Bass change location and attitude in a heartbeat at the end of summer. They respond to shorter days and temperature changes that first drive baitfish shallow, then deep. Metabolism cools with the environment, but that doesn't mean bass stop eating. Quite the opposite. They just change restaurants.
Kevin VanDam finds those fall hangouts because he knows bass cuisine. For those just stepping out of a cryogenics tank, VanDam won his fourth Bassmaster Classic earlier this year. He's the all-time leading money winner on the Bassmaster Tournament Trail. Some say it's because he can pitch small objects over tall buildings into a tea cup. Some say he thinks like a bass.
Robert Trent Jones said the game of golf is played on a 5-inch course: The space between your ears. The same anecdote can be applied, in spades, to fishing. Meaning Kevin VanDam is simply a bass-fishing genius and here are his fall bass fishing tactics.
As water cools in reservoirs, shad begin moving toward the back of creek arms. "Shad move shallow, where the warmest water is," VanDam said. "So where are they and what cover is handy?"
VanDam covers water quick to find concentrations of bait with the right combination of depth, structure, and cover nearby. "That's why it's hard to beat a crankbait, especially in shallow, stained water," he said. "It's something I can count on in every reservoir during fall after water temperature drop into the 70s."
VanDam ventures as far up a creek as his boat will allow. "If it still has a defined channel, bass use it for ambush points," he said. "You can see pods of bait near the surface, but you'll see birds, too. Seeing shad on top indicates a really good afternoon bite as the sun warms the water. That's when I depend on square-bill cranks like the new Strike King KVD 1.5, and lipless cranks like the Strike King Red Eye Shad."
VanDam lines his boat up with the creek channel edge and fires long casts ahead of the boat. "I'm using the crankbait for surveillance, running down the edges, hitting bottom, stumps, laydowns, docks and brush, working the bait fast and erratic. A lot of these reservoirs are in fall drawdown and cover appears that you can't see in summer. Bump it. Crankbaits find changes in depth and bottom content quick. Look for hard bottom. Whatever cover's available near hard bottom, bass will utilize it."
No hard bottom? Work the grass. "Bass really relate to grass on the channels," he said. "Shad are drawn to grass beds. A square-bill crank rips through grass with 17- to 20-pound fluorocarbon. Sensitivity and the power to shred cover are the keys."
"You can go to 10,000 lakes and the forage base could be different on each one," VanDam said. "I'm always looking for baitfish in the fall, looking for herons, seagulls, terns, looking at the graph, looking for bait in the water with my eyes, anything that can clue me into the movements and location of forage. From there, I look for the type of cover the lake has in the areas the most abundant baitfish want to use.
"In lakes, I'm still throwing cranks with that medium-heavy tackle, quartering parallel to weeds with short casts," VanDam said. "I love crankin' grass, but it's a lot of work, ripping and pulling, but that's what triggers strikes. It's the most efficient way to cover big flats on big lakes. Bigger bass often come on cranks, but I always throw something back to a spot that gives up a good fish, usually a Texas-rigged Strike King Ocho. I let it fall on slack line, getting a lot of strikes as it slides down. In clear water, it's deadly. I use 14-pound fluorocarbon on a 7-foot baitcaster, making long casts and letting it sink to bottom, even in 20 feet of water. The clearer the water, the better it works. I use a 1/8-ounce, unpegged, tungsten slip sinker and I fish it pretty fast, concentrating on that drop."
With a little wind and cloud cover, clear lakes become great crankbait lakes. But calm, sunny days shout finesse.
"Early morning, I still use the crank, but I often switch to the Ocho," he said. "It's a great pitch-back lure. I generally start with green pumpkin or something natural in the 5-inch version.
"Cranks find 'em and the Ocho grinds 'em," VanDam said. "I start on the outside weed edge of the biggest flat on the main lake. Depending on clarity, weeds grow to different depths, so I match cranks to those depths. I throw a Strike King Pro Model 6 XD in deeper water, others where not so deep. But once I catch a couple I'll pitch back in there with an Ocho. But the crank finds those irregularities in the weedline to pitch to. Inside turns are where you'll find concentrations. The closer to the bank that turn is, the better it will be."
VanDam responds to the cooling process by progressively slowing his retrieves. "I go fast and erratic early, less erratic late," he said. "The later it is, the more important it is to hit bottom and keep it there at a slow, steady pace-just enough speed to keep the bill thumping. I use cranks right down to the point where the water gets really cold. In clear lakes, bass move shallower and I slowly work a suspending bait like the Strike King Wild Shiner a lot in water under 50 degrees, but I'll use cranks right until ice-up. Late in the season I use cranks with a tighter wobble and slow it down. They won't react to a burned bait after temperatures drop below 50."
Cold water demands special attention to speed and action. "The Strike King Tour Grade Series 3 is one of my favorite baits for late fall," VanDam said. "It runs at about 7 or 8 feet with a tight action. When they're in that 5 to 8 foot range, it really appeals to big bass. When the right spot is 10 feet deep, I switch to the deeper running Series 5."
Bass can move shallow and stay late in natural lakes with milfoil or coontail -- even in the 40-degree range. "The Red Eye Shad is at its best in cold water," VanDam said. "A lipless bait can always make bottom contact and find the inside edges of the weedline in that situation, and ripping it free triggers strikes. The Red Eye has a shimmy as it sinks, like a stick worm -- dynamite for yo-yoing those inside edges. I pull it by sweeping the rod to the side, and I let it sink. Then I repeat, moving the bait 4 to 6 feet with each sweep, feeling for strikes on the drop."
VanDam finds bass in the fall because he knows the habits of their forage, and that's half the battle. To learn as much as he knows about speed and triggering strikes, you have to get on the water with the lure types he mentions and play the game on your own 5-inch lake.