When Clark Wendlandt’s parents took him out on lakes near Austin, Texas, as a child, trolling for anything that would bite was casual family fun. But angling became his passion—and eventually his profession—after an outing on a high school classmate’s bass boat. The two caught a passel of largemouths by skipping soft plastics under boat docks, and Wendlandt was hooked on the sport.
He began fishing the Red Man Trail (now called the BFL Tour) in 1987 and eventually graduated to the FLW Tour, where he has earned 19 top-10 finishes and two Angler of the Year titles. He has claimed more than $1 million at bass tournaments, using a variety of tactics to catch bass in any season.
Experience has taught him that autumn is the time to key on creeks. Though these waters pose special challenges, he knows how to use their unique features to his advantage. Here are a few of his tips for finding, attracting and catching fall bass.
When he fishes reservoirs from September through November, Wend-landt begins searching for bass in the backs of creeks. The creeks may be large or small and found anywhere on the reservoir, from the headwaters to the dam. Shad and other baitfish migrate into the creeks as the water cools in autumn, and the bass follow their food source.
Wendlandt starts as far back in a creek arm as he can get without going up into the original tributary. He studies the creek on the way in, and notes its depth, water color, bottom composition, cover, structure and baitfish, factors that help him decide how to fish it.
“The bass will be where the bait is,” he says. “I may not find them until I work back to the mouth of the creek.”
If the creek is clear and has weedy flats with three to five feet of water along the outside edge of the grass, Wendlandt opts for poppers such as the Rapala Skitter Pop, Rebel PopR, or his favorite, a Yellow Magic Popper. He prefers a black back with a pale-gold baitfish pattern and a white belly. He dresses the rear treble with 11/2- to 2-inch white hackles to create a livelier teaser.
“I move the bait quickly,” he says. “Working fast lets me cover more water, and prevents the bass from getting a good look at the popper. I get more bites, and they take it better.” He keeps his boat moving and makes quartering casts to the edge of the weedline with a 61/2-foot medium-action baitcasting rod and 15-pound mono. He never uses fluorocarbon with any topwater plug because fluoro sinks and kills the bait’s action.
After casting, Wendlandt points the rod straight at the popper and makes quick, short, downward rod flicks while continually taking up slack with the reel. The rodtip moves only inches up and down. “If you move the rod too far, the popper makes a ‘blooping’ noise,” he says. “That’s wrong. Short rod movements skip the popper across the water. That works best.”
This pattern produces good numbers of bass up to 3 pounds and an occasional larger fish. It draws strikes all day when he finds enough weedbeds to continue hopping from one to the next.
The popper also comes through for him in clear creeks with rocky banks. He uses the same retrieve and tackle. “I look for rocky shorelines where the bottom gradually slopes from the bank before dropping off into deep water,” he says. “I pull bass up from ledges as deep as 10 feet.”
When aquatic vegetation such as milfoil and hydrilla grows in depths of 10 feet or more, Wendlandt wields a flippin’ rod matched with 65-pound test Power Pro braided line. He ties the line directly to a 3/4- or 1-ounce green-pumpkin or black-and-blue jig. He dresses the hook with Gambler’s BB Cricket, a 3-inch craw-style worm.
The heavy jig punches through matted grass on the surface and through submerged grass that forms caves. Bass lounge under the surface mats and in the caves and tunnels formed by submerged weeds. The flippin’ rod and no-stretch braided line are necessary to muscle the bass out of the greenery.
Wendlandt prefers weed mats with submerged grass—for example, 8-foot-tall grass in 15 feet of water—and relies on a flasher depthfinder to keep him on track. Points of grass are key bass locations, and the fish occasionally hold in pockets along the weedline. A ditch within a grassbed should never be overlooked.
When fishing these areas, he moves the boat slowly and pitches the jig to the grass, speeding up along straight stretches and slowing down when he approaches a point or ditch. If the heavy jig lands on a grass mat or on a “roof” of submerged grass, he jiggles the bait until it pops through the vegetation. About half of the strikes occur when the jig first breaks through the grass. If he doesn’t get bit when the jig punches through, he lets it sink to the bottom. Then he hops the jig once or twice, pulls it up until it touches the grass, and shakes it for about five seconds before pitching to another spot.
“I drop a marker buoy whenever I get a bite,” he says. “Bass really gang up in thick grass. I’ve loaded the boat with big bass many times by fishing around a buoy. This technique is most productive in the middle of the day.”
Creeks without grass typically have stained water, making bass feel at home in the shallows. This is common in lowland reservoirs with creek channels winding through shallow flats. Wendlandt follows a channel into a creek with his sonar and notes landmarks and waypoints, then fishes it on the way out.
Many anglers stop searching when they come to a section of channel that has silted in, but Wendlandt always ventures upstream and often picks up a well-defined channel again. He looks for channels that are two to five feet deep on the break and drop to six to 15 feet.
“You have to find channel bends that have sharp breaks,” he says. “Bass hang on the lips of inside or outside bends. There are usually stumps, sunken logs or some other wood cover on the bends.”
He attacks creek bends with shad-color crankbaits like the Bandit 100, which runs three to five feet deep, the Bandit 200, which runs four to eight feet deep, the Norman Middle “N”, which runs six to eight feet or the Rapala DT10, which dives to 10. In water shallower than two feet, he opts for a 1/2-ounce Rat-L-Trap.
