are few more important structures in an aquatic habitat than creek channels and drop-offs. Yet there are some rather important factors that fishermen need to realize about these potential holding places for bass. First we'll take a look at some features and facts about channels.
I recently had a young fellow fishing in the back of my boat on a new impoundment which had considerable standing timber left in the lake. Since he is an avid fisherman and hunter, I asked him to point out the course of the channels without the help of a depthfinder. Immediately he gave me a look that indicated he did not have a clue. To begin with I suggested he look at the trees on shore and tell me if he saw anything different about any of those on the bank as opposed to those in the lake. He began to note that those in the forest are straight, whereas some of the ones in the lake along the channels were leaning at sharp angles. After a little while he was really into the reading of the channels as well as becoming more sensitized to picking out the bark patterns on willows, which told him that before there was a lake there was a channel, slough, or pool in that area. The findings of pool dams by locating willow lines in lakes like Richland-Chambers were the key for years to locating prime bass fishing areas.
The other thing about a creek or river channel is that it often curves like a snake. The upper end of Lake Cooper was left as standing timber with only the channel and cross cuts available for navigation. A local friend told me that you could follow the Sulfur River channel from the first crosscut to the upper three cuts. To begin with, it did not take me long to figure out there was a better way when I watched some locals follow the shoreline through a couple of cut fences along some tree lines, and you can get to the second cut in about a fifth of the time my channel cruising had taken. The channel is very narrow and it appeared logical to proceed at a moderate speed since my insurance agent encouraged me to avoid fusing the lower unit into immovable wooden objects. It really got a good laugh from my buddy when I explained that I had followed the river between the second and third cuts for about 30 minutes only to realize I was back within 50 yards of where I had earlier been. His comment of, "Didn't I tell you where to make the cut across through the timber?" was not well received. The message is that any channel zigs and zags. I always enjoy seeing the maps with fish emblems on bends of a channel. Sure bends of a channel are potential holding spots, but there may be what seems like a zillion in a matter of a few hundred yards particularly if it is a small and narrow creek.
The most important part of finding a productive area on a channel is to find a reason why fish should be there. A bend is a good place because there is always going to be a variation of depth adjacent to the shelf, next to the channel. This will provide a natural spot for baitfish and other forage creatures to hold and thus attract bass. The other important thing about a channel bend is that if there is any current flowing, the bend will result in current shifts including whirlpools or eddies, which again encourages the accumulation of those creatures in the food chain.
Another critical aspect of a good channel is dependent on issues such as if there is cover like brush or vegetation, particularly on the shallower slope. The other question is whether there are areas of good habitat outside of the channel such as shallower areas with vegetation or brush on flats. Of course finding schools of baitfish on your depthfinder helps to strongly suggest that you are in an area of the channel that has a prime component for attracting bass.
Another factor that has an impact on the potential of a channel and a bend of the channel to hold bass is a change in the bottom of the channel itself. This is nowhere more evident than in older lakes where places that were once very productive become dead zones. Nothing zaps a good holding area more than to have a deposit of silt and mud cover a previously sandy or gravel bottom. Bass often move away from these spots on a channel and generally, do not return unless new growth in the form of vegetation occurs and reestablishes the stability of the bottom.
If you fish a channel, the other important factor in deciding which area should be most productive is to make sure you are fishing in a depth on the lip or edge of the channel which is in the more productive depth that fishermen are having luck in catching bass on that lake. A few minutes with the folks at the marina will often do wonders in helping you gauge the most likely depths on which you want to concentrate. A good map then should be used to see where the channels are located in various coves and regions of the lake.
A good rule of thumb in fishing channels is that you may want to go further up a creek or into shallower water in areas with more off-colored water than where you might start to fish in the creeks that are in the clearer parts of the take. One of the things that a creek channel or any drop-off offers is a barrier to sunlight. The bass will tend to always be on the shaded sides of the drop and will often shift as the angle of the sunlight changes during the day. These areas should be thought of as holding areas for bass rather than necessarily feeding areas. But from the fisherman's standpoint it makes little difference in that you can often cause a bass to "feed" by placing bait in front of it.
