Fall Smallmouths: The Topwater Dossier
November 11, 2019
Fishing the channel edge on the Mississippi with a crankbait, peripheral vision caught an immense surface disturbance under a long row of overhanging hardwoods. Multiple fish. Must be carp, I thought, and kept chunking a Bomber 6A upriver.
About 15 minutes later it happened again. Several fish, all erupting at the same time. Hmmm. Bass? Nah. It’s fall. Water’s cold. But why not check it out? Nothing happening on the channel edge anyway.
I dug around in the box and found an old Buddha Baits Pop-Fire (discontinued), tied it on, and launched it back under the overhanging branches. It blew up like a grenade when it hit the water. This bass was Willy Mays reincarnated. And at least 20 bass followed Willy to the boat. Figures. Willy had a lot of fans.
From that day until the water dropped to about 42°F, a topwater wasn’t just something to try. It was the best way to catch bass every day. It was a little piece of heaven because nothing beats catching bass on top. Especially smallmouths. But that was 24 years ago. I’ve never seen anything like it since. Yet, every fall, I check it out and always have some success with topwaters right through October.
Usually in fall, there’s a Rapala X-Rap Pop or Heddon Baby Torpedo bite, but it might be right for a walking bait, like the Rapala Skitter Walk. Nobody else seemed to be doing it late in the year. Then the Dossier went public.
One of the strangest things about the Topwater Dossier is how the late-fall action described gets better and better the farther north a lake or river is. So starting in the South might build some suspense.
Fishery scientist and In-Fisherman Contributor Hal Schramm lives on Pickwick Lake during winter—near the southern end of the natural range of smallmouth bass. “We have a different dynamic that doesn’t occur on all southern reservoirs,” he said. “Pickwick and a few others are a bit unique. Gizzard shad are the deal for smallmouths year-round. In fall, shad move into coves and they don’t make that movement in all lakes.
“In Pickwick they don’t use all the coves, either. They might be in coves A, B, and F this year and in C, D, and E the next. So you hunt. You look for schooling. If you find it, a topwater is a viable tool. A Zara Spook is always good. I heard that some guys caught smallmouths on River2Sea Whopper Ploppers around boat houses last fall.”
But Pickwick, according to Schramm, is hardly a topwater fisherman’s dream in autumn. “I don’t know if we’ve come up with enough smallmouths on top to develop a pattern,” he said. “We catch a few here and a few there. But for the bigger fish, you have to find the coves with gizzard shad. Even then, it’s a better jerkbait bite than a topwater bite.”
He often finds smallmouths on primary points leading into those “musical-chair coves” shad use one year and skip the next. “I mostly use a shaky head in areas where 8-foot depths stairstep down to 12 then to the abyss,” he said. “And fishing is slow. Catching 2 or 3 on a point is typical. They might be small or they might all be 6 pounds, but it’s not fast and furious.”
The Other Great Lakes
Traveling north to Northwest Iowa, Doug Burns, owner of the Iowa Guide Service, finds topwater fishing that sounds a little more inviting. “Anyone who likes fishing enjoys a good topwater bite when it happens,” he said. “But I think my obsession might surpass normal. I’m always looking for it—pushing limits, maybe even forcing fish to bite on the surface.
“Over the past 8 years, here on the Iowa Great Lakes where I guide, one pattern in particular has developed for smallmouth bass due to pushing the parameters of a late summer bite well into fall,” he said. “Catching smallmouths on shallow flats in that late-summer into early-fall period when water temperatures first start to fade into the 60°F range is nothing new. Under the proper circumstances, that shallow flats bite hangs on well into October, and, on a few rare days of perfect conditions, November, with waters temps dropping to near 40°F.”
The Dossier begins to define a strong baitfish connection. “Typically, topwater bites happen when active bass chase bait,” he said. “Whether that’s largemouth bass chasing shad or herring in the open water of a reservoir, or smallmouths herding perch out of weeds onto shallow rock flats and pinning them against the surface in a mad frenzy—baitfish and plenty of them trigger action on top. This is not the case, though, in cold water, where the bite seems driven by sunshine and calm weather. A slight rise in surface temperatures often accompanies these conditions, luring smallmouth into water so shallow I’m surprised you can’t see them.”
