Fall fashions for smallmouths.
Lure choices for smallmouths change with the scenery, too. But it's more of a roller-coaster than a trip to the changing room--lazy, subtle presentations need to become aggressive overnight at some point. Cadences slow again, then it's back to wild, erratic lures and retrieves. Things finally slide back down the aggressiveness scale to smaller, slower options as winter approaches.
Early fall is an extension of summer. July through mid-September, softbaits rule. Swimbaits, tubes, action-tail worms, wacky rigs, grubs, and drop-shot baits produce consistently while topwaters, cranks, spinnerbaits, and hard jerks score occasionally.
In fall, river smallmouths hold my focus. They stay shallow until late in the season and make dynamic migrations that fascinate me. Living another 100 years might not be long enough to fathom all there is to know about their fall movements. Autumn rolls around before the migrations truly begin, so the best lures tend to be grubs, worms, or tubes on light jigs--summer stuff. In lakes, drop-shot success happens in 15 to 25 feet of water. The bite won't change until that first nasty cold front blasts out of Canada.
When rain and sleet start blowing sideways at 45[degrees]F, smallmouths begin marching toward winter habitat. Fashions change dramatically. Bass that needed coaxing yesterday collide with crankbaits and spinnerbaits like crash-test dummies. Water temperatures tend to be around 60[degrees]F to 64[degrees]F and dropping fast. If the water continues to cool, aggressive tactics remain hot. But if unseasonably warm weather hits and water temperatures actually rise again--smallmouths stop migrating, stay wherever they are, and stop chasing. The roller coaster climbs uphill with the temperatures, slowing back down into a grub-and-tube paradigm. The bite seems to slow a bit every day if warming trends continue, and may pass through drop-shot and livebait phases before fading altogether. Inevitably, another killer cold front sends the car screaming back downhill into another aggressive loop.
When the water drops into the upper-40[degrees]F range, smallmouths remain aggressive if cooling trends continue, but soon stop chasing cranks and spinnerbaits with any passion. Relatively big suspending baits and football jigs tipped with craws, spider grubs, or twintails take center stage. Drop-shot rigs and float 'n' fly tactics take mostly smaller fish until the water drops to about 45[degrees]F. By the time the water dips to 38[degrees]F in the Mississippi River, a deftly presented float'n' fly not only takes giant bass, it outfishes livebait.
At least, that's how I see things happening in my backyard. But how do those perceptions match up with those of the best guides and pros from other areas?
Great Lakes Fashions
Mike Kerempelis, owner of Walleyes And More, LLC, is a smallmouth guide on the world-class smallmouth waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan. "Starting in early fall," he says, "we typically catch most of our fish by continuing with the same wacky-rigged Senkos, jig-grub combos, and soft swimbaits we used all summer. Berkley Hollow Belly Swimbaits and Ripple Shads and other 4- to 5-inch swimbaits on 3/32- to 1/4-ounce Gopher Mushroom Head Jigs work most days until that first dramatic change in weather. We slow roll them with a steady retrieve."
When Kerempelis needs to slow things down he goes wacky. "The Senko is deadly on slow days," he says. "Cast to key spots and let it fall vertically. We fish it weightless. A prolonged drop is key. When we start to see cold fronts and falling surface temperatures, smallmouths progress to sharp breaks near shore and we start using reaction baits. Some bass eventually winter there, at the base of hard-breaking shorelines near shore with wind protection to the north. Offshore bass begin moving toward humps, rockpiles, and similar structures in 40 feet of water. Early in fall, the offshore fish are close to the breaks that drop to those structures, typically holding 15 to 20 feet down. We generally reach for Rapala Clackin' Raps and Rattlin' Rapalas. We cast into deep water, let the lures fall toward bottom, and use a slow steady retrieve. Or else we rip, let it fall a few feet, and rip it again. Sometimes bass prefer one presentation over the other."
If water temperatures continue to drop steadily into the 50[degrees]F range, Kermepelis begins fishing blades. "A 3/4- to 1-ounce spinnerbait is required to get down to fish holding on and around these steep-dropping breaks," he says. "I love running-and-gunning with a Nichols Pulsator. But when bass are spread over wide areas, we drift and twitch wacky rigs in space, way behind the boat. That's when we learn how color selective smallmouths can be with slow-moving baits. I like light sandy colors on sunny days and watermelon laminates on dark days. Translucent and clear colors work best in clear water. Matching the bottom is important in clear water."
