September 21, 2011
Avid bass anglers enthusiastically await fall fishing, and for good reason. In southern waters, the stifling heat of summer gives way to fine weather than can last past Thanksgiving. Farther north, anglers arm with clothing suitable for winter fishing, enduring challenging elements for what's often the best bite of the year, particularly for big bass.
The old adage is that bass stock up for winter, feeding heavily ahead of the cold period when forage is scarce and metabolism low. While this tendency hasn't been documented by diet studies, a glimpse at bass waistlines gives credence to this theory. Vegetation also undergoes its natural senescence during this time. Though frosts can spur the clearing of weeds from the shallows up north, even vegetation in Florida lakes thins as the year winds down.
The transition from weed mats to discrete clumps limits feeding zones and makes it easier for anglers to pick out key spots visually or on sonar. Key locations like minor ditches and depressions or submerged rocks and trees also are revealed as vegetation thins. Shifts in baitfish location also can concentrate bass, either deeper or shallower, depending on region, lake or reservoir type, baitfish species, and water clarity.
Bass ace Kevin VanDam notes that the initial fall transition occurs as water temperatures take a dramatic and permanent plunge from seasonal highs. "At Guntersville in Alabama, fall patterns begin when the reservoir falls from close to 90°F to about 80°F," he says. "Back home in Michigan, the drop might also be about 10 degrees, but from 80°F to 70°F. Day length also shortens at a faster rate, and baitfish and bass are clued into this shift."
Regionally, differences in preyfish availability create divergent location patterns for largemouths. In northern natural lakes, preferred prey includes crayfish, shiners and chubs, bluegills, perch, and other small panfish, as well as bullheads and frogs, which can be a focus forage in fall where they're abundant. In early fall, small panfish remain scattered among weedstalks or feeding on plankton and emerging insects outside weedlines. As cover thins, they shift to thicker clumps of green vegetation like coontail and cabbage, often in shallower water. They're readily available to bass and you often see predators striking among shallow weed clumps. Once water temperatures drop into the 40°F range, however, mid-size sunfish move into deep basins, basically ending their availability to bass. At those temperatures, bass metabolism requires little food anyway, so preyfish remain safe from them, though vulnerable to pike and walleyes.
Diminishing vegetation also concentrates crayfish during fall, as they seek the thickest clumps. Some species, however, also shift into deep water for winter or hole up in burrows, reducing their vulnerability.
Where shad are primary forage, bass feeding options remain wider, as schools follow plankton abundance and relate to current. Feeder creeks with current offer benthic algae for gizzard shad to graze on and plenty of zooplankton for threadfins. These areas can become stagnant in summer but come back to life in fall, as bass follow baitfish into the creeks and set up on channel bends and timber edges to take advantage of their abundance.
The seasonal movement into shallow creeks is temporary, as many shad and bass reverse direction and move down to the lower portions on creek arms and into open water as winter approaches. In some impoundments, however, some bass remain in creek channels through the cold season.
VanDam notes that not all reservoirs are alike in their shad movement patterns. "In classic highland reservoirs with lots of major creek arms, shad and bass make a steady progression from main channel structure to the mouths of creeks, then into creeks, into secondary creeks, and so on. Once you define a pattern, it usually is repeatable all around the lake.
"On river-run reservoirs like Guntersville and Kentucky Lake, both on the Tennessee River, fish don't for the most part leave the main body of the reservoir. But they move shallower as fall progresses.
"Natural lakes are a little tougher to pattern locationally," he adds, "as they often have unique features, in terms of structure and depth. But the tendency is for fish to move from outside patterns onto larger weedflats with irregularities. Larger flats contain more bait and attract larger groups of bass. Another key to look for is transitions from one type of vegetation to another, such as milfoil to coontail, or coontail to cabbage. In Florida, it might be eelgrass to hydrilla. Weedy reservoirs also function a lot like natural lakes in this aspect."
A Tale of Two Patterns
Lake Fork, Texas' legendary producer of lunker bass, is arguably the most popular bass water in the world. Since it filled in 1985, Fork's been an amazingly consistent producer of big bass. It's also a great proving ground for patterns as well as new lures, offering offshore fishing, thick vegetation, sunken roadbeds, and other manmade cover, creek channels, sunken ponds and more.
Fork offers two divergent patterns for fall bass though they converge for glorious mid-fall fishing. Guide Tom Redington, who also fishes the FLW Tour, traveled for years to Fork with his brother for great bass fishing vacations. He liked it so much he moved to Texas and has guided there for several years.