The topwater bite is linked to certain structural elements and water temperatures, according to Burns. “Long narrow points produce bass early on, when the water is still in the low-50°F to upper-40°F range,” he said. “But those points need to be connected to a wide flat with lots of rocks in 1 to 3 feet of water. Rock spines topping at 2 to 5 feet in the backs of bays provide action in that same temperature range. Below 48°F, these areas are too far from deep water and smallmouths won’t travel that far.
“Below 48°F, the first thing to look for is a rounded point on a south- or west-facing shore,” he said. “Those areas receive the most intense sunshine. The point must be covered with rocks and boulders along the shore, with rocks extending out to 4 and 6 feet. Shallow rocks, especially those half out of the water, hold heat from the fall sunshine. This warming effect, though it may only be a degree or less, pulls smallmouths in and puts them in position to be targeted on top.
“The best rounded-off points consist of a short flat, maybe 20 yards wide, with a drop-off into deep water. Smallmouths are not living in the shallows—just visiting briefly for 2 to 3 hours in the late afternoon, enjoying the last remnants of sunshine before the lake freezes over. I don’t think bass go up there to feed, but they smash a properly presented topwater.”
Burns likes big walking baits, like the new Berkley J Walker and the Strike King Sexy Dawg. “Those are my first choices during fall,” he said. “Big, heavy baits cast a long ways on a 7- to 7½-foot, medium-heavy baitcasting rod and reel spooled with 30-pound braid. Long casts well beyond key spots won’t spook fish hanging out in shallow water. Braided line provides good hook-sets on the long cast, but also elicits the right action on a walking bait with little effort or rod movement.
“A perfect cast lands within inches of the shoreline. Let the bait sit until the ripples dissipate before twitching it just enough to walk it side-to-side. It’s almost like working a jerkbait only on the surface. The goal is to get action on the bait without much forward movement. Just put the bait in a slow lazy walk. Sometimes it pays to throw in a pause or two. The first 10 to 15 feet from shore are key. After that I wind it back in and make another cast.”
Buzzbaits can be effective at times. “With buzzbaits, big and bulky is best,” Burns said. “I like to tip the bait with plastic to make the bait more buoyant so it can be worked as slow as possible. Always engage the reel before the lure lands so all the slack comes out of the line before splashdown. With this presentation, the buzzer stays on the surface for the entire retrieve for those critical moments when the bait is in the skinny water right next to shore, where most bites occur.”
The Shad Connection
The bite heats up even more around the, uh…other (psst: “real”) Great Lakes (not sorry). Scott Dobson, a touring FLW pro, finds topwater action every fall where rivers meet, or empty out of, the Great Lakes if gizzard shad are present.
“Smallmouths gather at the mouths of the rivers because shad show up there,” he said. “They come to the mouth of the Detroit River from Lake Erie, into the mouth of the St. Clair River from Lake St. Clair, and to the heads of the rivers exiting the lakes. Where lake turns into river or vice-versa, falling water temps, shortening days, or both trigger shad movements. Smallmouths set up on flats and predictable spots. Schools of bass ball up the shad and drive them up. Look for bird activity or shad busting the surface.”
Like Burns and others soon to be called to the stand, walking baits shine brightest for Dobson. “A bone-colored or white walking bait is prime,” he said. “Big ones, like the 5-inch Zara Spook One-Knocker, worked as fast as you can walk it. The Lucky Craft Gunfish can be walked a little faster. A lot of other baits work as well. A white Rebel Pop-R works well, too. We do this for fun. It’s not necessarily a tournament winning tactic, but I did have a client catch more than 50 one day in early October with a Lucky Craft Sammy 115.”
Two things: The Great Lakes cool much slower and time of day isn’t a factor for Dobson: “Surface bites can happen any time, from early morning to late evening. Here, the autumn topwater bite tails off when water hits the low-60°F range. On average, that means early October. Peak time is the mid-60°F range. Big walking baits require a medium-heavy rod and straight 30-pound braid. I got away from mono, but sometimes use a mono leader. It’s always great when you get a topwater bite going. On smaller lakes, you can get them going on top in colder water, right down to into the 40°F range.”
