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How to Catch River Largemouths

A spinnerbait did the trick on this lunker during the early part of summer.

    Largemouth bass are the most pursued gamefish in North America, and in Florida no other species approaches the bucketmouth in popularity. Largemouth bass are can be found just about anywhere fresh water exists, and they are willing biters, yet still challenging to find and catch. The largemouth's trademarks are ferocious strikes, furious fighting ability, and a penchant for going airborne. These are the primary reasons our reservoirs are filled with bass boats, and the bass themselves have grown more wary and difficult to catch over the years.

    Rather than fish in crowded water for educated bass, I prefer fishing in unpressured water for dumb bass. If you've ever fished a major Florida reservoir on a spring or summer weekend, you know what it's like waiting in line at the boat ramp for the privilege of dodging other bass boats and pleasure boats all day. I've yet to encounter a water skier on a river, and rarely see another fisherman on most river trips. Many river bass have never seen a fishing lure, while many reservoir bass can tell you what was on sale this week at Bass Pro Shops. During most seasons, river bass are easier to find than bass in reservoirs, and the fish are almost always on the banks- no need to drag a Carolina-rig in twenty feet of water. Most bass fishermen enjoy being in a wilderness setting, and the wildlife one encounters on a float trip is markedly different than the wildlife seen on the big lakes on any given Saturday, though I'm not sure which is wilder! Besides, my old canoe cost at least $20,000 less than a new bass boat.

    In many respects, largemouths that live in moving water are a different species than reservoir or lake fish. River bass are extremely opportunistic feeders, largely relying on the current to sweep them food. They must make snap decisions or lose their chance at a meal, making them more aggressive than reservoir bass. River largemouths look different from lake bass- they are leaner and in much better shape from spending their lives in current. The superior athleticism of river bass will become obvious the first time you hook one. Pound for pound, river fish fight harder and jump higher than the ones most of us are used to catching. Most river bass rarely reach trophy proportions because their environment prohibits them from growing overly fat.

    Yet this is still micropterus salmoides we are chasing, and stream largemouths have the same basic habitat requirements as their lake-bound brethren- food, cover, and nearby deep water. These requirements are exactly the reason river largemouths are easier to locate than lake fish. Much of the water in any river will be too shallow or not hold suitable cover for old mossyback. This is almost always evident to the naked eye, and the ability to immediately eliminate unproductive water is a distinct advantage for the river bass fisherman.

    The same lures that work in reservoirs or ponds will catch river bass. Topwater lures, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, worms, and jigs will all catch river bass in the appropriate conditions. Whatever you catch them on in Lake Okeechobee will work in any other river in the state. Wherever you fish for largemouth bass, use the following suggestions to catch them in any season of the year.

SPRING

    Springtime is widely regarded as the best time of year to catch most species of fish. Bass and crappie move to the banks in reservoirs and whites, sunshine bass, and stripers make their annual upstream spawning runs. Yet spring can be one of the most difficult times of the year to catch river largemouths. The biggest obstacle to catching springtime river bass is usually the low, clear water which makes the fish spookier and getting to them trickier. The inevitable cold fronts that seem to arrive the day before you go fishing don't help much either.

    The combination of cold, clear water and kinda spooky fish makes getting to the fish tough and being patient enough to fish slowly and methodically even tougher. The fish are there, however, and spring is perhaps the best season in which to catch really big river largemouths. Bass will move into spawning areas once water temperatures rise into the low 60's, which can be as early as February in south and central Florida or as late as April further north. Largemouths prefer to spawn on hard bottoms in one to three feet of water. Look for eddies and other places where trees, weeds, or rocks block the current. Creek mouths are also a good bet. Largemouths also prefer to have deep water nearby, so don't expect to catch them in areas where all the water is a foot deep. On certain rivers, many rivers connect to sloughs and oxbow lakes during the spring, and these areas can produce the hottest action and the biggest bass of the year.

Early spring fishing can be fantastic. This bass came up for a jointed Rapala on a low, clear flow.

    Prior to and during the spawn, anglers need to think slooow. Suspending jerkbaits, slow-rolled spinnerbaits, plastic lizards, and jig-n-pigs work well this time of year. Sometimes spawning bass will only hit lures that crawl into their beds. Once water temperatures have reached the upper 60's and stayed there for a week or two, most bass will have completed spawning. If you ever have a day when you catch a lot of small bass in shallow water, but no big ones, it probably means the females have laid their eggs and retreated to deeper water. You are catching the males that are guarding the nests. 

    A week or two after the spawn is when things really pick up. By this time the bass are through procreating and turn to the business of eating. This is spinnerbait season, and it normally occurs anywhere from late February through May depending on the weather and latitude. I prefer to fish a 1/4 to 3/8 ounce white/chartreuse tandem spinnerbait during the post-spawn, using a medium retrieve and running it by as much woody cover as possible. Deeper water near prime spawning areas will hold hungry bass as long as the current isn't too strong and cover is adequate. Many fishermen find success with spinnerbaits and minnow-imitating jerkbaits in the cuts that connect sloughs to the main channel. While springtime fishing can be tough early on, the month following the spawn can be the easiest time of the year to catch river bass.

