By John Japuntich AKA Sumtershoaliefan
Wading the shoals and fishing for black bass can be one of the most enjoyable and productive methods of river fishing. Whether your quarry is redeye bass, shoal bass, spotted bass, smallmouth bass or even largemouth bass, wading the shoals at certain times of the year can yield big results. Of course, like any other art form, it must be done carefully. Before an angler just jumps right into the shoals, there are several things that should be considered beforehand. Some of the things that bear discussion are safety, equipment, moving through the shoals, tackle and tactics. These may sound like basic items but when looked at closely, these things are essential to a productive outing.
Like any other river outing, safety is the most important aspect of wading the shoals. River shoals can be a dangerous place and there are some basic things that should be done to ensure an enjoyable and safe trip. There’s no worse way to ruin an otherwise great day of fishing than to have someone get injured or worse. The most important part of having a safe wading trip is planning. Plan to go with someone if at all possible. It’s always safer to have 2 people fishing together, no matter what the circumstances. If you can’t find anyone to go with, make sure someone knows exactly where you’re going and what time to expect you back. Also, take your cellphone with you if you’re alone. Even if you can’t get a strong enough signal to make a call, you can usually get enough signal to send a text message. Make sure you carry enough water with you to last longer than you plan to stay. Just in case something happens and you have to stay longer than anticipated. Having a little extra food is usually a good idea as well. Of course you can’t carry a lot, as you’re likely to be carrying everything in a backpack, but trail mix is light and packs a lot of calories. A small first aid kit and a shirt in a dry bag is a good idea as well, especially if you’re alone.
There’s nothing worse than getting out in the middle of nowhere and discover that you don’t have the right equipment to facilitate success. That’s true no matter what you’re doing. For wading the shoals there’s some basic equipment that are must haves. The first one is a good pair of wading shoes. Felt bottomed wading boots are the best option for wading in granite type shoals. They will grip on slippery rocks better than any other type of tread. If you’re wading in anything else, you’re putting your health at risk. If you’re wading in the winter or spring and the water temp is less than 60 degrees or so, you’ll probably want some waders. If you’re using anything other than neoprene waders, you’ll definitely want a belt to keep water out if you fall. You’ll also want to make sure you are wearing a life vest if you’re wearing waders and frankly it’s a good idea even if you’re not wearing waders. Of course don’t forget your polarized sun glasses. They’re essential to seeing through the water for safe wading. If you want some photos of your wading adventure, a waterproof camera is a must. Olympus and Pentax both make good waterproof cameras.
The physical act of moving through the shoals bears some discussion as it is a key piece to the art of wading. Again, safely moving through the shoals is paramount and the simplest part of staying safe is going slow. Don’t get in a big hurry, those fish will still be there waiting for you. Make sure you look where you’re going. Sounds simple but it’s easy to keep walking while you’re reeling or casting. Don’t do it! That’s the easiest way to bust your butt. Taking your time means coming to a complete stop before you cast and complete your cast before you move. Be careful when walking on exposed rock. Exposed rock can be deceptively slick and if you fall you’re going to hit hard. This is one of the most dangerous aspects of wading because if you fall and hit your head and land in the water you could easily drown. If you fall while in knee deep water you’re much less likely to hurt yourself by sheer impact. For this reason it’s generally a good idea to avoid rock hopping. That being the practice of jumping from rock to rock. Very dangerous and not recommended, especially if you’re by yourself. While your moving though the shoals, the position of your feet is important. Always try to keep your feet pointed in the same direction. If they’re pointed in different directions you can easily loose your balance and fall. It’s usually easier to move upstream but that’s not always possible. Be careful when moving cross current. Make sure your feet are set before you put your weight on them while moving cross current and make sure your feet stay pointed in the same direction. If you do fall in and the current takes you downstream, stay calm and don’t fight it. Try to keep your feet pointed downstream while the current takes you and just wait to you get to calmer or shallower water. If you’re wearing waders and fall in and they fill up, don’t panic as they will not pull you under. Water is neutrally buoyant. The only problem you might have is actually getting out of the water. Some people use a wading staff while wading but that is usually used for avoiding deep holes and can be useful but often just gets in the way. If you do step in a deep hole your feelings are likely the only thing that will be hurt.
