It's no secret that fall offers some of the year's finest fishing for smallies and largemouths. Indeed, savvy NAFC members across the continent reap a harvest of fast bass action. Still, misconceptions about the nature of the bite abound. As a result, few anglers fully capitalize.
By listening to those who do, however, it’s possible to put together winning plans for any system, from the shallow, fertile fisheries of the Deep South to deep, gin-clear lakes of the Canadian Shield. Let’s start with the NAFC’s resident fishery expert, Dr. Hal Schramm. “One of the biggest myths pertains to the fall bass bite,” says Schramm, fisheries biologist at Mississippi State University. “Thanks to repetition by guides, TV personalities and fellow anglers, many people think the bite happens because fish are ‘fattening up’ for winter.”
In reality, he explains, bass don’t prepare for bear-like hibernation by strapping on the feedbag. First, they don’t hibernate, let alone consciously gorge themselves to prepare. True, research shows that largemouths do begin to store energy as fat rather than protein this time of year. But even so, their feeding is not triggered by or related to a Thanksgiving-like binge.
Second, bass become more active in fall in reaction to summer’s tepid water temperatures cooling into the fish’s optimum range of 75 to 80 degrees. And it doesn’t stop there. As fall progresses, shad and other baitfish in many systems often gather in shallow coves, rise onto flats, and move into choke points connecting knee-deep, weedy backwaters with deeper water. Bass follow, and the ensuing feeding spree, easy for anglers to spot and target makes for fine fishing.
Along with an invigorating dip in water temperature, a bass’s belly is the driving force behind much of its autumn activity. Identifying the dominant baitfish in your favorite waters and their fall migrations, is vital to pin-pointing the best places to fish.
In reservoir systems where shad are the main course, hotspots include the backs of coves and incoming creeks, along with the tips and tops of points, ledges and weedbeds, or flats holding woody cover. In natural lakes with an abundance of minnow species and members of the sunfish family, probe the edges and tops of weedbeds; also look for areas where bass intercept the autumn exodus of baitfish from shallow, weedy bays and backwaters. Necked-down channels connecting a bay with the main lake can be dynamite, as can the deep grassline just outside a shallow bay.
Here, in these natural systems, bass move from predictable late-summer cover and structure into the last stands of healthy weedgrowth, such as varieties of native coontail, broad-leaf pondweed (cabbage) and other hearty plants. As late fall arrives, a continued drop in water temperature slows the bass’ metabolism, particularly in Northern lakes. However, because bass are concentrated in areas with remaining weedgrowth, fishing can still be good.
Keep in mind that there can be more to it than finding baitfish. Bass often relate to structure or cover that provides an ambush point from which to attack passing prey. While this in no revelation, it’s an important cornerstone to remember when preparing fall strategies. For example, lakes with blueback herring are legendary for boom-or-bust action that heats up when migratory herring cross paths with sedentary bass lurking on main-lake points—and cools off when bluebacks move off the structure.
Flowing water can be a real wild card. Conventional wisdom tells us that river-dwelling bass head for deep pools to ride out the cold season, but mounting evidence shows that shallows can hold fish well into winter. I’ve found bass in both deep and shallow situations in fall, so the best advice is to keep an open mind as you scout autumn creeks and rivers of all sizes for fall bass.
A range of jigs and crankbaits take bass as they transition into fall patterns. With cranks, start with shallow-divers around skinn-water weeds and wood, then progress to deeper-running baits as the season progresses and bass move out. In the jig realm, football heads with crayfish-imitating trailers perform best.
A variety of techniques, from live bait under slip floats to spinnerbaits, will take fall bass. Naturally, much of choosing your presentation hinges on the characteristics of the area you plan to fish, such as depth and cover.
Slow cranking is one of the deadliest, and Rapala’s Mark Fisher knows the drill. A lifetime of testing his skills against other anglers during tournaments across the country has taught him a trick or two. Now a top stick on the Club’s North American Bass Circuit (NABC), he explains how a selection of cranks tied to straining specific depths plays into his fall bass program.
“Start with the shallowest cover you can find, and fish your way deeper from there,” he says. “Look for green weeds or woody cover, especially if there are small sunfish around, and cast shallow runners like a Clackin’ Crank 55, which dives to five feet, or a DT Fat 3, which dives to three. Then switch to deeper divers as you explore deep weeds, wood and structure.”
When it comes to tapping the deep fall bite, Antioch, Illinois, NAFC member Brad Rubin is a football fan. In fact, he throws a football jig virtually year-round. With partner Chris Jones, he jigged his way to victory in the NABC’s debut tourney on Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago Chain last June.
The ability to probe deep structure for bronzebacks and largemouths alike makes these bottom-bouncing jigheads perfect as bass shift into deeper water during late fall. Still, Rubin rarely writes off shallow water before checking it first.
“Depending on forage, cover and other factors, fall bass can be deep or very shallow,” he explains. “I look for a breakline close to the shallows that offers bass quick access to deep water.”
For fishing the depths, Rubin favors a Dirty Jigs Tackle Skirted Football Jig, in shades from various craw patterns to watermelon. Depth dictates jig weight.
