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Moving-water mayhem: Fishing can quickly become catching when you find some current

By James K. Joslin

This article was originally published September 23, 2012 at 12:00 a.m. Updated September 21, 2012 at 9:16 a.m.

jeff-marks-of-crossett-left-and-greg-gulledge-of-monticello-work-topwater-lures-across-the-surface-of-lake-ferguson-in-search-of-largemouth-bass-the-lake-a-mississippi-river-oxbow-was-a-hot-spot-for-these-and-other-bass-anglers-this-summer-because-of-the-water-flowing-out-of-the-upper-lake-toward-the-mississippi

Jeff Marks of Crossett, left, and Greg Gulledge of Monticello work topwater lures across the surface of Lake Ferguson in search of largemouth bass. The lake, a Mississippi River oxbow, was a hot spot for these and other bass anglers this summer because of the water flowing out of the upper lake toward the Mississippi.

I had heard the talk — the secondhand reports detailing the action occurring in Greenville, Miss. The gist of the stories was that the bass were tearing up topwaters in the Mississippi backwater oxbow of Lake Ferguson. Like any respectable, red-blooded bass angler, I daydreamed myself into the middle of the melee.

Then came the call

Greg Gulledge of Monticello, a former FLW touring pro and a fisherman who’s previously provided story fodder for me, rang my number and suggested a day, time and meeting place.

It meant getting up during the graveyard shift, heading out on the highway through the pitch black of night and waiting in a convenience store parking lot for him to arrive. Hmm … sleep deprivation, redeye driving time and no breakfast. Of course I said yes.

Gulledge explained during his sales pitch that one of his fishing partners, Jeff Marks of Crossett, would meet both of us at Lake Village for the final portion of the journey.

“Jeff told me about it, and we went down to Ferguson and just fished in the general vicinity of the hole and caught them really well,” Gulledge said. “We saw a boat sit on that spot all day and never move. A heavy thunderstorm came through, and they sat right there in the middle of it. A few days after that, Jeff went back, got on the spot and whacked them. The spot was unreal for a least a couple of months.”

The “hole” and “spot” of which Gulledge spoke was a narrow strip of water that connected the upper reaches of Lake Ferguson to the lower part and, eventually, the Mississippi River itself. Sediments and greening vegetation lined either side of this ribbon of flowing water as it dumped its contents into the fast-falling Mississippi.

The result was largemouth bass stacked up in tight quarters, moving in and out of the flow that remained after drought conditions had sucked much of Ferguson’s waters out into the river. In fact, the water was so low that day that we had a bit of trouble launching Marks’ bass boat.

Even that didn’t affect the fishing.

With running lights still beaming, we shut the motor down and trolled toward the hole as a thin sliver of light began to show in the east.

Our first few casts resulted in a couple of misses and a couple of connections, mainly on walking baits like a Lucky Craft Sammy. I did, however, manage a handful of fish on a white buzzbait.

As the sun arose and revealed the spot, the catching continued through the morning. Short periods of nothingness were then punctuated by bursts of bites that saw two, three or more fish come boatside in a matter of minutes. I have no idea how many bass we actually caught, but it would have well surpassed three limits.

The three of us discussed the scenario, with Gulledge offering an explanation that we were fishing a “schooling pattern.”

“The shad were present, and the bass and white bass were piled in there taking advantage of the situation. Bass are opportunistic, and that was a great opportunity for them to get their bellies full,” Gulledge said. “That was some of the most explosive topwater fishing I have ever seen.”

Keying on current

The way this trip unfolded, I couldn’t help but conjure up images of previous trips where success hinged on finding moving water.

One spring, after a heavy rain, one of my fishing buddies and I headed to a cypress and tupelo brake in east-central Arkansas. The water was a bit stained, but far from being mud gravy. The fish, however, seemed to have lockjaw.

Then, we heard the sound of water running over something. As we made our way closer to the sound, we noticed that a deep ditch that connected the brake to a bayou was pushing water over a beaver dam at its mouth. We sat there for hours catching bass after bass on spinnerbaits.

Once, on a Grand Prairie reservoir, I set out with crappie on my mind. Instead, I nailed the bass that day by finding a current where irrigation water was flowing back into the reservoir from an adjacent rice field. The temperatures were high, but the bass fishing was what was really hot.

At another reservoir near Little Rock, I happened to be on the water early one fall when the farmer started a relift to pump water into the impoundment. Within a few minutes, the bass were hitting just about anything you could throw at them in that fresh water.

Not species specific

While bass can readily be patterned in this way at times, such a situation can also provide an ice chest or stringer full of other fish.

After remembering some of those other trips, I switched to a light-action rod and reel rigged with a cork bobber and a soft-plastic shad on a jig head. That meant more fish for a fish fry. While I caught just a couple of good largemouths that way, I found out that the white bass were lurking just below the surface and were very ready to take that imitation shad.

A snaky oxbow lake on the lower White River called Stinkin’ Bay has a handful of relifts along its banks to allow farmers to pull water up to their crop fields. Under and around those relifts, I’ve sat in a boat and pulled out hand-sized bluegill, redear and warmouth bass with great regularity.

Farther down the lake, where it is separated from the White River by only a levee, another relift has provided action for everything from largemouth, spotted and white bass to catfish, crappie and bream.

One hangout where I’ve seen tons of crappie caught is a series of pipes under a gravel road that connects two segments of a bayou in Lonoke and Jefferson counties. When the rains come in the spring or fall, the cane-polers line the banks to harvest nature’s bounty.

The pattern

Fishing this way is not a seasonal possibility. There are reasons that game fish will move to running water throughout the year.

In the spring, it could be that insects may have been caught in the flow as water pushed across vegetation that was previously on dry ground. In the fall, it might be as simple as fresh water that signals a change of the seasons and spurs a feeding frenzy.

In the summer, that fresh water is likely to be both cooler and better oxygenated than the standing water throughout the remainder of that lake, bayou or reservoir. In the winter, it may be pulling along shad that have perished after being caught in a cold snap.

At Lake Ferguson, it was a combination of those possibilities. The water was cooler by a few degrees than the surrounding lake water. The movement had pushed nutrients into the lower lake and attracted forage fish like shad. And, the water held a higher oxygen content than the rest of the lake. All three of these factors led the largemouths and whites to that spot.

Now, listen for the sound of running water, point your boat that direction, and see if you can go from fishing to catching.

Staff writer James K. Joslin can be reached at (501) 399-3693 or jjoslin@arkansasonline.com.

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