There are several schools of thought on how to fish an edge of a creek channel or drop-off. One time you should fish in the deepest part is in the late fall, after a frontal passage. The rest of the year you can choose two basic approaches. The first is to use the concept of one of the original (and legendary) Creme lure field staff, Tracy Woods. Tracy always said he wanted to fish from deeper to shallower on his retrieve of a bottom-bumping worm. His logic was that you should envision a change of depth including a creek edge or drop-off as a stair step scenario. He felt that you could fish each step on the way in, if you went against the depth change whereas if you fished from shallower to deeper on retrieve you could skip several steps.
When a fisherman has a good idea as to the location of the edge of a drop then a pitching or flipping technique can be the choice for presenting the lure in the sheltered area where there is the greatest potential for a bass to be holding. If you are a crankbait guy, like me, then you may want to angle your casts so that they cut the edge of a channel and are at a certain depth (hopefully the one with in the greatest potential for eliciting a strike), for the longest period of time. In the case of a straight channel you might even want to parallel cast along an edge and try to work the bait along the lip.
When we make the statement that we are going to fish a channel or drop, one has to be sure you recognize that a change in depth can be very subtle in some cases. A change of only a couple of feet in an area of grass or hydrilla will still act like a magnet for concentrating bass in the area. In the same mode, some of my most productive areas on heavily fished takes are those secluded little feeder creeks, that run into the main channel or from coves. Sure some of these are very small and only hold a couple of bass, but usually everyone overlooks them and goes to the more obvious places. In fishing such small areas is particularly important to develop the ability to have a silent presentation. The bait may be a lizard or other soft plastic or even a jig-and-pig, but your productivity will go way up if you learn to flip or pitch which can result in a finesse entry.
Another approach for fishing to such an area is to use a soft-entry bait such as a Slug-Go or Bass Assassin and fish it without a weight. Not only does this make a soft entry, but also you can fish it in a "countdown" approach while moving it ever so slightly forward and still put a lot of action on the plug.
When following a creek back into a cove, particularly good locations for bass are those where the creek comes close to the bank. On many of our lakes the bluffs along the bank are easy markers of such spots. Again a major advantage of such a spot is not only the shade effect, but these create areas along the shore where there are more diverse types of land based food sources, which become prey.
Your best friend in finding channels and other drop-offs is your depthfinder. In deeper water you can actually find concentrations of food fish and if there are larger fish associated with the food source. I say deeper water because I am always concerned about getting on top of bass in any thing shallower than 10 feet. Sure you may get on top of them with a stealth approach and not spook them, but too many times I have seen them bolt when someone goes through them. If there are reasons that fish are holding in a shallower water drop or channel such as underwater brush tops, then note where the spot is and come back to it. Then cast or pitch to the spot from a reasonable distance. By noting such spots I have reproductively caught fish in areas where there were surrounding flats of less than two feet but a small wash had created a narrow seven-foot channel. I found the bend and brush once then went back to it spring after spring - and it produced.
If you are in deeper water channels or drops, (+ 15 feet) then you can get on top of the fish and figure out if they are active and have an expanded strike zone or a very limited one. If it is cold-water conditions when there is often a very small strike zone, then you might want to use a vertical fishing approach. The old reliable is of course a jigging spoon. However, do not forget that a Little George is also an excellent vertical bait. It does have another advantage in that it is not as hard to learn how to use as a jigging spoon. So let a beginner start with that as the lure of choice. Switch to a jigging spoon when you are over large or active schools. I was explaining to a novice angler that the need to feel and develop the skills for working a jigging spoon is much like developing the same skills with a worm. Namely you need a lot of something (other than brush) on the other end of the line in order to gain confidence, presentation skills, and develop the knack of detecting the feel of a strike with these baits.
I did not point out the obvious concerning a tailspin-type bait, and that is that it produces vibration as it falls and as you lift the plug from the bottom. This additional factor of vibration is even more important in off-colored water. While bass have good visual perception in poor light conditions, the addition of depth causes even more of a problem of creating a visual attraction. If you are in reasonably clear water, you can try color variations in either the spoon or the George. During cold-water conditions, most folks think that bass are in deep channels or drops in association with schools of shad. In reality, there are some periods where there are large schools of bream, which drop into the channels particularly in early winter. So you should occasionally mix in a chartreuse-colored bait to cover your bases.
Channels and drop-offs are very important structures in bass habitat. Spend some time learning where they are on your favorite lake and start with small areas that you have selected from a map. You cannot absorb the layout for the whole lake all at once, but remember few fish are caught while you are running the boat from place to place.