Once fall turnover is past, water temperatures hover around 50F. During the days after turnover, warm afternoons can encourage bass to bite aggressively on normal-size baits, or even outsize spinnerbaits and jig-and-pig combos.
Once night-time frosts have further chilled the waters, withering lily pads, cane, and other shallow vegetation, the presentation picture changes. Now, bitty baits usually are the best lures to throw, even for the biggest bass in the lake.
Following the midfall feeding spree, bass activity levels wind down, and on cold, blustery days, it can be hard to entice even a few bites. But bass do continue to feed when the opportunity arises. They usually won't chase lures but gladly slurp small offerings that look easy to catch.
In clear waters, you can watch late-fall bass with an underwater camera, and spot them lurking around the greenest and thickest clumps of vegetation remaining, often milfoil or coontail. Thick stalks of green cabbage are a real magnet at this time, if you can find it. The bass' preference for small baits extends to waters without weeds, too.
In reservoirs, working creek channels with small baits often is the key to great winter catches. And these mini-baits are an overlooked option throughout much of the country, where anglers consider a 3/8-ounce jig with a #11 Uncle Josh chunk a small bait.
Because of the reduced activity level of the fish, vertical baits that fall with a slow natural motion and look realistic when sitting on the bottom work best. That means jigs and soft plastics. The jig is the simplest of baits, which may be why it works so well in fall. Well, jigs work well anytime, but in fall they often are the best thing to throw.
Jig Choices: Select a downsized weedless bass jig or one of the new finesse-style jigs like the Terminator Tiny-T, Eakins Jig from Jewel Bait Company, Strike King Bitsy Bug, or the Falcon Finesse Jig. These baits come with a cut collar, which imitates a small crawfish or other invertebrate and also helps to make the bait fall slowly in a horizontal plane. Tip 'em with a 3-inch Berkley Power Craw, Eakins Craw, or small pork rind. If you don't use pork all summer, now is the time to stock several jars in your boat. The supple action of the skin can't be beat.
Hair jigs of fox hair or bucktail are another great fall addition to your tacklebox. The subtle motion of the hair and its natural buoyancy make it a high-percentage call when the water temperature dips below 50F.
Because the jig is compact, it gives you the best possible sense of feel of what the lure is doing, or what a bass is doing to it. Constantly weigh the lure as you tug or lightly lift it off the bottom, or ease it through a weed clump. If it's too heavy or too light, you have a fish on.
Soft Plastics: When it comes to down-sizing and finesse, tube baits are a natural choice. Where cover is sparse, rig a 3 1/2- or 4-inch tube on a ballhead jig, inserting the head into the tube with just the line-tie and the hook exposed. Not sure if it's a bite or a weed? Barely lift your rod and the hook starts to set.
In thicker vegetation or around woodcover, Texas-rigging a tube is the way to go. When the bite gets particularly tough, add sound to your tube. One option is to insert a metal or glass rattle chamber into the head of the tube and shake it periodically. Alternatively, insert a capsule of Berkley's new Bubble-Up or Crackle, a product that's freeze-dried carbon dioxide packed into a water soluble gel capsule, into the tube and let it soak. Soon the material starts popping and crackling like a bowl of Rice Crispies, and a bass moseys over for a look, then a tentative taste, and boom, you've got him.
When you find a key location, don't neglect to deadstick a bait on the spot. A dose of your favorite flavor formula will help too.
Other productive soft plastics include small weightless stickbaits such as the 4-inch Senko or Yum Dinger, Lunker City Finesse Fish, or grubs and small craws rigged on darter or mushroom-head jigs. On gravel bottoms, a 1/4-ounce football head backed by a 3-inch hula grub is hard to beat. That head gives maximum action to the little bait, with minimal forward motion.
You'll achieve maximum feel of these light baits with a high-modulus graphite rod that's light, and with an extra-fast tip for bite detection and quick hook-setting. If you've been really good this year, maybe Santa will bring you a St. Croix Legend Elite EC68MXF, a 6-foot 8-inch extra-fast wand. When combined with a top-end reel, you can easily cast jigs down to 1/8 ounce. I've found 10- or 12-pound fluorocarbon the ideal line for this kind of fishing. Select a brand that's supple because the cold air and water will increase any line's proclivity to curl.
When fishing these extreme conditions, always plan for comfort and safety. Dress with far more layers than you think you need, and put them all on at the beginning of the day. You can always remove layers if you get too warm. But after you get a real chill, adding more clothes often won't reverse your hypothermia, at least not for a while. And you'll be best prepared to feel light bites if you're comfortable.
When fishing cold water, wear a lifejacket at all times, particularly if you're fishing alone. Clad in boots and heavy clothes, you likely won't be able to climb back into the boat should you fall in, and all but the shortest swims are impossible. Drive slowly and watch your footing, particularly if ice is forming.