A 7-foot Falcon composite cranking rod handles his crankbait chores. He fills a Pflueger Trion baitcasting reel with 12-pound Ande monofilament.
“I keep my boat moving down the middle of the creek and make quartering casts over the break,” he says. “I use a steady, medium retrieve. The key is hitting the cover on the edge of the channel. If the crankbait hangs, I stay back and try to snap the bait off. I get a lot of bites the instant it pops free.”
When he catches a bass in a creek bend, Wendlandt reworks the bend from different angles until he picks off all of the aggressive fish. Then he finishes with a tube or a jig to catch any finicky leftover fish. “I normally catch two to four bass from one bend and move on,” he says. “When you only catch one, it’s usually a quality fish.”
Another of Wendlandt’s pet patterns is fishing isolated snags in stained water on shallow flats in the backs of creeks. Few anglers bother fishing it because they hate to pick up the trolling motor and move after making only a few casts.
He may run to a snag and make six casts, then crank up the outboard and race to another. If the flat has several isolated snags, he runs his electric motor on high speed from one to the next.
The water on the flat may be as deep as six feet, but it is more often one to three. The tip-off to a productive snag may be only a few inches of a limb sticking above the surface. “If the cover is no deeper than, say, two feet, I’ll run a 1/4-ounce buzzbait over it first,” he says. “I’ve caught a lot of big bass doing that. I use either a white buzzbait with a silver blade or a black buzzbait with a gold blade.”
Wendlandt uses a 61/2- or 7-foot medium-action casting rod and 17-pound mono—a stiffer rod will typically pull the buzzbait away before the fish can inhale it. He uses a slow to medium-speed retrieve with an occasional pause to goad bass into action.
If buzzing doesn’t cut it, he works the snag from different angles with a square-billed, shallow-running crank such as a Bagley Balsa B. This lets him find bass wherever they’re holding on the cover.
A 7-foot composite baitcasting rod with 15-pound mono is his rig of choice for cranking isolated snags. He typically ties on shad-color cranks but switches to chartreuse in dirty water.
On clear reservoirs, bass often drive baitfish to the surface in open water, an activity known as schooling. Though this can happen anywhere on a lake, Wendlandt searches for schooling bass in creeks. A whole school may ascend, but it’s more common to see one or two bass break the surface between periods of inactivity that may last several minutes.
Casting to schooling bass can be frustrating, because you never know exactly where the fish will come up. One approach Wendlandt takes is to hold off casting until a bass shows itself. Then he chucks a clear Cordell Boy Howdy prop bait to the boil and works it back with a quick dog-walking action.
“You can throw a Boy Howdy a mile with a 7-foot casting rod,” he says. “I’ve always done better with a clear bait, because schooling bass can get finicky. If they’re feeding on small baitfish, I downsize to a Lucky Craft Sammy 65 or a Heddon Zara Puppy in a shad pattern.”
When bass school over standing timber or a point, he casts over the cover or structure while waiting for the fish to come up. Because he knows where the bass are holding between surface-feeding forays, he can often bring them up with a topwater.
Another tactic, when bass suspend 10 feet deep over timber or a point that’s 20 to 30 feet deep, is to cast a jig-and-grub over the fish, count it down to 10 feet and swim it through them. “I can usually catch them that way when they’re not coming to the surface,” he says.
Searching for schools, effectively fishing snags, exploring creek channels and using the right approach in weeds can add excitement to fall bass fishing. Try Wendlandt’s tactics and your next trip might be your best ever.
VanDam’s Yankee Magic
NAFC Fishing Advisory Council Member and reigning Bassmaster Classic champion Kevin VanDam loves fall bassin’. Unlike Clark Wendlandt, the Michigan bassman’s top largemouth patterns key on natural lakes. “My all-time favorite involves deep weedlines,” he says. “I focus on edges, especially inside turns, on the outside of a large, shallow weed flat where bass spent the summer.” Deep weeds on the edge of a large bay can be good, too.
In general, deeper is better. All else being equal, a six-foot outside edge won’t hold as many bass as grass in 12 to 15 feet of water, he says. “Cabbage and milfoil are my favorite weeds,” he notes.
VanDam’s go-to presentation is a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce, black-and-blue jig, tipped with a Denny Brauer trailer, fished with a 7-foot, 4-inch Quantum PT4 rod and matching high-speed, Quantum Energy reel on 20-pound BPS fluoro. “Until the water temp drops into the low 50s, I swim the jig pretty fast, snapping and popping it on the retrieve,” he says.
On lakes lacking well-defined deep weed edges, VanDam casts a Strike King Series 5 crankbait, which runs about 10 feet deep, or a Series 6, which dives to 15, on a 7-foot glass cranking rod and 14- to 17-pound fluoro. “I want to feel the bait running and rip it through scattered grass,” he says. Lure color should mimic forage—crawfish and bluegill patterns are hard to beat, but shad can be hot as well.
“For either approach, the best days are nasty—cloudy, windy and rainy. I’ve had incredible days when weather conditions were the worst, catching 100 bass up to 5 pounds from one stretch of weedline,” he says. That’s plenty of reason for Northern anglers to get out before freeze-up for one last bass blast.