I’d like to share some of the strategies I employ when fishing ditches, the trick is where to begin. Do we begin by tracking the weather? Or, making assessments on the condition of the water? These are both good places to start, as to making our initial plan of attack. But, let’s start with what time of the year it is…the Seasons dictate specific weather patterns, which in turn have an affect on the condition of the water; for example, in the Spring (in my part of the country) due to snow and ice runoff, the ditches may be high, but because the ground is still frozen the water may not be muddy or turbid. While in the Summer months the ditches water level are dependent on rain (which will cause the water to be muddy or cloudy) and how much irrigation is required by the farmers…and in the Fall months, the turbidity levels are increased due to the associated winds that can be intense at that time of the year…and the Winter months you may have ice to contend with.
Each season has its own tenets which dictate the type of weather, which will in turn affect the condition of the water. These tenets are what we base our decisions on as to what size lures we’ll use, what colors are more effective, what speed retrieve will work best and, what time of the day is best for planning to attack the ditches.
In the Spring, the fish are slowly but surely becoming more active…ditches with dark bottoms in the Spring are an excellent choice because they warm faster than those with a hard sand or gravel bottom. In Spring, small spoons, beetle spins, small tube baits, and small minnow-type baits work the best, as they allow you to cover a great deal of water and, they can be worked effectively at a moderate to slow retrieve. Late Spring, the fish will start staging up for spawning and baits such as a jig-n-pig, a lizard, plastic worms, medium size minnow baits, silver minnows with grub trailers, a 1/4 oz. spinners with a Colorado blade, and the 1/3 oz. Snagless Sally become much more effective baits.
Early Summer to mid-Summer the baits can slowly increase in size and just about any bait you care to throw will produce fish on a regular basis. As Summer heats up and the water table begins to drop, you’ll have to contend with spawning rough fish which make the bass more tentative in what they’ll take, finesse worms and tube jigs seem to work best at this time.
As we move into Fall, large spinners and large minnow baits are my primary choices, because the bass will be putting on the feed so they can endure the Winter months in their lethargic state. Late Fall until early Winter the spinner baits work the best retrieving at the slowest possible speed and large tube baits cast into the tight pockets and slowly dragged across the bottom.
Where to actually start
That partially depends on the time of day and season, but if the ditch is closed off or isolated from the connecting ditches or feeder creeks it means less. Just for the sake of depiction, let’s say it’s Summer. OK why does the time of day make a difference? The sun’s rays depending on what time of the day will warm specific areas, cast shadows on specific areas, and, basically dictate where in the ditch the fish will move to. So, let’s say we hit the ditch at 10 a.m. on a bright, nearly cloudless day and the air temperature is hovering around 85 degrees…in relation to the sun, first determine where the cast shadows fall; are there any floating or emergent weeds? Where are they located? Where’s the deepest part of the ditch? What structure is available, if any? Are there any overhanging grasses or bushes? Are there any culverts, gates, pumping equipment, etc.? Is there a bridge where the road crosses over? Are there any cutouts?
Every time I hit a ditch, I make mental notes and answer all these questions for myself. I’ll want to make sure if there’s emergent or floating weeds to have a rod rigged and ready to fish that area, with a weightless Texas-rigged worm, or a Moss Boss. If there’s overhanging grasses, a cutout, or culverts I’m going to have a rod rigged with a 3.5" Texas-rigged tube to work those areas. I’ll probably have a rod rigged with a 1/4 oz spinner bait and the color of the bait will be dependent on the condition of the water…if it’s muddy, probably chartreuse and white, if clear then white…this bait will be used as my search bait, just in case the fish aren’t in my primary area of attack.
Believe it or not, all this planning of where to start and what to start with has taken place right at my vehicle, or at least a good distance away from the ditch I plan to fish. Now you’re probably asking yourself, why doesn’t he just go right up to the ditch and start fishing? Well, the reason is that because of the way ditches are generally constructed, the noise we make simply by walking along the shoreline is transmitted into the water and can easily spook the fish. Stealth is critical for ditch fishing success! Walk softly and carry many rods…never stand right on the edge of the ditch, always stand as far back as you’re comfortable with from the water – if you can see the fish, they can also see you. Don’t wear brightly colored clothes, try to blend in with your surroundings as much as possible, that way it’s more difficult for the fish to detect your presence.
Most ditches present a beginning and an end, if you will…for example, where a bridge or road crosses over to where the next cross-over is, or where the ditch intersects another ditch or enters the feeder creek or river system. Pick one end or the other and slowly and methodically work your way down to the end point.
