Sep 10, 2015

Fall’s River Smallmouth Bonanza

By: Tom Luba

To a river smallmouth bass, 60 degree water means two things.  One is the call to the spring spawning shallows.  The second happens now, spurring smallies into movements that can produce the best fishing of the year for anglers with a keen eye on the gradually falling temperatures.

On the Wolf River, for instance, the water starts to cool in mid to late September.  That’s when the bass start transitioning from their shallow summer locations, in smaller rivers like the Waupaca, the Little Wolf and the Embarrass, to the Wolf, where they will winter in the deeper holes.

The Wolf isn’t the only state river that hosts migrating smallmouth, however.

According to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologists, bass in rivers like the St. Croix, the Red Cedar, the Lower Chippewa, and others, also seek deeper waters in the fall.  Plus, rivers like the Menominee, sectioned by a series of dams, find bass moving back to the deeper water near the exit dams.

The exact date the bass start moving varies by the prevailing conditions each year, but once they’ve gotten to the general wintering areas, all thoughts turn to food.  And all these bass, in a much more condensed area than their summer range, can truly be a smallmouth bonanza.

While spring action can tail off quickly after the spawn, once these river smallies get in close proximity, quality fishing can hold up all fall.  To capitalize on this, it pays to look at how the fish relate as the fall waters cool.

Early Period

Once the bass make this fall transition, they look for feeding areas and opportunities.  With the water temperature in the fifties, the bass are in the chasing mood.  So, moving baits are a big part of the early approach.  Crankbaits are key during the early stage.  The fish gather on feeding shelves, or they move up and down sloping banks chasing prey.  Cranks like Bomber 7As or Strike King 5 Series deep divers can go down and get them.  Look for areas that are 4 to 8 feet deep at this point.  Bounce the deep cranks along these breaks.  If you need to vary the depth, switch to a Rat-L-Trap.  Since the Trap sinks, you can vary the depth of retrieve on a moment’s notice.  Fish might be holding in the slack waters before a riffle, or hanging on the side of a sloping bank.  A diver with a lip is restricted to a particular depth.  A Rat-L-Trap can be worked at various depths during the same retrieve.  Color-wise, go with Brown Crawfish, Fire Tiger, or a Red Caw pattern.  For Rat-L-Traps, also keep a chrome finish handy for use in the shallower riffle areas.  And always cast upstream and parallel to the bank.  It keeps the bait in the strike zone a lot longer.


Mid Period

The “chase” period holds through the 50s and while a crankbait can kick butt at 50 to 52 degrees, once the water temperature drops into the high 40s, the fish start vacating the shallower flats.

At this point, the fish are moving toward deeper water.  They will winter in areas 18 or more feet deep, so when you locate these potential wintering holes, fish the surrounding areas thoroughly.  From 48 to 43 degrees, jigs become the “go-to” bait.  3-1/2-in. tubes are an excellent choice during this phase.  Bucktail or “hair” jigs also work well, and I usually fish a natural color, tipped with a 4-in. Crème firetail worm.  Grubs and smaller Beaver-styled plastic creatures also work.  With the volume of different plastics now on the market, don’t be afraid to try anything you have confidence in.  Personally, that’s how I have discovered “new” baits and approaches over the years.  Go with colors like Watermelon Seed and Green Pumpkin.  But colors like Chartruse, Fire Tiger and Peanut Butter and Jelly can produce quite well as change-up colors.

Cold Water

As October moves on and colder water becomes the norm, you’ll find fish holding tighter to bottom cover, closer to the deeper wintering areas.  A hopping jig doesn’t seem to get the attention it did just a week earlier.  But a minnow-type plastic bait drifted along bottom, with virtually no angler-imparted action, can work wonders.  A lot of the fish are holding tight to smaller rocks and limbs on the bottom and don’t show up on your electronics.

We’ve done great during the later period with baits like Zoom’s 4-in. Centipede, in the Watermelon Seed pattern, and the Trigger X 5-in. minnow in Watermelon and Green Pumpkin patterns.  Shiner, Goby and Baby Bass type colors are also worth trying.  Rig the Centipedes, also known as “French Fries,” a shape they resemble, weedless, with a 1 or 1/0 Z-bend hook and use a 1/16-oz. slip sinker so it drifts and doesn’t hang up on bottom.  On the Trigger X baits, I go with the same weight, but a 2/0 or 3/0 wide gap worm hook, which works better to penetrate the thicker minnow body.

Once the water temperature drops below 40 degrees, the bass will still take artificials, but slow is mandatory.  The difference of just a few degrees can cause a major change in the bite.  If you’re lucky to get fishable weather into November, live bait will still catch fish.

One point to remember is that while most rivers are not terribly high in the fall, there will be some years where Ma Nature deems there shall be more water.  While lower water congregates fish more as the available surface level shrinks, high water can increase current and cover areas not normally under water.  If you do fish high water, as was the case on the Wolf last year, there are certain areas to look for that will consistently produce.  Current seams and breaks offer a place for the fish to get out of the heavy flow.  So do eddy’s and larger objects like bridge pilings, trees and bigger rocks.  Focusing on these areas in high water will help you catch more fish under less-than-ideal conditions.

In terms of tackle, I use both spinning and baitcasting.  Using fluorocarbon line on baitcasters makes sense.  The line has less stretch and is more abrasion resistant than regular mono.  Plus, it sinks. 12 lb. Berkley Vanish Transition for crankbaits, and 12 or 14 lb. for drifting bottom baits later in the season has worked well.

For lighter jigs and tubes, I still use spinning gear, spooled with 8 lb. Sufix Elite mono.  The off-color water on most rivers does make it harder for fish to spot the line tied to that edible piece of plastic.  If you want a fluorocarbon on your spin sticks, though, the most manageable I’ve found is the new Berkley XL 100% Fluorocarbon.  I use medium action Quantum rods for crankbaits, and medium heavy for jigs and bottom drifters.

Knowing that many river smallmouth bass migrate to deep water areas to winter is the first step to a successful catch.  Tracking them as the fall waters cool should put you in a situation to catch these current-savvy gamefish as the leaves turn from green to multi-colored and finally drop, bringing another season to winter’s door.