For Rocky Rowell, of Wiggins, a good bit of his time both back in 1974, and many times since, has been spent rolling on the black waters of southern Mississippi's Leaf River. Rowell can still recall some memorable fishing trips when he and his high school buddies would float the Leaf, fishing and camping and listening to music of the day from groups like the Doobies and Uriah Heap.

But even in the days of his youth, the appeal for Rowell was always the fishing.

The experience of floating down a scenic wild river offers an unequalled fishing experience. Each new turn brings a whole new scenario, each bend holds the promise of that secret honeyhole loaded with fish.

While some may point out that riverine fish species don't grow to the sizes that can be found in still-water ponds and reservoirs, a lifetime of living life in the fast lane tends to make fish feistier. Also gone are the crowds, the commotion and competition from other anglers in still waters.

Float fishing is a passage back in time.

Where to float

The Leaf River rises due west of the town of Eastabuchie, and after providing the boundary line between the cities of Petal and Hattiesburg, twists and turns on the outskirts of the DeSoto National Forest before merging with the Chickasawhay River to become the headwaters of the Pascogoula River.

Along its approximate 180-mile trek, the Leaf ties together eight Mississippi counties and some of the most unspoiled wilderness in the state.

The Leaf is certainly not the only black-water destination in Mississippi. Just about any body of water that will float a boat will work, and most of these rivers and creeks will have some untapped fishing, especially away from manmade accesses such as bridges and roadways.

Joe Feil is the owner of Wolf River Canoe and Kayak in Long Beach. The outfitter offers both guided canoe trips for experienced paddlers and rents canoes and kayaks to paddlers and anglers looking to spend some time on the beautiful Wolf River. The Wolf rises upstate near Lumberton and travels through unspoiled forest land before emptying into Bay St. Louis below I-10. Most of Feil's excursions take place below Cable Bridge Landing between Gulfport and Pass Christian and the coast.

"Fish can be caught on any of the trips we run," said Feil. "The most popular fishing trip is the lower four miles of the Wolf River."

Other popular floating venues include Black Creek, which winds through the DeSoto National Forest before dumping into the Pascagoula, Red Creek, which runs a similar course below Wiggins, and the Pascogoula River itself, which is for anglers looking for big-water floating action.

Have boat, will travel

For smaller waters, just about any portable watercraft from jonboats to canoes fills the bill. Because black-water creeks and rivers can have swift currents in places, it's advisable to use a stable craft with a fairly wide beam to prevent tip-overs.

Kayaks are becoming more and more popular on the rivers these days, especially those kayaks built with features favorable to anglers such as rod holders, bait wells and dry-storage areas for extra tackle.

Many larger rivers and creeks may have government-maintained boat ramps for put-in and take-out points. The beauty of small portable boats is that they can be launched and landed at almost any public access point such as bridges and public rights-of-way. Two anglers are almost a necessity as float trips are a one-way venture, and two land vehicles are required unless the angler employs the services of a river outfitter to provide return transportation.

A mixed bag

While some anglers may float a particular river or creek with one species of fish in mind, many floaters are opportunists and are happy to catch whatever the river has to offer.

According to Jimmy Rayburn, MDWFP District 6 fisheries biologist, many typical species of freshwater fish are represented in the rivers and creeks of the Pine Belt and Coastal Plains.

"Panfish are going to be the most numerous in the Wolf as well as the Leaf," he said. "There are also spotted bass and largemouth in both of those systems. Another popular gamefish species is catfish."

Feil agreed that a variety of species also fill his clients' creels.

"Most of our anglers are catching bream, sunfish and crappie," he said. "They catch bass and catfish too. It's a real mixed bag."

Catfish are one of the main attractions for Rowell.

"The river is a good place to stop along the route and throw live bait or cut bait into holes around logjams for catfish," he said. "Most of the cats are channels up to 5 pounds, and can provide you a good mess for a shore lunch."

What's on the menu?

One key to consistently catching any fish species in Mississippi's black-water rivers is learning the dietary habits and preferences of river fish, which may vary greatly from typical pond or reservoir fish. Since natural foods vary, it's important that your baits and lures change to match.