If the water continues to cool, Kerempelis starts working fast with mid-depth cranks like the Strike King 5XD and Rapala DT10. "Square bills produce best when smallmouths make that predictable move back into shallow water as the water drops through the low-50[degrees]F range," he says. "The Strike King KVD 1.5 is a favorite for that activity. They work almost into the end of the season, but when the water gets really cold, it becomes a livebait or drop-shot bite.
"We drift three-way rigs with minnows sometimes, but late-fall fish have a tendency to congregate. We find concentrations by pulling a spinnerbait or lipless crank, then go back over them with a 4-inch Berkley Gulp! Minnow on a drop-shot rig. We work the area methodically with 1/4- to 1/2-ounce weights. Typically depths are 20 to 25 feet on the outside breaks to those wintering sites. When the water's that cold, you work vertically with very subtle movements. I often fish for bass I can see with sonar."
Way up north, Great Lakes fashions fall into a similar groove, according to Chris Beeksma, owner of Get Bit Guide Service near Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior. Beeksma sees the shallow movement happen a little earlier. "The first thing smallmouths do in early fall is head back to shallow water," he says. "We have a lot of success at that point with lipless baits like Rapala's Rattlin' Rapala retrieved steadily. Keep it above bottom or you're snagged."
Two years ago, Beeksma showed us how 3/4- to 1-ounce spinnerbaits like the Terminator and Strike King Bottom Dweller outfish lighter models in 4 to 6 feet of water when burned past woodcover during the second stage of that early movement. "Speed is the key," he says. "You can't burn a 3/8- or even a 1/2-ouncer fast enough and keep it down. After the water drops below 60[degrees]F, smallmouths begin working their way to the edges of the shipping channel in 10- to 12-foot depths."
He starts looking for spots where shallow meets deep in a hurry. "We hunt for wood or vegetation along the upper lip with Rapala DT 6s and DT 10s--whichever model is able to just reach and rip through the tops of the plants or barely contact the wood. That works until the water drops below 50[degrees]F. At that point, smallmouths descend into 15- and 20-foot depths, and we switch to football heads and jigging spoons. I've introduced many people to jigging spoons for smallmouths. Anglers up north don't think of Northland Buck-Shot Spoons or Cotton Cordell CC Spoons as bass lures. Sometimes bass want the rattle, sometimes they don't. Lots of spoons work, but I like slab styles in silver and gold that drop fast but flutter. We work them vertically with a 2- to 3-foot lift-drop."
Beeksma winds down the season rolling 1/4 to 1/2-ounce All Terrain Football Heads tipped with Netcraft Paca Craws on the bottom. "Stop it, shake it, pause it, then just keep rolling it along," Beeksma says. "Bass stay in those 15- to 25-foot depths down to about 40[degrees]F. When the water hits the 30[degrees]F range, we use a drop-shot rig with a TriggerX Probe Worm, working it vertically with insignificant little twitches. We have current moving our baits all the time."
Great Lakes tournament champion Joe Balog says fashions that hit the red carpet on the lower Great Lakes are all about dinner wear. "On Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie, the key is forage-type transitions," Balog reports. "While it may or may not be the case in other regions, we see a defined, annual switch in the types of prey big smallmouths prefer as the water cools. On Erie, bass have been feeding on gobies most of the year, with a few populations keying on gizzard shad. As fall progresses, different baitfish are attracted to river mouths and harbor areas, forming dense concentrations. Smallmouths feed on those baitfish heavily in fall. In some areas, it's shad, but more often emerald shiners or smelt.
"As bass switch among baitfish types, crankbaits like the Rapala DT 10 or DT 16 are effective in that 50[degrees]F range. I'm a huge fan of Daiwa's T-Wing system, built into their Tatula and Zillion reels. They cast much farther than other reels, and that's huge plus on big water. As the water cools further, down into the 40[degrees]F zone, bladebaits like Silver Buddies are key. That bait has been a consistent producer for us in cold water for many years."
