July 1, 2013 by Rob Newell
(Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the 2013 July issue of Bass Fishing magazine. To read more compelling articles from Bass Fishing magazine each month, become an FLW subscriber member. If you'd like to sign up for a digital subscription to access articles online, click here).
Call it a bayou, bog or pond. Call it a marsh, swamp or slough. No matter what you call it, there are thousands of acres of backwater wetlands connected to major lakes, rivers and reservoirs that hold shallow-water bass year-round.
Many of those backwaters can be hard to find and even harder to access, but once inside their confines, it can be like fishing a completely different place than the primary fishery it's attached to.
Several Walmart FLW Tour pros - John Cox, David Dudley and Ray Scheide among them - are backwater specialists who are well-versed in the game of finding, assessing and accessing slinky backwaters far off the beaten path. Their knowledge can help lead you to drainages that hardly ever get fished.
When and where
While most backwaters are readily identifiable on maps and easily accessible by boat, the backwaters these pros are most interested in are the ones that are not so obvious.
"Any body of water that fluctuates has backwaters," says Scheide, the 3M Scotch Tape and Peltor Brands pro who hails from Dover, Ark. "This is especially true of rivers and flood-control lakes. When the water comes up 3, 4 or even 10 feet, bass move back into oxbows, tributary creeks or adjoining lakes. When the water drops, bass can get trapped in those places. As long as there is enough water depth, food and spawning habitat for the bass to survive, it can produce a resident population of fish that gets very little pressure."
Scheide considers any backwater that has at least 5 feet of water in it at all times to be fair game, although he prefers areas with 8- to 10-foot depths. Temporary backwaters might be nothing more than the flooded confines of the back end of a small pocket, or they might be creek channels that snake back into a wooded area and only fill during heavy rains.
Cox, a Debary, Fla., resident, has made a fishing career out of being a marsh master. He says the premium time to play backwater blackjack is when lakes are extremely high or extremely low.
"It's pretty simple," Cox says. "High water creates opportunities to access new backwaters and ponds. And low water usually means that somewhere there is an area that's been `cut off' and has not been fished in awhile because people think you can't access it."
Cox has utilized both extremes for top tournament finishes. He is best known for pushing a little aluminum boat through a culvert on the Red River to access the backwater where he won a Walmart FLW Tour event in 2011. But he has also done well in events on the Mississippi River and Lake Okeechobee by accessing backwaters.
One particular Mississippi River event required Cox to idle through thick woods for 45 minutes to reach a pond "out in the middle of nowhere in the flood plains." And at Okeechobee, he once jumped a spoil bar to get back into a place no one had fished in years.
Another situation that often suggests seeking out backwaters is when a tournament is held on a tidal fishery. Dudley, a resident of tidewater Virginia, says he seldom seeks out a backwater plan on reservoirs, but it's a must on tidal fisheries.
Big surprises, small ponds
Backwaters are not always big ponds, oxbows or marshes. For Scheide, fishing backwaters means thinking small.
Burning across a flat, powering through a thick stand of willows and then poling over a gravel bar just to make a dozen casts to a swimming-pool-sized creek-channel bend is Scheide's style.
"I'm not saying I'm going to win a multiple-day tournament out of a place that size," Scheide says. "But give me a dozen places like that on a lake and I'll take my chances."
In fact, Scheide did win the Walmart FLW Tour Walmart Open on Beaver Lake in 2009 by visiting multiple backwaters per day. Beaver Lake had flooded some 7 feet higher than normal, and he essentially shoved his boat into the very back ends of drains, over logjams and into small flooded backwaters far back in the woods.
"I'd work for 30 minutes to get into a tiny pond of water and make a grand total of 10 flips," Scheide says. "But it was worth it. The better largemouths were way back in those places. I had about eight or nine places like that, and to me those are just as much of a backwater as anything else."
Follow the color change
Google Earth is the greatest asset for finding backwaters. The satellite images Google Earth provides are extraordinary, and it's safe to say most pros are utilizing the program's detailed bird's eye images extensively these days.
