Cypress trees and largemouth bass go together like crappie and brush piles. It is fortunate for the thousands of us who love bass fishing, then, that the bald cypress, a beautiful tree of sometimes immense proportions, grows in lakes, rivers and bayous throughout much of Arkansas.
Cypress fishing can be unforgettable. No man-made impoundment offers the same feelings of wonder and serenity that you find on waters lined with stands of ancient cypresses. When conditions are right, spectacular bass fishing can be had, but for many anglers, catching fish is secondary to being there.
Few trees are more fascinating than the bald cypress. Some specimens aged by scientists are 1,400 years old — the oldest living things next to bristlecone pines. Centuries-old specimens, some over 120 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter, are still common in many Natural State waters, but the vast cypress stands that covered 19th-century bottomlands largely disappeared as logging and wetlands drainage took their toll.
The cypress tree’s most unique features are its broad buttressed base and unusual spikelike knees.
The wide, fluted base, often hollow, provides support in wet soils where cypresses typically grow. The trees do well as transplants in yards and gardens, but are, by nature, plants of wetlands. Some cypress waters have only a narrow band of trees around the water’s outer edges. If the water is not too deep, however, the seeds will sprout and take hold during periods of drought when the bottom is exposed. As a result, one may find a lone cypress growing well away from the banks or clusters of trees on shallow humps. In some cases, if the water body is shallow throughout, cypress trees form an inundated forest blanketing all or most of the water.
Cypress knees are part of the root system. Botanists are still unsure of the knees’ exact function. They may be anchors, providing support in unstable soil, or they may act like snorkels, providing gas exchange to oxygenate underwater roots. Also possible is some role in the storage of starches — sort of a root bank.
The knees’ actual purpose matters not to the bass angler, but one should know that extensive root systems may interlock with those of other trees, forming mats of shallow roots and knees that reinforce each other. Know, too, there is an apparent correlation between water depth and knee height. Growth may exceed 5 feet in deep creeks or be nonexistent beneath trees away from the water’s edge.
The botany lesson just presented is important, for the bass angler most proficient at catching cypress largemouths is the one most knowledgeable about cypress structures beneath the water and how bass relate to them. During the spring spawn, bass typically hold near shallower root structures, usually near trees closest to shore. In winter and summer, cypress trees in deeper water are more likely to produce bass, although “deeper” in a cypress lake may only mean the difference between 3 and 5 feet. During fall turnover, when water temperatures are relatively equal at all depths, bass may be shallow or deep.
To better understand bass/cypress relationships, 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 tree’s buttress, or trunk. Moving outward, one encounters the doughnut itself, which extends 10 to 20 feet, sometimes more, away from the tree. Beyond the doughnut, one encounters a 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. You should remember, however, that 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, particularly if the tree has a visible hollow or a deeply fluted buttress. Do not confine your fishing to this area alone, however. Often as not, bass relate to underwater features on portions of the root system farther from the buttress. The best areas are usually related to something slightly different from surrounding portions of the doughnut: a knee with a hollow, for example, a tight 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.
In waters where cypress trees are particularly abundant, look for out-of-the ordinary features distinguishing one portion of the flooded forest from another. An isolated tree in deeper water should always be checked, especially if it has knee clusters around the base. A long point of cypress trees extending into deeper water may be productive or a cluster of trees separate from the main portion of the inundated forest. Look, too, for logs, stumps, ditches, depressions and other types of “noncypress” structure and cover that may attract bass. Anything noticeably different from the otherwise look-alike expanse of cypress trees should be investigated.
You can catch bass around cypress trees year-round, on almost any lure. I like to fish cypress trees best in summer, however — sitting in a boat on the cool water shaded by the long overhanging branches. My favorite lures include jig-and-eels, spoon-and-eels and crankbaits, all three of which are excellent enticements for the heaviest cypress-water lunkers. Topwater plugs and buzzbaits also excel in summer, especially near dawn and dusk. Spinnerbaits are superb when the water gets a bit murky, and one can always count on plastic worms and lizards to produce bass when fishing heavy cover.
The key is not so much what you fish or when. Cypress largemouths are active, opportunistic feeders year-round. The key is how you fish. Work the doughnut of each tree methodically and thoroughly, and you’ll get the most enjoyment from each visit to these incredibly beautiful waters.