"Near the coast, the primary forage will be the gulf shad. Those and shrimp will make up a big part of the diet in that area," said biologist Rayburn. "As you move up, you have shiners and different minnow species that many fish feed on.

"Juvenile panfish species make up a big part of the black bass and catfish diet in all the rivers once you move out of the marshy, brackish waters. Further north, we start to see native crawfish species in both largemouth and spotted bass diets."

When asked what types of lures would best tempt river fish, Rayburn said the important thing is to match the size of the bait. Any bait that offers vibration, flash or smell is also a good choice as fish rely on these senses in black-water rivers and creeks.

"Artificial baits have always been a favorite, even with panfish," said Rayburn. "Beetle Spins have always been popular, but for numbers of panfish, it's hard to beat live baits such as redworms and crickets for fishing around structure."

Since float fishing limits the amount of gear anglers can carry, weight and storage capacity are precious, which is why some anglers forego space-consuming live baits for artificial ones.

"I've seen a lot of this new Gulp! bait that people have been using," Feil said. "They don't have to go to all the trouble of carrying live bait when they float fish."

And artificials can be quite effective, Rayburn said.

"For bass, soft plastics work well," he said. "Also, small and medium-sized crankbaits that run shallow work great. You don't want any deep-diving crankbaits because of submerged logs. Anything in a minnow-imitating bait is a good choice.

"Crawfish-colored crankbaits are also a favorite of a lot of anglers for floating these streams for spotted bass. I've also caught them on buzz baits and spinnerbaits. One trip in particular a while back, I used nothing but buzz baits and spinnerbaits on the lower portion of Black Creek, and had great success with spotted bass."

River fishing tactics

In order to "match the hatch" when black-water fishing, Rowell relies on two different tactics and baits to coax his favorite river fish, spotted and largemouth bass, from their moving water lairs.

"I like any small crawfish-colored crankbait to cast along the shoreline during the float," he said. "There are lots of sticks and stumps both in the river and along the bank, and any of these locations will hold bass on their downcurrent sides."

Rowell's other favorite tactic is to look for a logjam anywhere the current eddies along the bank. These eddy areas will collect flotsam and plant debris, providing overhead cover for bass to hide and ambush prey. That's when Rowell breaks out the heavy pitching tackle and a soft-plastic creature bait.

"I'll take a worm or a crawdad plastic bait, and put a 3/8- to ½-ounce worm weight or egg sinker just ahead of the bait," he said. "Bass, especially spotted bass, will suspend under that floating debris, and it takes that heavy weight to punch through the debris. Once it goes through, the bass will hit it on the fall, and it takes stout equipment and heavy line to set the hook at an angle and get the fish up."

Rowell favors line in the 17- to 20-pound-test class as he will have to set the hook and work the fish with the line across a log or stick. Once the fish is on the hook, there is little room to play the fish, and he may have to haul the fish over the logjam to the boat or hold the hooked fish tight to the debris while he skulls the boat into the debris to retrieve the fish.

Another benefit of using heavily weighted baits in the moving river current is to keep the current from sweeping the bait over underwater debris.

"Current tends to push bait under underwater limbs," Rowell said. "The heavier weight will let you get to the bottom, where most of the fish will be holding.

"Make sure you carry a long piece of rope to tie on to logs. The current will wear out a trolling motor fighting the current, so it's best to use it to maneuver between spots - not for fishing.

"One tie-up spot usually has the potential to reach three or four good spots. Start fishing the spots farthest upstream, and you can use the rope to let the boat float down to the next spot, then move on down the river and tie up again."

Looking to the future

For all their beauty and majesty, some ugly scars still remain across southern Mississippi's woods and waterways, resulting from 2005's Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately the northern reaches were spared the worst of the storm's wrath, but some areas were not as lucky.

"There were fish kills associated with Hurricane Katrina in the lower portions of some of our coastal rivers," Rayburn said, "but they're coming back. We've restocked the Pascogoula and the Wolf with channel catfish, redear, bluegill and largemouth bass. We've done some creel surveys, and the catfish are coming back strong, the panfish are doing well, and it's still a little early to tell how the black bass populations have responded. The black bass are still a little small for people to start seeing in their creels, but we're hoping for a real good year class there."