The primary use of Google Earth in the search for backwaters is to find major - and obvious - ponds or oxbows adjacent to the main body of water. There are other clues to look for, however, such as water-color changes that give away hidden drainage sources.
"Anytime you see a vein of different colored water seeping into the lake, no matter how small, that's a place to investigate," Scheide explains. "Chances are the reason the water is a different color is because it's coming from a different source - some kind of backwater up in the woods. And those little places can be hidden gems."
"That's true even if you're on the water and find a place where the water color is changing," Cox adds. "Some of the better backwaters I've found came from noticing slightly clearer water and then following it until I figured out where it was coming from."
Once a backwater area is located, the best way to investigate it is by getting out of the boat and exploring it on foot. Rules prohibit an angler from leaving a boat during tournament hours, but during practice it's standard operating procedure. All three pros admit that every productive backwater they've ever found was discovered through scouting on foot during practice. If it was private property, they first gained permission to walk it. On systems surrounded by public land, most areas are fair game for foot traffic.
"Getting out of the boat to check things out is a requirement in the backwater game," Cox says. "If you're afraid of snakes, gators, poison ivy, ticks or spiders, this might not be the gig for you."
"I call it Huckleberry Finn fishing," adds Dudley, the Castrol pro. "The first thing I do is walk the bank of the place I'm trying to get to with a rod and reel to see if it's even worth fooling with."
At the tour event he won on Beaver Lake, Scheide says he spent a lot of time with the boat beached on shore and walking in the woods during practice, mostly to avoid blazing a trail into the spot that others might notice. He followed each drainage back into the woods to see if it opened up and was worth entering during the tournament.
"Another thing you'll have to get used to is wading," Dudley adds. "When you're trying to figure out the best way to run across a big flat that's 8 inches deep, trust me, the safest, least expensive way to do it is to hop out of the boat, wade in and find the deepest places to run. Having some kind of stick to poke around with to find the deeper spots is a big help, too."
While wading, some pros will mark the small ditch leading through a flat with stakes to make sure they're utilizing the deepest water available for the run. Of course, running into a backwater from the main lake is usually not a problem. It's getting back out that can be a challenge if there is not enough water in the backwater to get on plane or to idle back out. This is especially true in tidal fisheries.
"When I hike in to check out a backwater, I'm interested in two things," Cox says. "One, does it have fish. Two, is there enough water to get on plane to get out. Usually, they are one and the same: If it's deep enough for fish, it's deep enough to get on plane. If it has both, then I'll start looking for the best way to access it."
Push come to shove
Once you've found a promising backwater, the next challenge is finding a way to get into it. Through the annals of FLW history, there have been tournament wins registered by anglers who have cut their way in with chainsaws (Dudley) or pulled their way in with winches (Cox). Those tactics are no longer legal in FLW rules (see Rules and Tools sidebar below).
Now, accessing backwaters is really a matter of good old-fashion horsepower and elbow grease. The primary underwater obstacles usually are sandbars, flats and silted-in channels that block passage into a backwater creek or slough. The most efficient way to get in is often to trim up and skid over the flats on plane - sometimes over mere inches of water. It's not the kind of thing a novice boater should attempt.
"It comes down to knowing the absolute limits of your boat and motor, right down to the very last yard of a sandbar your boat will make it over," Cox says. "That's why wading a super-shallow flat first is so critical. If you find one or two potholes that are just 5 or 6 inches deeper and can connect them on your run in, it could extend your run by 20 or 30 yards, making the difference between getting in or not."
Distance and bottom composition are the most important factors to consider before deciding to attempt a backwater entry. Pushing through silt is easy, say the pros, who insist it's no sweat to make it through a couple hundred yards of shallow, loose, silty bottom. But sand is a completely different animal. Hard sand will stop your boat firmly and leave you high and dry - figuratively speaking.
