Fire Up for Fall Largemouths
Among all the seasonal blessings we anglers enjoy, I’d rank a fine fall at the top of the list, especially if you place special emphasis on bass size, fishing conditions, and what lies ahead. In more southern latitudes, stifling heat gives way to pleasant weather that can last almost to Christmas. And in the North Country, a mild fall with gradually cooling conditions guarantees outstanding action for bigger-than-average bass, without the number of anglers and boaters of the spring and summer seasons.
There’s an old angling adage that bass stock up for winter by feeding heavily before cold conditions arrive, which reduces their metabolism. Studies of bass feeding in fall are scarce, but their plump appearance and the way they typically attack lures suggests there’s truth to this theory, particularly in waters that freeze over in winter. But other factors play a role as well.
Even in Florida, colder conditions limit the growth of vegetation, reducing available cover for baitfish and bass, and improving feeding opportunities for predators. In northern waters, ice cover virtually vacuums plant life from water less that six feet deep. And what’s left in deeper areas generally is dark, bedraggled, and dead. As it starts to thin in shallow areas, baitfish are forced deeper where more cold-tolerant vegetation remains, such as coontail and northern milfoil. And that’s where bass also settle, as vast mats of vegetation dissipate, leaving smaller beds and clumps of healthy vegetation in depths from 6 to 15 feet.
While vegetation is a good indicator of fall’s progression, the change is less obvious in larger impoundments with limited vegetation. Shorter days and a more distant sun bring cooler days and dropping water temperatures. Bass ace Kevin VanDam is a Michigan resident, but fishes across the country. As a touring pro with more than 25 years tenure and millions of dollars in tournament winnings, he’s learned to navigate seasonal changes across the country.
“I consider the start of the fall season as the first significant decline in water temperature from summer conditions,” he says. “In Alabama reservoirs, that might be a drop from 85°F to 75°F. Back home, it’s more like a fall from the upper 70s to the 60s within a week or two. At about this time, day length is reduced at a faster rate as well, which all aquatic life is cued into, just as much as terrestrial critters.” These declines cause a marked decline in aquatic vegetation, which is most pronounced in northern waters.
Within the boundaries of fall, it’s helpful to segment the season into early-, mid-, and late-fall periods. The final phase can also be labeled a pre-ice situation, with temperatures below about 42°F. The early phase can be considered to start with water temperature declines, as VanDam suggests, continuing as water cools to the mid-50°F range. Much of the southern bass range rarely experiences mid- and late-fall conditions. Mid-fall, then, represents the phase when water declines from about 55°F to the low 40s.
Northern Lake Fall Transitions
Cooling water changes the aquatic environment and alters the behavior of largemouth bass and other fish. During early fall, bass feed shallow, deep, and in between, with the best locations depending on amount of cover, temperature trends, and time of day. Big bass hold near shallow cover that’s close to deep water.
As fall progresses, shallow cover dwindles and more fish shift to remaining green vegetation in deeper water. As ice-up approaches, bass hold along steeper drop-offs offering remaining green plants or other cover like stumps or rock. They shift vertically to feed, occasionally moving shallow under mild, calm weather. But cold fronts, wind, or falling temperatures move them into water from 15 to 20 feet deep.
The Truth About Turnover
The fall season ushers in profound changes in the aquatic world, especially in northern latitudes. Alteration of the status quo can throw anglers off the bite, and many find fall fishing unusually challenging as fish locations shift. One of the common excuses for a poor catch is that a lake has turned over. It’s a common refrain of fall anglers from early September to well into October. This phrase pertains to the limnological processes that occur as water temperature declines.
For turnover to occur, a lake or reservoir must have been stratified in summer, with three layers of water segregated by their temperature, which determines their density. Warm water is least dense, so it floats on cooler water below. In summer, the top layer is warm, gradually cooling from the surface to a depth range that can vary from 8 or 10 feet in shallow productive lakes and ponds to more than 30 feet in deep oligotrophic systems. Below the warm surface layer is a relatively narrow band of water that abruptly drops from the low 70s at its upper edge to around 50°F, the thermocline.
Below lies the coldest water in the lake, the hypolimnion. In more fertile waters, this layer typically lacks sufficient oxygen for fish during summer stratification, limiting their distribution. As surface water cools, it becomes denser and starts to sink and mix with water in the thermocline below. Wind encourages this mixing and eventually the thermocline thins, then disappears. As the chilled water sinks to the bottom, debris and bubbles may rise to the surface, sometimes accompanied by a gassy smell and leaf fragments. Fishing can indeed become more difficult in this flux, but it’s short-lived, often just a week or so in a particular system. Each lake is different in its features, so turnover times vary. Many large, wind-blown or shallower lakes don’t stratify, and reservoirs with substantial flow also aren’t affected.
