October 15, 2020
By Jason Halfen
Fall is an extraordinary time to be a bass angler. As water temperatures cool from their summer peak, baitfish make predictable changes to their typical locations and bass—both smallmouths and largemouths—respond in kind by following their prey and feeding with urgency. After a long summer that scattered bass across multiple habitats, fall is a time of consolidation, pulling large numbers of fish into more focused locales. At the same time, the bass’ feeding switch is flipped to “on,” providing anglers with excellent opportunities to catch large numbers of heavyweight fish as the leaves show their first shades of orange, crimson and gold.
Drift Deep for Smallmouths
Everyone who chases bronze bombers knows that smallmouths love rocks. In the fall, smallies pull up to the deep-rock buffet to feast on the crayfish, gobies and sculpins that hop, skip and dart among the boulders. Frequently, the best rock structures are found offshore beneath 25 to 35 feet of water. Although a variety of techniques can be used to trigger these fish—from suspending a big sucker minnow beneath a slip-bobber to power fishing with big-billed crankbaits—a finesse presentation will often produce superlative results.
Bassmaster Elite Series angler Chris Zaldain loves to chase smallies in the fall. This is a period when Zaldain pivots to the wizardry of the spinning rod, using it to cast bite-provoking spells that few bass can resist.
“Spinning gear is particularly well-suited to lighter baits,” Zaldain says. “Of course, the first thing everyone thinks of when talking about spinning tackle is the drop-shot rig, but the spinning playbook is much deeper than that. My personal favorite presentation is casting small swimbaits—like a 3-inch Megabass Spark Shad rigged on a 1/4-ounce ball-head jig—especially when the water is cold and clear and I need to get down deep for big brown bass.”
Proper line and leader are mission-critical for finesse swimbait success. Zaldain spools up with 15-pound-test Seaguar Smackdown in the high-vis Flash Green color, then uses an FG knot to link to an 18-inch leader of 8-pound-test Seaguar Tatsu 100% fluorocarbon. Zaldain adds that when fishing water infested with Zebra mussels, or water where lots of big fish are around, he’ll go up to 10-pound-test Tatsu, but 8-pound test is where he usually starts.
How Does Zaldain Attack Fall Smallies?
“When chasing fish on offshore rockpiles,” Zaldain says, “I often use my GPS mapping system to identify high-percentage areas and troll around until I see deep fish on my Humminbird sonar. Then, I’ll back way off that area and make a long cast. Once the bait hits the water, I let it fall to the bottom with the bail open so that it drops straight down, rather than swing back to the boat like a pendulum. By watching the high-vis line, it’s easy for me to tell when I’ve hit the bottom. Next, I close the bail, give the lure one little pop with the rod tip and begin a slow-and-steady retrieve. I want to feel that lure deflect off cover every now and then during the retrieve, so I adjust my retrieve speed to get just the right rhythm of strike-provoking bounces and bumps.
Slide Shallow for Largemouths
As smallmouths transition to deep rock in the fall, largemouths engage in almost the exact opposite movement. They move shallow to take advantage of falling surface temperatures and an abundance of prey species that repopulate weed flats in natural lakes, as well as the back ends of coves and creek arms in large reservoirs. Because the density of natural food items is often high at the beginning of fall, power-fishing techniques designed to elicit reaction strikes are often best for putting bucketmouths in the boat.
Extensive shallow flats with a carpet of submergent vegetation will usually collect significant concentrations of early-fall largemouths. Covering water quickly is crucial for making contact with the max number of bass on each trip. Z-Man ChatterBaits are great for this situation. They enable anglers to identify key areas quickly and combine all the necessary strike-triggering attributes—flash, vibration and erratic swimming motion—into one compact offering. Dress the bait with a soft-plastic, paddle tail-style trailer for additional action and buoyancy, so that the lure swims just above the weed tops on retrieves. Select darker colors for the ChatterBait body and skirt—especially dark blue, brown or black—on clear lakes; brighter combinations of white and chartreuse work best in stained or turbid waters.
