by Jim Porter
The soft rustle of gold and red leaves in the light afternoon winds and the crackle, underfoot, of their fallen comrades signifies that the season is fast changing. Cool, crisp mornings replace the sultry ones of Summer and the advanced guards of migrating ducks begin to show up on the lakes and ponds. It's the most treasured time of the fishing year--Autumn.
The lifestyle of the largemouth bass is strongly regulated by the four seasons. Winter is a time of reduced activity. The lower water temperatures greatly reduce the bodily metabolism rate, resulting in little need for food and relatively long periods of dormancy. The first warming of the Spring trigger the instincts to feed to replenish the body and strengthen for the rigors of the coming spawn. Summer heat, and the corresponding reduction in oxygen content of the warmer water, normally moves most aquatic life from the shallow zones, causing the bass to move towards open water along with the forage. Fall, likewise, is a time of change for the bass; and, it probably has the most significant and compelling effects of all the seasons. What takes place during this period has a major effect on the survival of the species.
In the fish world, Fall is also a time of prosperity. The earlier spawns of the food chain are now large enough to be good forage. The waters begin to cool in the shallow zones, recalling that forage which had previously fled the Summer sun. Mother Nature sends Her signal that the long Winter season is imminent and all Her subjects must prepare accordingly. The result is a feeding spree that makes for the year's finest angling experiences.
In order to become a truly competent and predictably successful bass angler, it is imperative that the fisherman understand his fish and its habits. While minor environmental changes, such as wind, weather fronts and fluctuating water levels, have short-term effects on bass, seasonal changes are much more pronounced and enduring. The effects do not wear off in a few days, returning the bass to their old habits and patterns of the week before. These are major happenings, with long term impacts.
In order to take maximum advantage of the fine fishing opportunities of the Fall season, we must recognize that two periods of `transition' will occur-- Summer-to-Fall and Fall-to-Winter. The peculiarities of each, and the responses of the bass, are very predictable, allowing us to locate the fish with minimum difficulty. And, remember the primary success rule associated with bass angling: "Catching them is easy; finding them is the hard part."
Let's start off by looking at the first transition phase, Summer-to-Fall. Then, we'll explore the Fall-to-Winter changes. And, finally, we'll discuss the Fall, itself, in detail. By recognizing the characteristics of each, we will be able to anticipate the responses of the bass and his movements.
The warm waters of the Summer months result in a consistently higher body temperature and correspondingly high metabolic rate in fish. Accordingly, the bass actually consumes more food during this period than at any other time. This constant requirement to feed forces bass to be very mobile and to continually follow the forage. Summer bass patterns are not necessarily deep water oriented, as you may previously have been led to believe. The fish are not normally found in the shallow zones, but the majority are also not too deep, either. The forage, as we have previously stated, has been driven from the shallow cover zones by the
heat and low oxygen levels and is generally found in open water areas where water currents, either natural or wind-induced, are found. These currents cause a `mixing' of the water, precluding stratification by temperature, insuring oxygen absorption, and providing acceptable seasonal comfort without the necessity of going deep. This is the reason that hot weather bass are normally found on open water structures and channel drops, and as shallow as eight feet. The lack of water mixing is why few Summer bass will be found in shallow coves and pockets.
As the Summer-to-Fall transition begins, the water temperatures start to drop. The shallows again become supportive and the forage, followed by the bass, begins to return. Movement to the shallow cover zones appears to be a very orderly function. The keys to these movements are the feeder creek channels and other deep water areas directly adjacent to shallow cover.
As the Winter season approaches, another transition occurs. The bass will, again, move back to the open water. But, this time, his primary goal is not to establish himself near the food supply. His lower metabolism in colder water requires that he only eat a small amount every three to five days. His drive is to locate acceptable structure upon which to pass the colder months. A major prerequisite of this structure is that it not be effected by water currents and
cause the bass any undue expending of energy to inhabit it. While the bass is not going into hibernation, he will enter long periods of dormancy not unlike it. Accordingly, the structure must be away from natural current flow and deep enough that the wind-induced water movements are negated. The deepest most bass will ever be found is during the Winter period.