Regionally, differences in preyfish availability create differing location and behavioral patterns for bass. In most northern lakes, preferred prey includes crayfish, sunfish species, shiners, and chubs, plus juvenile yellow perch. In early fall, small panfish remain scattered among weedstalks, feeding on plankton and larval insects that thrive there. As cover thins, they move to remaining clumps of vegetation, especially coontail, northern milfoil, and broadleaf cabbage.
Bass, pike, and even walleyes invade these zones to feed heavily. Once lakes chill into the 40°F range, though, mid-size and many adult sunfish shift to deeper basin areas where they can feed on tiny bloodworms that live in the bottom. In this zone, they’re safe from bass predation as they remain shallower all winter. Indeed, bass metabolism nears rock bottom in the pre-ice period, but largemouths, being naturally curious and cantankerous, still can be caught, with some of the biggest fish of the year.
In reservoirs where shad are primary prey, a different seasonal progression occurs. Schools of shad follow rafts of phytoplankton and zooplankton as they rise and fall in the water column and react to currents. Shad often move shoreward and into creeks as reservoirs cool into the upper-50°F range, as areas that may have been stagnant and low in oxygen are revived by increasing winds and cooling water. Inflowing current also draws preyfish. Creeks are fertile and offer plankton and benthic algae for shad to feed on.
Bass follow their prey, making feeder creeks a good fall option in many areas. They hold along the channel, especially if woodcover remains. But they also move to boat docks, fallen trees and other cover that offers shade and feeding advantages. Early on, key areas often are nearer the main lake, but progress farther up the creek as fall progresses. This pattern is strongest in highland reservoirs that have countless creeks. Small feeders flow into larger ones, then finally major creek arms, often stretching many miles. Finding bass in a creek section often proves repeatable in similar creeks nearby.
But VanDam notes that river-run reservoirs, like Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River, offer a different pattern. “They have few major creek arms, but a lot of shallow pockets that extend less than a mile from the main lake,” he says. “Those creeks attract shad and a lot of small to mid-size bass around October. They may be in water so shallow you can hardly reach it in a boat.” But they offer no deep sanctuary so bass leave as fall progresses, shifting to deeper channel ledges.
Fooling Fall Bass
Fall fishing can provide some of the fastest action of the year with more than a fair share of outsize fish. The best bite often is in mid-fall once cover declines, as baitfish bunch up and bass get the message that winter is on the way. I’ve found that the first frost of the season often signals the onset of this phase.
Finders: It’s sometimes necessary to find fish, particularly in unfamiliar waters (including local lakes you haven’t been to since summer), and several lure styles help. Creeks often have riprap banks near the mouth, in the interior, or wherever bridges cross. Square-bill crankbaits excel there for quickly covering water to find fish and define location patterns. They bounce off cover and look vulnerable with their wide roll and halting cadence. They also work around stumps and trees, when retrieved with a tentative retrieve that helps them walk through cover unsnapped.
For probing deeper timber or clumps of vegetation, swimbaits stand out, both Texas-rigged with big weighted wide-gap hooks or on a heavy jighead. Its single hook is remarkably snag-free, but in the gnarliest situations, jigheads with a wireguard help. Swimbaits work best in clear water, with visibility of at least three feet. In murkier conditions, spinnerbaits literally shine and fish through cover well, offering a complete range of speeds that fall bass sometimes demand. While slow often scores best, a fast lure can cause bass to react, even in cold water.
Where bass feed heavily on big gizzard in fall, buzzbaits can be the bait to throw. Bass roam rocky shorelines and points along the main body of central reservoirs from Arkansas to Illinois on a major feed that can last into December. For some reason, they often can’t resist noisy buzzbaits worked quickly across the flats. Another fall option is one most folks consider a spring selection, the bladed jig. But their erratic wobble and pulsing tail work well in milder conditions when bass lurk in grass clumps.
Another deadly option is an umbrella rig, particularly where schooling baitfish are common. I’ve never seen a lure so utterly outfish everything else you can try. It gets deadlier as water temperature drops and baitfish school tighter. They work in creek channels or in the main-lake basin, wherever shad school. The more hooks the better, but I’ve done fine with a single-armed swimbait and a pack of dummies, as long as the one is colored differently or larger than the rest. This lure brings out competitive feeding in bass like no other and this is its time.
