To prove a point about the ability to use kayaks in backwater areas for bass fishing, Kentucky bass pro Mike Auten and I spent a few days bushwhacking for bass.
We rendezvoused in Tunica, Miss., several Junes ago, strapped two 11-foot kayaks to the deck of his bass boat and headed off into the bayous of Mississippi and Arkansas along the Arkansas River.
At Tunica, the first order of business was going to a nearby slough — an oxbow off the Mississippi that held Grand Casino, one of several gambling emporiums that exist in the midst of cash-crop farms and floodplain levees.
Not exactly remote, but it was a cover-laden place that gave me a chance to show Auten how to properly enter and exit the kayak, maneuver it and position it for fishing.
As I'd promised Auten, who'd never been in a kayak, these easily maneuvered craft were not the rapids-running, rollover-stunt, whitewater shells that most people think of as kayaks. And they are pretty comfortable, to boot. He caught on immediately, and was sold within 10 minutes when a 5-pound largemouth hammered his spinnerbait.
A bit later he caught a 3-pound drum and thought it was a huge bass when it pulled the kayak into the trees. When a carp leapt out of the water unexpectedly near the boat, it startled Auten into the realization that things are a lot different when you're sitting at water level.
We pulled out to take on a bolder challenge, and drove to a launch site at Tunica Lake, a long and popularly fished oxbow in Mississippi.
Our kayak-laden bass boat sped past dozens of bluegill and crappie anglers working the periphery of flooded timber; then we ran 10 miles down the high and chocolate-milk-colored big river.
The Mississippi flow was ripping at nearly 4 mph, several barges created surfing-quality backwash waves as they headed upriver and there wasn't another pleasure boat in sight.
On a map we'd located a small slough that fed the main river, then found it on the river. We idled in an easily missed, narrow, creeklike entrance, shortly putting the river out of sight. Within 50 yards, the passageway narrowed to a chute with swift flow and too little depth for a large boat.
We tied up the bass boat, unloaded the kayaks, then paddled upcurrent for less than a half-mile, completely shaded by tall canopy. Turtles scattered everywhere, a potpourri of calling birds made the woods sound like an aviary and even an owl hooted.
Eventually the water widened into a small, lakelike slough ringed with flooded willows. A whitetail deer was cooling off in bush-covered water, and a raccoon ambled along the bank. It was like another world.
Crankbaits proved productive as we tried to discover whether the bass were close to the bank, as usually happens when there's high water, or on the outer edges of submerged cover, as usually happens when the water's falling. Here, it was a mix.
After that we went to Arkansas' backwater bayous in the White River National Wildlife Refuge. The White feeds the Arkansas River, which feeds the Mississippi.
We visited a gorgeous place at the suggestion of Auten's friend, Ken Adamson of Stuttgart, Ark., who wisely suggested we use his 16-foot flat-bottom, aluminum boat instead of the bass boat.
With the kayaks aboard, we took a wild ride from Clarendon to a sworn-to-secrecy slough that Adamson advised. The 30-minute journey was more like what you'd expect on a visit to a jungle river, complete with logjam-busting, lots of ducking under overhangs — watch for snakes! — and ending up with all kinds of leaves, branches and limbs in the boat and the now-filthy kayaks.
But what a place to drag out the kayaks, which easily snaked around flooded cypress and tupelo trees in a wild and secluded pondlike bayou that few people see. Here the water looked like pure tea; the birdlife, including two ospreys, was abundant; and the bass, situated on the outer edges of bushes, liked plastic worms instead of crankbaits.
Another day we drove to St. Charles, stopped in the community store for gas and food, and found the wall pasted with abutting topographic maps. While we pored over the maps, a fellow came over and offered some suggestions. Based on his advice, we launched nearby on the White River, traveled up Indian Bay, then located a small, dark-water feeder coming out of the woods.
We left the boat out of sight in a flooded tangle, then bushwhacked by kayak through the ankle-to-foot-deep timber until it opened into Eagle Nest Lake, as lovely a deep and dark-water oxbow hideaway as you could expect to find.
Later we went to Hog Thief and Moon Lakes, just to visit, as they could both be reached by motorized boat in high water. We caught a few bass along the flooded banks on spinnerbaits, but the water was too high and too muddy for more than sporadic success.
Bushwhacking for bass
Anyone with a boat and the will can do this type of backwater exploring. In many places, especially in the upper Midwest and the Northeast, people have long been using canoes to reach waters that are otherwise inaccessible, primarily by driving to a car-top site or trailhead.
But there are various places around the country, especially along big rivers, where you can't get to backwater areas by land but can reach them by water or at least get near to them by water, and then muscle in with a small boat.
It's not uncommon for duck hunters along the Mississippi Flyway to tote a small sneak boat atop or behind a flat-bottom boat, using the latter for river transport and the former to reach the glory holes.
There's no reason why anglers can't do the same. And while a flat-bottom boat or canoe can do the job some of the time, a kayak is the near-perfect vessel.
It can truly float anywhere and be easily portaged short distances or pulled over land or obstacles. It's highly maneuverable, and, (with the right model) stable and comfortable.
A kayak rides well in bigger boats, too. And for those with the gumption to get on larger water like the Mississippi, it affords an opportunity to find places that can't be accessed from the big river when the water level drops and cuts them off.
In fact, the main drawback to backwater fishing from a kayak is that there's no place to escape snakes, which, fortunately, we didn't encounter. But, then, snakes are no picnic in a bass boat, either.
For more information on angling, see Ken Schultz's Fishing Encyclopedia, available through www.kenschultz.com.