October 22, 2020
Bass whereabouts are determined by the most primitive biological demands—food and procreation, and no matter the time of year, bass behavior and location will be driven by those needs. In the spring, largemouths will be shallow for the spawn. In summer, some will stay in the shallows—usually around heavy cover—while others seek more temperate waters a bit deeper, often in the cool, oxygen-rich layer known as the thermocline. These deeper fish will make feeding forays into the shallows or smash schools of bait offshore.
But in the fall things are often more challenging. On waters that stratify, cooling autumn weather will break up the layers through a process called "fall turnover." Where bass had been restricted to the top 15 to 25 feet of the water column, they now can roam much deeper or move shallower in search of better conditions and feeding opportunities. Just where you choose to look for them should be determined by the forage available in your favorite fishery.
On many or most of the lakes and reservoirs around the South, shad is king when it comes to fall bass forage. Major League Fishing pro Kelly Jordon has an interesting theory that explains why.
"After fall turnover, the water quality on the main lake is not good," Jordan says. "Oxygen levels are down, and the shad move into the creeks to find better water. Some bass follow them there, but a lot of the fish caught in creeks during the fall are resident fish that are gorging themselves on shad that have come to them."
The Texan's favorite bait for this pattern is a topwater—the Lucky Craft Gunfish 115 in Ghost Minnow. He throws it on 30-pound-test braid with no leader, spooled onto a Duckett Fishing Paradigm CWx 200 casting reel (8:1 gear ratio) lashed to Duckett 7-foot-6 medium-heavy Pro Series rod.
"I usually walk the bait pretty fast," Jordon says, "but I let the fish tell me how they want it each day, and I keep my eyes open for schools of shad or feeding bass."
Jordon’s advanced tip for this pattern is to watch for birds. "Keep your eyes to the sky," he says. "The blue heron is the best angler in the world. If you see a few of them in the area, something's going on."
Tennessee pro Brandon Lester competes on the Bassmaster Elite Series and gravitates to the same creeks Jordon likes in October. But Lester believes the better quality fish in this scenario are relating to hard cover like docks and laydowns. What’s more, he believes they’re feeding on crayfish.
"Everywhere there's bass, there's crayfish," Lester says, "and the bass in the creeks that are holding on hard cover are often bigger than those out chasing shad in the open water. Big fish are lazy!"
Lester's weapon of choice when targeting these fish is an X Zone Lures Pro Series Adrenaline Bug Craw (Green Pumpkin Black Flake). He Texas rigs it behind a 1/4-ounce tungsten sinker on a 4/0 Mustad Grip-Pin Max Flippin’ Hook and pitches it on 20-pound Vicious Pro Elite Fluorocarbon, a 7-foot-6 heavy action flipping rod and high-speed casting reel.
"You need to really pick apart the cover in fall," Lester says. "Five or six presentations to one small laydown is not too many. Fish the bait slowly. Fall can be a tough time, and you want to work the good spots over very thoroughly. It can mean a big fish when everyone else is catching small ones."
Speaking of big bass, "I've caught some of the biggest bass in my life by fishing around bluegill in the fall." That's the testimony of Bass Pro Tour pro and Alabama resident Greg Vinson, who believes that where he finds fall panfish, he'll also find fall bass.
"Depending on your lake type, you'll find fall bluegill on the outside edge of shallow weed beds, in the shade of boat docks or around shoreline grass and brush," Vinson says. "Rest assured, bass will always be close by."
And to catch them, Vinson likes a topwater bait he can get through the heavy cover and skip under the docks. His choice is the Scum Frog Launch Frog in Bluegill or Dusk. He throws it on 50-pound Seaguar Smackdown Braid (Stealth Gray), a 7-foot-4 heavy-action casting rod and high-speed casting reel.
"A quiet entry of the bait can be really important at times," Vinson says, "so sometimes I'll cast up on the bank and ease the bait into the water. You might also be surprised at how far back in shallow pockets you can find quality bass. Even in the flattest coves with just two or three feet of water, they’ll be there and they’ll eat. Don’t turn around just because your trolling motor is kicking up mud."
"The golden shiner is such a cool species and really underrated as bass forage," says University of Florida professor Dr. Mike Allen. He should know. Dr. Allen has studied all manner of fish throughout his stellar career and is rightly considered one of the top bass experts in the world.
One reason the golden shiner is underrated as bass forage is that it lives in many if not most of the waters that hold bass from Florida north to Canada and west to Texas. If your fishery has a fair amount of vegetation, there's an excellent chance that golden shiners are on the bass' menu—but few anglers realize this.
To catch shiner-eating bass in the fall, Allen looks to the outside edges of weed beds and throws a hefty swimbait. He's not after numbers with this pattern, but big fish—maybe the bass of the year, or even a lifetime.
His lure of choice is the LiveTarget Golden Shiner Swimbait in the 5.5-, 6.5- or 8-inch size. He throws it on 30-pound Spiderwire Stealth braid with a 4-foot length of monofilament or fluorocarbon leader. His rod is a 7-foot-11 Shimano Crucial B Swimbait casting rod paired with a Shimano Calcutta reel.
"The key is to slow down when fishing those outside weed edges," Allen says. "Get your bait down five feet deep or more, and don't hesitate to cast parallel to the edge and five to eight feet away from the vegetation. You might hit a point or isolated patch that holds a big fish."
An invasive species in most of our fresh waters, the blueback herring is nonetheless important in many waters throughout the South. Oklahoma's James Elam of the Bass Pro Tour knows it’s a mistake to ignore blueback herring in fall.
When he sees evidence of herring on the surface, Elam knows bass are close by. To catch them, he goes "old school" with a big Cotton Cordell Pencil Popper on 50-pound Seaguar Smackdown Braid with a 1-foot length of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader. He casts it on a 6-foot-10 medium-heavy Shimano Curado casting rod and Shimano Metanium MGL 150 B (8.1:1).
"Eventually you're going to be in the right place at the right time and run into them," Elam says. "When you do, it can be the most exciting fishing of the entire year."
To hear Kelly Jordon talk about fishing the back ends of pockets and creeks, watching for shad and feeding bass in the fall, you might think it's the last place an angler would need sonar. You’d be wrong.
"My Humminbird SOLIX is always on," Jordon says, "even when my trolling motor is hitting bottom. I use MEGA Side Imaging+ to find areas with a harder bottom that will concentrate the shad and bass, and I use it to find balls of shad on days when the wind prevents me from seeing them at the surface or when they're too deep to spot visually."
The SOLIX is also the perfect tool for locating the ditches, channels or submerged cover that hold bass about to terrorize a school of shad. Instead of waiting for the baitfish or bass to show themselves, an angler can make precise presentations to high-percentage targets.