Long casts are key to covering lots of water, so present ChatterBaits on casting tackle using braided line. Select a rod that is 7 feet or longer to help propel the lure to its target. The 7-foot, 3-inch Scott Canterbury Series casting rod from Halo Fishing is a great option, especially when paired with a low-profile casting reel, like the Shimano SLX DC with a 7.2:1 gear ratio. Spool up with ultra-smooth 50-pound-test Seaguar Smackdown braided line in the Stealth Gray color pattern and connect to the ChatterBait with a 2- to 3-foot leader of 15-pound-test Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon.
Small variations on weed flats—holes in the vegetated carpet, remnants of a flooded tree or stumps, an isolated pile of rocks or gravel or simply a change from one weed type to another—can serve as bass magnets that concentrate fish every fall. Running high-frequency Side Imaging sonar from the bow position ensures that your underwater eyes are constantly surveying the landscape for these variations. Minn Kota Ultrex trolling motors with built-in MEGA Side Imaging transducers ensure that anglers can access interference-free Side Imaging views at the bow, without the need to mount bulky accessory transducers onto the motor’s lower unit.
Take a moment to drop a waypoint each time you hook into a bass, and use Side Imaging to investigate the surroundings from afar. Recognize that the productive cover that held one bass will likely hold several more—especially as the water continues to cool throughout the fall.
Where to Go for Fall Bass Action
Lake Mille Lacs, Minnesota
For many Midwestern anglers, fall is synonymous with walleye fishing. However, abundant and supersized smallmouth bass, especially those prowling the clear waters of Mille Lacs, are enough to make the most fervent walleye fans put down the trolling rods and grab some swimbaits. Indeed, bronzebacks have quickly ascended to prominence in this central Minnesota gem, thus giving anglers the chance to tussle with multiple 5- to 6-pound fish every day without having to ply the open waters of the Great Lakes.
Find deep rocks and you’ll find Mille Lacs smallmouths. Although located throughout much of the lake’s 200-plus-square-mile area, deep rocky reefs and humps are found in the highest concentrations in the lake’s southern and eastern portions. Look for fall winds out of the north or west to activate reef smallies, frequently pushing them shallow in pursuit of shiners. You’ll encounter significant concentrations of zebra mussels in Mille Lacs, so using a fluorocarbon leader for enhanced abrasion resistance is a must. The family-owned Red Door Resort (thereddoorresort.com) is a good home base for any Mille Lacs fishing adventure. It features updated cabins, a great restaurant and a sheltered harbor.
Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
As summer fades into fall, the abundant pleasure craft that churned the surface of Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks for the past three months begin their migration toward winter storage. This allows bass anglers to once again reclaim their spot at the top of the reservoir’s watercraft food chain. Now is a perfect time for anglers to investigate the lake’s many upriver coves and creek arms, as the surface water will cool in those areas first, drawing both gizzard shad and largemouths.
Expansive shallow flats toward the back ends of creek arms will hold plenty of bass and, frequently, enormous populations of small shad. Cover water with ChatterBaits or crankbaits, and on sunny days look for bass to congregate beneath boat docks. Indeed, dock fishing is consistently a top fall tournament presentation on Lake of the Ozarks, where anglers flipping jigs can tangle with multiple Missouri giants. When visiting Lake of the Ozarks, be sure to stop at Fitz Fishing (fitzfishing.net) in Osage Beach for a current fishing report.
Bass Gear to Get This Fall
The Perfect Smallie Setup
Smallmouth anglers chasing bass with finesse swimbaits will appreciate a long, sensitive spinning rod paired with a 2500-series reel spooled with braided line.
One combination that works well for me includes a 7-foot, 1-inch St. Croix Legend Tournament Bass rod ($280; stcroixrods.com) with medium power and fast action, paired with a Daiwa BG spinning reel ($109.99; daiwa.com) that’s spooled up with 20-pound-test Seaguar Smackdown ($29.99; seaguar.com) in the Flash Green color pattern.
The Baddest Braid Around
With eight ultra-thin, micro-weave strands in a round, smooth-casting profile, Seaguar’s Smackdown braid ($29.99; seaguar.com) offers great knot and tensile strength, as well as superior castability. Because of its construction, it’s also very thin, with 30-pound braid equivalent to 8-pound mono. Hi-Vis Flash Green is great for finesse when trying to detect subtle bites, while Lo-Vis Stealth Gray offers more natural presentations.