October 02, 2014
The air is crisp and cool. Days are getting shorter but banners are flying and footballs fill the air. It's football season, after all — but that means different things to different people.
Football season, for some of us, means smallmouths are setting up on fall spots. Those spots, throughout the range of smallmouth bass, north-to-south, tend to be football fields. Exceptions exist, but normal fall spots for smallies in most environments are places where the best thing to do is throw a football. Meaning a football-head jig, of course.
Smallmouths feed heavily in autumn under normal conditions. They tend to be most aggressive during and right after cold fronts that drop the water temperature a little or a lot this time of year. As days shorten, falling water temp becomes the norm and it triggers activity. Stable weather is good, but warming trends tend to make them lazy — just the opposite of spring and early summer.
Smallmouths concentrate more in fall than any other time of year, and the key to those concentrations tends to be crayfish density. Because they're feeding heavily, smallmouths want a consistent, well-stocked grocery store right next door. They aggressively tear into rafts of baitfish that happen by, but the more the water cools, the more structure- and bottom-oriented bass become. Their locations typically coincide with the highest densities of crayfish.
"Studies on Chequamegon Bay (on Lake Superior in Wisconsin) show that crayfish are the most important forage for smallmouths year-round," says Chris Beeksma, a top smallmouth guide. "Crayfish control location. Smallmouths may be feeding on something else at times — and around here it's schools of spottail shiners — but they locate where craws are thick. That makes it crucial to try bottom-oriented presentations that imitate craws."
Why Not Baseball?
The World Series is played in October, but it's football season all the same. In-Fisherman Contributor (and master smallmouth angler) Rich Zaleski sums up the reason for using a football head: "I use light football heads any time the lure will be resting on bottom for any intervals during the retrieve, simply because a football head is less prone to rolling over or laying on its side."
Other jigs have been designed to keep the point of the hook and a plastic trailer pointing up when resting on bottom, but none more stable than the football head. It maintains a natural posture as it walks, runs, rolls along, or just sits on bottom, making it less likely to foul, snag, or miss fish. Footballs are efficient, but also versatile, with lots of applications. Tipping one is not restricted to any particular style or type of plastic. It's not even restricted to plastic.
"I use 3/8- to 1/2-ounce Lunker City Football Head jigs when smallmouths position a little deeper in fall," Zaleski says. "I often tip them with 5-inch swimbaits like the Lunker City SwimFish. I can swim it when fish are marking high, but I can also use it in the manner football heads excel, which is tipping and rocking as it drags slowly on bottom. If I want to imitate craws, I use a Lunker City Piggy Back or a Zoom Super Chunk on a skirted football head. With a swimbait, I alternate between swimming the jig 2 or 3 feet off bottom then I go with a retrieve that finds bottom every 3 or 4 feet, then I make it stumble and roll right on bottom."
When Zaleski wants to swim a light jig-plastic combination, he goes with a 1/16- to 1/4-ounce Lunker City Football Head tipped with a Lunker City Grubster — a small, boot-tail grub. I often swim Kalin's, Yamamoto, and other 5-inch grubs on Gamakatsu Football 24s in fall. Smallmouths often follow a swimming grub or worm and one trigger involves dropping the lure to the bottom and resting it there. Few jigs allow you to do that more efficiently than a football-head jig, so I've taken a page from Zaleski's book (what else is new?).
In rivers, I swim grubs and action-tail worms on Lunker City Footballs I paint with Pro-Tec Powder from Do-it Molds (usually green pumpkin, watermelon, or smoke).
Jigs have taken on dozens of shapes and styles over the years but the fact remains that a jig is a jig. Shape does affect action, speed, profile, and how the package looks on bottom, but that doesn't mean you can't use a swim jig to work bottom or a football head as a swim jig. Jig shapes and styles look different but fall into the melting pot (pun intended) out on the water, in the hands of anglers who find their own reasons to like the cut of a jig. And when it comes to tipping a football jig with plastic, let fancy take its course — there is no right or wrong way with respect to style.
