By David A. Brown
Special to BassFan
Water fluctuation — it’s nothing new, but when big rains bring extraordinarily high water, the surplus brings a mix of opportunity and consideration. There may be no better source for this than FLW Tour pro Terry Bolton, who recently earned his first tour-level win with a massive four-day total of 91 pounds, 3 ounces plucked from a severely swollen Sam Rayburn Reservoir.
With the Angelina River impoundment pushing record level — approximately 10 feet above normal pool of 164.40 feet — boats could not pass under the Highway 147 bridge crossing the lake’s upper end. Water snuck far into the shoreline brush and hardwoods; it overtook lakefront property lines and brought a lot of typically unfishable areas well into reach.
En route to sacking up the biggest aggregate catch of his career, Bolton found several truths reinforced by what Rayburn delivered. This insight and awareness certainly helped spur his victory, but it also presents wisdom points that’ll guide anyone facing extreme high water conditions.
First off, Bolton knew from experience that he’d fare best by taking the inside lane; specifically, that space between the inner grass line and the old bank line. Here, the fish utilize particular areas to ambush their meals.
“I knew when the water got high that those fish would utilize that area as another feeding zone,” Bolton said. “Typically, they’re on those hard areas — clay, sand. The bait get up there between the buck brush or tree line and the hydrilla line and the fish use those areas to feed.”
Notably, the same scenario played out in 2015, when Texas pro Ray Hansleman swept the FLW Series Southwestern Division, which concluded on Lake Texoma. That year, the sprawling Red River reservoir straddling the Texas/Oklahoma border stood several feet above normal and Hanselman did most of his damage within narrow lanes between the inner grass edge and the hard line.
Bolton finds this inside area produces best in the early morning and then declines as the sun’s increasing altitude pushes the fish out to deeper water. While the fish are in that inner zone, he’ll hit them with a mix of Rapala DT 6, 10, 14 and 16 crankbaits, along with spinnerbaits. If the reaction bite wanes, he’ll follow up with a spinnerbait or a Carolina-rigged lizard or brush hog.
During spawning times, fish may take advantage of newly-accessible areas, particularly those with lots of fortifying cover.
“Typically, I like to sit in the grass and throw into the bare areas,” Bolton said. “I like to sit roughly 10-20 feet into that grass line and I want to bring my bait across that bare area and into the edge of the grass. The fish can be set up anywhere from that bare, hard area to the edge of the grass line and looking toward the bank.”
When increasing sunlight pushes fish out to deeper water, Bolton repositions so he can work the grass line’s outer edge. With depths of anywhere from 10 to 25 feet, he looks for points, cuts or any irregularity that may attract fish.
“Usually, I’ll go with a deeper-running crankbait like a DT 14 or 16 or a bigger spinnerbait; a 3/4- to 1-ounce,” Bolton said. “I use whatever will most effectively cover that zone.”
Essential here, Bolton said, is paying attention to your habitat changes. Remember, extreme high water takes fish outside the norm, so this outer edge can be less predictable than the inside stuff.
“The biggest thing is figuring out the depth of the grass and just being able to hit the tops of it,” Bolton said. “You don’t want to bury up in it because if you’re wadding your bait up in the grass, you’re not going to get any bites. So you want to be able to stay just above that grass and barely making contact with it.
“Pay attention to your depths when you get a bite and a lot of times, that will tell you if those fish are sitting on the outer edge or if they’re sitting kind of in the middle of that grass. There’s not always an exact science.”
> Too much, too soon: Rising water brings fish to the bank — usually. But, as Bolton notes, sudden extreme level changes may impart less attraction than you may think.
“When you get really fast rises of water, they don’t just run up there,” he said. “It’s almost like the fish say ‘Hey, that’s not supposed to be there; it almost like the fish know it’s not safe to be up that far. It’s the slow, gradual rises that give the more long-term comfort.”
During spawning times, fish may take advantage of newly-accessible areas, particularly those with lots of fortifying cover. Here again, if that water comes up too fast, the fish know their newly availed bedding zone could just as quickly go bone dry if the irregular water falls out.
Anglers must be on the lookout for metal posts, chairs, gazebos and other objects that might be under the surface during high-water events.
> Changes unseen: Realize that the high water and subsequent clarity issues will often stunt, if not completely block grass growth. Texas pro and Rayburn guide Stephen Johnston points out that, when Rayburn finally starts to drain, all the muddy water in the Angelina and Attoyac arms will make its way into the main lake. This heavy turbidity will likely bear negative impacts on grass growth by screening out the necessary sunlight.
> Brawl in the fall: “I’ve found the best time to fish in a flood is when it starts to fall, because it funnels those fish and they set up in those outer bushes," Johnston said. "They get in the centers of those bushes to feed as the water comes out of those woods. They use it more as an ambush point.”
Such scenarios set up much like an outgoing tide. From the California Delta to the Potomac River, falling water finds bass chewing like crazy. In both scenarios, the key is finding the focal points. This is less specific along broad shorelines with endless cover, but take note of well-defined backwaters, tiny creeks and drains where fish follow clear travel lanes.
The fish that were exploring those inner sanctums will reposition to the outer edges to pick off departing forage. Once the outgoing water — whether tidal or receding floods —slows its momentum, the first prominent cover area adjacent to these outflows will be your target zones. Maybe it’s a big hyacinth matt, a stand of hay grass or even a stump field; look for fish to treat this cover as their transition area.
> Navigational safety: Bolton’s advice rings true anytime high water allows you to take your boat where boats don’t normally go.
“When you’re fishing flooded areas and people’s yards, there could be metal posts, chairs, gazebos – a lot of things could be under water. You have to keep one eye in front of you because nobody wants to troll over a T-bar fence post. Believe me, I’ve done it. So take your time.
“Also, slow down when running in open water. Remember, there’s a lot of debris floating and you may come off a wave and suddenly there’s a log in front of you. You won’t have time to react if you’re running (at top speed), so just slow down maybe 15 mph.”
Similar to tidal fluctuations, high water affords rare access to lots of typically inaccessible areas, but pay attention to changing conditions, lest you find yourself trapped by a closing door that won’t reopen anytime soon.
No doubt, high water brings a significant load of considerations with the possibility of some pretty serious hazards. However, the potential reward justifies the carefully calculated risk.