|Water Chestnut (trapa natans) is an aquatic vegetation found in the northeast US — primarily in the Hudson River and attached waterways (Mowhawk River/Erie Canal, and the Champlain Canal and lower end of Lake Champlain). It is also found in some sections of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts, and in the Charles River in Massachusetts. In the past, water chestnut has been reported in the Chesapeake, but to my knowledge, it’s not currently found there.
When it was found establishing itself in a cove off the Connecticut River in Connecticut in the summer of 1999, the Department of Environmental Protection people just about wet themselves they were so worried about it. Spokesman David Leff — never one to pass up an opportunity for on camera face time –held a news conference about how important it was to eradicate this plant. He called a water chestnut bed “an aquatic wasteland” and said that “absolutely nothing” lives in water blanketed by water chestnut.
While I admit I’m not sympathetic to the position, I do understand the concern, because from a non-fishing perspective, water chestnut certainly fits into the noxious weed category. But as far at it being an “aquatic wasteland” is concerned, the statement is 100% counter to reality. I don’t know if it’s a matter of ignorance or intent to mislead. If the former, it is an absolute embarrassment that an official of the DEP could be that clueless regarding a subject in the field in which he supposedly has expertise. If the latter… well, that’s something I don’t even want to think about. If Mr. Leff had ever actually gone into a chestnut bed with a fishing rod, he might have some clue just how much life exists in one.
Water chestnut is fast growing, but does not tolerate cold water. It doesn’t begin to show itself until the water passes the 60 degree mark in the spring, and starts to die off rapidly in the fall as soon as the water drops into the low sixties in the fall. It does tolerate (even seems to prefer) dingy water, moderate current, and fluctuating water levels. Thus its domination in tidal environments.
Among bass anglers who ply these waters the vegetation is more commonly referred to as just chestnut, or simply ‘nut. The last few years, I’ve noticed a tendency among some anglers to pluralize it, but it’s not the plural you want here, but the cumulative, and that’s the same spelling as the singular.
For those not familiar with water chestnut, it is the nastiest, and maybe the toughest-to-fish aquatic vegetation on the planet. In my opinion, it’s also the most productive and most fun, once you’ve mastered it. It’s been described as “pads on steriods” and “barbed wire with leaves.” Neither term really does the stuff justice. The surface and above surface leaves are tough, and can present what seems an impenetrable surface layer. But it’s the mess underneath that really makes it challenging. Air bladders, thick, stringy stems in the upper “crown” portion, the nut itself, and then the “vine” that looks and feels like a big, strong, hairy rope. This is good stuff, from the fish’s point of view. But be careful not to let the bow of the boat into the bed unless you’ve got a really ballsy electric motor, because if it doesn’t stop the electric cold, it’ll just shake it out of its mount.
Gearing up for the Nut
Flipping stick at a minimum. You’re going to have to lean on some fish to get them out. Might as well have a rod you can lean on with confidence. After using a lot of different flipping sticks in the nut over the years, I’ve settled on a Berkley Tactix series, heavy action model. It’s an ounce or so heavier than I might like, but I’ll trade that for its incredble strength and backbone, plus the fact that it’s one of the few flipping sticks I’ve tried that doesn’t have too long a handle, and that doesn’t have any single foot guides on it. Single foot guides are fine for light duty applications, but they really have no business on a flipping stick — especially one for use in the water chestnut.
As far as lures and terminal tackle are concerned, more than 95% of my chestnut bass are caught on soft plastic lures, most of which fit into the “creature bait” category. The last few years, I pretty much haven’t flipped anything into the nut other than a Lunker City Ozmo creature bait. The Ozmo just looks nastier and more like something that should live in the nut than other creature baits.
Of course there is some application for a lure sliding across the topof the stuff, rather than poking down beneath it. Lunker City’s Salad Spoon is prime for this, as is any of the soft plastic frog lures that are so popular these days. While the Salad Spoon and the various toads are typically fished unweighted, I like to stick a slip sinker on the line ahead of them in the nut. Not only is it better on the pause, but it also makes a bit more of a dent in the thick layer, and helps the fish to realize it’s there. Don’t forget the metal weedless spoon though. My favorite (by a long shot) is the Rexx Spoon. Then again, some days, we’ll just drag the same weighted plastic that we’re flipping into the pockets, across the top of the nut. The bass sure can’t see much through the stuff, so it’s more a matter of them just striking at the movement. Which also means that 90% of the time, even when they are smashing something sliding over the top of the salad, you don’t get hooks into most of them. You’re really just looking for a fish to show itself, so you’ll have a high percentage place to flip, and actually hooking and landing one with the spoon is something of a bonus.