"During fall, we experience a classic transition from shallow to deep patterns," he says, "and the shift begins when the calendar indicates fall, though the weather can be far from fall-like. Despite temperatures that can still crack 100°F, baitfish move into creeks and bass follow. But the earliest arrivals are what we call, super dinks, bass just 6 to 8 inches long. They've been eating little threadfins in open water all summer and growing fast, and they're on the tails of the baitfish as the shift begins.
"At Fork and other waterways, there are populations of creek fish and main-lake fish. Some bass, including big ones, spend their entire lives within the confines of larger creeks. Others are more nomadic and shift from the wide open waters of the reservoir into creeks in fall and again in spring before the spawn, but spend the rest of the year in the main lake.
"The early fall bite gets good as some main-lake fish enter the creeks and start feeding on the flats, joining the creek fish. Horizontal baits work well among the weeds and stumps, including shallow-running cranks, spinnerbaits, rattlebaits, and bladed jigs like the Chatterbait. As the water gets colder, both resident creek bass and main lake bass move to deep water. But for the creek bass, deep water may be nearby creek channels only 4 to 8 feet deep. The main lake bass go out and hang by structure such as deep points or road beds from 15 to 28 feet deep."
Redington also notes a shift in preference from wider-wobbling square bills to a tighter action as the water cools, as well as increasing effectiveness of smaller lures. "Lucky Craft's RC 1.5 and the LV 100 rattlebait are top producers," he notes, "even for big bass. Also downsize spinnerbaits. Dominant baitfish are yearling threadfin shad, just a couple inches long. Also, bass' metabolism has slowed and they don't require big meals.
"Once resident bass move to the creek channels in late fall, I target them with jigs, as they hold at the edge of the grass or right by stumps. Spots where a grass edge extends right to the channel drop are prime, along with any wood. Be patient with these fish. On good looking spots, pitch the jig 6 or 7 times to tempt a strike. Shaking the jig in place also can get them to bite.
"Out in the big water, tailspinners and flutter spoons work well as the bite gets good after turnover. On shallower structures, deep-diving cranks can be good, too." Redington also reports that weather can play a factor in whether he targets main-lake bass or creek fish. "When it's sunny and calm, the deep, open-water fish seem to bite better. But in windy and rainy conditions, the creek fish become more active while the bite in the lake gets tough. Moreover, the confined creeks are easier to fish during those conditions."
Jigs have been a favorite for fall bass, as they fish effectively in the reduced area bass often occupy then. Jigs have been overshadowed somewhat by Texas-rigged softbaits for flippin' and pitchin' approaches from late winter through summer. But from Massachusetts to the Mexico border, fall is jig time.
Where hydrilla and milfoil can still be dense, jigs weighing 3/4 ounce or more can be in order. Bass typically hold near bottom, beneath the mat, and pounce on a bait once it lands. Match with a big trailer like a Zoom Brush Hog, Sweet Beaver, Trigger X Flappin' Craw, or 4-inch Berkley Powerbait Chigger Craw. But in cold water or when the bite turns tough, a slow falling lure can take fish when all else fails. Redington turns to a 1/4-ounce Lake fork Trophy Tackle MPack Jig, with a stout hook to land Texas lunchers.
While jigs are a great fall call, I always have softbaits rigged as backup, often a Lake Fork Craw Tube or Berkley Chigger Craw with a tungsten sinker of at least 1/2 ounce. When the bite seems off, for whatever reason, a plain softbait can draw more strikes than a jig. To bulk the presentation, add a punch skirt from Gambler, Paycheck Baits, or Leadhead Lures, between the sinker and hook. Another option is a skirted weight, originated by Gopher Tackle as the Worm Dancer, and including the new Grassbuster Jig Weight, available to 1½ ounces from Strikezone Lures.
Over the past few seasons, the efficiency of crankbaits for covering water and contacting active fish has been highlighted in waters across the U.S., in tournaments and among non-competitive anglers. And with an ever increasing array of depth-rated divers available, crankbaits are a fine tool for patterning bass during the fall transition, when favored depth can shift dramatically as fish more toward the bank or into creeks.
