WHITE RIVER RUN-OFF A DELTA BASSIN' BONANZA
By Jim Porter
"WHEN SPRING RAINS CAUSE THE WHITE RIVER TO SWELL OUT OF ITS BANKS, BASS ACTIVITY ALONG THIS WATERWAY IS AT A PEAK. SUDDENLY, AN ENTIRE NEW MENU IS AVAILABLE TO THE HUNGRY FISH. THE AUTHOR TAKES YOU FISHING DURING THE RUN-OFF PERIOD AND OFFERS ADVICE THAT WILL IMPROVE YOUR CATCH RATE."
If I told you about a location and method of fishing that would enable an angler to catch 100 bass a day, would you sit up and take notice? Sure, any bass fisherman would. And during the course of this article, I am going to do just that.
The White River, winding its way across northern and east-central Arkansas to join the mighty Mississippi, is probably best known for its upriver rainbow trout angling and scenic float trips. In that region, the White is a clear, cold, and rapidly moving body that supports an abundance of hatchery-raised trout and a decent population of largemouth and smallmouth bass. As it gets to the town of Batesville, it begins a rather rapid transition. By the time the White River clears Interstate 40, between Little Rock and Memphis, Tennessee, it's a "whole nuther ball game." From a clear mountain stream, the White River then turns into a lazy, often muddy, tributary befitting hits passage through the deep, wooded bottomlands that mark the beginning of the Mississippi Delta.
The area within a triangle formed by Little Rock and Helena, Arkansas, and Greenville, Mississippi, is mostly low-lying farming country, with vast expanses enclosed within flood-control levees. Through this region, the White and its sister, the Arkansas River, provide drainage to hundreds of thousands of river delta acres, eventually converging just prior to emptying into the great Mississippi. While the Arkansas River has been brought under control by the building of a series of dams and locks, the White remains wild and free.
Each spring and fall, thousands upon thousands of acres of rich river delta woodlands along the White River are inundated by the seasonal rains, often to depths of 10 feet and more. This flooding results in spectacular hunting for ducks and geese and, being driven to relatively small areas of high ground, for big white-tailed deer.
By early summer (late May into July), the once-muddy and turbulent floodwaters will start to recede. The draining of these waters, from the lowlands back to the river channel, is termed "the run-off' by local anglers, and it begins a period of the most spectacular bass fishing to be found anywhere.
It was just this time of year when I received a call from an old friend and fellow Arkansan, Bob Hodge, inviting me to go fishing "where no man had gone before." Upon going off to college, I had generally left Arkansas for good, returning only to visit the parents and relatives on short, hasty occasions, and I was totally ignorant of the fishing bonanza that Bob was trying to describe. However, Bob was not a refrigerator salesman for nothing, and the latter part of May found me right on his doorstep.
Looking over Bob's 14-foot jonboat, I fondly wished for the comfort of my oversized bassin' rig. But my friend had assured me that a big boat would not be necessary; in fact, it would be impossible to use.
The pre-dawn darkness found us leaving Helena, bound for a small farming town by the name of Marvel. At Marvel, we turned southwest on State Hwy. 1, heading for the White River and the Indian Bay fishing camp. Indian Bay was completely full to the tops of the banks, but the water had receded enough to allow the approach to the dirt launch area to dry sufficiently for access. From this point, until it intersected the Arkansas River, and eventually the Mississippi, there were no towns or significant launch areas on the White River itself. What Bob had intimated about going "where no man had gone before" was entirely possible, as I recalled the wild and deep woods of the area from my teenage hunting days.
The 20-hp motor kicked to life and I settled back to see what I would see.
Coming out of the small slough, we were greeted by the sight of a very muddy and fast moving White River. The roiling current made sucking and slurping sounds as small whirlpools formed and dissipated, and the swirling, shifting flow made the lightweight boat lurch occasionally as we sped quickly downstream, "We're heading for the Big Creek area," Bob confided. "About four miles up it, there's an old slough that comes in. It, and all the natural drainage topography, provides a course for the run-off water to come out of the woods, enter the Big Creek trace, and feed into the main river. The water in the
Big Creek area is just like it is here in the river -- covering the banks and all out in the woods. The average depth is about four feet out there in the wooded flats. It's deeper, of course, where old sloughs and sinkhole lakes exist. While the dropping water is draining off most everywhere, it flows with more volume and speed wherever there is a natural low drainage area."
You gotta hand it to those icebox salesmen. They surely can sound pretty convincing at times.
Turning hard left, Bob slowed appreciably and entered the mouth of Big Creek. The entrance was plenty big enough, as Big Creek is rather large. However, the converging currents created a series of large swells, and it was obviously a treacherous area. Proceeding upstream, the waters almost immediately changed from muddy brown to nearly clear. Bob went on to explain, "The water that has been out in these wooded bottoms all Spring has been affected very little by any current flow. Consequently, it has settled out and is very clean. The woods are so thick that even a strong wind doesn't stir it up any."