I usually begin with making several long casts parallel to the bank and as tight to the shoreline as possible, because a lot of times the bass will be sitting in cutouts, or under overhanging grasses waiting in ambush for a sunfish…the sunfish like to swim close to the edge of the ditches where they feel more secure and the aggressive bass will readily take a bait that imitates one of these small sunfish.
If there’s a culvert, I usually make it my first area of concentration. Sometimes on extremely bright days, bass will sit right inside the culverts where it’s probably 10 or more degrees cooler that the water exposed to the full sun. Just in front of the opening of the culvert there’s usually a deeper trough cut out from the water flowing from one ditch to another. First, while standing behind the culvert, I cast my baits parallel to the shoreline in the shallowest water on either side of the culvert; then, I cast on the break between the shallow water and the trough; through the trough itself; then, I gingerly walk to the side of the ditch and cast to either side of the culvert; then, I work my baits right past the front of the culvert, making sure to take my time and work it thoroughly; and, finally, depending on the size and accessibility of the opening of the culvert I’ll flip or skip baits as far inside the culvert as possible.
Now we’re on the length of the ditch where for the most part there’s very little discernable structure…but, there is structure there, just very subtle in nature. When fishing subtle structure I use an overlapping fan casting technique, trying to cover as much of the water as possible…this sounds tedious, and it can be, but a lot of times I find fish in areas where I never expected to find them, so I prefer to thoroughly work all possible holding areas.
Now of course, we may have some structure to fish like lay downs, floating vegetation, emergent weeds, pumps, bridge pilings, rip rap, etc. In these areas I always work from the outside in, looking for aggressive fish on the outside first, so as to not spook any other fish that might be tighter to the structure. Even though the most likely side of a lay down for example would be on the down wind, or down current side of the structure, make sure to fish all parts of the structure.
Whenever possible, cast directly into the wind as the majority of the bass will be facing the direction the wind is coming from in anticipation of some forage being pushed their way by the wind. In Fall, the windier it is, for some reason the more aggressive the fish are, but in Summer, the fish are more active to be on the wind-blown structure the furthest away from the wind.
During cold months never overlook the rip rap that cascades down into the water bracing a side from erosion, as the rocks act as heat collectors and warm the surrounding water. In fact, never overlook anything out of the ordinary.
I tell everyone the same thing here, and that is to use the baits you have the most confidence in. I’ve outlined some of the baits that I prefer to use for ditch fishing, but that is not to say that your favorite bait won’t work just as well. When it comes to fishing ditches I like to just take a few bait styles of baits, in a few sizes, but I do take several color variations…no one color works all the time and number of different colors of each is necessary. Of all the locations you could choose to fish, this is the one place where matching the size of the forage is critical.
Fishing ditches isn’t for everyone, but if you’re tired of fishing in crowds, tired of fishing water that a lot of people have fished before you, just like the solitude…then ditch fishing might be right for you.
Never attempt to fish this small bodies of water without bring plenty of PMA along…Positive Mental Attitude. It’s going to take an extraordinary amount of confidence in the beginning, but once you get the hang of what to do, or not do you’ll find a lot of pluses to these little known areas to fish.
Imagine, or picture if you will what your lure is doing under the water on every cast…on every cast, be at the ready…expect the strike, anticipate it…let your confidence guide your analysis of the ditch you chose to fish and your plan of attack on how to fish it.
Take Time to Enjoy Nature
Now that you’ve managed to get away from the crowds, the traffic, the boats, etc., slow down…there’s no reason to rush, check out some of the wild flowers, the birds, and other animals that are inhabitants of the area you’ve chosen to fish. Here in Indiana, it’s not uncommon for me to see deer, kingfishers, great blue herons, sand hill cranes, mink, coyotes, an occasional otter or a beaver, night herons, bluebirds, hawks, swamp mallows, cardinal flowers and the list goes on and on. Perhaps you could bring a camera along to remember your day. But, remember this – if you take trash in, pack it out. If you see trash someone else brought in, go ahead, be a nature lover, pick it up and haul it out.
Interested in other articles by Mark Toth on ditch fishing? Read Finding Hidden Fishing Treasures, Basic Ditch Fishing, and Packing for Mobility. These articles may be found under Bass Fishing Articles, in the Bass Fishing General Tips category.
Mark Toth, The Ditch Fishing Chronicles