Now that we know where the bass will be coming from in the Summer and where he will be going to when Winter arrives, let's get into the Fall period, itself.
First , understand that Fall bass are feeding bass. There is a strong instinct to feed heavily and prepare the body for the Winter period. In addition to simply surviving the Winter, the body must also be able to support the initial body build-up for the coming spawn.
Second , Fall bass are normally oriented to large, shallow areas of cover which are near deep water. Where the shallow cover used during the Spring was generally as thick and dense as could be found, Fall is a bit different. The more productive areas will be large flats with relatively thin cover, such as stump beds, intermittent brush growth, and sparse weeds. And, again, the areas should be very near deep water. The close proximity of deep water is possibly the most important factor in initially evaluating the potential of a Fall feeding `hot-spot'.
Of course, the angler notes the early signs of the pending Summer-to-Fall transition by the weather changes. However, on the water, there are some other specific occurrences to watch for. Given that he has systematically determined some potential Fall feeding areas, the angler should closely note the gradual increase in bait fish activity in those areas. These are a sure sign that the migration is beginning. Also, the start of surface feeding action by individual bass indicates that their 'advance party' has arrived. The fisherman lucky enough to be on the water regularly can even determine when the Fall feeding period peaks and when the transition towards Winter begins, by the amount of activity observed.
While critical during the Spring spawning preparation, the passage of a cold front has little effect on Fall bass. The winds which follow may cause a short disruption, due to the turbulence created in the shallows, but their effects will be short-lived. Of course, as the fronts become more and more severe, the transition to Winter will begin.
Cold fronts may actually have a positive effect on Fall bass fishing. Shad, the primary forage, is very intolerant of cold and a rapid change in temperature will cause many to die. This condition is noted by the bait fish flipping on the surface and, then, slowly fluttering towards the bottom. Bass will not surface feed in this instance, but will lie below the shad school and pick of the dying shad as they sink past. A vertically-jigged spoon is a deadly lure at this time.
Bass, congregated in a Fall feeding area, will not always be actively pursuing the bait fish within the cover. At times, they may be either resting between feeding excursions or waiting for the weather or water conditions to stabilize. Still, they are extremely predictable and fairly easy to locate. The main thing to remember is that they will remain near the cover area and probably on the first significant structure break-line. This break-line is usually definable in terms of the adjacent deep water. For example, suppose we have located the bass feeding actively in the stumps and brush on a submerged ridge-line near an old creek
channel. When the action slows significantly, the wise angler would do well to re-orient his lure presentations to the edge of the channel drop-off.
If our Fall honey-hole were to, instead, be a submerged island, the break-line used during slack feeding periods would normally be the edge of the sharpest drop into the deepest adjacent water. When we start to get into the fine details of structure, such as in this instance, we are beginning to consider what is called `sub-structure'. That may be better defined as `structure on structure'. This is important, in that it plays a major role in accurately and continually locating the bass as they progress into the transition towards their Winter habitat.
Fall bass are very susceptible to `action' lures. Their active feeding level makes them extremely aggressive and they are prone to attack nearly anything that moves. Therefore, a fast-moving bait is more likely to trigger an instinctive strike. And, in addition, it allows us to cover more water with more casts, normally resulting in more fish caught.
Of all the lures available, possibly the best Fall choice is the free-running, vibrating crank plug. Familiar examples most anglers will readily recognize are Cordell's `Spot' and Lewis' `Rat-L-Trap'. These are highly versatile baits, the depth, speed and action of which are easily controlled by the angler. A very fast retrieve speed is usually the best approach, with the running depth determined by the distance the bait is first allowed to sink. If a significant cold front has recently passed and the shad forage is experiencing a resultant mortality rate, as earlier mentioned, a stop-and-go retrieve will closely imitate the dying bait fish.
