If the Mississippi River is the main artery through the heart of southwest Wisconsin’s bluff country, the myriad of interwoven backwater channels are the capillaries. Baitfish follow the flow deep into the shallow headwaters where dense stands of reeds and wild river rice form a perfect habitat for largemouth and smallmouth bass.
Jeremiah Burish, director of sales for the La Crosse, Wisconsin visitor’s bureau, calls this bass haven his backyard. Since the upper Mississippi is my backyard, too, I was stoked when Burish, who is also a successful tournament angler, invited me to explore the backwaters around our hometown.
From the moment we launched at Goose Island Campground and paddled into the Mississippi River, I hammered Jeremiah for tips as he hammered a bass on almost every other cast. Here are his seven keys for catching backwater bass.
7 Tips for Catching Backwater Largemouth Bass:
During flood season, shallow backwaters swell with weeds. In spring and fall, high water provides access across a wider section of the flood plain. Areas supporting a healthy field of rice are often only six to eight inches deep with reeds and stalks growing head high.
The key is to find a small opening within the shallow rice field. Check each opening in the rice for subtle movement on the surface. Lob cast a soft-bodied frog into the back edge of the opening and walk the dog. Bass can detect pauses in the commotion. Burish also throws a Texas-rigged creature bait with a 1/2-ounce weight into the thick vegetation. He uses a yo-yo action to lightly finesse bass hiding in timber lay downs. In larger openings, Burish likes walking topwater baits as well as slow retrieve with a swim jig or spinner bait.
For top-water fishing, Burish uses 20#-30# braided line on a medium-light action rod to toss a variety of walking baits (spooks and chug bugs) as well as swim jigs and spinner baits. A half-ounce, Texas-rigged creature bait often works in thick vegetation, too. Lighter 10-pound fluorocarbon line lets Burish lightly finesse bass near timber lay-downs. He gets better action at the end of long casts when using a Texas-rigged worm-style baits.
Standup fishing makes it easier to spot openings in the grass and cast over the reeds. An elevated seat puts the angler higher, while a flat, stable hull makes it easier to stand and fish. Burish says standing also provides a better range of casting motion to pitch and lob baits with greater accuracy. A shorter waterline and light-weight kayak makes it possible to maneuver through tight spaces.
To push through shallow water and secure the boat quickly, Burish uses a 12-foot stakeout pole with a removable four-foot center section, enabling him to more easily use the shorter eight-foot section to maneuver through the shallows and thicker weeds. Burish pushes his stakeout pole down through a forward or aft scupper hole to keep the kayak’s bow pointing in the direction of his target area.
Burish prefers to not use when fishing the shallows so he can keep the kayak’s weight down and not have the transducer hang up on weeds or the bottom. Keeping the kayak uncluttered and as light as practical are key to working through the shallow, backwater weeds and reeds.
Burish attached nine rod holder tubes to a 24-quart milk crate he keeps behind the seat for easy access. Three more rod holders are attached to his kayak’s gear tracks with one strategically positioned forward of the seat for easy stowing while unhooking and measuring his catch.
For soft-bodied frogs, Burish uses 50-pound braided line because it floats and doesn’t stretch. The heavy braid also allows him to muscle a big fish out of the grass. When he’s throwing light finesse lures, Burish uses 15-pound fluorocarbon, which sinks faster, to work the bottom.
Soft-bodied frogs are perfect for weed-choked potholes. Burish likes a bluegill color, he chooses a darker frog in duckweed and on overcast days. He goes with brighter patterns when the sun is out. Burish will also use swim jigs with big skirts and bristle weed protectors. In open water, he throws a walk-the-dog topwater lure.
Rods and Reel
Burish says, “A longer, heavy-action rod is ideal for pitching heavyweights through thick mats and horsing bass out of the jungle.” Burish prefers a seven-foot, six-inch rod for reaching over the grass and a shorter six-foot, three-inch rod for pointing downward and working a topwater lure. He likes the lower range of high-speed reels with a 7.3:1 gear ratio. “A faster reel gets the fish to the boat faster,” he explains.
Welcome to the jungle, we take it day by day. | Photo: Tom Watson