River backwaters are an oasis for largemouth bass. These areas provide prime habitat and lots of food. The term backwater refers to an offshoot from the main channel. Bays, coves, marshes, sloughs, interconnected ponds, and side channels are examples. Backwaters contain a mix of bass habitat and can be complex systems. As such, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to catching largemouth from these zones. With this in mind, the following is a rundown of why backwaters appeal to bass, prime locations, and reliable lures for catching largemouth from these productive, tucked-away river spots.
Largemouth relate to these areas for many reasons. Backwaters typically have less current than the main river channel. Slow flow appeals to bass more than fast current. This said, the current seams and eddies where backwaters connect to the main channel can be big-bass hangouts.
Being somewhat contained, sheltered, and shallow, backwaters heat up faster and often get warmer than the main river in summer. This appeals to the warm-water preferences of largemouth.
Backwaters also tend to be fertile and home to many species. Being opportunistic predators, largemouth bass go where the food supply is best. Baitfish, catfish, bluegills, crappie, crayfish, frogs, salamanders, rodents, snakes, and various insects all live in backwater areas and are table-fare for bucketmouths.
Backwater areas also contain diverse habitat for largemouth bass. Here’s a sampling of some common locations and tactics for these areas.
Shallow flats are common largemouth hangouts in river backwaters. Bass cruise these areas, hunting down baitfish and other food. Expect them to actively roam flats during early morning, evening, at night, and anytime it’s overcast.
Catching flat-roaming largemouth is typically a game of covering water. Fan casting a spinnerbait, swimbait, a shallow-running or a lipless crankbait is a good strategy. Be on the lookout for anomalies in the flat and cast to them. Rocks, wood, weed edges, floating vegetation, and depth changes, such as a trough, will concentrate largemouth on a flat. Overhead cover becomes important on flats in sunny conditions when bass hunker down in the shade. Use lures to work the periphery, then pitch bass jigs to dissect key spots in thick cover.
Backwaters commonly contain tree stumps. In many cases the cover exists as a result of electric power dam activities. Trees were cut and removed before the river was flooded for the dam, but the stumps were left behind.
Shallow to deep, largemouth love stumps. In bright sun, expect bass to be holding in the cover’s shade. A well placed pitch with a flipping jig or Texas-rigged creature is a reliable way to catch fish hunkered down in the woody roots.
When conditions are right, stump fields can produce amazing action. On a recent trip, I was working a series of backwater stumps during pre-front conditions. Heavy winds and waves turned the water muddy. Bass were active and hunting among the timber. Using a shallow-running crankbait, I caught several bass from the stumps. “Bumping the stump” so that the crankbait hit and deflected off of the wood cover triggered hits.
Other Timber Hangouts
Stumps aren’t the only wood cover found in backwaters. Sunken logs and overhanging trees are first-class locales. A beaver dam is another common hideaway; one buddy I fish with calls these “bass castles” because they tend to hold bruiser bucketmouths. I’ve also caught plenty of largemouth from neglected duck blinds and other floating wood scraps in backwaters.
Horizontal-moving lures, like crankbaits, swimbaits, and spinnerbaits, work well for exploring wood cover, when it’s not snag-infested. Topwaters also have their place for fishing over and around timber. When the wood’s gnarly, use flipping and pitching tactics to dissect the area.
Learning to skip a bait under an overhanging tree or other type of cover, is a skill worth having. A Texas-rigged stick-bait or tube work well for this method. It takes practice, but skipping a bait into thick cover catches big bass. Once the bait gets into the zone, leave it still and let a bass’ curiosity do the work for you. If not successful after a minute or so, add some shakes and pauses, then work the bait along bottom and out of the cover.
There’s rarely a shortage of plants in backwaters. Mid-depth to shallow sections will contain a cornucopia of submerged vegetation, such as milfoil or cabbage. Shallow flats routinely have grass. Emergent plants are also common. Reeds, wild rice, and lily pads are three types of cover bass use in backwaters.
Recently a friend and I caught several largemouth on flipping jigs and Texas-rigged creatures we pitched into and along undercuts beneath a cattail shoreline. Several of the largemouth we caught were sitting in the shade and security of the undercuts. We hooked several bass holding in isolated cattail and reed patches, as well as a few we sight-fished that were cruising open-water near the undercuts.
Slow-moving backwaters tend to collect debris, making floating plants common. Wind and waves blow it up against standing cover and into shorelines. Slop, mats, and cut-weed often hold bass in backwaters. Beneath it lies shade and protection. Bass lurk in these areas, waiting in ambush for prey to pass within their strike zone.
Large expanses of floating weeds can hold bass. Expect active fish to relate to outside edges. Inactive ones often hold further back in the cover.
