Mississippi River Bass

When any conversation by anglers turns to bass fishing, a few locations are sure to be mentioned. Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn are legends of the past, and the St. John’s River and Okeechobee make the list every time. Lake Shasta and Mexico’s Guerro also get their share of the comments. But how many times have you heard the Mississippi River come up?

Among bass fisheries, the Mighty Mississippi is mostly overlooked, and underrated. Only recently has the bass fishing potential there been realized. But even though anglers are now starting to take advantage of this resource, fishing the big river can be very tricky.

Do not let the nickname “The Big Muddy” influence your perception of this river. Just north of St. Louis is the confluence of both the Missouri and Illinois rivers. The Missouri resembles chocolate milk and the Illinois is always dingy, but not always. At any rate, it’s from this point south that bass fishing can be difficult. However, going north from the Alton, Ill. Lock & Dam, the water conditions improve dramatically. Now, a whole new vocabulary comes into play with words like wing dam, oxbow, channel marker, feeder creek, eddy, slough and sandbar. The biggest factor in fishing a river this large, though, is navigation.

There are rules for movement on this water that must be obeyed. A tugboat pushing 300 feet of barges is very unforgiving to an 18-foot bass boat. But once you’re aware of the safety rules and know how to navigate this river, finding bass should not be hard. Both largemouths and smallmouths flourish in the mid- to upper Mississippi. And 5- and 6-pound largemouths can be found as far north as Burlington, Iowa. Lunker smallmouths live from there to the north. The Mississippi River is also widely known as a walleye fishery because of the clear water of the streams and creeks that feed this river. However, some of these tributaries hold some great bass fishing as well.

Fishing structure in this river is both fun and rewarding. The interesting part is that the structure constantly changes. High water can remove or create a sandbar in a matter of days and brush piles and logjams can appear virtually overnight. Unlike the stationary structure of impoundments, the river’s characteristics are in a state of continuous flux and hot spots will come and go. Finding new areas that hold bass is an ongoing process.

Quite often, the mouths of feeder creeks will become clogged with logs and brush. It’s a bothersome task to clean out a channel for your boat, but it’s very often worth the trouble. The majority of these creeks hold bass, and most can be easily navigated using bass boats. Getting into the creek will likely be the greatest challenge.

Bait choice will differ between the river channel and the creeks. In the channel, downsizing is the key for largemouths in spring. Fluctuating water levels keeps a variety of small food sources available that time of year. The 4-inch worms are a good bet, but Carolina rigs or split-shot systems work best so your plastic baits can be held up off the muddy silt bottom.

Small, single spinnerbaits are also great early-season lures in this river. Fishing treetops and blowdowns with spinnerbaits will be productive. The smaller spinnerbaits with willow-leaf blades also make great drop baits along the river’s brushy bluffs.

Because of soil conservation efforts in states like Missouri, Iowa and Illinois, the tributaries that feed the big river from the east and west have improved the water conditions. This area is almost totally agricultural, and the recent popularity of no-till planting has made a significant change in the number of tons of dirt that eventually end up in the river system. This has helped clear the water, thus improving the living conditions for the bass.

The improvements that have been made in the streams have also helped increase the spawning rate for bass. Each year that conditions get better, fingerling counts go up. And since the Great Flood of 1993, overall bass habitat has recovered and even improved. The flood significantly changed the river, and mostly for the better.

As autumn comes to the river, lure selection changes and larger crankbaits and tandem-spins can be productive. Use 8-inch worms around logs and stumps. Presentation can also be quickened. These bass are hungry and aggressive as they store up fat for the cold winter months. They also tend to concentrate in some areas, and it isn’t uncommon in October to catch half a dozen bass off one root wad.

Access to the river is relatively easy. Public boat ramps are located at almost every lock and dam and in most river towns. Be sure to check the regulations and limits for the state from which you plan to launch your boat from. Those are the rules that you will be governed by. Conservation officers who work the Mississippi are usually very helpful and are there to serve you, not harass you.

Because of widely distributed conservation efforts both on land and water here, America’s largest flowing water-river system has developed into a virtually untapped bass-fishing resource. Known for its southern catfish, northern walleyes and commercial fishing, the big river holds bass in catchable numbers and of ones that are trophy size.

Unlike impoundments, the conditions of this river change frequently. The security of having a honey hole can be short-lived on the Mississippi. What this long water does offer is an incredibly diverse bass fishery that is uncrowded and underfished. My advice is to come and enjoy America’s most untapped bass resource—the Mississippi River.