Matching the Hatch for Fall Swimbait Success
When Major League Fishing fans think of bass pro Byron Velvick, his favorite lure, the swimbait, immediately comes to mind.
Along with the thousand-watt smile that the MLF pro is well known for.
Velvick usually has plenty of reasons to smile, thanks in part to being one of the sport's kings of fishing with swimbaits.
In fact, he has made a career out of learning how to properly fish these baits during the various times of the year that they work, succeeding in catching both quality and quantity of bass in the process.
That includes the fall months, a time of year that many anglers will throw something else.
That can be a big mistake says Velvick.
"When the fish get active, when they get on their blitzkrieg before winter, they're heavily feeding, primarily on shad and small forage fish," said the three-time winner on the B.A.S.S. tournament trail.
"That's when it's time to fish these baits in the backs of pockets, the backs of coves, washes, open water with schooling fish, (etc.)," he added. "That's the kind of times you throw swimbaits a lot (in the fall)."
But perhaps not the same swimbait that an angler will use at other times of the year.
"When people think of a swimbait, they often think of one that is the size of a shoe, like it originally started out," said Velvick, nodding to the big baits made to mimic rainbow trout that he and others made famous in California.
"But gosh, those little, little swimbaits - especially on schooling fish - are sometimes so much more deadly than just about anything else because it's such a natural presentation," he said.
How do you successfully fish swimbaits in the fall? In part, by using your eyes, both inside the boat and out.
First to see bass showing up on the electronics in your boat.
"On that bite, it's a big key," said Velvick concerning the use of electronics.
"You're running and you can actually pick up schools of fish suspended on bait. Even if the birds aren't diving on them, you will still pick them up (with the electronics)."
Case in point, Velvick said his electronics have been a big key in finding late summer and early fall fish on the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament trail.
"Actually at Oneida (a couple of times in recent years), I got on those smallmouths out in the middle of the lake," he said. "They're on bait and you'd beat the birds to the fish (using electronics).
"You'd get on those schools of fish and kind of cast that swimbait around and find (some) strikes. You're out in 30 or 40 feet of water and these fish are sitting under (the surface) five or 10 feet below chasing those little small emerald shiners."
Velvick said that at Oneida, he'd catch two or three fish in those situations and the birds would actually come to his boat, start hovering, and then crash into the water beside him to feed on the baitfish.
While Velvick said that electronics are important, he does note that swimbait fishing and the presence of diving birds do seem to go hand in hand.
Especially when it comes to the birds helping an angler actually see where schooling fish are aggressively feeding.
And when that angler gets to that spot, they help an angler see what the fish - be it largemouth, smallmouth or spotted bass - are actually feeding on.
"One of the keys to swimbait fishing - and I always tell people this - is you've got to match the hatch," said Velvick, borrowing the fly-fishers term and applying it to bass fishing.
To do that, he says to look for dead baitfish on the surface, for what the preferred baitfish is if an angler happens to snag one, or to see if you can find out what the birds actually have in their beaks as they fly away.
"If you can get your hands on a couple of whatever they are eating or you see the birds pick it up and fly off with it, I look to that bait (to see what it is)," he said.
Like a trout fisher trying to find the exact imitation in his fly box to mimic the natural insects that fish are feeding on, Velvick is looking for a couple of visual clues himself in matching the hatch for schooling bass.
"I don't just look at the size, I also look at the color," said Velvick, the former "Bachelor" contestant on the long-running hit ABC television show.
"I even look at the color of the back - is it a blue-backed herring, is it a shiner, is it a shad? Then I'll take that swimbait, and even if I have to color it with a marker, I'll try to get the same size body and the same color on the back and on the sides.
"Those are the things that the fish are keying on."
Is that a bit of overkill?
Not according to Velvick, the California pro turned Texas resident who lives part-time on Lake Amistad, home to the first ever MLF event back in November 2011.
"I've seen simple things like the different color on the back of a bait make all of the difference in the world," he said. "Once I switched from a brown to a green, or a green to a brown, or a completely opaque white (bait), then I would catch fish where I wouldn't otherwise."
When it comes to matching the hatch, Velvick believes that the little things can be the difference in catching a lot of fish and winning an event.
Or in not catching fish and going home empty handed without a check.
Even in the fall when fish are feeding heavily for the coming of winter.
"I know trout fisherman know it very well, but matching the hatch with swimbaits goes hand in hand," insists Velvick.
What type of tackle set-up does the popular MLF pro like to throw when fishing swimbait lures in the fall?
As far as his line choice goes, Velvick says that while he normally uses monofilament line for swimbaits, he does make an exception in the fall when he uses 12- to 15-pound fluorocarbon.
"It's the one time of the year that I'll use fluorocarbon with swimbaits."
Why is that?
"I don't really use fluorocarbon with those big baits at all," he said. "Fluorocarbon is so fragile and with those big baits, you'll get a nick in the line and it snaps. It's very brittle line."
How about his rod preference?
"I will use a Duckett 7-foot, 3-inch rod or maybe a 7-foot, 6-inch rod with a lighter, softer action," said Velvick, who notes that the fall is more of a numbers game for schools of fish rather than a chance to catch a giant fish.
He does note that there is room for an angler to experiment a bit and mix up his fall swimbait rod selection.
"There's no one swimbait rod (out there)," said Velvick. "You'll hear guys talk about a swimbait rod, but there's no one particular swimbait rod.
"You've got to kind of mix it up because you're not going to use the same rod to throw a three-inch swimbait that you will use to throw a nine-inch swimbait by any means."
Velvick doesn't mix up his fall swimbait reel selection, however.
"In fall fishing, this is the one time that I'll actually go to a faster retrieve reel," said Velvick. "I'll go to a 6.3:1 reel instead of a 5.4:1 reel.
"On the real big baits, I like to go real slow with them but on the small swimbaits I use in the fall, a lot of times, you're burning it faster with them."
Once an angler is in the right spot, has matched the hatch in terms of color and size, and has it all tied to the right gear selection, about all that is left to do is retrieve the bait correctly.
"Cadence is everything," said Velvick. "You've got to figure out if they want that thing slow or if they want it fast."
Velvick pointed to last fall's MLF event on New York's Chautauqua Lake as an example. Sometimes he caught fish burning the bait just under the surface and at other times by slow-rolling the bait, almost like he was fishing a jig.
"You've got to play with the cadence and mix it up a lot."
It may sound like a lot of work to figure out the fall swimbait presentation. But with so many active fish busting bait on lakes all across the country at this time of the year, it's a very worthwhile thing to do.
Because when a weekend warrior gets it right, the fishing turns into some serious catching, the kind of action that produces a big smile.
The same kind of grin that Velvick has made a career of showing to the television cameras and tournament crowds after he has caught yet another boatload of swimbait bass.
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