Next on the stand: Fellow In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Quinn. “There is a consistent late-fall topwater bite on the Mississippi River on Pool 4,” he said. “Smallmouths get packed in on wing dams. Typically, any current break—rock walls, jetties, wing dams, laydowns—collect gizzard shad and, thereby, smallmouth bass. It persists until the water gets down to 50°F. The One Knock Spook is the deal. Move it fast, walking the dog. Work it over the top of a wing dam or right in front of it, or any current break area.”
Quinn pulls up on the downstream side of a wing dam and maneuvers the boat side-to-side into the flow. “You want to work along shore behind a wing dam, too,” he said. “You might want to start there and work up. With less current, the bite is different. In Pool 5, smallmouths were right out in the middle, feeding on shad. It’s a shad-and current-driven pattern. Smallmouths push the shad up to the surface. They’re looking up, and it’s a big-fish pattern.”
Working over the top of a wing dam is right, but not everything. “Smallmouths aren’t necessarily in shallow water,” he said. “They sometimes come up off the edge, from 8 or 9 feet and might come flying out of 6 or 7 for sure. I like mono with a 6-foot 10-inch medium-power baitcaster to work it briskly. You must maintain control of these big bass when they get out in that current, so you need 15-pound mono on a medium-power rod with some flex down through the top third.”
The One Knocker is about 43⁄4 inches long and weighs about 3/4 ounce. “It clunk-clunks pretty loud,” he said. “Bone seems to be the best color. This is a consistent pattern every year. Bass are chasing shad, including the largemouths, but mainly it’s a smallmouth program. Usually, several fish can be taken from every wing dam but you have to cover water. Shad, averaging about 3.5 inches in length, are hanging around on the current breaks. They can tolerate a lot of current until the water drops down into the 40°F range and that’s the end of the pattern. Then you have to go down on bottom for smallmouths.”
The Canadian Shield
But shad don’t persist up here, where Quinn and I live, and the In-Fisherman office is situated, on the Upper Mississippi. Nor farther north, where former Ontario resource manager Gord Pyzer steps up to the mic: “We’ve seen surface lures become more and more productive, later and later into the fall,” he said. “I won a fall tournament here on Lake of the Woods about 15 years ago with a 2-day 10-fish limit of 41-plus pounds. It occurs every fall on the third weekend of September. I caught those fish on a deeper main-lake hump. These days, bass don’t even show up there until well into October.”
Weather is a critical issue. “To get in on the best topwater dogfights, watch the weather,” he said. “Extended periods of uncharacteristically warm, sunny, calm conditions in autumn bring smallmouths charging to the top up here. Four, five, or six days of warm weather can blow your mind and punish your elbow. Forget about being subtle. Make the lure hop, pop, chug, and spin like crazy. Smallmouths are concentrated and feeding aggressively, so play to their competitive spirit. It’s the antithesis of how we often fish surface baits early in the season.”
Pyzer is old school and mono proves it. “A fast reel is key,” he said. “I spool a high-speed 6:1 or faster baitcaster with 12- or 15-pound Maxima Clear mono (it floats and stretches) and my favorite lure is the Rapala X-Rap Prop. I cast it as far away from the boat as possible and work it aggressively with a back-and-forth walk-the-dog retrieve with only slight pauses. When the conditions are right, the more erratically I present the lure, the more bass I catch.”
And then the Dossier gets controversial. Pyzer, a former Ontario resource manager, says climate has much to do with the increasing effectiveness of topwaters in late fall way up North. “My friend, Dr. Mark Ridgway, a renowned smallmouth scientist, tracks fish from his Harkness Research Laboratory in Algonquin Provincial Park, as part of the longest continuous census of an animal population on Earth. He says smallmouth bass are modifying their fall feeding habits.”
According to Ridgway, smallmouths stay near shore longer during the fall. “Ridgway has been using depth-sensing tags,” Pyzer said. “He could see smallmouths were moving deeper through the fall equinox, but not to their winter locations. In the 1990s, bass had arrived at wintering sites by that point.
“Bass are lingering in shallow water longer than 25 years ago, taking on what Ridgway calls an “extra cost,” he said. “In recent years, when fishermen have been looking for smallmouths to show up on traditional deep haunts, friends and I have been enjoying outrageous action casting propbaits around rocky mainlake shoals and pencil reed flats.”
All of which points to a simple bit of advice: Never give up on surface action until winter rips the topwater rod from your cold, blue fingers.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, an exceptional multispecies angler, has been writing about smallmouths for more than 30 years.