Fish Water Willow For Early Fall Bass

Shaye Baker | August 26, 2022

Water willow is one of the most common forms of cover found across many of our local lakes, rivers and creeks here in the Southeast. This vegetation is often generically referred to as “grass” by many anglers, but what we’re all collectively calling grass is actually Justicia Americana, in case you’re interested in brushing up on your Latin. But as for me, and I imagine the majority of y’all reading this, this stuff is just plain ol’ good ol’ grass. 

And grass grows and holds big bass.

This vegetation is one of the best types of cover to key in on as summer begins to fade into fall. Since it’s still hot and sunny, the bass love to tuck up in the shade of this stalky and sometimes matted grass. As the bass tuck up into this cover, the food comes to them in the form of migrating shad making their way to the backs of shallow pockets and creeks, as well as bluegill finding what they believe to be protected little sanctuaries to spawn, in the form of openings that occasionally occur where the water willow is sparse. 

So both the late summer spawning bluegill and the early fall migrating shad are coming right to this cover where the bass can easily slip in and out to hunt down a meal. Now, you just have to insert a little something that looks like one of these two types of forage and add your bass plug into the food chain. 

What you’ll want to do as quickly as possible when trying to establish a pattern in grass like this is figure out what the predominant forage is in the area. Hollow-body frogs, swim jigs, swimbaits and flipping baits all work really well at mimicking bluegill. While spinnerbaits, swim jigs, buzzbaits and toads do a good job of imitating shad. And the general rule of thumb is to go with darker baits like black and blue and green pumpkin when targeting fish relating to bluegill and lighter baits like white and chartreuse to mimic shad. 

There are certainly times when both bait types will be present in an area. In these situations, it’s a good idea to mix a little of both bait groups in various colors into your rotation. But what you’ll still find almost every time is that the bass will be keying in on one of the baitfish over the other. So you may get a few bites on a white swim jig for instance, but find that the fish are eating a black-and-blue jig far better still, even though some of both baitfish are in the area. 

Most of the time when fishing water willow in the early fall, a swim jig and a hollow-body frog comprise the most deadly of duos. Add to this combo a punching setup to plunge into any thicker mats that you may occasionally come across, and you have a pretty good offering to present to the bass. You’ll often find this type of vegetation blanketing long stretches of shoreline, so covering water efficiently is key. 

An angler is going to want to have a hollow-body frog tied on when fishing water willow, especially early and late.

A swim jig gives you a great bait to cover water with, without being quite as aggressive as a buzzbait or spinnerbait. So you can still move along at a pretty good pace, but you will have fewer short strikes and missed blowups like you’d see with those bladed baits, especially in hotter water with clear skies. If a summer storm does roll in, that’s when it’s a good idea to move over to a spinnerbait or buzzbait and start paralleling the edge of the grass. The fish loosen up a little bit with the rain and wind, become more aggressive and are more willing to venture out of the grass and chase a bait. 

As you make your way down a line of water willow, you’ll want to keep an eye out for targets, which will become easier and easier to identify the more you fish this type of vegetation. Water willow can be a little overwhelming to fish when there are miles and miles of it lining the shore. But when you get on the trolling motor and get up there alongside the edge of it, you’ll start to see little points, pockets, thin spots, mats, wood and other targets stick out. 

If you pay close attention to where your bites are coming, you can develop a pattern around a set of these targets. For instance, there are times when the little points in the water willow will hold fish better. And you can start to focus on those points while covering the long stretches in between the points a little quicker. You still don’t want to skip the dead stretches entirely, as a big one could be anywhere. But the points are higher-percentage places, so they require a more deliberate approach. 

This is when swapping baits really comes into play. The same is the case for wood anytime you see it in grass. If you’re covering water with a swim jig and come up to a small limb or tree laying in the grass, it’s a good idea to slow down a bit, pick up a light Texas-rigged flipping bait, and pitch it to the log. If you come across five pieces of wood like this in a hundred-yard stretch of grass, you’ll likely get four or five bites. 

Applying the same principle, it’s a good idea to swap over to a hollow-body frog for some targets, as well. Early and late in the day, bass will eat a hollow-body frog really well around water willow. So using it to target the points and little pockets in the grass can be particularly productive—and very exciting. 

The thinner little areas where the grass is sparse are good for frogs, too, as the bass can see the bait a little better from a distance and will be more willing to cover a lot of ground to get to it. 