Lake Superior smallmouths face protracted fall periods and long winters under the ice. That could be why they're the most aggressive smallmouths I've ever encountered during the hardwater season. Beeksma deals with these ruffians year-round, and his favorite fall tactic involves tipping footballs with twin-tail grubs or craws.
"I use 1/2- to 3/4-ounce All Terrain Rock Jigs, depending on the wind, to fish depths of 10 to 40 feet in fall," Beeksma says. "I use 30-pound Sufix 832 braided line on the reel with 10- to 12-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon leaders. I like a long leader — at least the length of the rod — so 7 or 8 feet. Two reasons: I don't like retying often and sometimes I add a drop-shot hook to the leader. I use the football head as the weight with a Trigger X Probe Worm 18 inches above it on a drop-shot hook. Kills two birds with one stone."
The constant bumbling wobble of a football head rolling along bottom adds unique action to the drop-shot plastic, but Beeksma often finds that — even during a long pause while finessing the worm — smallmouths are just as likely to pick up the heavier football jig lying on bottom. (But what do you call it? The drop-ball rig? Sounds like a fumble.)
Unlike me, Beeksma "won't slow down as the water cools," he says. "I don't want to give them much time to look at it, no matter how cold the water gets. I don't hop it, I just shake the rod hard, so the jig stays in place and waves the trailer back-and-forth. I tip with craws most often, like the 4-inch NetBait Paca Craw. I pinch off a pincher on the craw to make it look wounded, and I don't use a skirt on the jig.
"When I move it, I want to maintain bottom contact," he adds. "Smallmouths generally are looking down in fall. When the water is colder, a football becomes an in-your-face presentation. Leave it in one place and work it for as long as it takes to trigger fish when you know where they are. Throw a crank and it goes in-and-out of the school. Throw a Rock Jig in there and it stays put until you want to move it. In the fall, smallies are in groups and packs. And they stay on the spot, no matter how much you pressure them, so football heads give them a longer look."
Beeksma uses a 7-foot St. Croix Legend Elite LEC70MF rod. It has a medium power, and he matches it with a Lew's reel with a 7:1 gear ratio. "All my reels are 7:1," he says. "The less reeling the better. And smallmouths pick up baits and come toward you more than any other fish. The one problem when guiding is that it's typical for clients not to know they have a fish on. I'll look up and see their line steaming toward the boat.
The All Terrain packaging says "Jim Moynagh's Rock Jig." Moynagh passed the $1 million mark in earnings last year as a bass pro, and a lot of that money resulted from football tactics. "I use football heads all the time," Moynagh says. "I certainly know they work really well in fall when smallmouths start congregating near wintering holes. A football jig is one of the best lures to use. Dragging tubes and drop-shots work, too, because fall smallmouths are so bottom-oriented.
"All Terrain is a sponsor and it's a great jig," Moynagh says. "I use a 3/4-ouncer in fall. If smallmouths aren't suspended, don't waste time on the drop. Go heavy. I either use a 4- to 5-inch twintail grub or a craw. I fish football heads a lot, but still can't tell you when a 4- to 5-inch twintail is better than a craw. I usually have two rods rigged — one with a twintail and one with a craw. Generally, I use a 7-foot, heavy-power casting rod. I like the heavier power because you're making longer casts with heavy jigs, and the longer rod helps pick up line on hook-sets after a long cast. The stiffer blank picks up slack quickly."
Cold, Speed, Hair
Jig speed — speed of the drop, speed of the retrieve — is important for smallmouths, especially in cold weather. In my experience, in most lakes and rivers, smallmouths respond best to increasingly slower speeds as the water cools.
Mississippi River smallmouths are a prime example. As the water cools to about 42°F, those smallmouths stop chasing crankbaits. They stop suspending and stop rising for suspending baits. But before they stop, they slow considerably. Burning cranks in 45°F water works about 1 day in 20, then becomes increasingly futile. As smallmouths become more bottom oriented and as the water continues to cool, going with a lighter jig forces me to fish slower to maintain bottom contact. Can you fish slower with a heavier jig? The operant word is "you." I want to work jigs too fast in fall.