Speeding up this isolated body of water brought back memories of earlier days spent in these very woods. Not fishing; I wasn't that smart then. This area, where shoulder-high water now stood, was where my dad had conducted the Arkansas boys' ritual of manhood - squirrel deer and duck hunting.
Long forgotten memories of feathered wings on cold, winter air and the patterns of decoys pervaded my thoughts. Crisp, golden and yellow leaves beneath careful feet and the barking of a red fox squirrel in a lone cypress tree seemed eons ago, yet the setting was unchanged. Reminders of the fleetingness of youth, it had all but forgotten in the rush to be a man ....
"Here's the slough," Bob said, calling me back from my daydreams. "We've got one little problem. The slough has a dam built up across it to hold the waters in for the duck-hunting crowd. Right now, it's just barely under water. We'll have to push the boat across it."
With that, my friend handed me a paddle.
Behind the submerged dam, the real beauty of White River bottomland country came into view. Huge cypress trees lined the slough's submerged banks, framing flooded pin oak flats as far as the eye could make out. The waters were clear, with just that touch of darkness that decaying vegetation can give. A slightly discernible current made light ripples around the ancient cypress buttresses, and the splash of an occasional gar fulfilled the promise of fish in the waters.
Motoring up 100 yards, Bob spied his first objective, a small opening along the inundated timber. "This opening is really a small ditch that drains out of the woods. Those bass will cluster here and feed on whatever the current brings," Bob advised.
As if to echo his words, a small bass gave chase to a minnow in the mouth of the opening. "The bottom is a little bit mucky here, so keep your lure off it. The best thing will be a spinnerbait or a very shallow crankbait. Don't fool with a plastic worm; THAT will come later," my partner grinned.
Sure enough, my guide knew precisely what he was talking about. Out first five casts produced as many bass, and the "hole" gave up 12 little bucks before it went dry. "This place has never produced a big fish, but it is so much fun that I never ignore it," Bob stated.
Heck, I thought it was a pretty good place! That showed how little I knew.
The next location was somewhat difficult to get into, to say the least. We proceeded to push our way through the trees themselves right out into the thick woods. Now, I knew why my good friend had insisted on the small boat. A few yards later, the trees opened up and we found ourselves in one of the many sinkhole ponds that dotted the area. "Man, I've shot a lot of ducks on this place," he stated. "Never even thought about fishing in it until last year. The water is flowing in on the north end and out on the west. The bass should be a bit larger since there is 10 feet of water in the middle."
Both the inlet area and the outlet were readily identifiable by the noticeable water movement, and, just like clockwork, the bass were there and willing to feed. This area gave up 22 bass, the largest of which went just under four pounds.
Bob definitely had my attention now!
Returning to the main slough, we motored up another half mile, enjoying the magnificent scenery and the pure pleasure of isolation from the Man-made world.
The next location appeared to be just open water, as Bob stopped and eased an anchor over the side. "Directly in front of the boat is an underwater roadbed," he stated, gesturing up the slough. "This is a timber-cutting area when the water is down, and the loggers used a bulldozer to build up a dry passage across the slough. Right now, the road is about three feet under the surface, while on either side it is about eight feet deep. The current, following the channel of the slough, hits this constriction point and the result is that the speed of the flow across the shallow top of the road is increased a good bit. You'll like this place. The bass gather at the down-current base of the roadbed, on this side, to get out of the current flow and to feed on whatever comes over it."
I reached for my trusty spinnerbait and Bob said, "The bottom and the roadbed are hard sand here. You may find a plastic worm works better."
Well, the guy had been batting 1,000 percent so far, so why not?
Casting upstream, I started to count the worm down to determine the depth. It only sank a couple of feet, and I immediately gave it a pull, hoping to drop it down the side of the submerged roadway. It never did get to the bottom again, as a good three-pound fish inhaled it and made for the sky. My partner, in the meantime, had placed his worm in a similarly precarious position and was fast to a bass of his own.
If I were to have to guess at the size of the school of bass clustered on that perfect feeding hole, I would have to state that it was infinite. By our best estimate, Bob and I caught and released over 150 bass from that position, without moving the boat. Although I hate to say it, we finally got tired of catching them and went home.
This fishing saga was not an unusual occurrence, except for possibly the number of fish caught. If you are an experienced bass angler, you know full well the potential of moving water and its fish-holding capabilities. The real significance was that it happened on the lower White River, and there are so few anglers who realize the bass populations of that body of water that it is virtually untouched. "Where no man has gone before" was not an inappropriate statement, I assure you.
The key ingredient to successful run-off fishing is to be able to locate those areas where the moving water is concentrated (such as the mouth of a drainage channel) or where the flow has a constriction point (any object or feature that interferes with the flow). These are magnets that draw bass and other fish with the promise of an easy meal. The proper lure selection is governed by the terrain and the speed of the current. You can rarely go wrong with the dependable plastic worm. However, crankbaits and other lures are fine, if they are adapted to the terrain.
The chances are good that you have nearby waters that flood or at least get high during the rainy seasons. Rising water may be muddy and unfishable, but receding water is most often an entirely different story. It is usually clear and rich in food. It can be your bassin' bonanza!
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