Of course, no wading trip is worth while without the right tackle. With most wading trips, you’ll be relegated to only one rod. Anymore than one and you’re asking for a broke rod. As far as which rod to take, depends on what you have and what you’re comfortable with. The cheapest rod you have that will get the job done effectively is usually the best bet. If you take your best rod, you’re just asking for heart ache. Don’t take a reel that you wouldn’t mind dunking in the water 3-4 times. Now for the good part, lure selection. You’ll be very limited to how many lures you can take as you can only take what you can carry. Take 2 of several of your favorite reaction baits and topwater baits. A good selection would be buzzbaits, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, again 2 of each. Also take your go-to soft plastic baits, about 2 different types is usually enough. A couple of jigs might be good as well for dragging bottom. During the early Spring, hard jerkbaits can be deadly worked in the shoals.
Let’s put it all together now and discuss the best methods for attacking the shoals. Your approach to attacking the shoals should vary depending on what bait you are using. If you’re fishing soft plastics or jigs, they are usually fished best by casting upstream and then fishing them back to you. With that in mind, your best approach would be to wade upstream, but going side to side along the way. In other words, fish the pool in front of you first, then walk cross current until there is another pool in front of you and then fish it. Keep doing this until you reach the other side of the river, then wade upstream til you come to another pool, then work your way back to the other side of the river and then repeat. As you can see, this method is slow and methodical and a great way to pick apart the shoals. Of course, soft plastics can be fished cross current as well but this method is best reserved for those holes that you are unable to get directly downstream from. Most reaction baits like spinnerbaits and crankbaits, as well as most topwater baits like buzzbaits and chuggers are best worked cross current. Therefore, the best way to attack the shoals is to move down the middle and cast to both sides of the river as you wade up the middle. If you’re fishing really wide shoals you may have to use a zigzag pattern as you work your way up. A buzzbait fished in this fashion can be deadly in the shoals. As you can see this method is much faster and you can cover a lot more area quicker than fishing with soft plastics or jigs. If you’re fishing a jerkbait, they can be fished cross current as well, but often are best fished against the current. In other words, throw them downstream and work them against the current back to you. This can be especially effective if the fish are suspended in the deeper pools. Now that we’ve discussed how to properly fish the above baits in the shoals, don’t hesitate to break all the rules and make crazy casts with the wrong baits. For example, many times there will be a good looking spot that you can only hit by throwing directly upstream, but all you have on is a buzzbait. Don’t hesitate, break the rules, the fish won’t care if they’re hungry! It’s often effective to wade up the shoals with soft plastics and then wade back down the same shoals with a reaction bait or vice versa. The last tactic we’ll discuss is when to fish the shoals. Of course there are usually fish in the shoals year round but bass like smallmouth and shoal bass, migrate to the shoals during the pre-spawn and spawn. When the water temps start getting around 60 degrees, look for the smallies and shoalies to be in the shoals. Of course, remember that the bigger fish will get to the shoals earlier.
So far we’ve only discussed wading only trips, but often times while kayak fishing there are ample opportunities for some good wading. Using the afore mentioned tactics will be helpful but there are other tactics you can use as well. With your kayak you will have access to shoals that would be inaccessable if you were on foot. You can use your yak as a means to float through the deeper pools and then get out and wade like you normally would, only you can bring your yak with you. Just use a rope to drag it behind you. Makes a great floating tackle box and you can have multiple rods as well. A lot of people use their yaks and a means of getting to the shoals and don’t really fish out of their boats at all. There’s plenty of rivers where that can be an effective tactic.
Wading the shoals can be an effective and enjoyable way to catch black bass. From seeing the spider lillies blooming to hearing the turkeys gobbling, the experience of being in mother nature’s splendor is alone worth the effort. Just remember, plan your trips for safety and take your time while wading in the shoals and you will be blessed with many years of wading the shoals and catching tons of great fish.