Another excellent lure choice is the spinner bait. Few lures appeal more to an aggressive, feeding bass. However, the angler must keep in mind that the spinner bait is primarily a lure to be used around cover. While it can still be effective at times, it is not a good choice for open water bass or those holding on drop lines. If the bass are not active in the cover, itself, opt for another lure choice.
Shallow running, `lipped' crank plugs are good choices if the cover happens to be stumps or brush. Their nose-down running position allows this type lure to crawl over most hard obstructions and be relatively snag-free.
When the bass have moved out of the cover zone and onto the break-line area, lure selection must be made by first considering the depth to be fished. Because the fish are still relatively active, a fast-moving crank plug would be the first choice. It should have a tight, strike-inducing wiggle and run on or very near the bottom. A fast retrieve should be used until it is proven ineffective. Then, gradually slow down and, possibly, revert to a stop-and-go action. I prefer the new Fat Free Shad series for this approach, in that they tend to float upwards slightly or suspend (depending on the model) when stopped momentarily. That bit of added action can be a real turn-on to the bass.
Late into the Fall, as the temperature drops become more extreme, the bass may become somewhat reluctant to take the fast-moving lures. When this is noted, the reliable worm, or jig-and-pig, may be the ticket to success. By running through the various retrieve choices, from short, quick hops to a slow crawl, the angler should usually be able to find one that is successful.
The reluctance to take the fast-moving lures, coupled with late Fall conditions, indicates that the Fall feeding spree is winding down. Now, the angler should start to pay close attention to the action found on the drop-offs. As it starts to noticeably decrease, he should begin to explore increasingly deeper, open water structure which is out of direct current flow. By doing so, the angler will be able to
`follow' the bass and determine what will be the eventual Winter honey-holes.
Other than reminding the reader that Fall is such a great time to fish, the real value of this material lies in the message that successful bass angling is simple a matter of `mind over fish'. Approaching the sport with an understanding of the habits and lifestyles of the bass will greatly improve the probability of success.
"FALL BASSIN' PATTERNS"
In the Fall, all wildlife feeds heavily in preparation for the coming Winter. Fish and other aquatic creatures are no exception. Bait fish and other forage of the bass gather in the cooling shallows for one big feast. The predator bass follows and the excellent fishing of the Fall season begins. There are a number of successful bassin' patterns which may be found, each dependent somewhat on the changing weather and water conditions. The following are some of the ones to look for:
- Large, shallow cover areas will hold large numbers of Fall bass when conditions are reasonably stable. These will be very active fish, prone to readily take a lure. Spinner baits and free-running, vibrating crank plugs (Spot, Rat-L-Trap) produce excellent results. Fast retrieves are usually the ticket.
- The outer edges of weed beds and stump fields may produce the most bass, if they are not found directly in the cover areas. This is always true for the larger fish. Lures here should be kept near the bottom. Experiment with retrieve speeds until the best is found. Lipped crank plugs and worms are recommended.
- The first well-defined drop-off out past the shallow cover may be best if recent water levels or weather conditions have been unstable. Bass in these positions will be relatively inactive. Keep the lure on the bottom and the retrieve slow. A Plastic worm or jig is the first choice, followed by a slow crank plug.
- There is always a period of good top water schooling activity in the middle of the Fall. Use top water and shallow crank plugs when casting to the breaks. When the bass go down, try to find their holding area and go with a plastic worm.
- Early Fall bass are in a period of migration towards the shallows. Look for them along the edges of feeder tributary channels, usually near the bottom. Depending on the depth of the channel edge, use lipped crank plugs and worms.
- Late Fall/early Winter bass will be schooling tightly on major structure breaks near deep water. Use a plastic worm or jig and pig and keep the retrieve very slow.
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