‘Digging’ the ditches

Small ditches off a larger creek can be highly productive.

Locating the travel lanes bass use each fall isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. But if you can figure out where they’re moving and gathering, you’re in business.

It’s possibly the most oversimplified stage of a bass’ annual schedule, but get to know the fall feeding migrations and you’ll see there’s actually a considerable amount of strategy required to achieve consistency. For, while we tend to describe this season as a mass movement of bass to their pre-winter gorging, it’s not just a random rush to the buffet line.

Here’s a good starting point: Get to know the creek’s “ditch” — the gut, or drain at the bottom of the main channel that meanders from the main lake, back into the creek’s inner reaches. This is what Bassmaster Elite Series pro Gerald Swindle calls the bass’ life line — a travel lane the fish use to navigate into and out of these secondary areas.

With the region’s mostly flatter contours, ditches are subtle, but the fish follow this instinct-driven course with predictable dedication. Of course, a bass doesn’t spend every minute of the fall season belly-down in a creek trough, although they will typically endure fall cold fronts there. Beyond this, the fall feeding activity brings other positioning into relevance.

Wait your turn

Guide Stephen Johnston agrees that the fish follow specific courses when they’re moving in and out of creeks; especially once they’re inside where the gathering points can become very specific. His advice: Check your map and find the bends for clusters of staging bass.

“When they’re going in, they’ll be in the straightaways and feeding everywhere,” Johnston said. “Once a group enters a creek, there’s not enough room for all of the fish that want to be there to fit inside, so a lot of fish will sit at the mouth and wait to go in, once others come out. Those are your key spots.

“On an outside bend of a creek, if the creek swings really hard, the depth could be a foot or two deeper. It doesn’t have to be 5 feet deeper, it’s just small changes that give the fish a place to hold until it’s time to move.”

As Johnston notes, those outside bends are often hard a vertical; a scenario resulting from years of creek current scouring. Such spots are like waiting rooms where fish park and wait for their time to enter a creek, or stop for a breather before continuing out to the main lake.

The reason such features are important, Johnston said, is best defined as right place, right time — or the more common antithesis. We all love it when our timing coincides with that of the fish; but of course, not all days will we be so lucky. Typically, more of them will be a little here, a little there; your basic run-and-gun search for the big bite.

“When you get a normal feeding day, you can catch them everywhere up and down the creek, but most anglers don’t catch those days,” Johnston said. “So, when you don’t catch those feeding days, you have to look for those points where those fish will stop and group.

“Bass won’t group in a straightaway; there’s nothing for them to hide on and ambush the bait. But if they get in that outside bend, they can hold there comfortably.”

Other features

Along with the main creeks, Johnston said he’s mindful of the role that small sloughs play in the fall production. Such secondary arteries, he said, offer key habitat features to complement those deeper outside bends.

“Look for some kind of little intersection where those fish can sit and ambush the bait,” he said.

Submerged structure also merits attention and Johnston’s keen to notice stumps scattered along the creek from the bank to about halfway in. Here, he said, size definitely matters.

“If there was a big oak tree, it would have been by itself because when that tree grew, there wasn’t enough room for any other trees to grow,” Johnston said. “Two oak tree stumps might be 10-12 feet apart, but those two are going to be the deal. It’s amazing how many fish can sit on two stumps.”

As Johnston notes, one of the most promising findings you can encounter is a stump with a significant root ball exposed. More structure equals more attraction.

Look before casting

With any of these fish-friendly spots, Elite pro Russ Lane notes the importance of scanning and looking before committing. Part of this is efficiency; he’ll idle the creek to look for key areas around which he can plan his next moves. Side imaging sonar will show you these sweet spots, along the characteristics of those intersecting sloughs; but Johnston advises a strategic search.

“I suggest you spend some time just driving in and out of these creeks and sloughs and just look for small ambush points for those fish to group in,” Johnston said. “Today, people have what I call the ‘Kevin VanDam syndrome.’ They’ll drive into a creek and they’ll turn around and fish whatever they see.

“You have to realize that when you drive through water that’s 2-7 feet, your prop wash puts a lot of disturbance in there. If you’re in an area that doesn’t get a lot of boat traffic, those fish can get really spooked.”

Johnston’s advice: Make a solid recon pass, drop your waypoints, go kill an hour elsewhere and return to fish the spot once the fish have had time to settle.

“If you just drive back and forth and then turn around and fish, I think a lot of times those fish are just spooked by the prop wash,” he said. “A lot people say ‘It’s 10 feet here,’ or ‘It’s 20 feet here,’ but I use my boat for a reference and tell people ‘From the transom to the bow, it’s 21 feet. It’s not that far.’

“They say, ‘Well, I never thought about it like that. It’s a mistaken idea that in 20 feet of water, the fish can’t hear anything. If you’ve ever done any snorkeling or SCUBA diving, it’s amazing how loud an outboard motor is under water.”

Tools for tempting

“I always like to throw some kind of moving bait to catch the active fish,” Johnston said of his creek ditch game plan. “Once you catch those active fish, you can slow down and focus on those key areas.”

Football head jigs fitted with creature baits or big worms are a good bet for covering water and finding active fish or those stumps they like; however, Johnston finds that this bait tends to catch on the cover too much. So, once he’s found something he wants to target, he’ll break out a more narrow flipping or casting jig to pepper the area.

For fishing jigs or Texas-rigged baits through ditch areas with little to no wood, consider Swindle’s strategy: “It’s all about slow and steady, but one thing you can do if you don’t have a lot of structure in a ditch is throwing across it or pulling it uphill. Instead of trying to get in the ditch and throw down it, throw across it and pull your bait back up. That keeps you in contact with the ditch.”

Other productive creek presentations:

Crankbaits: Depending on depth, you’ll want a variety of shallow to medium runners, but Johnston calls squarebills his fall staple for wood-strewn creek ditches. He likes a Strike King KVD 2.5 for 3-7 feet and a KVD 1.5 for shallower spots.

Spinnerbaits: If the fish come up schooling on bait, burning the big, flashy profile just under the surface creates a convincing image. For deeper work, Lane adds a crimp-on weight to his spinnerbait’s arm so he can slow roll it through the ditch.

Swim jigs: Elite pro Greg Hackney rigs his Strike King Hack Attack Heavy Cover Swim Jig with a 3.75-inch Strike King Rage Swimmer and crawls it through the ditch to pick off the fish that may want a slimmer profile along the bottom.

About David A. Brown 142 Articles
A full-time freelance writer specializing in sport fishing, David A. Brown splits his time between journalism and marketing communications.

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