On Lake St. Clair, forage transitions occur, but involve different species. "In early fall, most bass are feeding on perch," Balog says. "There, shallow jerks like the new Rapala Shadow Rap and shallow cranks work well around vegetation. As the water cools and bass move to wintering areas, some key on gobies. Most of the fish go to small sandy areas in grass beds in 10 to 15 feet of water, where they begin to feed on shiners as well. There, a Silver Buddy again reigns supreme."
Silver Buddies shoulder the bulk of the work on Balog's boat during fall. "Smallies can be caught on tubes, hair jigs, jerkbaits, and spoons as well," he says. "I like spoons sometimes, but it's hit or miss--not as consistent as a blade. I work the Silver Buddy on a 7-foot, medium-power Daiwa Tatula rod with 12-pound Sufix Siege. Medium-power rods have the right action--medium-heavy is too abrupt. A medium-power gives you better feel and better action to the bait. In fall, it's a subtle lift-drop. The best way to describe it is to let the lure fall as soon as it vibrates. The rod motion is 11 to 12 o'clock."
Steve Hacker might be the busiest smallmouth guide on the planet--probably because he puts giants in the net on Pickwick Lake--especially in fall. "But from late August through the third week of September, smallmouth fishing is notoriously fickle on Pickwick," Hacker admits. "Water temps linger in the 80's. The introduction of the Alabama rig a few years ago quickly changed things. Unless the current is really flying, smallmouths are vagabonds, suspended with the baitballs. The Alabama rig provided an effective way to fish for these notoriously tough customers.
"We have some incredible top-water fishing at that point, too," Hacker says. "The smaller Strike King Sexy Dawg is my top choice then, followed by the Heddon Super Spook Jr. If the fish won't come up, we twitch a 4- or 5-inch weightless Strike King Caffeine Shad or rig a Swimmin' Caffeine Shad on a Scrounger head. Shad imitators or bright colors shine in areas with lots of bait, either suspended or pushed to the surface by bass that won't commit to topwater presentations."
On Pickwick, as this early period transitions to the next, Hacker often relies on a 1/6-ounce Worden's Rooster Tail and the smaller Strike King Rocket Shad. "By late September, as the water cools into the low 70s," Hacker says, "I start adding more minnow imitating jigs to the mix. Bass relate to specific structured and roam less as days shorten. Leadhead jigs with bluegill-color Rage Tail Grubs work well, as do other colors like green pumpkin. White bucktail jigs and tubes enter the mix as well.
"As the water cools into the mid-to low-70s, usually around the first half of October, I install a bait tank in my boat," he continues. "I plumb it into my livewell system, flip a switch, set the timer, and catch live shad at dawn. Mid- to late fall, you catch bass 10 to 1 on livebait over any artificial on Pickwick. I take the shad tank out at Thanksgiving and start fishing tubes and Strike King Shadalicious swimbaits for the remainder of the season, moving progressively deeper."
Mississippi River bass have long since stopped biting by Thanksgiving, while farther north on Chequamegon Bay they bite aggressively all winter. Fall lure fashions depend, to some extent, on genetic differences like those, and are also related to different forage species on different waters. But some patterns of smallmouth behavior remain the same, coast-to-coast, and the autumnal roller coaster is always running, wherever you fish.
BY MATT STRAW *
* In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, lives along the banks of the Mississippi River and keeps a close watch on local smallmouth bass.
Early Fall Selections
Worden's Rooster Tail
Kalin's Grub/Gopher Tackle Mushroom Head Jig
Kalin's Wac-O Worm/Lazer Sharp Wacky Hook
Rapala Shadow Rap
Berkley Ripple Shad
Heddon Zara Spook
Mid-Fall and Post Frontal Selections
Northland Tackle Buck-Shot Flutter Spoon
Strife King KVD 1.5
Rapala Rattlin' Rapala
Rapala DT 10
Strike King 5XD
Late Fall Favorites
Cordell CC Spoon
SPRO Phat Fly
Yamamoto Hula Grub/Lunker City Football
Strife King Shadalicious/Gamakatsu Round 26
Netbait Paca Craw/All Terrain Football Head