SUMMER

    Summertime bass fishing in Florida rivers is somewhat different from anywhere else in the US. Most of Florida receives the bulk of its rainfall during the summer months, meaning that Florida rivers become faster and murkier while they are getting lower and more clear everywhere else. Fear not, however, as most of Florida's rivers never usually flow all that fast and (except in northern Florida) don't tend to get all that muddy. Of course, you can't really sight-fish during the summer (except on some gin-clear spring runs) anyway, because most of the time, the fish will be in deeper water or hidden out in the thickest cover available. The good news for Florida river bass fishermen is that the bass are almost always hungry. Why? Because it's so dang hot!! Being cold-blooded creatures, bass must deal with higher metabolic rates during the summer and therefore must eat more often. Despite the faster, murkier waters in much of Florida, the bass can be easier to locate. You simply have to find some deeper water and fish in it and around it. Of course deep is a relative term, and on some rivers three feet is considered deep while others might have bass holed up in ten feet of water. Largemouths will not tolerate much current, so eddies, pools, and deep outside river bends are all prime summer haunts. Summer conditions make finding largemouths easy this time of year because most of the water will be too shallow, lack cover, or have too much current. Eliminating unproductive water is easy during the dog days of summer. 

    Now that you know where the bass are, you simply have to catch them. It ought to be easy, since largemouth bass (being cold-blooded) must eat more during the summer than at any other time of the year. During the summer, however, there is more prey available for bass to eat than at any other time of the year. Rivers literally abound with life during the summer, and bass can afford to be a little picky about when and what they will eat. 

 

    Virtually any lure can work during the summer months, but Texas-rigged plastic worms are probably the surest bet on most bodies of water simply because bass will eat them even if they're not hungry. The Rapala broken-back is tough to beat also, as even inactive bass often can't resist that seductive twist and wiggle. Buzzbaits tend to work well also, often drawing reflex strikes even in the middle of the hottest days. Another beautiful thing about river fishing is that the bass often will hit topwater lures all day long, rather than just early and late. River bass are rarely located in over six feet of water, normally have plenty of shade, and the water temperatures rarely get oppressively hot. 

 

 

 

FALL

    Around October, the nights start getting cooler and so do the rivers. Florida's rivers and streams are normally getting lower and clearing this time of year, and bass tend to stay in their summertime haunts until the water starts getting down in the 50 degree range, which is normally in November to December. While largemouths tend to stay in the same areas, their feeding patterns change a good deal as the water cools. As their metabolisms slow, bass eat less and are often unwilling to chase fast-moving lures. 

    During the fall, bass anglers need to slow down again, reverting to suspending jerkbaits, spinnerbaits fished near the bottom, plastic worms, and jigs. Some river fishermen use oversize lures in the fall, since the forage fish have grown a bit larger since the summer, but I generally use the same lure sizes or even downsize a bit, since the bass may not be as hungry and the water visibility is normally quite good. On especially warm fall days, largemouths will bust surface baits, and topwater lures can be especially effective during the warmest part of the day. Overall, the fall is an excellent time to catch river bass because, like summer, we know where to find them. The bass are simply not quite as active, and thus a little harder to catch. 

WINTER

    In Florida, the winters vary widely. In north Florida, there are usually stretches of downright cold weather, but things get milder as one heads south. When water temperatures drop below 50 degrees, river bass become extremely hard to catch. They retreat to the deepest, slowest holes in the river and rarely eat. This is where the bass are. They are tough to catch, but a few can be had on small soft plastics, jig-n-pigs, and curlytail grubs crawled along the bottom.

    Almost every part of Florida, however, will have at least a few extended warm spells where temperatures reach the 70's or even the 80's for three or four straight days. During these times, it is possible to load the boat with river largemouths. While a warm spell may only move water temperatures a few degrees, it gets the bass moving, and they will leave the depths and come to the banks. The strikes are still light, but bass will hit slow-rolled spinnerbaits and small soft plastics like crazy. Normally, I try to avoid the flat, slow, deep sections like this because the fish could be anywhere, but during warm winter afternoons, this is where the fish are!

CREEK FISHING

    Just because a body of water is too small to float fish does not mean there are no largemouths worth catching. Just about every freshwater creek in the state has largemouth bass in it somewhere. Some of my most rewarding days on the water have been spent wading creeks for bass. The fish behave seasonally exactly as bass do on rivers, except everything is on a smaller scale. The deep holes won't usually be as deep and the bass are rarely all that big. I normally downsize my lures and tackle, but fish exactly the same way. There is a creek near my house that you can spit across, and bass regularly come out of it weighing close to two pounds. I bet there is a similar spot in your neighborhood!

THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE

    The most important skill any river bass fisherman needs is the ability to put a lure where he or she wants it to go. Bad casts are rarely rewarded on the river. I prefer medium spinning gear (it enables the angler to skip lures under trees), but if you are better with a baitcaster, use it. Strong line is also a must. Don't expect to land many bass over a pound if you insist on using 4 pound test line. River bass almost always live in places where they can get you in trouble! For boat fishermen, boat control is paramount. Being able to paddle a canoe with one hand can really come in handy, and sometimes it's best to tie up to a tree, anchor, or even use a drag chain. Don't be afraid to get wet, either. Wading is by far the most effective way of thoroughly working cover, and on tough days, thoroughly working every good hole can mean the difference between a good day and getting skunked!