March 22, 2018
By David Brown
Constant, steady, dependable, changeable. You know the drill: pick the word that doesn't belong. When it comes to fishing bridges, however, all those adjectives apply.
According to savvy pro Mike Iaconelli, these manmade structures linking one land mass with another typically are reliable, but often changeable in their conditions. Tapping their potential can demand an open mind and an array of presentations.
During a recent outing, the 2003 Bassmaster Classic champion pointed out the low creek channel bridges on the reservoir we were fishing and shared his thoughts on the appeal of these fish magnets.
"I approach a bridge the same way I consider other types of structure and cover, whether a flat, creek channel, or lily pad field," the Bassmaster Elite pro says. "I look for differences things that stand out and might be attractive to bass, and what characteristics are liable to change."
Scanning the bridge before us, he began to calculate the path of the creek channel beneath the structure and where breaklines indicated sharper drops. He also sought to identify key elements of this substantial structure from a bass' perspective. "I consider its pilings," he says, "which are key vertical components. On this bridge, most are round and concrete, but in the center there are a couple of metal ones. Such variation can affect bass location.
"Note overhanging trees, brushpiles, or construction debris near the pilings, or a drain pipe flowing near the bridge. And don't overlook the sun's angle and intensity. No matter how large or modest the structure, it will project a shadow on either side once the sun gets high."
John Murray, a Bassmaster Elite pro formerly from Arizona before relocating to Tennessee, notes that bass may treat a prominent shade line like a hard edge; a boundary from which to ambush preyfish. "Bass may relate to that shadow line as much as to pilings or rocky banks," he says.
Western pro Matt Newman, who also owns the iRods rod company, says he typically starts by fishing bridges on the shady sides of shallower pilings. He also looks for pilings that have extra support beams below the surface. And he may time his visits to make sure a bridge's most promising sections are in the shade, depending on sun angle and bridge shape.
"Bridges produce sharp shade lines that extend below the surface, so you have to extrapolate where the shade may extend into deeper water, depending on water clarity," Newman says. "Mid-morning can be great because bass may be herded into a small area, making them more competitive and easier to target."
Go With the Flow
FLW Tour pro Dennis Tietje knows that while bridges can hold bass at any time of year, their value typically increases in colder periods. "Typically, baitfish such as shad start balling up in fall and remain tightly grouped into early spring," he says. "Bridges serve as pinch points so schools of baitfish that head up creeks in the fall get funneled through a tight area. If there's much flow, the pilings create a current break and bass position on the downcurrent side to ambush their prey as they pass.
"In lakes and reservoirs, current direction is consistent, but in tidal waters, like back home in Louisiana, that changes twice a day. Bass may be on the south side of the bridge in the morning, and on the north side in the afternoon. Paying attention to the tide schedule and current flow is critical there."
Other important bridge features include:
Jutouts: Mississippi angler Todd Witt spends plenty of time working pilings, but he's also fond of the riprap embankments bolstering bridge causeways. Along this rocky habitat, he looks for irregularities; specifically jutouts created by rock slides. A few chunks sticking out farther offer natural ambush points that bass use to intercept shad moving along the edges.
Corners: Keith Combs, Bassmaster Elite pro from Texas, pays particular attention to where a riprap shoreline comes to a point and turns toward the bridge pilings. Another corner exists where the riprap meets the natural bottom. Both, Combs says, direct baitfish movements and thereby attract opportunistic bass.
Drains: The scour holes formed by storm drains or culverts that run under a bridge causeway offer depth changes that bass like, since they create a channel as they flow in. And when water's flowing, its concentrated current and the food that may be flushed down it make it a key spot.
Iaconelli describes his bridge presentation strategy as a "one-two punch." Power-fishing comes first as he seeks the bigger and more aggressive fish that occasionally inhabit bridges. When the action wanes, he sweeps through with finesse rigs to tempt a few extra bites.
"For power-fishing, a crankbait, jerkbait, and spinnerbait are my top choices," he says. "I fish them on all the key areas, but before I leave, I grab a spinning rod and fish a shakyhead worm, a wacky rig, and a finesse swimbait."
