The better you understand the timing of bass movements during the fall on Triangle lakes, the more fish you will catch. Here's what the local experts have to say. (September 2008)
Summer isn't officially over until Sept. 22 -- and normally in North Carolina this month feels like summer, with high heat and humidity. Most people prefer air conditioning during the dog days, but if you want to catch bass, then slather on some sunscreen, pack a cooler and use the heat to your advantage.
Frequently, afternoon thunderstorms rinse away the summer sauna for a while, giving anglers a break. However, that may not be the best time to catch a bass in early September. Those thunderstorms bring cloudy skies and cooler temperatures, letting fish leave the deep cover and scatter around the lake.
But when the heat is on and the sun bright, fish stay deep, seeking the shade of cover -- and that habit concentrates them in small areas. Often the bite won't even begin until the sun is high, near midday.
As is often the case with bass fishing, largemouths in the face of steady weather and habitat conditions will fall into a pattern. Anglers who figure out the pattern catch the fish.
Around Labor Day, bass are still in a summer pattern, staying deep to find cover and cooler water. However, if we get some cool nights late in the month, enough to get the water temperatures to fall, forage fish will begin their annual move toward shallow water in the backs of coves. That movement of baitfish in turn triggers fall feeding patterns in bass.
EARLY-MONTH SUMMERTIME PATTERN
In Triangle-area reservoirs, even when it's hot, there will always be some shallow fish early and late in the day. Largemouths, stripers and white bass all chase schools of shad near the surface, but at midday with a searing sun and high temperatures, bass seek relief around cover on deep offshore structure.
Finding fish in the middle of the lake can be more difficult than finding them when they are relating to visible cover in shallow water or schooling baitfish, but by using a map and your depthfinder and dragging the right bait across the right spot, an angler in the heat can catch bass.
"Typically, many fishermen believe that in September the fish will move into the backs of coves, but I will stay with a summer pattern as long as a bite persists. It's hard to believe some of the big fish and numbers of fish caught in September, especially on Harris 15 to 20 feet deep," said Rich Szczerbala from New Hill (919/418-2912), a pro angler on the WalMart Bass Fishing League tour, a Triangle-area guide and marine technician for Brucato marine engine performance products.
"Typically, everybody believes that at that time of the year, you have the temperature change and the lake is starting to turn over. It is possible, if you have a cooler than normal month, that the fish will start following the bait to the back of the creeks," Szczerbala said.
But until there is significant cool weather to get the baitfish moving, summer rules on Triangle-area lakes.
"With the summertime pattern at Harris, I may start with a topwater bait the first hour in the morning working the points off the major creeks, then go to a Texas rig in about 15 feet of water. I use a 10-inch Zoom Monster worm in sapphire or green pumpkin colors or a 10-inch Culprit worm in red.
"I'll rig this with a 3/16-ounce bullet weight, trying to get just enough weight to keep it on the bottom. I use a 6 1/2-foot All Star rod with 15-pound-test on a Shimano Curado reel. I'll work this along the hydrilla grass lines (at Harris) on secondary points of the major creeks, White Oak, Buckhorn and Tom Jack. Also, try deep creek channels with bends in them.
"At Jordan Lake, I watch the water level more closely than the water temperature in September. Often it is down and I'll look for any visible cover and throw a smaller worm than in Harris. If the water is low, it is hard to find cover halfway back in the creeks. If the water level is up, I'll start at the back of the creeks like Beaver and Bush with a crankbait and work out. I think September can be one of the toughest months of the year, as the fish get scattered and do that faster on Jordan than at Harris," Szczerbala said.
On a summertime pattern, dredging a crankbait through the deep cover is one of the best ways to get a reaction bite. Jeffrey Thomas from Broadway, pro angler and guide on Jordan and Harris lakes (info@carolinaoutdoors. net), has been on the B.A.S.S. and FLW tournament trails for over 10 years and has cast thousands of crankbaits across offshore structure when it is hot.
