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Keith Sutton: Swamp Bassin'

8/5/2010
Keith "Catfish" Sutton

The little lake lies in the back of beyond, in the middle of a vast tract of swampland, several miles from the nearest town. Few people fish there.

Getting there isn't easy. You must motor more than an hour from the nearest ramp, then walk 100 yards through wet, snake-infested woods. When you're finally there, though, you'll find an old cypress johnboat. No one knows who owns it any more, but ownership is not an issue in this lonely corner of the world. The boat is there for whoever comes along.

When last I fished there, I emptied the boat of water, then placed inside it my rod and reel, a sculling paddle and a small tacklebox holding a few lures. A spinnerbait was the first lure I cast, and as soon as it touched down by a big cypress, a bass nailed it. I wasn't prepared.

The fish shot away and did a loop-de-loop around a cypress knee. It mattered not that a 225-pound man held the end of the line opposite the bass. The fish, a 6- or 7-pounder, jumped, flipped its tail and was gone.

Bass in these backcountry waters are brawlers. They fight dirty and make their relatives in bigger, man-made lakes look like wimps.

Maybe it's the extraordinary fertility of these bottomland hardwood swamps that make bass so healthy and strong. Every fish here seems to have extra stamina.

Maybe the confined living space, shallow water and dense cover are what make swamp bass so good at line-busting and throwing hooks. These fish know every inch of their territory and use that familiarity to discomfit their human antagonists.

Maybe it's the beauty of swamps that causes these problems. When you're fishing in the shade of 500-year-old cypresses, watching bright-yellow warblers flit through the foliage overhead, the serenity of it all can lull you into a state of total relaxation. Reflexes get sluggish, and consequently, lots of bass get the best of you.

It doesn't matter, really. Swamp lakes serve up exceptionally good bass fishing, and if bottomland bass get the jump on us more often than usual, it's a small price to pay for the privilege of being there.

I missed the first bass that day but caught several others. I landed one largemouth a tad over 6 pounds and several more 2- to 5-pounders. The lack of fishing pressure lets bass grow large in that remote swamp lake, and I've rarely fished there without taking at least one big bucketmouth.

I grew up in Arkansas' Mississippi River Delta and cut my teeth on this brand of swamp fishing. Nowadays, I often fish man-made impoundments, too, but I still prefer fishing a small oxbow in the middle of a swamp. The bassing is extraordinary, and I value these waters for their beauty and serenity, too.

There's nothing prettier than sunrise on a backwater lake ringed by cypresses. And you're never bothered by jet skis, fast-running boats or other distractions. When I get a bellyful of the modern world, I pack my tackle and head for the bottoms because I know I'll find peace and quiet there.

Swamp Country

By definition, a swamp is a wetland featuring permanent inundation of large land areas by shallow bodies of water. Most swamps are associated with adjacent rivers or lakes. And unlike marshes, swamps include many woody plants such as cypress trees, tupelos, overcup oaks and button willows. The waters of a swamp are still or slow-moving, and often rich in tannins from decaying vegetation.

My home state of Arkansas encompasses some of the biggest swamps in the country, including the Big Woods area stretching along the White and Cache rivers, which includes hundreds of thousands of acres punctuated with scores of oxbow lakes, bayous and backwaters full of largemouth bass.

Swamps occur throughout much of our country, from New Jersey and Indiana to Texas and Florida. Many are protected as national wildlife refuges or wildlife management areas, such as Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and Florida, Honey Island Swamp in Louisiana and Mingo Swamp in Missouri. Most serve up excellent fishing for largemouth bass. A call to your state fisheries agency should help you find a swamp you can explore and fish on your own.

Equipment and Techniques

Bank fishing and wading rarely are options in these densely vegetated, soft-bottomed waters. You need a boat to access prime bassing spots, and the lighter the boat, the better. You often must carry your craft to the water and finagle your way into and through tight cover. I prefer fishing from a 10- or 12-foot aluminum johnboat, but canoes work well, too. I've even fished out of rubber rafts and belly boats on occasion.

Brushy fishing conditions dictate using a rod slightly shorter than you probably use elsewhere; 5-1/2 feet is generally best. Take a small tacklebox with maybe a dozen spinnerbaits, an assortment of plastic worms, and a couple of shallow-running crankbaits and topwater lures. If you can drive close to the bank, you may want to haul a trolling motor. If not, take a sculling paddle instead.

Start by working shoreline cover carefully, probing every nook in the brush and every likely log or cypress tree. Change lures and presentations until you find one bass like, starting the day with topwaters and spinnerbaits, then changing to bottom-bouncers like worms and crankbaits as the day progresses.

If you're fishing an oxbow, remember the outside bend of the lake is always a little deeper than the inside bend. This is important in summer when water temperatures sometimes reach the 90s. During midday, bass gather on the lake's deeper side, lying in shadows of logs and cypress trees where conditions are more comfortable.

Cypress Fishing

Speaking of cypress trees, fishing around these tall swamp lovers often is the best way to nab a swamp bass. The wide, fluted base supports the tree in the wet soil. The spike-like knees are part of the root system, with each extensive system interlocking with those of other trees, forming mats of shallow roots and knees that reinforce one aother.

Think of the root system as a big raised doughnut surrounding the tree. The doughnut's hole is a pocket of slightly deeper water adjacent the buttress. Moving outward, one encounters the doughnut itself, which extends 10 to 20 feet, sometimes more, away from the tree. Beyond the doughnut, one encounters flat, featureless bottom, unless another tree is nearby and the root systems interlock.

Cypress knees are part of the doughnut and may be the only surface feature indicating the doughnut's breadth. But the doughnut may extend several feet beyond visible knees, providing underwater bass structure.

The biggest mistake most anglers make is fishing only the water nearest each tree — inside the doughnut hole. A well-placed cast here may entice a bass, no doubt.

But don't confine your fishing to this area. Bass often relate to underwater features on portions of the root system farther from the buttress — a knee with a hollow, for example, or a cluster of knees or perhaps a point of root growth extending toward deeper water. Bass also hold along the doughnut's outer edges.

To fish a root system thoroughly, begin on one side of the tree, casting close to it for starters, then working progressively outward to cover the entire doughnut, particularly irregular features you can see or "feel." When you've fished thoroughly from this angle, reposition your boat on the opposite side and do the same thing.

Button Willow Bass

Button willows are woody shrubs, 3 to 8 feet tall, growing in dense thickets in the shallows of many swamps. Bass often ambush prey from the interior of these thickets, and if you target these fish properly, you can hook some hawgs.

To catch button-willow bass, grab limbs and pull your boat into the thicket. This requires a narrow johnboat or canoe. Position it near a stump, log or other feature.

Casting is impossible, so use a long, heavy jigging pole with heavy line (30- to 50-pound braid) to bring fish quickly into the boat. Weedless lures such as plastic worms are best. Pull the lure tight against the rod tip, then work the pole carefully through the brush until you can drop the lure into an opening.

When a fish strikes, set the hook and back the fish into the boat. You'll lose many fish and lures before getting the hang of it. But be patient and you'll soon learn to land a high percentage of big button-willow bass.

Conclusion

Fishing swamps isn't for everyone. Bottomland anglers must contend with hordes of mosquitoes, the occasional cottonmouth or alligator, and stifling heat and humidity. When you need some peace and quiet, however, and the tug of a big bass on your line to make you happy, these wetland jewels are always worth a visit.