Shade is also another target where hollow-body frogs work well. The shade of overhanging trees and bushes as well as the shade of docks along a line of grass can be critical pick-off points. The bass will often travel along the grass until they get to one of these cool spots, and then they set up shop and wait for a meal to come to them. Skipping a hollow-body frog into any patch of shade like this is a great way to get bit around water willow. 

Anytime you come up to a particularly thick patch of water willow, you have basically one of two choices: either swim a swim jig over the mat and let it fall, or punch a big weight through the canopy and try to pull one out that way. There are certainly other baits that will get bit, too, but these give you a really good chance of converting a bite into a fish catch. If it’s bright and sunny, try punching first. If there’s a little cloud cover, wind or it’s early or late in the day, try swimming the jig over the mat and then letting it fall, as the bass will still be relating to these mats but are more willing to venture out from under them. 

Using a hollow-body frog to cover water is rarely a good idea. You can get by with it sometimes with a popping frog, but even then it’s just rarely the most efficient bait to cover water. It’s not that you can’t get bit on a hollow-body frog, it’s that you could cover twice as much water and thus in theory get twice as many bites with something else. So that’s why it’s a good idea to go with reeling a toad in any situation where the fish are willing to come up and eat a topwater bait, but you have a lot of grass to cover. 

A buzzbait or spinnerbait will certainly work in these situations, too, but again it’s about being as efficient as possible when fishing water willow, since you often have to cover a lot of it to find individual fish or little wads of bass. So, there are times when a hollow-body frog is a little too slow, but a buzzbait is a little too aggressive. That’s the sweet spot a toad falls right into. You can buzz it along the surface and draw a fish’s attention from a decent distance, while the bass are also less likely to turn off of it at the last second. 

With almost all of these baits, it’s a good idea to consider using braided line. Water willow typically varies in density on any given fishery, and braided line gives you the best chance of wrestling fish out no matter how thick the cover is. Even in clear water, the braid blends into the abundance of leaves, stalks and floating trash that often collects in the grass. 

Later in the fall, the water willow gets less dense, and a swimbait can be worked through the grass with great results.

When fishing along the edge of the grass, you can get away with fluorocarbon at times, but there’s rarely a scenario still where you’d be fishing this way and not be tempted to throw a cast or two over into the grass every now and then. Using braid eliminates a lot of heartache with spinnerbaits and swim jigs and is all but a necessity anyway with the topwaters and punching baits. 

As far as rods and reels go, super heavy gear isn’t necessary, in part thanks to the braided line. Braid has minimal stretch and cuts through water willow well, so you can fish most of these baits on a 7-0 or 7-3 medium-heavy rod, with the exception of the frog and punch rig since these two baits are often called on to haul bass out of the farthest and thickest cover. For these two, I’d suggest a heavy rod in the 7-0 to 7-3 range for the frog and a 7-6 to 7-8 extra-heavy for the punch rig.

Pay attention to the bites you get, and the mix of cover present. That’s the best way to quickly establish a pattern when fishing water willow. Look for little irregularities, and then pay those special attention. As you get more bites, you’ll start to notice those bites are coming alongside a particular group of those irregularities you’re targeting. 

Outside of that, apply the common principles that are seen throughout bass fishing. Match whatever hatch is present with your lure selection, save the more aggressive baits for the more active feeding windows, and be prepared to cover a lot of water in between bites. 

If you implement these simple tips, you’ll be catching bass in the grass in no time.

Water Willow Goes From Greenhouse To Planted As Georgia Fish Habitat

Bass anglers know how great water willow  patterns can be at Sinclair, Oconee, Russell, Eufaula and West Point, but WRD Fisheries is also growing water willow and planting it at Clarks Hill, Hartwell, Jackson, Allatoona, Bartletts Ferry, Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir, as well as at many of DNR PFAs like Marben, Big Lazer, Paradise, Dodge, Ocmulgee, Hugh Gillis and McDuffie, and on some state park lakes like Sweetwater and Panola.  

Georgia DNR Fisheries Management propagates and plants, on average, more than 12,000 water willow plants every year. Other native aquatic plants are also cultivated at DNR’s Aquatic Vegetation Greenhouse in Social Circle including maidencane, pickerelweed, bulrush, lotus and lily. Plus, they grow and plant cypress trees, buttonbush and willow trees.


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