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Hit Tributaries With Crankbaits, Topwaters for Fall Bass

Try these tactics to target bass that are shifting toward fall patterns this month.

Hit Tributaries With Crankbaits, Topwaters for Bass

Crankbaits, spinnerbaits, walking topwaters and popping baits make for a great fall bass-fishing arsenal. (Photos by Pete Anderson)

In September bass fishing, the more things seem to remain the same, the more they are actually changing. While summer patterns, which have proved reliable over the past several months, are still lingering, environmental changes are strengthening fall patterns. The smartest bass anglers follow the latter.

But like the other 11 months, in September bass aren’t everywhere. To find them, it takes an understanding of lake conditions, baitfish movements and the needs of the bass themselves. And to catch them, you’ll want to bring a handful of crankbaits and topwaters.


September weather is usually stable across the South, though the occasional hurricane upsets that balance. Without a storm, temperatures moderate, rain is sparse and winds remain calm. Those conditions help preserve temperature stratification—a layer of warmer water filled with dissolved oxygen on top of a layer of colder water that’s oxygen deprived—on many reservoirs. It pushes aquatic life, including bass, out of the deeper portions of the main reservoir and into shallow water, including tributaries.

Not all lakes stratify. Those with high inflows or shallow depths, which are easily stirred by wind, never get the chance. But all reservoirs see fall baitfish migrations toward shallow water that also attract bass into their tributaries. These tributaries can be of any size, from the smallest creeks to the main river, and can provide miles of fishing.

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The tributaries that have the most shad also have the most bass. They aren’t the same ones from year to year, though the most consistent producers share certain traits, such as well-defined channels. They also have expansive shallow flats, though not the protected ones you fished during the bass and bluegill spawns. They need to be exposed to current, even if the current is wind generated.

Current steers shad past the pieces of cover and structure that bass use for refuge. It also brings water that’s better oxygenated and often cooler than elsewhere on the lake. Water temperatures in the tributaries fall through the month. If they’re in the low 80s at Labor Day, for example, the fishing will improve as they drop through the 70s and into the 60s as October arrives.


September bass are hunters. You’ll come across a handful at a time, ambushing shad as they move from one piece of isolated structure or cover to the next. It could be a single large rock, a shallow ledge running along a point or shallow flat, partially submerged brush or a clump of aquatic vegetation. They all will be off the bank but in water less than 10 feet deep.

Shad roam open water, so these isolated spots are perfect, creating ambush points that intersect the meandering paths of the bait. That doesn’t mean cover connected to the bank won’t produce. September bass will use the tips of laydowns or even docks that stretch out the farthest.

Start your search along the inside of creek and river channel bends, no matter how wide the turn. Current is slowest here, and precipitating sediment forms shallow flats. As you approach each piece of structure or cover, identify the ambush points that a bass could use, such as where limbs branch on a partially submerged tree, the thickest part of a brush pile or the shady side of a rock. Some pieces of cover have several ambush points.

Cast your lure so it lands at least 5 yards beyond the ambush point. Its approach is like a dinner bell, telling bass food is on the way and letting them prepare their attack. Run your lure through the ambush point, bouncing and banging off as much cover as possible. Speed is vital. Poky retrieves, especially in clear water, give bass time to reconsider; fast-moving lures force them to strike.

Don’t surrender your retrieve once your lure passes an ambush point. Keep it moving, adding periodic pauses and pulls. They can trigger strikes from bass that have followed your lure.



Each piece of cover will hold one or two bass at the most. So, you’ll need to cover water to find more, using lures that can keep pace and imitate shad. Topwaters and crankbaits do both.

When light levels are low in the morning or evening, or anytime skies are overcast, pick up a topwater. Few lures are better at imitating the flirting and flicking of shad in shallow water. Choose ones that fish with a steady retrieve. Buzzbaits cover the most water in the least time. When the water’s stained, try a walking topwater such as a Zara Spook. Their big profiles make easy targets for bass. Poppers work best in clear water that has slicked off. Ones with a shallow cup spit rather than scoop water, allowing you to fish them faster.

Crankbaits will catch these bass under all conditions. Choose a mid-depth model that dives about 10 feet, such as a Norman Deep Little N. Its thinner body has a tighter wiggle that’s best for clear water. Strike King 5XDs, for example, are a bit wider, making a bigger commotion that attracts bass in stained to dirty water. And if bass are tuned into small shad, pull out a small crankbait such as a Bandit 300 Series. Its compact body sports a big lip that ensures enough depth to bump cover and bottom all the way back to your boat.

All of these crankbaits have a rounded bill, which helps them roll over and twist around cover such as tangles of brush and tops of laydowns. You’ll get bites with square-bill crankbaits, but you’ll get more snags, too. They’re straight-cut lips hammer over cover in a straight line, a better tactic for navigating stumps and rocks.

Topwaters and crankbaits in baitfish patterns work best. Look for topwaters that have some attractive flash such as metallic sides or a splash of chartreuse or pink. And if bass are only following yours in clear water, try a clear topwater. They bring all the bass-attracting action without any of the profile. Bass have to strike it to find out what it is.

When the sun is high and water clear, throw crankbaits with natural or muted colors such as sexy shad or chrome with a blue or black back. Brighter patterns— it’s almost impossible to beat chartreuse with a blue or black back—work better when light is low and water dirty.

Don’t hesitate to swap the stock rear hook on your crankbait for a long-shank treble that’s one size larger. It increases your chance of grabbing short-striking bass. The larger hook won’t catch any more snags because it’s protected by the crankbait’s body.


Besides plenty of bites, one more benefit to this pattern is that the crankbaits and topwaters can be fished on the same setup. Mount a reel with at least a 6.3:1 gear ratio — a near-perfect blend of speed and power — to a 7-foot moderate-action rod with medium-heavy power. Its backbone will pull bass from cover, while its deep flex will generate long casts. Increase their accuracy by placing one hand on the reel and the other on the butt, where it can steer the tip toward the target.

If you have two of these outfits, spool one with abrasion resistant fluorocarbon line. It sinks, helping your crankbaits dive deeper faster. Put low-stretch monofilament, which floats, and your topwaters, on the other. If it has been a typically dry September, water will have a slight stain at most. So, stick with line that’s clear or green, which are less visible to bass. And don’t skimp on the strength: 15- or 17-pound test is needed here.

If you’re fishing from a kayak, space might limit you to one rod. Consider using a snap to easily bounce between topwaters and crankbaits. While all snaps give lures more range of movement because of their looped end, select one that soundly shuts such as Berkley’s Cross-Lok. And periodically check that it’s still closed while fishing, especially after catching a bass.

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