Don’t overlook small patches of floating vegetation in backwater areas, though. It’s amazing how often a piece of isolated cover, such as some cut-weed tangled in lilly pads or arrowheads, can hold a big fish.
There are many lures that catch bass from weeds. Choose a bait based on bass’ mood as well as the type of cover you’re fishing. When bass are buried deep in thick vegetation, bass jigs and Texas-rigged plastics are a natural choice. Use these lures to work the edges and openings of cover.
Punching mat is also effective. It involves casting the lure towards the sky, then pulling it or letting it free-fall downwards. The speed the lure gains on its descent helps it punch through thick mat and surface weeds. There are specialty jigs and rigging methods specifically for this approach.
Working a topwater frog through floating vegetation is another reliable tactic. A bass hitting a topwater is always a treat to see, and winching a big one out of thick cover is high-octane fun. Weedless spoons are a good alternative to frogs.
Here’s a tip: always have another lure ready to cast as a follow-up to a topwater. Sometimes largemouth miss the topwater, but anglers quick to react can still catch the fish. Here’s how. Immediately after the miss, cast a flipping jig, Texas-rigged creature, or wacky stickbait into the blow-up hole left by the attack. The goal is to get a sinking lure into the area before the bass leaves. Bass are often riled-up after missing a lure and can be caught with a well presented follow-up bait.
When weed growth is sparse other lures can be used. A shallow-running or lipless crankbait, a spinnerbait, swimbait, or buzzbait can all work for prospecting edges, openings, and lanes in weed growth.
Rocks of All Kinds
Depending on a river’s make-up, large rocks and boulders may be in backwaters. Where they’re found, odds are good bass will be around. This is especially true when rocks are close to cover, such as weeds or timber. Big rocks in deep holes in backwaters are often big bass hangouts. Smaller rocks can concentrate bass, such as when the bottom transitions from mud or sand to hard rock.
A football jig is a great choice for prospecting rocky areas. Its head shape helps it slide over rocks and sidestep snags. Crankbaits, jerkbaits, and spinnerbaits also work. When bass are inactive, a whacky-rigged stickbait will catch largemouth hugging rocks.
Rip-rap is another common rocky feature found in backwaters. This rubble is placed along shorelines to reduce erosion and often found along roads and culverts. As a youth growing up fishing rivers, I spent a good chunk of my allowance and paper route money replacing lures I lost to rip-rap. It didn’t take me long to stop using jigs, and switch to topwaters and floating hard-baits to fish these zones. These days I also use wake baits, lipless crankbaits, jerkbaits, and spinnerbaits around rip-rap. Positioning the boat parallel to the rip-rap and making 45-degree angle casts is a reliable way to catch largemouth from these chunk-rock areas.
Gear for the Job
Backwater bassin’ demands heavy equipment. As with any fishing, matching rod action and line to the presentation is important, but in the hazard-heavy terrain of backwater areas it’s wise to overcompensate power. Heavy flipping sticks and frogging rods are musts. Consider 50-pound braid a minimum for these tactics.
A great thing about today’s quality rods is that many provide an incredible range of action and power in the blank. Many have soft tips for easy, accurate casts with average to light baits, but still pack plenty of power in the lower half of the rod. Strong backbone in a blank helps quickly muscle big fish away from cover. Casting rods in the medium-heavy to heavy power rating with these features are what I use for most backwater tactics. In addition to braid, abrasion-resistant 15- to 20-pound monofilament and fluorocarbon are also used for various casting presentations.
Specific boat gear also makes navigation easier in backwaters. For many anglers, the instant response and ruggedness of a cable-steer trolling motor is a must for maneuvering cover-rich backwaters.
A push-pole is also good for getting in and out of thick, shallow cover. Many backwater areas have small channels that lead to deep ponds or large bays. It’s grunt work to get into these hard-to-reach spots, but a push-pole can help access these bass hideaways.
Also relatively new on the scene are shallow-water anchors. These devices can pin a boat in place with the push of a button in up to 12 feet of water. From a fishability standpoint, the advantages of these anchors are significant. They boost stealth and allow an angler to focus on their presentation once the boat is locked into position. They also provide a safety advantage. Backwater areas are rarely marked for navigation and hazards abound. When you need to leave the trolling motor, using a shallow-water anchor to put on the brakes can prevent a beached bass boat, among other unfortunate circumstances, in rough water or windy weather.
On the topic of safety, use GPS to mark a trail in and out of backwater areas. Also mark hazards. Even with these features mapped out, exercise caution and drive slow through shallow water.
Tucked away from the main channel, river backwaters offer incredible largemouth bass fishing. Explore these areas and I guarantee you’ll add more big-fish photos to your collection.