Up a Creek without a Paddle: Summer Wading for Bass and Panfish

Up a Creek without a Paddle: Summer Wading for Bass and Panfish

A couple cold “Cocolas” and two packs of salty peanuts buy us the OK to park my Jeep at the country store where the creek and the highway cross. I hop into the pickup with my bass-slayin’, squirrel bustin’, rabbit dog runnin’ cousin Kevin and we head up a gravel road and thump-thump-thump over a cattle gap. We creep through crunchy truck ruts and along rusted barbed wires common in our part of Mississippi. I hop out and squeak open the gate—it was hung red and true but hangs mottled and crooked these days—and make damn sure to lean into it,  setting the chain link over the head of the bent 20-penny nail. Letting a cow loose’ll cost you access and a cussin’, even with your kin.

There’s the creek. Doesn’t look like much. But the green briar and the cutbanks and the cottonmouth moccasins guard an oasis. The price of admission varies from a muddy tumble to bloodied-up forearms; but when you get in, the trees link arms overhead to hide you from the sun, cool wind blows away the dead air, and cold water chills you as deep as you’re willing to dip.

On the best days, time stops for an unrelenting bite that leaves you with a full stringer, new lures as busted up as that old gate, and a soggy, rasped-up, bloody “bass thumb” for proof.

It doesn’t get any better.

Why Summer?
By 10 a.m. in the deep South it can be damn hot: 100-degree hot. Do you want to burn up every day on a bass boat chasing a reluctant bite on a big-acre lake where yay-hoos are party-barging, stand-up paddling, rooster-tailing, skiing, or otherwise having all that kind of fun that the assholes are wont to do? Not me. Not when shady fights are calling.

Which Water
When summer kicks off on June 20, the dogs are whimpering, the water’s evaporating, and I’m already thinking about wading those small, hidden creeks—what my family call “brainches” and others call “cricks.” You can jump across some of these creeks in places and—even with a bad rotator cuff—toss gravel across one at its widest point. These creeks are out of the way, overlooked, or flat out ignored. If you’re willing to earn your way into them, by the Dog Days of Summer (July 3 to August 11 or so) fish are often stacked up in low water, fighting over food. If you hit the crick and sling for bass (largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, etc.), or panfish (crappie, bluegill, redear, etc.) you’ll likely catch them right along with every kind of cat in the state.

What Works
The quarters are close and the water is clear; so an ultra-light set up is ideal, but you can get it done with any good spinning or spincast set-up. As far as what to sling, professional bass tournament angler Cody Ryan Greaney starts off with a Ned rig, basically a Senko-style worm on a bullet-head jig hook.

“It’s probably the most unexciting bait on the market, but it is probably responsible for more fish than any technique twice it’s age,” Greaney said. “Staying back from those deeper holes and pitching the Ned craw or basic Ned worm from a few feet away will almost certainly draw a bite or 20.”

Greaney also says that to his great surprise he once watched a 12-year-old boy in Missouri wear out the bass with a small red crankbait in a chest-deep creek.

“Now I come armed with a 6th Sense Crush Mini,”Greaney said.

Meanwhile, you can absolutely slay creek bass on live crawfish, catawba worms, and all kinds of small lures like the Xcalibur Zell-Pop, Road Runner marabou jigs, soft plastic tubes, and the lure that’s probably caught more freshwater fish in Mississippi than any other: a split tail black and yellow Beetlespin.

If you must tempt the gods of water, forest, tangle, and war, go ahead and try to fish these tight spots on the fly. It’s a lot of fun. A 2-weight to 5-weight rod works well with small poppers and streamers, crawfish patterns, little white Clousers, and the duct tape of the fly fishing world: the wooly bugger. I started fly fishing in these creeks by flicking a white feather on a gold bream hook from a fly reel on an ultra-light spinning rod. It wasn’t pretty, but it wore ‘em out. And, as much as I hate the idea of paying $200 for a cane pole, if you happen to have a tenkara rod, this might just be the place to keep a bend in it.

As far as clothes, shorts, a tee shirt, and an old pair of shoes will get you where you need to be. Chances are you’ll have to wade or swim for the lures you hang on trees or stick in submerged wood (just watch out for the moccasins and snapping turtles and such), so you’ll get wet. Consider stuffing a dry bag into a small backpack so you can carry the day’s supplies: keys, wallet, water, first aid kit, snacks, sunscreen, bug repellent, a tackle box, hemostats, knife, flashlight, and so on. It’s good to leave a towel, change of clothes, and footwear in the vehicle. Let folks know where you’re headed, especially if you’re going alone.

These creeks are shallow, clear, and quiet. So, the fishing can feel like hunting. Sneak down to the water. Fish where you’re about to enter the creek. Chances are you won’t be able to fish from the banks. If you wade downstream, it’s quieter. If you wade upstream, it’s harder to be quiet but you don’t muddy up your fishing spots. Up to you.

Drought years concentrate precious water in a string of potholes like pearls on the necklace of creek bed. And those potholes can be black with the backs of hungry fish that you can catch by the mess on little more than a shiny bream hook. But most years, there’s a healthier pattern of still water, moving water, still.

In practice, the stage is small so you can cast to most everything at least once. But, put in extra work on the banks, bridges, vegetation, shade, deep water, structure both in current and out, and any other fishy places. Look to the still water for largemouth bass, catfish, and panfish. Then think trout fishing for bass and work the moving water for spotted bass and its relatives.

If you catch a fish, work that same spot until you’re sure there’s nothing else there. You wouldn’t be the first gal to catch 10 fish out of one hole.

If you want to get up a creek without a paddle, start with your state department of natural resources, guidebooks, satellite images, and onX to help you find blue lines and public parcels. Make sure to understand the stream access laws of your particular state as they relate to access and walking below the high water mark.

Feature image by Tosh Brown.

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