Spotted bass are the highlight of a float trip down Mississippi’s Strong River
After his kayak passed over a log, left the current and slowed in a long, still run of the Strong River, Mark Golden realized the opportunity that presented and went into action.
He grabbed his fishing rod, snipped the line and removed the floating Rapala he had tied on, opting instead for a wacky worm rig on a weighted, weedless hook. He paused in the still waters to let the river and its inhabitants settle after his arrival.
Golden cast above the log and allowed the worm to wiggle its way through the fast water and into the calmer pool, using his rod tip to make the lure dance as it fell into the deeper water. Then, he saw what he was hoping to see: a hesitation in the worm’s fall.
Golden tightened up and set the hook.
The fish ran back under the log. Golden started playing it in the gentle current, which carried him 30 yards downstream before he could boat, unhook, admire and release the fish.
It is a spotted bass, a fish that lures fishermen to the Strong River — that, and the peacefulness of a float trip down the river.
Lower part is best
The Strong River has its origin near the Kalem community in Scott County, but the genuine character of the river becomes most notable when it flows across the shallows at D’Lo, just north of the Simpson County town of Mendenhall. Those shallows are a popular swimming area for locals, featured in the Cohen brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Are Thou?
It is at there that the river becomes a navigable waterway for canoeists and lately, even more kayakers. Unless you have been shackled to a prison work gang for the past decade, you know kayaks are the hottest item on the fishing scene.
The number of put-in and take-out points along the river between D’Lo and Georgetown is limited due to most of the adjoining land being privately owned. But with a little planning, a float can be enjoyed, and some nice bass and bream can be brought to the boat, along with spotted bass, as feisty as any fish found in small rivers in the state.
“The float from D’Lo to Merit is very scenic and filled with small river character,” said Judson Wallace of Mendenhall. “It’s a good afternoon float, four to five hours. A day float from D’Lo would be to the Mississippi Highway 28 Bridge, but the take-out there is almost a vertical bank.”
Wallace said that the section of river from Merit to Pinola is different, much slower and deeper. The next take-out is at Georgetown where the Strong enters the Pearl River just south of Highway 28.
“There are some good spotted bass in the upper portion of the river and no doubt in the lower area as well, “Wallace said. “I have more experience in the upper portion of the river where the current is a little faster.”
Wallace uses small spinnerbaits for the 1- to 2-pound spotted bass he catches on the upper Strong. His go-to lure is an 1/8-ounce black/green Beetle Spin on ultralight tackle or a 3/8- ounce version of the same bait with a heavier rod.
“Anglers should target any place where the flow of the river is diverted: around a stump, a log, a fallen tree or a submerged object,” Wallace said. “The bass will be holding in the slack water behind such objects and will dart out to grab a passing meal. Don’t be shy about casting right to the obstruction. The fish may be just inches from it and will strike sometimes as soon as the bait hits the water.”
Wallace, who lives on the river in Simpson County, also wants readers to understand that the Strong River may seem sleepy and calm in its normal state, but it can quickly become perilous and very powerful. His father perished while the river was experiencing a sudden rise.
Spotted bass not rare
While the spotted bass is a river- and stream-dwelling fish, it is also found in many other lakes statewide.
“Spotted bass are common all across Mississippi, both in streams and large reservoirs,” said biologist Tom Holman of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “They are, by all accounts, more aggressive than largemouth in their feeding characteristics. Some biologists have found the spotted bass to be more ‘trout-like’ in their approach to eating. In big water, they favor open water and windswept stump fields, and in streams and creeks, they want moving water.”
Young spots feed on aquatic insects but move up to crustaceans such as crawfish and smaller fishes as they grow. Adults have diets much like large-mouths and will feed on shad and small sunfish. Fishermen on big lakes with good shad populations targeting largemouth bass often catch spotted bass. Lake spots are often larger in size because of the abundant food supply.
Holman said recent studies have discovered several sub-species of spotted bass with varying characteristics. The spots in the Strong River are like those in the Pearl River, which is no surprise since the rivers join.
Golden, from Taylorsville, is a kayak-bound fly fisherman with a penchant for chasing spots in Mississippi’s small. Where water is swift, he will beach his kayak and wade to within casting distance of a promising section of water.
“The fish are facing upstream or toward the current that will bring the food past their lair,” Golden said. “My go-to fly is a Muddler Minnow with a few red threads in the tail. The bigger fly and bigger hook are more apt to hold a bass than smaller popping bugs, which are constantly getting hammered by bream. In the fall, bass bugs will catch spots, but the slow sinker just seems to catch more.
“Portions of the Strong and Leaf rivers have gravel bars that form points underwater. These bars generally indicate faster water shallow and slower water deeper. The bass will tend to hang just below the fastest water in any form of eddy, be it a log or a rock pile. A spot, just as any bass, wants the most meal for the least effort, so they may not strike until the second or third cast. For that reason, it is important to make multiple presentations, progressing from shallow rapids to deeper, flowing water, getting as close to the eddy producing structure as possible.”
Golden carries three rods on each float trip.
“One is a spinning reel spooled with 10-pound fluorocarbon, on a 6-foot, medium-action rod. This is a bit of overkill for smaller bass but just the ticket for a heavier largemouth should you encounter one. Bowfin or grinnel are common where the river gets wide and slow.
“My other two rods are fly rods, one rigged for bass and the other for bream. I have a dream of catching a record-breaking green sunfish. Don’t ask me why, it’s just something I want to do. The current state record is 1.26 pounds.”
Golden doesn’t take expensive lures to the streams.
“The rivers are full of limbs and logs looking to keep your bait,” he said. “For that reason, I go as cheap as possible. There is a bait shop that sells H&H spinnerbaits for $2 each, and I keep a dozen in my box all the time. Beetle Spins are as low as 85 cents at Walmart and will catch fish like crazy. Mepps spinners are deadly on spots but easily hang-up. Putting a curlytail grub on a Road Runner makes it a fine spot bait.”
Golden said that the spots he chases are most always in clear water, and that the fish are easily spooked by careless anglers and approaching floaters in kayaks and inner tubes.
“I’m not complaining about recreational users, but weekends during the summer are poor times to fish, unless that is the only time you have,” he said. “Midweek on a steady level or a very slow rise has always been the best times for me.”
There are alligators on the river, but Golden said they have always shied away from his watercraft. That’s not to say they may not be curious and get close to investigate. Enough people camp on the sandbars that the gators are bound to associate the smell of food with humans.