Deadly Drop Baits: A long-time fall favorite is a big jig-and-pig, built to drop into remaining cover and tempt big bass to eat. In vegetated areas, I’m never without my jig rod. I’ve been a fan of pork trailers for fall, as the subtle flutter of the legs and its salty, meaty consistency encourage bass to hold onto the lure. Though Uncle Josh terminated its pork production, I have a lifetime supply in the basement. But I’ve also found an able substitute—Berkley’s MaxScent Chunk and Power Chunk. The 3.25-inch Power Chunk is shaped like the old #11 Chunk, with thin appendages that flip up as the lure falls. The 3-inch Meaty Chunk has elongated legs that work well for a more active retrieve. The MaxScent colors have a natural matte appearance that excels in cold water with finicky bass.
Their primary appeal lies in the flavor formula baked into MaxScent baits, water soluble to draw extra strikes and ensure that bass won’t spit out your jig. Berkley scientists worked for years to formulate this material, infusing it with the most appetizing flavors yet devised. If you don’t set the hook when your line jumps, you can watch it start moving as the bass carries off its tasty prize.
On certain days, the bite is off and more finesse may be needed. It also pays to downsize when faced with pre-ice conditions—water in the low-40°F range or less. I’ve found 1/4-ounce hair jigs hard to beat in those conditions, with a small realistic craw trailer. A slow fall and extended bottom time seem to work best, once you’ve found a group of fish or defined the best cover, whether it’s remaining healthy vegetation, rock, or wood. You know the fish are there so the job is to make them bite. The subtle flare of fox hair is deadly, but sparse bucktail ties have their day, too.
A 2.5- to 3.5-inch tube is another solid option, one that also keeps fishing when it’s sitting still, as the cut legs quiver. Both hair and tubes are outstanding carriers for flavor products, but more on that later. As an original “Ned-rigger,” I know that this simple rig was designed primarily for catching bass in the coldest conditions that Kansas reservoirs can dish out. It’s in those situations that Ned Kehde and his hearty comrades often catch more than 20 bass per hour on cut down ElaZtech baits on mushroom-head jigs. Their brand of “no-feel” fishing is amazingly deadly during this time, once anglers get accustomed to its subtleties and intricate options.
We know from a scientific viewpoint that bass’ metabolism declines with water temperature, especially below 50°F. They don’t require as much food (calories), so lures often must be presented precisely and slowly to draw strikes in a chilled environment. For this reason, I feel strongly that late fall is the best time to incorporate as many sensory attractors as possible.
Though bass may not be in hunting mode, they bite lures, as we see ice-fishing every winter. Use bright colors to accent a softbait, such as coloring a tube’s tentacles chartreuse. Contrasting colors draw fish’s attention and may peak their curiosity if not their appetite. To further examine an object, they put it in their mouth and give you a chance to hook them.
Rattlebaits are overlooked for fall fishing, but they can work well retrieved or yo-yoed over vegetation or worked along deeper drops with a lift-fall cadence. I’ve done best by downsizing to 1/4-ounce models of Rapala Rippin’ Raps, Rat-L-Traps, and the Booyah One Knocker. Rattling crankbaits work, too, adding sound attraction and vibration to the visual image of the lure.
For years, I caught lots of big bass from water less than 42°F by inserting Crackle capsules into tubes and using their sound production with a near-deadstick presentation. Crackle, invented by Canadian Dale Barnes and no longer available, packed freeze-dried carbon dioxide crystals in gel capsules that slowly melted in water, causing the crystals to pop. Putting a tube next to your ear was reminiscent of breakfasting on Rice Crispies. Bass were drawn to the noisy tube, ignoring silent versions.
If you stow scent products in summer, late fall is time to bring them on deck. I’ve had success with many of the popular formulas that can be applied to lures. In cold water, they don’t wash off readily. Last season, I found Berkley’s new MaxScent softbaits excellent in many situations, but they shone brightest in cold water. In those conditions, bass seem to slowly approach lures and may even nudge them before gulping. At close range, and in slow motion, scent and flavor products are at their most potent.
Fall bass can be a challenge, especially after the early-fall feeding splurge has passed and winter announces its approach. But the solitude of even the most popular lakes, sights of migrating birds and barren trees, and the chance to catch yet another great batch of big green fish make it my favorite season, one that creates memories to last until the following spring.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Quinn is a bass expert, fishery scientist, and longtime writer for In-Fisherman publications.