October 20, 2021
By David A. Brown
Fall is heavy feeding time for largemouth bass, but despite the frequent schooling activity and other reaction bait scenarios, there's also a lot of logic in keeping targeted baits like jigs, drop-shot rigs, Ned rigs and Texas rigs handy. Fact is, the fish aren't always in an active mood, but their autumn feeding instinct means you can often talk 'em into it between those chow sessions.
Starting with the exciting stuff, when the tail-end of nighttime feeding spills into the following day, you’ll often find creeks and pockets boiling as bass ravage bait schools. This is definitely the time for those moving baits, but despite the obvious aggression, you’ll do well to mind these points.
Don’t Crash the Party
Schooling fish will often zip to and from as they chase frantic bait schools, but approach with generous spacing. Fish running toward a dead boat is not the same thing as a boat encroaching on their feed. Once the fish sense a threat, it’s game-over. However, keeping your distance and making super long casts will keep the action going.
Mix it Up
Gorging fish don’t tire of the indigenous forage they chase day after day, but they absolutely will grow wise to baits they see too often. Topwaters, spinnerbaits, bladed jigs, swim jigs, flutter spoons, buzzbaits, jerkbaits, squarebills and lipless baits all handle a range of open-water scenarios, while frogs offer a great option for probing sparse vegetation or the tattered edges of diminishing grass mats. Remember, active fish aren’t always schooling at the surface, so watch your sonar for bait pods and probe the water column around the food source.
This is also a great time to throw an Alabama rig or a double fluke rig. For the latter, tie one end of a 3-foot fluorocarbon leader to a fluke rigged on an extra-wide-gap hook and the other to a swivel. Repeat with a 2-foot leader and feed your main line through the open end of the short leader’s swivel before tying to the longer one’s swivel.
Mimicking a bait cluster, this staggered setup increases casting distance and maximizes your presentation. Double-headers are common and the free sliding shorter leader allows two fish to tug independently without pulling directly against one another and potentially breaking the line.
Essential to this game is knowing your fishery’s main forage and matching size and presentations accordingly. For example, throwing jumbo topwater walkers or spinnerbaits with oversized willow-leaf blades that mimic gizzard shad where fish are accustomed to eating 2- to 3-inch threadfin shad is counter-productive overkill. (The same logic works conversely.)
As for retrieves, a casual-to-peppy look usually suffices for most schoolers, but in lakes where bass target the high-strung and fleet-footed blueback herring, you cannot reel a bait fast enough to elude hungry fish.
When the Window Opens
While fall feeds may seem random, a closer look often reveals key “bite windows.” First light and sundown are good bets; but maybe the wind picks up and moves bait around, or it could be an afternoon warmup on a cool fall day. Windows open and windows close—sometimes multiple times a day, so stay alert for baitfish flipping, distant pops and splashes or birds clustering near the surface.
However, while fall fish are driven by their feeding instinct, they don’t actually eat 24/7. Simple digestion realities mean they’ll take occasional breaks, while the midday lull and/or fishing pressure might break up the party. Throw in a fall weather system and the post-frontal “bluebird” conditions will put the schooling on hold for a day or two.
All this to say that fall definitely offers some of the most aggressive feeding, but between the bite windows, diligent anglers can pick off fish holding on prominent habitat features. Common examples include: Isolated rock, stumps, secondary points, bluffs, matted vegetation, pads and the shadow pockets behind overhanging trees.
Docks midway into creeks and pockets offer ideal chill-out spots where bass can escape the midday sun, while keeping watch for the next passing bait pod. Fall drawdowns and the seasonally lower water levels in natural lakes will take a lot of shallow cover out of the picture, but whatever remains is definitely worth a look.
Traditional flipping jigs, Texas rigs, football jigs and Carolina rigs are popular choices for the slower fall periods. As for plastic baits and colors, consider that bass between bite windows are looking at a lot of bream and crawfish, so rig accordingly.
Patient, methodical presentations are the way to go and don’t shy away from finesse baits. It might seem a departure from the general notion of heavy fall feeding, but when bass are chilling, a drop-shot rig, shaky head or Ned rig can keep you occupied until the next bite window opens.
Worth a mention: Schooling may mean roaming, widespread activity; or it could be a location-centered deal. Simply put, even if you’re fishing the slow stuff near a bridge, channel turn or brush pile, keep a fast-mover handy because fall’s fickle nature could trigger spontaneous schooling at any moment.
And don’t overlook the hybrid strategy of locating fish with reaction baits and then showing them an easier option. Whether it’s shallow running crankbaits, swimbaits, bladed jigs, topwaters or jerkbaits; between their main bite windows, bass will often follow moving baits, boil or swat at them and turn away without committing.
Sure, we’d rather see those aggressive bites, but a fish that A) reveals its position and B) displays enough interest to follow is a catchable fish. Fall can be as moody as a teenager, but polish your 1-2 punch and you’ll be ready to react to whatever the day offers.