VanDam is a crankbait expert and lately he's been designing baits for Strike King, including the new shallow-running KVD 1.5 and super deep-diving 6 XD, which he uses to hit bottom in 20 feet of water on 12-pound XPS Fluorocarbon line. "Water clarity affects how deep vegetation grows, as well as plankton depth, which often keys the depth that shad and bass are typically holding. It's critical to pinpoint key depths as fall progresses. In murky impoundments on the Arkansas River, for example, deep early fall patterns might be just 8 feet deep. But at clear highland reservoirs like Table Rock, the fall transition toward main-lake coves might finally bring bass into the range of the deepest divers, up from depths of 25 to 40 feet they occupy in summer."
To identify the most productive depths, he relies on a Side-Imaging 1197 Humminbird sonar. Scanning laterally helps find large pods of shad and he's even used it to pinpoint schools of big bass. This process can be achieved with vertical sonar, of course, but it's more time-consuming. Note the depth of most fish activity and select baits that run in that range. Work them down through the baitfish, contacting bottom if it's in that depth range. To get the most from crankbaits, retrieve them parallel to depth contours so they're always in the fish zone.
Horizontal Baits for Fall Flats
From Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota to Lake Fork, prime mid-fall patterns often revolve around large weedy flats where bass gradually group as conditions change. Long casts allow you to contact several high-percentage spots, such as thicker clumps of grass or laying logs on a single cast. Five categories of lures are foremost in your arsenal.
Shallow running crankbaits, including square-bills like Rapala's DT-Fat 3, Lucky Craft's RC 1.5 and 2.5, and Strike King's KVD 1.5 have a wide-wobbling, searching action that's deadly while bass feed among shallow weeds or wood. Redington favors Dobyns Rods models 704CB and 705CB, both with fiberglass blanks but graphite fibers through the handle to reduce weight. "The result is a small-diameter, thin-walled glass rod that weighs about the same as some top graphite crankin' sticks" he says. "They combine the lightness and feel of graphite with the action of glass." He matches those with FluoroHybrid Pro line, a new formula from Lake Fork Trophy Lures, using 12-pound test for small cranks to promote lively action, and going up to 17- or 20-pound test with large square-bills. This line is a combination of fluorocarbon and monofilament, providing the excellent sense of feel of fluorocarbon and the limpness of mono.
Spinnerbaits have long been a fall favorite in natural lakes and reservoirs across the land. Waterways typically become murkier as dying vegetation releases nutrients that nourish a bloom of planktonic algae. Reductions in water clarity can make spinnerbaits more effective, masking their unnatural appearance, but maximizing the appeal of their vibration and flash. On some days, spinnerbaits outfish any other bait, but not always. It pays to try several lure categories before abandoning a good-looking spot.
Bladed jigs like the Chatterbait also excel in these conditions, giving off a sensational combination of sound, vibration, wiggle, and flash. Many casual anglers have had great success and few pros don't carry one rigged up, especially in spring or fall. The sideways chopping motion of the leading blade helps push grass aside, allowing the jig and skirt to move without hangups, and these baits excel in vegetation of all types. Their segmented frame also hooks bass well and keeps them hooked, as they can't use the lure's length as leverage to throw the hook.
Swimbaits, including styles best rigged on jigheads and paddletails Texas-rigged for weedless action are fine fall baits and gaining converts among all who try them. When using leadheads, fish braided line and rip the lure free as it starts to snag grass, freeing it and sometimes drawing a strike with a directional and speed change. Hollow-bodies excel when bass want an extremely slow presentation, including water temperatures in the low-50°F range or upper 40°F range. Barely turn the handle to keep them weaving among weedstalks, with the tail beating rhythmically.
Finally, rattlebaits are prime at this time, and an overlooked option in most regions. But just as in early spring, winding them along, with occasional snaps to clear vegetation is a deadly approach in cold water. One can speculate on reasons for their appeal (sound production, tight wiggle, realistic profile and size), but I don't worry why they work, but only know they do. Many experts downsize in fall, as bass feast on young-of-year threadfin shad. Lures like Lucky Craft's LV 100, Rapala's #7 Clackin Rap, Yo-Zuri's 3/8-ounce Rattl'n Vibe, or the XCalibur Xr 25 match the fall hatch nicely. Fish 'em on braided line, either with spinning or baitcasting tackle, and experiment with retrieve speed and cadence, as well as color.
Fans of fall foliage recognize that leaf colors undergo an annual cycle of change, with peaks occurring at a range of times across the continent. Bass location patterns do likewise. While generally predictable, there are seasonal and regional variations that add to the challenge and reward of the fall bite.