Anatomy of a Nut Bed
The Surface Salad Most well formed water chestnut beds have at least two edges. The edge of the weedbed itself, of course. But there’s most often another edge, depending on the age of the bed, the time of the season and a host of other factors. Around the deepest growing edge of the bed, the leaves are usually one layer thick, laying flat on the surface. In the middle of the bed, they are often several layers thick and curled up away from the surface a bit. And there is typically a distinct edge there. That edge is a key element, and is often instrumental in helping us develop a pattern as to where in a chestnut bed the fish are. Are they in the single layer stuff, or back in the really tough stuff? If they are in the single layer stuff, are they in areas where it’s a band only a few feet wide, or areas where it’s a long cast back to the edge of the curled up stuff?
Under the mat What we see on top is not really indicative of what the fish deals with underneath. This isn’t some namby-pamby lily pad bed where individual stems reach up to a single leaf on the top. The 6 to 12″ just under those floating leaves is a dense tangle of tough, fibrous “branches” each equipped with a flotation bladder. The nut itself is in there, too. Beneath that mess are the rope-like main stems, with those hairs hanging off, flowing in the current. An aquatic botanist once explained to me that those hairs are pretty unique, and that there’s really no structural difference between them and the roots of the plant, yet the ones higher on the stem create clorophyl, so they technically function as leaves, while the ones in the bottom mud absorb nutrients and function as roots.
In waters where the level fluctuates, the underwater stems will be long enough to reach the surface at the highest water levels, so at any other time in the cycle, they are either slack or laid out more horizontally, as the bed flows with the current to the end of the stem “tether” This is probably why chestnut does so well in tidal water as compared to most other aquatic vegetation.
Outside the bed. You really have to consider the area just outside a chestnut bed as part of the bed, because predator and prey alike will move in and out of chestnut at times. Especially if there’s other weed growth outside the bed (typically scattered milfoil patches), you have to consider it part of the overall pattern.
One pattern I’ve noted time and again is that the depth of the water immediately adjacent to the chestnut bed is a key element in quickly locating productive areas. But don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s always better where there’s decent water depth available. I’ve seen as many days where the key seemed to be limiting my efforts to areas where there was less than 3 feet of water outside the bed as those days when the fish seemed most active in areas where the bed reached out to 10 feet or more of water. Best thing to do, is whenever you catch a fish, roll a fish, or even see baitfish flipping around on top of the nut in an apparent escape attempt, make note of the depth you’re in at the time. Pay attention and patterns will emerge.
Dissecting a Nut Bed
Edges Duh. We’re talking about bass here, right? Is it possible to overstate the importance of edges in any type of fish holding habitat when the subject is bass? The edge of the nut bed itself. The edge where two different densities of nut bed meet abruptly, or where another type of vegetation abuts a bed of water chestnut. All are important.
I’m not sure if this is the most logical place to bring this up, but there’s another edge related deal that occurs in ‘nut fishing that bears keeping in mind. If you’ve got chestnut, odds are you’ve also got an ongoing weed harvesting program. New York and Vermont each have weed eating crews working on Lake Champlain in the summer. There’s several on the Hudson as well, and I’ve seen the weed choppers out there trying to contend with the stuff on the Oxbow section of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts as well.
Most bass anglers avoid the weed eaters. Don’t! A chestnut bed might be the most food rich area of a lake. But the food is tough to get at. When the vegies are ripped from the water and piled on the deck of the weed eater, huge amounts of prey — minnows, frogs, bugs, invertebrates — everything that lives in the nut — gets displaced. Some of the food escapes from the jaws of the weed eaters. Some comes squirming out of the pile of greenery on deck and finds its way back into the water. Either way, there’s a glut of displaced and disoriented prey, including lots of injured prey in the open water behind the path of the weed eating machine. If you don’t think that bass (as well as whatever other predators live in the area) will take advantage of that windfall feeding situation, then maybe you should consider golf.
Holes Axiom one in nut fishing. Never pass up a hole. Whether it’s a 6″ hole or a 6′ hole; whether it’s caused by a change in bottom contour, or it’s left over from someone catching (or missing) a fish there earlier; Even if it was caused by your partner at the other end of the boat setting the hook 2 minutes ago, flip a lure into every hole in the mat you can!