“Always use as light a jig as you can,” he advises. A 3/8 ouncer gets the nod in four to 12 feet; 1/2-ounce from 12 to 20 feet; and 3/4-ounce in deeper water or in windy conditions.
Other football standouts include Berkley’s Hank’s Football Jig, Booyah’s Pigskin Jig and Cabela’s Fisherman Series. Tipping options abound in color, size and shape. Experimentation is the best teacher—crayfish-imitating patterns with pincher-like extensions are hard to beat, but smaller softbaits shine for finicky bass.
“Start aggressive, then slow down if need be,” says Rubin. When bass are on the bite, as often happens when the fish are positioned high on the breakline or in shallow weeds, especially under overcast skies—an aggressive hopping cadence can produce strikes. “So can ripping the jig through the weeds, though this is more of a late-summer move.”
Belly-to-bottom bass are suckers for dragging the jig back to the boat along bottom. Slowly move the rodtip, then use the reel to take up slack. Or, hold the rod steady and use the reel to drag the jig.
“Bottom contact is huge. Do whatever it takes to keep the jig there,” he says.
One of the deadliest fall football moves is a combo platter. Start by dragging the jig, then add a sharp snap or two with the rodtip, then drop the jig to bottom. Follow this up with a slow crawl of a foot or two, and complete the performance with a quick burn, achieved by windmilling the reel handle.
The resulting impression of an injured food source that falls to bottom and crawls along, only to attempt escape can be too much for even the most discriminating bass.
A lifetime in the Ice Belt has taught me a thing or two about late-fall bass location. Early-winter forays for panfish often produce beefy large-mouths—sometimes of trophy proportions—over deep, featureless terrain far from classic greenery.
One of my favorite lakes, a fertile fishery with less than 6-foot water clarity, is a classic case in point. Here, largemouths shift from near-shore weedlines toward the tips of tapering points in mid-autumn, then slide into the abyss come late fall. You’ll find them on silty, soft-bottom flats lying in 15 to 20 feet of water, sometimes 200 yards or more from shore-line vegetation.
In the hunt for offshore bass, bluegills are always a good sign. When ice fishing, it’s not uncommon to watch a school of ’gills flickering on the sonar screen disappear, replaced by a thick red line of epic proportions. Similarly, in the fall, watch for schools of panfish to cue you in on likely bass-holding areas.
It’s worth noting that bass in clear lakes often hold on deeper basins, too. Northland’s Travis Peterson targets cold-water bass over mud flats in 30 feet, adjacent to sand points and sandbars. Both deep and shallow, the presence of a fish-funneling structural bottleneck between two basins is a boon.
Several presentations produce, but spoons are one of my favorites. A small (say, 1/8- to 1/4-ounce) jigging spoon like Northland Fishing Tackle’s Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, Lindy’s Rattl’n Flyer, the Bay de Noc Vingla or another classic option, tipped with a minnow head works wonders in late fall and early winter alike. In open water, move your boat slowly and keep the spoon under your transducer, so you can watch bass move in and react to your jig strokes.
Don’t expect high-riding bass in such situations. Keep the spoon within six to eight inches of bottom. Be a bit aggressive while waiting for Red October to show up on the screen; snap the spoon sharply and pound it into the mud to create puffs of sediment. Slow things down when a bass arrives, letting subtle lifts and twitches seal the deal.
Timing can be everything. Weather conditions being equal, bass in stained lakes are more active around midday. Their clear-water counterparts, however, often become most active early and late in the day. In the afternoon, it’s not uncommon to watch the bass bite fizzle.—DJ
Weathering the Storms
Fall bassin’ can mean dealing with cold fronts and foul-weather systems that can hammer your hotspots with cold rain, sleet—even snow in northern latitudes. While nasty weather doesn’t put an end to the action, it does call for some adjustments.
Relatively minor fronts may have little effect on bass. But serious storms accompanied by heavy, cold rains that drop water temperatures several degrees or more often push bass tighter to cover or structure. If the front is extreme enough, it may push shallow bass out of coves and creeks, onto deeper channels and even out onto main-lake points.
As autumn weather and surface water temperatures cool, systems that stratify experience an annual turnover. This occurs when the surface layer, known as the epilimnion, cools enough to mix with the thermocline (the narrow, middle band of the water column typified by rapid temperature change). A surface temp in the low to mid 60s indicates that turnover is near. At first, the thermocline will shrink, before disintegrating entirely, allowing the water to mix from top to bottom.
Turnover is one of anglers’ least-favorite times to fish, and for good reason. Rising bottom sediments, temperature change and the influx of oxygen-poor water from below the thermocline (hypolimnion) all affect the landscape, and fishing can be challenging. Fortunately, the ill effects of turnover rarely linger longer than a week, after which some of the season’s finest bassing can still be had.
Post-turnover, a couple of weather-related tips to add to your fall bag of tricks include the fact that calm, sunny weather can produce solid action and that the windswept side of the lake is rarely the best place to fish, most likely due to the piling up of chilly surface waters. Interestingly, this trend continues well into winter on some lakes.—DJ