ROADBEDS AND BASS
Bob Ballard brought our boat to a slow idle and glued his eyes to the depth finder. As the whirling strobe light signal rose from 35 feet to a shallow 12, he carefully dropped a marker float over the side. Guiding the fishing platform in an erratic, zigzag path, my fishing partner continued to place markers along the shallow protrusion until, finally, there were a dozen bobbing in the morning sunlight. Surveying his efforts, I noted that he had outlined a long, arcing structure feature running from near a gravel shoreline to just past the mouth of the large cove we had entered.
"Jim," he said, "the markers are lying along an old roadbed that runs off the side of that gravel hill and out to the trace of the submerged river channel. This area, prior to flooding, was a low swamp and the roadbed was built out to a ferryboat landing on the riverbank. Bass are usually on it in schools."
With those comments, Bob cast a plastic worm out between the first two markers. I chose to go with a jig and eel but, before I could even get the lure wet, my partner was calling for the net.
"He hit it on the drop," stated Ballard. "That is a good indication that we may have a school here."
Netting the scrappy two-pound largemouth, I removed the hook and prepared to release the fish. "Wait," said Bob. "Put him in the livewell for the moment. If we do have a school of bass down there, he may run back to it and spook them. We'll release them all when we're finished fishing here."
For the next two hours, we caught bass after bass off that hidden roadbed, with the action stopping right after Bob took a beautiful eight-pound lunker.
Virtually all man-made bodies of water contain a number of submerged roads and probably an old railroad trace or two. These features are ideal structure, which nearly always hold bass. A topographical map is the best reference source to determine their general locations, with the depth finder allowing us to pinpoint them exactly. When on the water, observation of the shorelines will often give them away.
Prior to the flooding of your lake, the authorities conducted what was called a Drainage Study. This was done to determine exactly where the water boundaries of the impoundment would be at given pool levels. Found in most County (or appropriate governmental agency) historical files, the Study will contain an aerial photo package and/or a series of original topographical maps of the area. The roads and railway beds will be easily found and their locations transferred to, or confirmed on, your current map of the lake. The Study maps are very rich sources of data, in that certain features on them will usually not show up on a current version. Among these are the bridges, culvert crossings, railroad trestles, and areas of vegetation growth.
When on the water, study the shorelines. Quite often, the entrance point of an old road can be noted with ease, as the asphalt, or gravel, surface simply runs into the water. In fact, many boat ramps are located where this occurs. Many times, however, the giveaway indication is nothing more than an opening in the woods, which runs down to the water. Time and vegetation growth can easily hide these features, so you may have to look very closely.
On shallow water lakes, a break in the weedline along the shoreline may be a tip-off. Likewise, what looks like a discernable trail through a weed-choked flat may actually be the remains of a hard surface road.
There will usually be some roadways that do not show up on maps and the visual method is the only way to determine their presence. These may have been privately constructed by homeowners or farmers, or could have been the results of the pre-flooding clearing operations. Most man-made impoundments were cleared of heavy timber to preclude it from later floating to the surface and creating navigation hazards. In most cases, bulldozers, with bush-hog attachments, were used to accomplish this and dozer trails were graded for entrance and exit. While most roads will enter the water from slightly sloping shoreline areas, dozer paths can often be found cut parallel along the sides of the deeper banks, creating a series of man-made ledges.
Once the general locations are known, on-the-water application of a depth sounder or graph unit will pinpoint our target structures. Using a liberal number of marker buoys, sections of the structure should be laid off. Then, we do our detailed analysis. Using a plastic worm rig with a very heavy weight (I prefer a Carolina rig with a one ounce sinker for this purpose), thoroughly 'feel' the sides and top of the entire length of each bed. This will allow you to develop a mental picture of what must actually be down there, plus it will help identify certain key features. Some roadbeds and select features on them will be better at holding bass than others and experience has shown certain characteristics which tend to identify these real 'hot spots'.
As with any good bass holding location, the nearby presence of deep water is mandatory. The term 'deep' is a relative definition and depends on the type water we are fishing. However, in most cases, 20 feet will suffice. Ideally, the old roadbed (or railroad trace) should be a built-up feature, with discernable drops on either, or both, sides of it. For the original builders to have gone to the trouble to raise it above the level of the surrounding terrain, the road probably crossed either a very low spot, gully or a marshy area.
However, some of the more productive roadbeds I know of are totally in shallow water, running across a flat or the back of a cove. The 'deep' water, in these cases, lies in the old drainage ditches that parallel the bed and where a culvert or bridge existed.
When doing the map study, pay particular attention to the lie of original feeder creeks and drainage areas. Where these intersect with the roadway, undoubtedly a bridge of some sort existed. Usually the bridge was taken out, but the pilings may still exist. In any event, there will be a hole interrupting the road and it can be a haven for bass. Additionally, make a red pencil mark on any highway intersection that presents itself. Where two roads came together, there will be a series of drainage ditches that also intersected.
Using the heavily weighted worm rig previously mentioned allows us to find many potentially productive locations. The old pilings are one, as well as stump beds and rock piles. Old roads usually had some areas of erosion-control rip-rap along their boundaries and these are ideal holding and feeding areas.
In bass fishing, current flow can play an important part in drawing the fish. Roadbeds are no exception, and the presence of moving water is a factor to be evaluated. Active feeder streams and submerged river channels often cause moving waters to flow against or along the roadbed obstruction, creating natural feeding areas.
Additionally, winds can move water and have the same effect. If the location of a specific roadbed is subject to winds from a certain direction on a regular basis (such as the channeling of the winds between two hill masses or through a cove), we should expect that the bass will adapt through habit. This added dimension may help us in determining fish locations and the preferred direction of lure presentation. The general rule is that the bass will take up a feeding position just behind the current-deflecting obstruction (in this case, the roadbed) and will normally be found facing into the current flow.
Lure selection depends a good bit on the time of year, the water temperature and the depth of the structure feature. Suffice to say, however, that roadbeds are no different from other structure features and require no special treatment. If the road and its adjacent drainage ditches are less than 15 feet down, always start with a crank plug to try and take the more aggressive bass quickly. Following that, the reliable plastic worm is the ticket for success. If you are fishing during the Winter or early Spring, a jig and pig will possibly be a better choice.
If the structure is deep and difficult to work effectively with plugs and bottom-bumping lures, a jigging spoon is probably the way to go. This is a particularly effective technique over the old bridge remains and in the adjacent ditches.
Possibly the one suggestion that might differ from your normal bassin' methods lies in the actual lure presentation. We have found that it is much more productive to cast parallel to and along the roadbed, first working the top and then progressively into the side ditches. You will experience a lot fewer hang-ups this way and it is easier to develop that mental picture of what the structure is comprised of.
All in all, submerged roadbeds can be the 'highways' to bassin' success.
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