December 12, 2023
Cold front. Those two words can send shivers down the spine of any avid bass angler. After months of consistent, albeit challenging, summertime fishing, and weeks of gradually cooling water in the early fall, the first real cold front can shake things up and send fishing into a tailspin—unless you move with the bass or to the bass.
For a lot of anglers, fall is the most enjoyable and productive time of the year. Waters are less crowded as many anglers take to the woods for hunting season. Skiers, pleasure boaters, tubers and swimmers are long gone, and casual outdoor lovers often stay home to guard the couch rather than face brisk temperatures. All that helps to make fall a very productive bass season.
That is, until that first big cold front hits. When that arctic blast powers through—out of Canada or Santa's workshop or wherever it originates—all bets are off, and it seems that no matter how solid the fishing patterns were, they're now ready for the scrap heap. There's just too much change in temperature and too much transition for things to remain the same. In fact, things can seem so dramatically different, even diehard anglers choose to stay home.
But losing a day of fishing is a sacrifice you shouldn't have to make. Think "adjust" instead of "abandon," and get out there. There are loads of bass to be caught this month.
STEP 1: Don't Change a Thing
The first thing to do when you're facing post-frontal conditions after the initial cold blast of fall is stay the course. Don't assume that everything has changed just because you're wearing a heavier jacket. After all, it takes more to impact the temperature of the water and the creatures in it than it does to change the environment above the water. There's a chance that the fishing will be much the same as it was before the front passed. But unless you stay the course and give previous patterns and locations a try, you'll never know.
This is not to say that you should spend 8 or 9 hours fruitlessly fishing the same way you did before the front; that would be a waste of time.
I call it "Einstein's Inverse Insanity Rule." You've probably heard the definition of insanity usually attributed to Albert Einstein: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Well, fishing in general and bass fishing in particular starts to make a lot more sense when you consider the reverse of that axiom: "Good fishing is doing different things until you get the results you seek." Sometimes that takes just a few minutes of trial and error; sometimes it can take hours. After a big fall cold front, try to limit such an effort to just an hour or so.
If, after an hour, you haven't repeated your pre-front success by fishing the same areas and patterns, you need to change something. To keep doing the same thing in the same places would be insane.
STEP 2: Blip or Shift?
Once you've determined that the bass are not in the same places or doing the same things, you need to figure out whether this is merely a blip on the fishing radar or a meaningful shift.
A "blip" occurs when the bass are still in the same area, but they're not as active because of changes in water temperature and their metabolism. Start by assuming a blip rather than a shift.
Why? Once again, it'll be easier and faster to work your way through the possibilities if you stay where you are and simply change tactics. Were the bass active and chasing before the front? Was there a good topwater bite? Were you picking up a lot of reaction strikes as your crankbait caromed off rocks and stumps?
If you're lucky, those bass haven't moved far. They've just hunkered down in the heaviest cover available, or they need a bait that's moving much slower to match their metabolism.
Trade your topwater, crankbait or spinnerbait for a jig or stick worm. Slow down and soak the bait. Instead of working the edges of cover, go inside it as far as you can, making multiple casts to the best-looking spots and trying them from several different angles.
If the cover's heavy enough or the water is dingy enough to allow you to get close, pick up your flipping rod, rigged with heavy line and a jig, and really dissect the gnarly stuff. Strikes are not likely to be aggressive, and most of them will come on the initial fall. But if the bass are there, you're almost certain to generate some bites.
On the other hand, if the cold front is severe, or when it comes later in the season than expected, it will be more than a blip. The front will represent a shift in bass location and behavior that will require a more dramatic response from the angler. Instead of hunkering down, slowing retrieves and going in after them, you'll need to assess the direction they're moving and relocate them.
STEP 3: In or Out?
Once you've determined that the front has triggered a shift of seasonal activity, the next step is to figure out whether that shift will send the bass into shallower water where they will become more active, or into deeper water where they will become less active. The latter is far more likely, but let's be optimistic and explore the former option first. Again, there are a couple of reasons to do this. For starters, shallow bass are typically easier to target and catch. Second, you can eliminate shallow patterns more quickly than deep-water options. By going shallow first, you should find out pretty quickly if you're going in the right direction or if you need to change course and go after fish that are behind you.
When trying the shallows in hopes that the bass are following shad or other forage up into creeks or the backs of bays, several baits shine. Squarebill crankbaits and spinnerbaits are great for fishing fast and covering water, which is perfect if the bass are still active. These should be given a try; however, if they fail, it's time to switch gears.
A slow presentation is now best, and few lures are as strong for that as a weightless or wacky-rigged stick worm. Just cast it out near cover or structure and let it fall. If there's a bass nearby, you'll know it when your line twitches or starts to move off. Unfortunately, it's more often the case that post-frontal fall bass are moving in the other direction—toward the main lake and deep water. Here, they're likely to be less active and aggressive.
Start your search off the deep side of main-lake points, around bluff banks or in other areas where you find sharp drops into some of the deepest water available. With good electronics, you can often see these fish before you cast to them, making your bait selection easier because you know their depth and relationship to cover.
A couple of standout lures for this situation are jerkbaits and jigs. Jerkbaits are great for clear water and suspended fish that aren't too deep. With fluorocarbon line, which sinks, you might be able to effectively fish a jerkbait down to 15 feet or so. Any deeper—or if the fish are holding on or near the bottom—and you should pick up a jig.
No matter which way the fish move, slowing down your retrieve and making multiple presentations is ideal after a cold front. Bass are cold-blooded, so their metabolisms are controlled by the temperature of the water. When the water cools, they slow down. Be sure to slow down with them.
- These baits excel when the bottom falls out of the mercury.
Simplifying fall fishing after a cold front is a key to success. Four bait types, in particular, are absolute essentials.
The square-bill crankbait is a great tool for covering shallow water quickly and triggering strikes from active or even inactive bass. Deflect them off rocks, stumps and other cover. The lip on a quality square-bill, like the Berkley Squarebull (berkley-fishing.com; $6.99), prevents it from snagging, but not from hooking fish.
Few lures are more enticing than a weightless, wacky-rigged stickworm. There's very little to give these baits away as being fake, and they can be fished very slowly, which is often a key to post-frontal success. The YUM Dinger ($3.49; lurenet.com) is a classic example.
Down to 12 feet or so, a jerkbait is a great choice in clear water when you need to fish slowly and really soak a hardbait. The Berkley Stunna (berkley-fishing.com; $14.99), which sinks very slowly when at rest and has an enticing shimmy, can help you get down to where the fish are in fall.
The jig and trailer is perhaps the most versatile option for bass action. You can take a lure like the Davis Bait Company M Swim Jig (davisbait.com; $5.49) and swim it, flip and pitch it or even crawl it across the bottom on points and drops. Berkley, Strike King, Zoom and numerous other manufacturers of soft plastics offer a variety of great trailer options, many of which emulate crawfish.