October 19, 2020
By Matt Crawford
Brandon Lester might be at risk of losing his Southern-boy status. The 32-year old professional bass angler grew up fishing near his home in south-central Tennessee, not far from the Alabama border. He speaks with a Southern drawl and appreciates good barbecue. But as college football season hits its stride, Lester will often hop in his truck—bass boat in tow—and head several hundred miles north just to fish for fun.
“In September, when you start getting those cold nights, man...” Lester says, his voice trailing off in admiration. “When the water temperatures start to fall, that is some of the best smallmouth fishing of the year.”
Lester’s lust for the autumnal north is well-founded. That period of time between the expiration of summer and the cold, gray winds of November is the best time of year to catch smallmouth bass on northern lakes. The summer folk are gone, boat traffic is down, smallies strap on the feedbag and they’ll eat almost anything, anywhere.
“Those bass are getting ready for a long northern winter,” Lester says. “It seems like all they want to do is eat. Why wouldn’t I go try to catch them?”
Winter is Coming
When fall arrives in the north and water temperatures begin to drop, it triggers an evolutionary response in smallmouth bass, a not-so-gentle reminder to prepare for winter survival.
“Smallmouths are wired to live through winter in water that’s about 35 degrees, at the most,” says Shawn Good, a fisheries biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. “At those cold temperatures on iced-over lakes, their metabolism slows way down. They’re lethargic and they don’t eat much. In order to make it through the long, grueling winters we have here in the north they need to build up their fat reserves.”
That window of time when water temps tumble from the 60s to the mid-50s, says Good, is when the smallmouth go on the hunt for any and all available food. “It’s critical that they eat then,” he says, “it really is a matter of life and death.”
Forage base varies from one body of water to the next—from gobies to alewives, rainbow smelt to shad. Regardless, the bait moves shallow with cooler water temps and the smallmouths follow the baitfish in. That allows anglers to target fish in 10 to 12 feet of water with ease.
“Fall fishing presents an opportunity to fish shallow and fish fast,” says Jody White, a sometimes-tournament angler who lives in Vermont but also works as the FLW bass tour’s digital media editor.
“There’s a period of time in the summer when smallmouths are deep and it limits your technique. But as that water cools, and it’s in the mid-50s, they move in shallow and they become super-aggressive eaters.”
There is one small downside to targeting autumn smallies. Because the fish are keyed on bait, they have an annoying habit of moving wherever the bait goes. A shoreline that produced limits one day may be shut off the next as the fish move on to find more schooling bait.
Lester says keys to combating the “here today, gone tomorrow” habit of fall smallmouths is to pay attention to electronics and quickly cover water that simply looks like it should hold fish. Clear water on places like rocky shorelines, humps close to deeper water and large reefs—essentially textbook examples of smallmouth habitat—can all hold fish. Or not.
“Keep keying on structure until you find the bites,” Lester says. “Typically, you have to keep moving until you find them, because when you find one at that time of year you can often find 20 or 30. They move around like wolfpacks, but the first order of business is finding those wolfpacks.”
Good, the biologist, echoes Lester. Smallmouth bass, he says, generally tend to be more of a schooling fish than largemouths, but it’s even more pronounced in the fall when they gravitate to the same locations and share common food sources. Smallmouths also have a tendency to school up by age class, so it’s not uncommon to find several dozen 3-pounders all feeding together.
What’s On the Menu?
One of the hard-and-fast rules about what baits to throw to fall smallmouths is that there are no hard-and-fast rules about what baits to throw to fall smallmouths. The bass are eating with reckless abandon, and that gives anglers the opportunity to trot out their favorites.
“A lot of the slow and precise techniques you had to use in deep water all summer can be thrown out the window in the fall,” says White. “It’s power fishing at its finest.”
One of the great things about fall smallies is their willingness to eat topwater baits. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of a 4-pound smallmouth exploding on a bait on the surface.
“I love catching bass on big Zara Spooks,” says White. “I like a cream- or a ghost-color Spook, but I know a lot of guys who throw darker ones and do well on those, too.” Evergreen Shower Blows are another effective topwater popper, but because of their hefty retail price tag are not recommended in waters where northern pike and their line-cutting teeth might make an unwelcomed appearance.
Because anglers often need to cover a lot of water quickly to find transient bass, spinnerbaits are a popular search-and-catch tool.
“I’ll look for smallmouths on a shoreline with a big white spinnerbait with a willow leaf,” says Good. “I’ll cast it as far as I can and burn it in as fast I can. The fish are not shy—they will chase spinnerbaits all day long. You can find out pretty quickly if the fish are there or not.”
Popular choices include a Z-Man SlingBladeZ Willow Colorado or a Strike King Bleeding Bait Spinnerbait. The key to whatever spinnerbait you use is to retrieve it at full speed. Since bass are in shallow water, they can easily key on bait that’s moving above them, so don’t worry about it being too high in the water column.
Combining the best of topwater action and the ability to cover water are buzzbaits—topwater baits that are fished like spinnerbaits. Keep buzzbaits, like a Terminator Tandem Buzzbait, big and gaudy.
Another great searching lure for autumn is a jerkbait. “After spinnerbaits, they are my second-favorite way to catch them,” says Good. He, White and Lester all agree on that point. Spinnerbaits can help find the fish, but jerkbaits tend to put more fish in the boat. Perch colors, ghost minnow or even something big and bright, like a Rapala X-Rap, are all proven producers. Yo-Zuri’s 3D minnows are another winner. Just keep the bait moving; there’s no need to fish slow.
White says he’ll fish swimbaits at this time of year, and Lester says he often ties on an X-Zone Pro Series Swammer, but both agree one of the advantages of fall smallies is simply being able to fish whatever you feel like fishing.
“I’m getting all excited talking about fall fishing up there,” Lester says with a sigh. “I guess it’s not a secret. I just love Northern smallmouths.”