When any conversation by anglers turns to bass fishing, a few locations are sure to be mentioned. Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn are legends of the past. The St. John’s River and Okeechobee make the list every time. Lake Shasta and Mexico’s Guerrero also get their share of comments. But how many times have you ever heard the Mississippi River come up is such conversations?
Among bass fisheries, the “Mighty Mississippi” is mostly overlooked and underrated. Only recently has the bass fishing potential been realized on this water. But even though anglers are now starting to take advantage of this resource, fishing the big river can be very tricky and often difficult.
Do not let the nickname, “The Big Muddy,” influence your perception of this river. Just north of St. Louis, Mo., is the confluence of both the Missouri and Illinois Rivers. The Missouri resembles chocolate milk, and the Illinois is always dingy, but not usually that bad. At any rate, it is from this point south that bass fishing can be difficult.
However, going north from the Alton, Ill., Lock & Dam, the water conditions improve dramatically. Now a whole new vocabulary comes into play. Words such as wingdam, oxbow, channel marker, feeder creek, eddy, and slough and sandbar suddenly have meaning. The biggest single factor in fishing a river this big is navigation. There are rules for movement on this water that must be obeyed. A tugboat pushing 300 feet of barges is very unforgiving to an 18-foot bass boat.
Mississippi River: Great Bass Fishing!
Once you are aware of the safety rules and know how to navigate the big river, finding bass should not be hard. Both largemouth and smallmouth bass flourish in the mid- to upper Mississippi. Five and 6-pound largemouth can be found as far north as Burlington, Iowa. Lunker smallmouth live from there north. The Mississippi also is widely known as a walleye fishery because of the clear water of the streams and creeks that feed the river. However, some of these tributaries hold some great bass fishing as well.
There are also some areas of the main channel that hold bass. The wingdams, sometimes referred to as navigational dams, are located all along the expanse of the river. Most of these are obvious, holding surface debris or causing a ripple. Others are deeper and can be found with your electronics. Smallmouth bass love to feed in the current around the ends of these structures.
When water levels permit, retrieving small, shad-colored crankbaits in the swift water around wingdams can pay-off big. Bronzebacks can also be taken on small spoons and spinner rigs in fast water. If you leave the main channel looking for smallmouth, try a crawfish-colored jig at the mouth of feeder creeks where cooler, clearer water comes into the river.
Fishing structure in the river is both fun and rewarding. The interesting part is that the structure constantly changes. High water can remove or create a sandbar in a matter of days. Brush piles and logjams can appear virtually overnight. Unlike the stationary structure of impoundments, the river’s characteristics are in a state of continuous flux. Hot spots will come and go. Finding new areas that hold bass is an ongoing process.
Quite often the mouths of feeder creeks will become clogged with logs and brush. It is a bothersome task to clean out a channel for your boat, but it is very often worth the trouble. The vast majority of these creeks hold bass and most are easily navigated by bass boats. Getting into the creek will likely be the greatest challenge.
Bait choice will differ between the river channel and the creeks. In the channel, downsizing is the key for largemouth in the spring. Fluctuating water levels keeps a variety of small food sources available that time of year. Four-inch worms are a good bet, but Carolina Rigs or split-shot systems work best. This way your plastic baits will be held up off the muddy silt bottom.
Small, single spinnerbaits are also great early season lures in the river. Fishing treetops and blowdowns with spinnerbaits will be productive. The smaller spinnerbaits with willow leaf blades also make great drop baits along the river’s brushy bluffs.
Improving Water Conditions
Because of soil conservation efforts in states such as Missouri, Iowa and Illinois, the tributaries that feed the big river from the east and west have improved water conditions. This area is almost totally agricultural. The recent popularity of no-till planting has made a significant change in the number of tons of dirt that eventually end-up in the river system. This has helped clear the water, thus improving the living conditions for the bass.
The improvements that have been made in the streams has also helped increase the spawning rate for bass. Each year that conditions get better, and fingerling counts go up. And since the great flood of 1993, overall bass habitat has recovered and even improved. The flood significantly changed the river — mostly for the better.
As autumn comes to the river, lure selection changes. Now larger crankbaits and tandem-spins can be productive. Eight-inch worms work well around logs and stumps. Presentation can also be quickened. These bass are hungry and aggressive as they store-up fat for the cold winter months. They also tend to concentrate in some areas. It is not uncommon in October to catch half-dozen bass off one root wad.
Access to the river is relatively easy. Public boat ramps are located at almost every Lock & Dam and in most river towns. Be sure to check the regulations and limits for the state from which you launch your boat. Those are the rules that you will be governed by. Conservation Officers who work the Mississippi are usually very helpful and are there to serve you, not harass you.
Because of widely distributed conservation efforts both on the land and on the water, America’s largest flowing-water river system has developed into a virtually untapped bass fishing resource. Long known for its southern catfish, northern, walleye and commercial fishing, the big river holds bass in catchable numbers and of boastful size.
Unlike impoundments, the conditions of the big river change frequently. The security of having a “honey-hole” can be short-lived on the river. What this huge body of water does offer is an incredibly diverse bass fishery that is not crowded and under fished. My advice is to come and enjoy America’s most untapped bass resource — The Mississippi River.
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