Autumn Goldby: Jim Porter
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 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.
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.
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.
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".
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 baitfish 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.
The cold fronts of Fall and early Winter also bring winds and rain. These two items, while held as negatives by most anglers, are actually two of the most POSITIVE conditions in FINDING and catching fish. This subject is too deep for this article. BUT, I will give you these points to ponder until another day.
Wind creates "induced" water currents, which are funnels by structure, terrain, submerged channels and other obstructions. Think "tidal water", which is a form of induced current. Moving water is an angler's BEST friend. You can beat cold fronts by using induced current flow.
Bass, congregated in a Fall feeding area, will not always be actively pursuing the baitfish 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 ridgeline 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.
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 baitfish.
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.
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.
Added: Mon Apr 07 2008
Last Modified: Fri May 15 2009