By David A. Brown
Picture the best fireworks display you’ve ever seen: Blast after thunderous blast, with a myriad of dazzling elements all competing for your attention. That’s kind of how it is with the fall bass gorge fest; that exciting time when largemouth, smallmouth and spots crank up the feeding in advance of winter’s approach.
Throughout the nation, threadfin and gizzard shad, along with other regional faves, have a tough time in the fourth quarter, as they face the most relentless pursuit they see all year. Of course, the purpose here is nutritional intake; a fattening up, if you will, intended to get the fish through the cold season’s greatly diminished feeding opportunities. But, while angling entertainment never factored into nature’s design, it is most certainly a welcome byproduct.
For anglers, it’s all in the way the bass feed; the absolute reckless abandon with which they attack baits, the extended feeding periods that often last throughout the day, the noticeable decline in edginess. Summarily, this is one of the best times of the year to catch numbers of fish, with the ever-present potential of running into a pack of big’ns.
B.A.S.S. Elite pro Tim Horton says the key to more fall bass is locating baitfish.
“This is one time of year you really want to watch for the birds and watch activity along the surface to see what’s happening,” said Raymarine pro Tim Horton. “Moving into the backs of creeks, anywhere you have edges and turns; that’s where the shad are really going to stack up.
“Also, if there’s hydrilla in the lake, you’ll find shad gathering around the point where it goes from no grass to a solid wall. The thing about shad is that they’re always swimming. It’s like if you put a wind-up toy in a box, eventually they’re going to end up in the corner.”
WHEN IT HAPPENS
To properly frame this, let’s look at what bass like and dislike:
Sunrise: It’s like opening a new jar of peanut butter; first crack at something good. That’s how bass view that crack-o’-dawn period when gilded fingers reach into their world and flip on the light switch.
Sunset: Same as daybreak, but there will always be a little extra giddy-up when predators know their prime feeding times are ending.
Full moons: As long as the sky remains clear, the big night light allows fish to enjoy nocturnal feeding. For a few days before, during and after the big moon phase, expect fantastic after-hours fishing, but the following day might be slow if the fish wake up with full bellies. Give ‘em time and they’ll be back at it for the afternoon shift.
Mild Weather: Fall inherently brings a cooling of air and water temperatures, but it’s the sharp declines that can rattle the scene. This is particularly important when considering overnight temperatures. Cooling days are easily managed, as fish respond to diurnal warming. However, when nights take a significant plunge of 10 degrees or more, expect a slower start the following morning.
Pre-Front: Cold fronts play a major role in the seasonal transition and, while there’s definitely a big-picture application, you don’t want to miss the short-term impacts. Barometric fluctuation, especially downward movement, always seems to stimulate the fish, but factoring in the looming sense of fall motivation and the day or two before a front passes through, the fish will just about chew the motor off the transom. Darkening skies, blustery conditions, increasing rain chances — it’s not pretty, but such can be the making of a banner fall day.
Visible baitfish turmoil is a surefire indicator that bass are in the vicinity.
Post-Front: On the flip side of that previous point, this one summarizes the fall bite’s main killers. A cold front’s passing brings the dreaded “blue bird” conditions defined by cloudless skies, no wind and high pressure. Great day for boat rides and bird watching; but fishing? Not so much.
Theories vary on whether the high pressure irritates a fish’s senses, or if it’s just the extreme sunlight that sends them tight into cover. In any case, passing cold fronts give bass the bad-hair-day blues. The good news: within two to three days, the pressure will stabilize, clouds return, temperature’s gain a few points and the fish resume their feasting.
WHERE TO LOOK
Considering our discussion of water temperatures, overnight fluctuations, etc., you’ll want to consider how habitat affects fish comfort — certainly, the bass; but more so the smaller, more vulnerable baitfish. East facing pockets and banks catch the earliest light and, therefore, warm up the earliest. Conversely, those looking west will entertain more of the afternoon action as dwindling daylight lingers longest.
Bluff banks, those vertical rock walls often occurring on the deeper outside edges of a creek channel’s shoreward bend, present one of the most popular fall targets, as they allow bait schools to hold near structure and simply descend or ascend to find their comfort zone. Daybreak might find the bait holding in deeper water, while the day’s warming gradually pulls them higher in the water column. If the day becomes too bright or too warm, those baitfish often slide lower on bluff with another rise expected at day’s end.
Hard to soft bottom transitions, like the submerged roadbed seen above, often attract both bait and bass in fall.
Standing timber and deeper docks offer similar options, so take note of what’s around you. Beyond these particular spots, bait schools often roam this time of year, but you’ll find the majority of the action in creeks and coves off the main lake. Schooling activity — packs of bass driving baitfish to the surface — paints a big red X on your casting targets, but between the topside cues, Horton says frequent attention to his electronics helps him stay with the groceries.
Running Raymarine electronics, Horton said the fall of the year puts an emphasis on water temperature. In early fall, he’s looking for the cooler areas, as fish are still seeking relief from summer’s swelter; while late fall puts a premium on warmer water. Topping the priority list, however, are those quick little protein nuggets...
“The big thing I like with the Raymarine is putting the SideVision on and really expanding it out it out to 100-120 feet (on either side) and idle down the middle of the backs of the creeks,” Horton said. “You just look for where the biggest balls of shad are. That’s something you can see really well on SideVision.”
Horton said that, when in doubt, it’s always good to look to the windy side of a lake. Especially after a sustained blow, the shad will be stacked in the downwind areas.
WHAT TO THROW
Suffice it to say that fall is not the time for flipping and pitching those jigs and Texas rigs. For one thing, the fish are on the move this time of year, and with the exception of those post-frontal days, targeted presentations are typically less productive than chunking and winding covering water. More importantly, it’s about matching the look and frantic action of that natural forage the fish are chasing.
“To me, the fall is all about surface baits,” Horton said. “I like the Profound Outdoors Popper Z, Azuma Z Dog walking bait or a Roll Call buzzbait. Any of these baits will mimic the shad in the fall of the year.
“It’s all pretty aggressive retrieves that time of year. When the water starts getting down around 60 degrees, I slow it down; but until fall transitions into winter, the action is pretty fast-paced.”
Another surefire topwater is LIVETARGET's Yearling Walking Bait. The walk-the-dog style bait features the brand's innovative BaitBall appearance, which ideally mimics the young-of-the baitfish bass home in on in fall.
A fall classic, the spinnerbait gives you the option of burning high in the water column or slow rolling near the bottom — all depending on bait school position. Shad colors like white, grey and chartreuse are your best options, while willow leaf blades do the best job of mimicking live baitfish. Experiment with different spinnerbait weights and blade sizes to achieve the depth/action that the bass like, but always use a trailer hook in the fall, as fish are often slashing at prey so they can easily miss the main hook.
For subsurface work, you’ll do well to keep handy a swim jig, Chatterbait and a soft body swimbait on a weighted hook or a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce swimbait head. Crankbaits matched to the target depth also deserves a spot on your deck, while suspending or slow sinking jerkbaits are killer on those bluff banks.
Lastly, consider the wisdom of keeping an unweighted Texas-rigged Senko or fluke-style bait on standby for fish that boil, bump or simply miss a topwater bite. Toss this subtle bait into the hot zone, twitch it like a wounded bait and try killing the action for a slow quivering fall that looks too easy to resist.
Often, such follow-up baits get nailed the second they break the surface; but if they fish snub your follow-up attempts, move on. There’s usually another rally just around the next bend.