When the water hits 38°F in rivers around here in Central Minnesota, a bottom-oriented retrieve that takes less than 5 minutes catches nothing at all about 9 days in 10. Looking at notes from the past quarter century, slowing down to a 7-minute retrieve produces an additional 5 or 6 smallmouths per day. Which is awesome when you realize that the average drops from about 50 fish per day at 48°F to about 1 bass per hour at 38°F. And that's on good days. Certainly, some populations of smallmouth bass remain more aggressive as water cools, but some good anglers rationalize they can beat the game by running from spot to spot, gleaning the most aggressive biters. But when river smallmouths finally settle down, wintering holes can be separated by 10 miles.
Save gas. Calm down. Stay put. Fish slower. I go with 10-pound Maxima Ultragreen or Sufix Siege on a medium-power 7-foot St. Croix Avid rod and I drop from 1/2- to 3/8- to 1/4-ounce football heads as the water cools between 50°F and 40°F. When dragging a jig over the lip of a depression or break, the speed that it falls becomes critical for triggering bass using that edge. A 3/4-ounce jig — in my opinion, considering my fishing style — falls too fast and hits bottom too heavily in 45°F water.
One way to slow down is to bulk up with spider-style grubs — skirted twintails, like the Yamamoto Hula Grub — when water temperatures drop below 50°F. Skirted jigs like the All Terrain Tournament Football Head tipped with a twintail fall slower. But using a different trailer, like a tube, creature bait, or YUM Dinger, on a lighter jig gives smallmouths something entirely new to consider.
Hair slows jigs, too. To best take advantage of the superiority of this head design in fall, try a football with hair. Bass see lots of football jigs tipped with plastics — far fewer tied with hair. Paul Jensen of Jensen Jigs ties footballs with fox hair, bucktail, and some with combinations that include feathers. And his little fox-hair Paw Craw has wire legs with claws fashioned from tufts of hair. Gabe Hillebrand (Hill Brand Tackle) ties a football jig with twin bunny strips to imitate claws. Andy Vallombroso (Andy's Custom Bass Lures) creates a "computer aided" football that combines hair with a silicone skirt. Somewhere in that mix of jigs is the perfect amount of sinuous movement to trigger fall smallmouths in any condition.
Smallmouths are structure-oriented bottom-huggers in fall because mud bugs are on the menu 24/7. History proves that shapes even so generalized as the tube can imitate a crayfish in the eyes of a bass. With today's realistic hair jigs and plastic craws, it's almost impossible not to score if you know where bass live in fall. Once upon a time, the forward pass was unheard of. Now quarterbacks throw footballs all the time.
Ott DeFoe recently won the Bass Pro Shops Northern Open on his home waters of Douglas Lake in Tennessee using a Terminator Football jig tipped with a Berkley Chigger Craw. "Actually, that was my cleanup bait," DeFoe says. "I fished the area first with a Rapala DT16. The crank would catch 3 to 5 bass, then the football would clean up on the less active fish.
"I was fishing long points that broke off into deeper water with small rock and rubble on bottom. I focused on areas where the bottom rolled up from 18 to 13 feet, using a 3/4-ounce Terminator. It was more weight than needed, but a heavier jig stays on bottom easily. Fish were postspawn, but I also use a football jig lots in fall. It gets more bites and bigger fish than everything but crankbaits and swimbaits.
"There are so many shad that time of year in reservoirs where I live. Bass actually turn away from them in fall, probably because shad hatched earlier that year are small. A big crawdad is likely more appealing and a skirted football head creates a realistic imitation.
"I start slowing the retrieve when the water dips to 50°F and below," DeFoe says. He fishes football heads with a Fenwick Elite Tech 7-foot 3-inch medium-heavy, extra-fast rod (new for 2014) with a Pflueger Patriarch 1191 (7.9:1 gear ratio) filled with 30-pound braid and 15-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon leader. "You feel stuff on bottom so much easier with braid," DeFoe says. "You hook bass much easier and better than with all fluorocarbon, too."