"It seems to me the hotter and more humid it is, the better the bite -- I like to have the sweat running down my back. If you want to do well this time of year, you had better be fishing offshore. The fish are in a summertime pattern, on roadbeds, humps, points and flats, stuff like that. These areas give the fish an easy route to come up shallow and feed but also give them access to deep water," Thomas said.
If you don't know the lake you are fishing, get a map and find a roadbed, rockpiles, humps or other structure in 10 to 20 feet of water. The structure is usually easy to locate, but finding just the right spot is a little more difficult. You must find structure with cover on it; a barren piece of structure will not hold fish. Once located, mark the area with buoys for reference while you explore the cover.
The bait should run deep enough to get a bumping action along the bottom. Here's where feel is all important: You must determine whether you are hitting the bottom, hitting cover or have a bite.
"I want a bait that will dive a little deeper than what I'm actually targeting. If I'm hitting 10 feet, I want a crankbait that will go at least 12 feet. That's where my line is going to come into play," Thomas said.
Thomas uses 10-pound-test when cranking because it has less resistance to the water and allows a bait to run deeper than if a heavier line was used. Mating a crankbait with a particular line weight, a reel that has a medium speed 5:1 retrieve and a 7-foot rod will allow the angler to hit his target depth. Thomas' signature series cranking rod from Skeet's Custom Rods in Wake Forest (919/475-3243) is specially designed to make cranking less tiring.
"I'll always start (fishing) with a crankbait -- it's like an extension to my arm and hand. I can throw it out there and feel the bottom. I can tell if it's stumps or rocks, a hard bottom or bushy. A crankbait is going to bring stuff back (on the hooks). That crankbait is a tool not just for catching fish but letting me know exactly what's out there. I very seldom get bit unless I
'm hitting something," Thomas said.
Bumping the bottom is key to cranking success, but you will eventually find your bait hung up in the cover. A lure retriever is essential to protect your crankbait investment, which can be sizeable.
To minimize hangups, do not set the hook when you feel the fish, just keep cranking; if you set the hook and it is cover and not a fish, you'll be using that lure retriever. If you are sure it is cover you bumped, try just stopping the bait for a moment to entice that reaction bite.
Once structure with cover has been located, fishing that cover successfully requires approaching it from several different angles to locate exactly where the fish are. Position the boat so you can cast past the cover and allow enough time to crank the bait down to the bottom.
Working a spot from several directions will help you locate fish on that cover, and puts your bait right in the fish. Often there will be more than one fish on good cover.
"You may have to come at it from several different angles to find the 'sweet spot'," Thomas said.
Mark Smith, local tournament angler, part-time guide and general contractor from Raleigh, also tries to find the exact location of these fish.
"I look for breaks in the (creek or river) channel, anywhere the channel does anything funny and has stumps or rocks," he said. "Most holes we fish certain spots, little knots on rockpiles. When we get in the right spot, I line up on a tree here and a tree there. If you're off by 5 feet, it makes a big difference. If you're on the right place, you can put 20 pounds of fish in the boat right quick."
Smith and his tournament partner Shannon Stewart have won numerous tournaments on Falls Lake, their "home" lake. They are die-hard Carolina rig anglers, but when the heat is on, they switch from their bread and butter to crankbaits.
"I like a Norman's DD-22 deep-diving crankbait in Mountain Dew (Smith's name for chartreuse with a brown tint) or chartreuse colors. This bait will get down to about 18 feet," Smith said.
Crankbaits come in endless color choices, but a couple of colors are about all you need on a summertime pattern in early September. A form of chartreuse or blue in shad patterns is a best bet. Use chartreuse in stained water and blue in clear water.
Bumping the right color bait along the bottom is just one enticement for a bass to strike; adding sound can get that reaction bite from the fish. Most crankbaits have rattles in them and a Rapala DT 16, Bomber Fat-free Shad, Norman's DD-22, Poe's 400, Carolina Custom Lures Cull 13 or Prey 18 or a Berkley Frenzy are good choices.