I guess I should differentiate between existing holes and fresh rippage. As far as existing holes are concerned, what we see as a hole in the surface cover, the fish see as a beam of light in their shaded world. Any prey or forage out in the light is easily visible to them, but cannot see into the dark. It’s an easy capture for the predatory bass. Especially on bright days, actively feeding bass position themselves in prime ambush spots. It would be dumb to not put our lures into the spots they are positioned to ambush in.
Rippage is what we call the holes in a ‘nut bed created by yanking a fish through, or by setting the hook and coming up with a big wad of vegetation. Most of the time, rippage “heals” in a couple days. And day old rippage is pretty much like any other existing hole. But fresh rippage holes are important for another reason. Bass — even under a heavy cover mat — are often found in groups. Where one is feeding, odds are that several are feeding. Slow down and try to tempt a few more bites when you’re in a spot that you know a fish fed recently.
I also suspect that the sound of a fish trying to feed in this cover attracts nearby bass that are looking for an easy capture. How often have we seen more bass following a hooked bass or even attempting to grab the lure away from a hooked bass? Why would the same thing not happen in a nut bed? The initial commotion of a fish getting hooked doesn’t scare other fish away, it attracts them.
An experience at Champlain in July ’07 really hammers this point home. There were 3 of us in the boat on this day. Me, my son Tom, and my buddy Jim. We were fishing a section of chestnut we call “Tom’s Stretch”. As we fished along the edge of the nut, a fish rolled, taking some random prey just under the nut, fairly close to the boat. In the process, it left a small opening in the nut. Tom and Jim both pitched to the opening. Jim set! Then Tom set! They were both hooked up from the same little hole. Then I pitched in, and I got hammered, too. We actually had 3 fish on at the same time, from that one little hole. Unfortunately, I lost mine, but they each got theirs in the boat.
What the heck. After re-rigging my lure, I pitched back to the (now ‘rippage enhanced’ and considerably larger) hole. And I immediately got hit and stuck another good fish. By now, jerking on fish buried in the ‘nut had pulled the boat into the ‘nut bed, so all Tom and Jim had to do was pretty much drop their lures straight down into the opening, and again they each got a fish on at the same time. I pitched back and got another one too.
Seven good bass — from just under 3 to just under 5 — on in 7 consecutive flips to the same hole in the nut — all in no more than 2 minutes. We caught 4 out of one little rippage hole a few yards farther along the same stretch the next day. but Saturday’s experience proved to my satisfaction once and for all, that the bass hunt in packs, even under the heavy cover and perfect ambush conditions afforded by a full bloom chestnut bed. When I think of all the fish we’ve probably missed out on over the years by simply not trying for a 2nd (or 3rd, or ‘moreth’) bass out of the hole we just jerked one through, it makes me ill, at the same time it’s exciting me for my next trip to Champlain or the Hudson to flip the ‘nut!
Floating “stuff” Logs, boards, basketballs, broken docks, whatever you’ve seen floating around in the lake or river somehow seems to find its way into chestnut beds, where it gets “trapped”. Don’t be a dummy. Fish it.
Over the Top Your weedless spoon, Salad SpoonTM or other Texas rigged plastic, cast across the thinner spots or areas where there are holes or gaps, or where the nut is spotty. Experiment with cadence, but for the most part you want to swim it across the surface at a fairly steady clip. An exception would be working it across a fairly solid expanse, then pausing to let it linger (or sink, depending on the lure) at the edge of a hole in the surface mat.
This can be a really exciting way to fish when the fish are aggressive. There will be days during the course of the year that the fish seem to really lock in on the top of the salad, and you might even approach a 50% hookup ratio. But more often, you’re just looking to draw strikes or make fish move. When a fish gives away its location by responding to something sliding over its head, go back as quickly as possible with something that penetrates into its world.
Flipping the Thicket If you include pitching, this is what about 95% of nut fishing is all about. Take something that looks edible and jiggle it through a hole in the nut. Sometimes, precision flipping to tiny holes and pockets pays off. But 90% of the time, I do better by pitching onto the mat, dragging the lure to a thin spot or hole, and letting it settle. I believe the commotion of the lure coming across the top alerts fish in the immediate area that something is alive up there.
