Turn Your Back to the Bank for Largemouths
December 13, 2018
Video: Brandon Palaniuk on Deep Bass
Largemouth bass will follow a number of baitfish species that spawn in the fall. Typically, baitfish like shad species will take up residence in creek arms as the water first cools. But as the weather gets colder, bait and bass alike begin to pull off the bank.
Something like 80 percent of bass angling effort takes place near the shoreline, but the bass themselves probably spend less than 20 percent of their time close to shore. If you want to catch more bass, you need to fish where they are.
Here are some tips on how to locate and catch more bass in November and on into the winter.
BASS AND BAITFISH
In the fall, as water temperatures moderate, many baitfish will seek food where temperatures are comfortable. Many shad species, for example, will move into cooling creek arms, and then, as temperatures continue to fall, gradually drop back into main-lake water. Even bluegill will back off the shore to some degree and head for deeper cover as night temperatures fall.
The bass will be following them because until the bass are firmly in their winter patterns, when cold water slows their metabolism, they’re actively feeding. Unless you see a lot of bait activity along the bank, there’s a good bet that most of the fish — both bass and bait — are not right on the shoreline.
It takes some discipline to drive around looking for bait; however, getting a sense of the depth baitfish are comfortable with on the day you are fishing can make the day more productive.
Largemouth are at their most efficient as ambush predators, so finding the depth bait want to use can help you focus on the intersection between that depth and cover or structure that bass can use to ambush that bait. Where bait and bass habitat features combine, at least some largemouth bass will be nearby.
Pro bass angler David Fritts agrees that electronics can be an important part of the first stage of figuring out the pattern bass are on.
“Often baitfish in the fall are in a pretty narrow depth band that might be only 4 or 5 feet wide,” he said.
He likes to begin by finding some hard bottom in creek arms where he finds bait. Fritts is famously proficient with crankbaits, and that’s what he uses to help establish a pattern. He moves down the creek channel, fishing the drop with crankbaits.
“I’ll have a variety of different sizes on, different baits that can run from 5 to 20 feet deep,” he said.
Crankbaits have several characteristics that make them a classic and excellent search bait: They imitate baitfish, they can be fished at various depths, and they cover some water. But, depending on what baits you have confidence in, you do have some choices. Suspending jerkbaits and swimbaits, for example, can be deadly this time of year. Find a place where schools of bait show up on your electronics, and a jerkbait, swimbait or crankbait that runs at that depth or a bit below is a good option. Bait concentrations associated with structure are particularly good bets.
Swimbaits can be a bit more flexible with regard to depth because you can count the bait down to the right depth and retrieve it at that depth.
BASS AND STRUCTURE
Often most of the bass in any given lake will be behaving much the same way because they are reacting to the same water and habitat conditions. Active bass might be at roughly the same depth, for example. But largemouth would not be in just about every body of standing water from Florida to the Great Lakes if they couldn’t use a variety of structure.
Bass like structure — flooded creek beds, road beds, ledges, bridge pilings, humps, riprap and points — but they won’t be uniformly distributed, and patterning on structure away from shore can be intimidating.
Electronics are your friend for figuring out what the bass are doing if you don’t know their pattern. Look for structures that lead from shallow to deep, such as points and creek channels entering the main lake. There’s a good chance that fish are on that structure somewhere.
Fritts believes that creek arms and any associated channels are efficient places to search because they present relatively sharp breaks at a variety of depths that are easy to find. And he believes that this time of year bass like sharp changes in depths rather than, for example, long, gradual points.
“In the fall, bass in most lakes will get on sharp drops,” he said. “Some kind of ditch is more or less what you’re going to look for.”
In lakes with major creek arms, Fritts notes that side channels with the same characteristics can also produce.
REFINING THE PATTERN
Fall largemouth are often somewhat frustrating for anglers because they do not spread out uniformly on structure. Anglers might search a while before getting a strike, and it can be hard to stick with a plan that hasn’t started to work yet. But sticking with a plan that has a solid basis will pay off. And Fritts suggests not overthinking things.
“It doesn’t require a lot of thinking, sometimes,” he said of his search pattern. “You fish until the fish tell you where they are. They tell you when you hook up.”
The good thing is, he said, “If you catch one, there’s usually more there. Once you catch one, you can narrow the search. Once you figure out the depth the bait want and the bass are at, you have a good indication where to fish.”
Fritts himself likes to use either a Berkley Digger Crankbait or the Berkley Dredger Crankbait. The Digger has an aggressive wobble, whereas the Dredger has a subtler action and a weighted bill to get deeper fast and stay deep. One isn’t always better than the other; what Fritts is looking for even in the same class of baits is some variety to show the fish until they show him their preferences.
“The Digger is a hard-action bait,” Fritts said. “You just have to see what the fish want.”
The same holds true of any appropriate bait you might be using as you search. A variety of action, either through the built-in characteristics of the bait itself or in the way you retrieve it, can help you zero in on the fish.
Fritts also considers color in his baits: “In the fall, I might start with cream pie; any kind of bone color and Chartreuse works good too.”
Obviously, if you know the basic forage base in the lake, matching your bait color to the color of the main food supply is a good place to start.
Many bass pros who catch a couple of fish in an area, and then find the bite cools off, will throw a different kind of bait before they leave that spot. If the bass are stacked up, some of them might want a different look. Some pros have a kind of sequence that they might use. Swimbait or spinnerbait to crankbait to Carolina rig, for example. Each bait produces a different “look” for the fish.
In this sequence, bait size can be a useful variable.
Unless conditions change significantly during the day, the first place you catch fish should suggest the next place to try. Some combination of bait, water temperature, depth and cover/structure were holding the bass you just caught, and if you can find another spot with similar characteristics, you’ve improved your chances of finding more fish.
And each spot where fish cooperated is a good candidate to return to at some point in the day, as good spots can “reload” with fish after a rest.
Finally, devise a system of keeping track of what worked and where it worked. Next fall, under similar conditions, you have a great place to start fishing.
SHELL BARS & SHALLOW LAKES AND RIVERS
Not all bass lakes and rivers have deep water and sharp drops, and even those that do in many cases have another kind of structure that fall bass find attractive: shell beds or bars. Mollusk colonies provide a hard-bottom habitat that contrasts with other bottom types and supports a range of food animals in the food chain.
One pro angler who is famous for successful shell bar fishing is Terry Scroggins. He uses side-scan technology to find shell bars (the hard bottom will be brighter than soft bottom areas on the screen).
His general approach is to use a crankbait to thump its way along the shells. Like Fritts on drops, Scroggins will throw in some variety in baits as well: He might start with a lipped crank, then go to a lipless crankbait, then a Carolina rig.
When he hits shell, he’s not trying to fish fast across the structure, because “if you are on shell, you are in the strike zone.”
Shell beds are productive all the time, but in rivers or water-supply lakes where current develops, the presence of current can turn the fish on.
If you find yourself on a body of water with shell beds this fall, spend some time working on
them. Find the right set of beds, and you’ll put some bass in the livewell.