Carolina rigging can be just as effective as a crankbait in the same spots. For a Carolina rig, use a 7-foot medium-heavy rod. In deep water, you will need a stiffer rod than used for cranking to help you on hookset. The reel does not have to be high speed but should be spooled with 15- to 20-pound-test line.
Run a 1-ounce bullet weight up the line, followed by a plastic bead and terminate with a two-way swivel. Attach a 4- to 6-foot leader in 12- to 16-pound-test line with a 2/0 worm hook on the end.
Choice of plastics should include lizards, crawfish and floating worms. Green pumpkin and June bug are deadly colors in this area. When exploring rocky sections, throw a crawfish, and on other types of cover, you'll want to throw lizards or worms.
Conditions may dictate downsizing a bit, going with a 6 1/2-foot spinning rod, lighter line, shorter leader and smaller weights, hooks and baits. These conditions would include when the fish are getting tight-lipped from clear weather and water conditions or heavy fishing pressure.
LATE-MONTH TRANSITION PATTERN
Normal high temperatures at the first of September are about 85 degrees with lows around 62. By the end of the month, those average temperatures have dropped by 10 degrees. With nights reaching into the low 50s, the lakes and the bass are changing and anglers need to change, too, to be successful.
Shifting daylight and temperatures get shad on the move, leaving deep water and heading up the creeks. "Follow the shad and find the bass" is a simple rule.
Bass actively follow these schools and feed heavily all the way through the fall, which gives anglers plenty of options: Topwater baits, spinnerbaits, Texas rigs and crankbaits are all productive during the fall transition.
Regardless of why the shad move to shallower water, if they are near the surface, it is an excellent time to use a topwater bait in shad colors.
"I love a topwater bite. I'll throw a buzzbait or Pop R early and late in the day and all day if it is cloudy. These baits really imitate shad on the surface," said Kennon Brown of Roxboro, who runs Hawg Hunter Guide Service and fishes extensively on Falls Lake.
Fall is Brown's favorite time of the year. "The fish are going to feed heavily before their metabolism slows down. Big fish are going to move up and fatten up.
"At this time of the year, shad move into coves on the lake, and the bass will follow them. They may be at the mouth, one-third of the way up or in the back of the coves. Once you find them, you will catch a lot of fish," Brown said. Start on creeks like Horse, Upper Barton, Big Lick and New Light.
If there's no topwater bite, anglers will have to drop beneath the surface with a spinnerbait.
"I'll run a spinnerbait just under the surface and if that does not work, I'll drop it down 3 or 4 feet," Brown said.
With the fall pattern emerging and bass following baitfish up the creeks, those spinnerbaits are also effective in shallow water with good cover,
"I like to work a spinnerbait through stumpfields in the back of coves. Start at the back of the cover and work out. Just use a slow roll of the bait running just fast enough to feel the vibration of the blades," Brown said.
He uses a Hildebrandt Okeechobee spinnerbait with a gold head, white skirt and No. 4 and No. 3 willow-leaf blades. In stained water, he uses a spinnerbait with a single No. 5 Colorado or Indiana blade to add vibration.
Don't overlook probing the cover with a jig. Designed by Brown for Hildebrandt, the JigZilla uses a Mustad Needle Point hook, has two rattles and lifelike eyes, with a silicone Trailer-Tail built in.
"Use a black jig with a blue skirt in clear water, a blue jig with a white skirt in stained water and an all-white jig in muddy water. I tip them with a Zoom Super Chunk trailer that I split the tails on for more action," Brown said.
If the fish are very finicky, Brown suggests u
sing a modified Texas rig. Peg the weight about 3 inches above the hook. Adding two facet-cut red beads between the weight and the hook adds a clacking sound as the worm is worked. A chartreuse ribbon-tail worm is a good choice.
While summertime patterns dominate the month of September, anglers should use the bright sun and hot temperatures to find those bass crowded around deep cover. With cooler nights signaling the fall transition, baitfish and bass begin their move toward shallow water.
Following bass from their deep summertime haunts to staging areas on creek channels to the backs of coves in shallow water as the leaves turn colors gives anglers a variety of opportunities and keeps them on bass.