Angling experience found far off the beaten path

By Keith Sutton Originally Published June 23, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated June 21, 2013 at 11:55 a.m.
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Keith Sutton

Oxbows and bayous in swamps receive little fishing pressure and often harbor plentiful bass.

The little lake lies 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 anymore who owns it, 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 tackle box 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 manmade 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 heavier than 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 manmade 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 personal watercraft, 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.

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 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.

Brushy fishing conditions dictate using a rod slightly shorter than you probably use elsewhere; 5 1/2 feet is generally best. Use a small tackle box 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 that 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 that 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 is often the best way to nab a swamp bass. The wide, fluted base supports the tree in the wet soil. The spikelike 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 another.

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 to 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. 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.


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.

None Keith Sutton can be reached at .

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