"Safety is a huge issue too," Scheide says. "I only blow over bars and flats in open areas that are a straight shot into the backwater. I don't risk it if there are high banks, logs, any kind of pilings or abutments, or tight turns along the path in. The bottom line is if you trim up too high and lose control of the boat in a hazardous area, you could be in big trouble."
As for accessing the smaller drains such as at Beaver, Scheide says that's more about slowly idling, pushing, and plowing through or over logjams, debris mats, bushes, or laydowns. It's more methodical, done by carefully planning out each move and progressing a little at a time, rather than using the moving boat's momentum to scoot through.
Just make sure there's enough room to turn around and power the boat back out of the area. In the end, you can access and fish as many backwater hot spots as you can find, but if you get stuck in the final spot and miss weigh-in, all that hard work will be for naught.
Rules and tools
In 2002, Castrol pro David Dudley won the Ranger M1 Millennium tournament on the Mobile Delta by using chainsaws to cut his way into an oxbow off the Tombigbee River that was blocked by huge fallen trees. It's a tactic to access backwaters that's no longer legal under FLW rules. The clause outlawing it states:
The cutting of trees, bushes and/or logs after the off-limits date and/or the removal of official local, state or federal barricades at any time to make an area more accessible by boat is strictly prohibited and may result in disqualification from the tournament. The use of cables, ropes, chains or any type of block and tackle system to maneuver a boat into fishing waters is strictly prohibited and will result in disqualification from the tournament.
For many years the standard arsenal of tools among the backwater crowd included various saws, clippers, ropes and pull straps.
"Now we're just down to a push pole and a spare prop," 3M Scotch Tape and Peltor Brands pro Ray Scheide says. "If you're running a lot of backwaters at a tournament, I would advise using a `beater' prop that already has plenty of gashes and dings in it. The one I have is a little smaller in pitch, too, to help with getting up and planing out faster. When running backwaters, I'll sacrifice speed for faster planing."
Walmart FLW Tour pro John Cox says the ultimate tool in backwater exploration is a small aluminum boat.
"Something in the 16- to 17-foot range with a 50- to 75-hp engine is perfect," Cox says. "If you run aground, it pushes right off, it poles in inches of water, and there's no gel coat to get damaged by rocky shoals. That size boat is perfect for skirting around in shallow water and poking back into hard-to-reach places."
Though such small boats are still legal in Walmart Bass Fishing League and EverStart Series competition, they are no longer legal in Walmart FLW Tour competition, where minimum size requirements are 18 feet in length for the boat and 150 hp for the motor.
Cox uses a smaller boat for practice to make getting around easier and far less costly should a few groundings, dings and scratches occur.
"When you're scouting backwaters and running around in a foot or 2 of water all day, a small aluminum boat is far more efficient," Cox says. "If you do find something good, then you can bring the big boat to see if you can get in there with it."
Sweat equity swamp
Finding and accessing backwaters can be quite an adventure, but what about the fishing?
Ironically, often the least emphasized aspect of the backwater game is catching bass. Backwaters are a sweat equity affair - all the hard work is done up front. The fishing is the easy part and usually boils down to basic shallow-water tactics such as flipping and spinnerbaiting.
"That's the whole goal of working hard to get in an area like that," Cox says. "The fish have not been pressured. They're usually set up on the most obvious stuff and will eat just about anything. And the deepest you're fishing is maybe 7 or 8 feet. So you don't have to fool with 15 rods and piles of tackle. I usually have a couple flipping sticks, a spinnerbait and maybe a [Z-Man Original] ChatterBait - that's it."
"When I won Beaver, I spent most of the week with just two or three flipping sticks on the deck," adds Scheide. "So many times in backwaters, it's tight-quarters fishing, and that narrows your options quite a bit. In fact, when fishing that way, it helps to take a lot of your tackle out of the boat to lighten it up as much as possible and get it out of the way. When backwater fishing, you want a lighter boat, not a lot of tackle."