By M.L. Anderson
Fighting a huge bass to the boat is a great way to start off your fishing season, and spring may just be your best chance to tangle with a real behemoth. Before, after, and even during the spawn, channels and cuts near beds will always have bass in them. Some of these bass may still be pre-spawn, and some will have already finished their stint on the beds. Either way, these fish are often much more catchable than bedding fish, and this may be the only time of year that some of the really big fish are up shallow and eating everything in sight.
Bass use river and creek channels all year long for both seasonal and daily movements to and from deep water. Natural pathways to spawning areas and feeding grounds, channels also provide quick access to deeper water when temperature changes or other conditions force bass out of shallow water. In lakes where shad are the primary prey, bass may spend a good part of their day in channels, following schools of shad around. During and after the spawn and well into summer, creek channels may be the best places on the lake to start your search for bass.
Fish that have spent the winter in deep water start moving up toward spawning areas in early spring, but sudden changes in weather and water temperature this time of year is known for may send the fish back and forth several times before they settle down to spawn. This pre-spawn period sees lots of activity in channels as the bass migrate from bedding areas to the closest deep water. During this early spring season the active fish are usually schooled up and aggressive.
There are channels all over the place in just about any lake, but not all of them are good for bass. It depends on how deep the fish are holding and what is available for them to eat. You can narrow down your search for good channels by keeping in mind the time of year and the water temperature, and focusing on areas that are likely to be good.
In early summer check out narrow coves, especially coves that are fairly long and run out to deep water when they reach the main lake. These coves make it easy to follow the channel out and discover where the fish are holding. You can run your boat right down the middle, casting spinnerbaits or crankbaits to the shorelines to cover the edges of the channel while you watch the graph to get an idea of what the channel itself looks like. When you spot a good-looking piece of structure on the graph, put down the spinnerbait and use a drop-shot rig to probe the channel. I like to use a Yamamoto Kut-tail Worm for this.
When I’m in a cove for the first time I usually zig-zag down the center and watch the depthfinder so I can get an idea of what the channel looks like. I try to make fairly tight swings back and forth and I watch for things like sharp bends in the channel, trees, brush lines, rock piles, or good steep drop-offs or shelves that will hold fish. Pay special attention to points that run out to the channels, like those that are formed when two small ravines or creeks meet in the center of a cove. A lot of times when the water is up you can’t even tell that an underwater point is down there because the cove may just be big and round at the end. But if you follow the channel out with your depthfinder, suddenly you come on this spot where the two legs join and it’s like bass heaven. Fish tend to stack up at these intersections, so when you come to such a junction, make sure you follow the other leg at least a quarter of the way back.
If the fish are not inside the channels, check out the point and hump between the cuts. Fish often use these humps as feeding grounds, chasing bait fish out onto the shallow area. Watch the graph to detect balls of bait fish as well as the shape of the channel. Once you spot a school of them, throw out the drop-shot rig. If you get a fish on a drop-shot, switch to a Carolina rigged Yamamoto Sanshouo salamander or a four-inch PsychoDad or a big Hula Grub on a jig and see if you can get a bigger fish. If the bigger bait doesn’t pay off, you can always switch back to the drop-shot rig.
The key to fishing channels is to keep moving. When the fish move, you have to move, too, and they often go to a completely different type of spot in the channel. Being able to read your depthfinder is essential. If you know how to interpret the screen, you can tell the shape and depth of the channel, the density of the brush or cover on it, and even whether there are bait fish present or not. The presence of bait fish should always prompt you to drop a lure. Bass may hold so tight to the bottom or sides that you can’t see them, but if you can see bait fish, odds are there are bass close by, too. A paper map also helps because you can tell which direction the channel turns and save yourself some time.
Before the spawn, I start charting channels near the main lake on points where coves cut into the main channel. Follow the channels into shallow water as the weather warms up. After the spawn, reverse that route and follow the channels back out into deeper water. Some of the best channels are way out in the middle of the lake, and they may not even be all that deep. The best way to locate these channels is to get a good topo map and mark the contour lines at 20, 40, and 60 feet. You may be surprised at how many good spots you can find that are far off the beaten path, but in prime bass territory. Once you find likely spots on the map, it’s time to get in the boat and locate them for real.
A GPS is an ideal tool for this process. You may have to get in the general area and spend quite a while zig-zagging around looking for the channel. Once you find it, drop a marker buoy and set a waypoint on your GPS, then continue zig-zagging to follow the channel. This may take a lot of time, but if you find a sweet spot in a channel that no one else fishes, the time is well spent. These middle-of-the-lake spots are really prime territory, especially in summer and winter. Watch for intersections, sharp bends, trees, and other good structure on the channel, and mark them on your map or GPS for future reference.
In spring and early summer spinnerbaits and crankbaits are ideal for finding active fish along channels. Cast right across the channel and tempt the fish up --a topwater lure is ideal for this all summer. Once the weather starts to really warm up, switch to a worm later in the day. A Carolina rigged Sanshouo or a Kut-tail worm on a drop-shot rig can get through the cover and catch bass that are tight to the bottom. I use whatever I think will be able to get down there and work the cover the most efficiently. I like to try spoons where the trees and brush are sparse, and I also like to run deep-diving crankbaits down the middle of the channel. If I get bit, I’ll stop and use a drop-shot rig or bigger Kut-tail worm on a Texas rig to see if I can catch more fish. You may catch several small fish then suddenly catch a real hawg, so you have to keep working it as long as the fish are biting. If heavy brush is a factor, a Texas-rigged worm may be the best bait to get down there through the branches. Pegging the sinker will help get it through, since a loose sinker can fall to one side of a branch while the hook and worm are on another.
Prime spots in channels depend largely on food and cover. If there are not a lot of trees and brush in a lake, the best places may be old bridges and road beds, culverts, or sharp bends or rock piles along the channel. You can find some of these places with a good lake map. Clear water usually means that fish will be deeper, and a channel running next to a flat is almost always a dynamite area. Fish will use the flat for eating and sunning, then go back into the channel.
Fish move back and forth from the channels to shallow water a lot, especially in early spring when the weather is wacky. If a cold front sends the fish scurrying for cover, down-size your baits and slow your presentation. The key to cold front bass is to slow way down. A cold front will either send the fish into deeper water, or deep into cover. Either way, you have to work the bait slowly and put it right on their noses to get them to eat.
For post-spawn and early summer bass, one of the most effective baits is a Yamamoto Senko. This works best for me with no action at all. Just cast it out with no weight and let it sink into the brush on fairly light line. Even sluggish bass in dirty water just slam it. It helps if you have already located bass in the area. If bad weather or a sudden influx of muddy water turns those fish off, try a Senko. I particularly like the laminates where one side is light and one is dark – those have you covered either way.
Fish use channels the way we use roads. Some fish live right along the road while some just pass through, but most of them use the channels a great deal of the time. Take the time to find and investigate channels, locate the prime spots, and it will pay off for you with more and better bass all year long.