By David A. Brown
Special to BassFan
We hear of anglers fishing “shell bars” and we tend to envision summer ledge fishing on TVA powerhouses like Kentucky Lake, Guntersville or Chickamauga. All good examples, for sure, but that’s not the only shell game. In fact, Bassmaster Elite Series pro Terry Scroggins regularly puts the whoopin' on Florida largemouth over shell bars not much deeper than a rod length.
Depths in his St. Johns River home waters may be considerably different than where he’d hunt those Tennessee River shell bars, but the attractions are all the same: current breaks and feeding opportunities. With the exception of the spawn, Scroggins knows the shell bars can be productive across the calendar. If he had to pin down a prime period, he'd go with September through February.
“During July and August, the shrimp come down the river from the ocean, so that triggers the feeding frenzy with bass laying around those shell bars and ambushing shrimp as they come by,” Scroggins said. “That’s where it gets started, but late fall you still have a lot of threadfin shad in the river, so the fish stay out on the shell bars and school up on that bait.
“Then, as you go into the winter and the water temperature cools off, the fish just stay out there on the breaks until it’s time to spawn.”
Once the fish reach pre-spawn readiness, they’ll move from the offshore breaks to progressively shallower shell bars. And, of course, after the bedding work is done, the reverse course affords the fish just what they need in terms of functional post-spawn habitat before starting those summer patterns once again.
Now, it’s not that Florida’s river bass wouldn’t appreciate other forms of pre- and post-spawn habitat common throughout the country; it’s simply a matter of using what’s available.
“Bass relate to any kind of hard cover, whether it’s shell, rock, wood or whatever; but on the St. Johns, basically all you got is the dock pilings and shell bars,” Scroggins said. “In a lot of areas there’s no docks, so those shell bars are what they’re going to use for hard cover.”
When and Where
Scroggins said there’s no rhyme or reason to where shell bars occur. He’s marked productive spots on contour breaks, as well as flat river bottom. If you’re new to the area, you just have to cover water and look – same as snooping for sweet spots on those TVA ledges.
Idling and side-imaging the river is how Terry Scroggins locates shell bars, which resemble honeycomb shapes on a graph.
“When you’re side-imaging, anything hard is going to show up brighter, like a light bulb,” Scroggins said of the search for mollusk mounds. “Shell bars actually show up like Honeycomb cereal, like holes in the bottom.
“Since Hurricane Irma (early September) came through, a lot of the shell bars got silted over, so we’ve had to go find new ones. You might see one this year that you didn’t see last year and vice versa. They come and go.”
Location tip: Crabbers set their pots over hard bottom, so use those styrofoam markers as a visual indication of shell bottom below.
Only Tide Will Tell
As Scroggins notes, some bars are better on outgoing tides and some produce better on incoming water. How do you tell the difference? Well, it’s not as random as it may seem.
“You might have shell bars in a cove where the incoming tide won’t hit it; or you might have a bar on the back side of an island where one tide will hit it and one won’t,” Scroggins said. “When the tide’s going one way, a spot may not have much current, but when it turns and goes back the other way, it may have a lot. Some spots are good on both tides.”
Knowing how your spots set up facilitates planning your day around that tide. And don’t sweat it if you don’t find an equal number of spots for both stages; a tidal fishery spreads the love.
“The main thing is to catch them in a feeding frenzy when you have a good current,” Scroggins said. “You need a good current to make them bite good. When the current goes slack, you might still get some bites but they're not going to be as big.
Crab trap buoys, which indicate hard shell bottom, should point you to potential fish magnets.
“Those big fish have small windows and you need to be in the right spot at the right time; so if you side-image a bar and see a lot of big ones on your screen, you want to be there at the prime time when the current’s flowing at its best.”
Notably, this point defines a major difference between a tidal river with shell bars and a river-system reservoir – predictability.
“A TVA lake has a generating schedule when they’re going to pull water and some days they won’t,” Scroggins said. “In a tidal river, it’s going to flow every day; they don’t have someone sitting up there shutting the gate off. You have a tide that’s going to go out for six hours and a tide that’s going to come in for six hours.”
What They Like
Because bottom contact usually yields the biggest bites, Scroggins starts with crankbaits made to hit the bar’s depth. A Bomber BD6 or a 7A are his favorites for rapid-fire casts and persistent presentations.
“I’ll back that up with a lipless bait and I like to hop it on the bottom,” he said. “Instead of just throwing it out there and bringing it back, I’ll let it go all the way to the bottom and yo-yo it back to the boat.
“And if I can’t make them bite (the hard baits), I’ll slow down and throw a Carolina rig. I’ll use a 1-ounce sinker with a 3- or 4-foot leader with a Zoom Finesse Worm. Redbug, junebug and black are good colors.”
And here’s a little trick Scroggins often employs: Hit the bar from multiple angles but also present your bait both downhill (retrieving shallow-to-deep) and uphill (deep-to-shallow).
Now, take these principles to, say, a Pickwick Lake, the Delaware River, Potomac River or Lake Dardanelle and you’ll find similar shallow shell bar appeal, even if more traditional pre- and post-spawn habitat also exists. The bottom line is that bass will make use of available structure and given the ever-changing and expanding nature of natural shell bars, the fish never lack for usable habitat.