Other than looking for holes, irregularities, floating debris and rippage, the most important thing to watch for is activity. Sometimes you’ll see movement of the nut — a bulge or just a few leaves moving sideways as a sizeable fish swims through the jungle beneath. Sometimes you’ll see (or hear) a fish actually take a meal out of the greenery. Other times, you might notice a baitfish or two flipping and flapping about on top of the surface mat. Caught between a rock and a hard place, as it were – chased out of the water, trying to get back through, but almost sure to be eaten when it does. Whatever the case, when you observe activity in the nut bed, fish the immediate area thoroughly.
OK, here’s the biggie. The single piece of information that will help you more than anything else when it comes to flipping the nut. Don’t let your lure sink more than a 12″ to 18″ beneath the surface. There’s a tendency whenever we’re fishing a weighted plastic or a jig type lure to let it sink all the way to bottom. Some anglers go so far as to use excess weight to get it to plummet through the cover even faster. Don’t do it. Well, don’t do it except when your lure is within a foot or so of the outermost edge of the nut bed, anyway.
Here’s the deal. Most of the cover is at the top and the shade is most dense immediately under the thick canopy. That’s where the predators lie in wait, scanning the open, “lit” water in the holes, waiting for unsuspecting prey to happen by. They look out. They look up. They don’t look down. So don’t let your lure sink past where the bass in that nut bed are looking for food!
I’m not saying there are never any bass closer to bottom in a chestnut bed. But feeding bass will be tight to the canopy, or patrolling the outer edge. Bass on bottom, way back in the heavy stuff aren’t feeding. Fishing inactive fish in cover this heavy over such a broad area is self defeating. If the thick nut is worth fishing, you don’t have to go to the bottom. Just pitch, flip or drag the bait to an opening, jiggle it through, let it sink a foot or so, jiggle it a few times, raise it till you feel it contact the bottom of the heavy tangle of “stuff” just under the floating mat, and try to hold motionless there for a few seconds. Maybe drop it back down a bit once or twice. If you haven’t been bit, lift it out and put it in the next likely crease. On the other hand, when working the edge of the bed, you’re always in a high enough percentage spot that letting the lure sink all the way into the crease at the base of the vegetation is a pretty good idea.
When you get bit with a lure pitched into a hole in the chestnut, if the fish moves, let it pull the rod tip down before you rear back. But often as not, I just sense “something” in the resistance on the other end, and there’s no actual movement. Like a fish just swims up to the bait nuzzling against the bottom of the thickest tangle (as a small fish foraging on whatever lives there might do, perhaps?) and closes it’s mouth on it. My best advice, is whenever something doesn’t feel right, swing, and swing hard! You’ll lose far more fish by letting them swim 5 or 6 feet under the stuff, than you will miss by setting too soon.
Off the Edge There will be days — particularly in very late summer, it seems to me, but possible any time the nut is up — when most of the fish will come right off the edge, or out of the bigger holes or the thinner patches. When you get a feel for an edge bite, there are a few different strategies that will often increase your catch rate dramatically.
All of these methods have produced quality fish for me when the bite seemed related to the nut bed, but not within its boundaries per sé. All though, are secondary to the main nut busting pattern — flipping and pitching the holes and creases.When moving across an area of thin, scattered growth between heavier beds, I will usually just swim my Texas rigged soft plastic lure from clump to clump as I boogie across the area, pausing it for a few seconds as it hits a patch of nut. But if I get bit — or even just rolled at — as the lure is swimming between clumps, I’ll take it as a sign the fish are out and roaming, which tells me to kick the electric down off high speed and grab my spinnerbait rod.
Speaking of the spinnerbait, in October or thereabouts, when the chestnut beds start to really deteriorate as the water temperatures drop, grab a big, nasty, bright colored spinnerbait, and fish through the dying beds. There’s a few day period each year when it seems like the entire population of ‘nut bass is exposed as their home dies off, but they haven’t left the area yet. Just as they find themselves out in the open, so does the prey that lived in the nut bed. The bass (and pike) hang in there to take advantage of the easy pickins. So should you.
That’s pretty much it.
Water Chestnut is despised by lake front residents. By DEP and DEC types, too. Even by fishermen who don’t know how to fish it. But the bass flat out love it. In fact, that might be why anglers who can’t cope with it don’t like it. Because most of the bass in the area will use it if it’s there, so its presence often seems to make fishing tougher in other likely looking spots. But learn to fish it, and you’ll love it too.