Other bridge tactics include:
Cover the Angles: FLW Tour pro Cody Meyer is a fan of drop-shot rigs, but he notes that complacency can cause you to miss opportunities. To maximize his bridge efforts, the California angler varies his presentations to give the fish multiple looks. Rigging a Strike King KVD Dream Shot, Meyer starts by making a long cast past a piling, then letting the rig pendulum down on a semi-slack line through the water column to reach suspended bass. Varying his cast length enables him to probe a range of depths as his bait passes along the pilings.
He also makes a pitching presentation to the piling corners, particularly the downcurrent points where bass hold to attack passing prey. For his final look, he moves in tight and makes a vertical drop right along the piling. Often his lure gets nailed on the way down, but he also fishes it on the bottom, shaking the lure in place before moving on.
Happy Hangups: Murray leverages bridge current to create a novel look with his drop-shot. Casting across a piling's upcurrent side, he intentionally hangs the rig on the piling's uneven surface and drifts back just enough to keep his rig pinned on the algae-laden surface where it resembles a feeding baitfish.
For this trick, he favors a braid mainline and concentrates on boat control. A combination of skillful trolling motor work and the occasional push-off keeps him in position to maintain the right angle for his drop-shot ruse, as well as the ability to quickly pull a fish away from the structure before it can cut back across the angled column.
Work the Wiggle: When Elite pro Brent Ehrler tries to get suspended bass to bite, he has great faith in the workhorse of finesse fishing a wacky rig. He's partial to a 5-inch green pumpkin Senko, but if the fish play hard-to-get, he shifts gears and rigs the slender Pro Senko on a Boss Shaky Head. A 1/8-ounce head works for depths to 15 feet, while a 1/4-ouncer gets the call for deeper spots.
Up and Down: If bass around bridge pilings snub a drop-shot rig and wacky worm, Meyer shows them something they don't often see. He rigs a Strike King Structure Bug or Swimming Shiner on an Owner Jig Rig comprised of a 3/0 EWG hook linked to a free-swinging 3/16-ounce streamlined weight.
He makes a short cast to the piling and lets the weight pull the lure along the face. If it falls untouched, he briefly works the rig along the bottom near the base of the piling. This flexible rig allows the lure and hook to stand horizontally, unlike the more vertical profile of a jig or shaky head.
Target Shooting: On the jutouts Witt seeks, or any other noticeable targets such as construction rubble, brush, logs, or wads of grass washed against riprap or shallow pilings, pitching jigs or Texas-rigged plastics sometimes earns another bite or two.
Reaction Faction: Amid your bridge crankbait selection, don't overlook lipless baits. Especially in fall, FLW Tour pro Casey Martin knows that a Rat-L-Trap can work wonders when traced along pilings and in the gaps where current seams form. These sinking lures work just below the surface and down into bridge holes.
Flash & Dazzle: Western pro Ken Mah likes a 21/2 - to 3-ounce Blade Runner spoon tied to 20-pound fluorocarbon and fished on a 7.5-foot rod with a high-speed reel. "I drop the spoon on a semi-slack line and pay attention as it falls because the biggest fish usually bite first on these big lures," he says. "It's an aggressive spooning technique as I start with long, upward sweeps of my rod until I figure out how they're reacting to it."
Surface Smackdown: Mah adds that he may also sling a large topwater lure around the pilings because a bridge's vertical elements create a natural path for bass to shoot up for a topside offering. "Bass feel comfortable coming up from deep water along a vertical piling," he says. "Sometimes I start fishing a bridge with a surface lure before trying a variety of vertical presentations.
"Bass on bridges can get accustomed to lures dropping toward them and become lure-shy. Big ones are likely to feed vertically along the supports, cables, or pillars, especially in the shade."
Options for engaging bridge bass are many and the mix of effective presentations can vary from day to day. Take note of when and where bites occur and you may be able to define a pattern that's repeatable all along that bridge and others as well. Finally, some low-hanging bridges demand an exit strategy so you can set hooks without breaking a rod, then extricate bass from around rock or wood cover. Consider casting and retrieve angles to stay on the safe side while also working lures to tempt resident bass or those moving through the system.