Fall Forage Shift
By Bruce Litton
At first, I don’t like the change of season. I don’t like to snap on a Rapala or spinnerbait when I would have used a worm or topwater plug. Summer was the time all the other seasons depend on, arrive at, and leave. I love to fish a lure as if it can take all day to retrieve because summer’s the home season, and the more it seems to be going nowhere, the more summery it is. But I always catch the fall spritz and let summer go with no regrets. I feel that invigorating chill, and after initial moodiness, it sets me in motion as it does gamefish too.
Ever since my son was able to ride the kiddie roller coaster nine years ago, we’ve gone to the Labor Day Carnival in Mendham. When night falls and fireworks are shot skyward, I typically feel a chill in the air and know we’ve turned a subtle seasonal corner. But generally not until the last week of September does it seem to change the summer patterns, and lures that specifically resemble forage fish begin to produce better.
A Change in Diet
The most obvious change in diet between the summer and fall seasons happens to smallmouths in the upper Delaware. Billions of shad fry have begun the journey to the sea in September, and bass begin to feed almost exclusively on them. This is advantageous to them for three reasons. The summer smorgasbord of insect larvae and hatches has begun to subside, shad fry are easily preyed upon, and the Omega fatty acid rich fry are extremely nutritious for the bass. In the Delaware the forage shift is dramatic with smallmouths schooling to capture the shad.
But I’ve noticed a subtler shift over the years even in farm ponds with only bluegills for largemouth to feed on besides insect species, amphibians (especially tadpoles), and the occasional small snake or mouse lured to water’s edge for those insects that summer propagates. By October fewer damselflies and dragonflies, for example, dimple a pond’s surface or alight on lily pads, targeted in turn. Aquatic larval activity decreases as water temperatures return to optimal range for largemouths, in the upper 60s, at least in the late afternoons. With increased activity, fast swimming bluegills are more appropriate targets than smaller easy pickin’s like insects.
Likewise, in Lake Hopatcong both largemouths and smallmouths bore relation to insects associated with weeds and much warmer water temperatures in the 15 feet of water oxygenated enough to support fish life. Now the lake begins to take a radical turn for the better, culminating in the fall turnover by mid-October. Usually the first week in September sees no improvement over August. The lake is then in its doldrums, but by late September that subtle seasonal change I always feel on Labor Day has begun to change New Jersey’s largest lake as well. Billions of Hopatcong alewife herring are also highly rich in Omega fats, and everything game in the lake begins to devour them.
The Temperature Paradox
I have read research that shows no evidence is available that bass put on fat for winter. Bass are cold blooded, have no need to fatten for winter, and do not hibernate but remain active at the level of their slowed metabolism under winter ice. Apparently, higher levels of fall bass activity are due especially to temperatures closer to optimal, and somewhat to shorter hours of sunlight and less direct rays on the water.
The higher the water temperature, the more bass metabolism burns. But this doesn’t mean bass are actually more active with summer water temperatures in the 80’s. On the contrary, the more water temperature rises above their optimal range, the more they slow in order to conserve calories they burn off while idling, but would burn even faster by a lot of swimming and chasing of baitfish. Naturally, the plastic worm may be the very best summer bass lure because it’s lazy. Topwater plug retrieves that may produce best are slow as the sun sets. Slow summer feeding habits change late in September when bass begin to give chase.
Optimal water temperatures for largemouths, around 70, and cooler for smallmouths, are those by which bass are most freely active. It’s not much of a stretch to suppose that fish forage—especially fish rich in nutrients like shad and alewives—serves their growth best when temperatures are both optimal for growth and for feeding. The fall feed has everything to do with growth and health, not fat for a cold winter.
Forage Imitating Lure Choices
My favorite fall lures are Rapala floaters and Countdowns, chrome finish Rat-L-Traps, and spinnerbaits, although many other lures are great choices as well. Even in ponds with no minnow forage, the Rapalas work wonders from late September well into October. It’s much a less a matter of matching colors (bluegill)—although that can be done—than it is of lure action. I really make a Rapala dance by rod tip action, not because bluegills are behaving erratically, but because bass are stimulated to the chase. The floaters are great in shallows whether along banks and weeds or next to brush and timber. Countdowns work as deep as 12 to 15 feet; I’ve found them particularly effective on Lake Hopatcong among submerged rocks and on the Delaware River.
Chrome Rat-L-Traps have proven effective along Hopatcong’s weedlines, and bounced off rocks (occasionally snagged). I like the half ounce size best because it casts forever and effectively attains depths as great as 20 feet—by mid-October smallmouth bass are free once again to breathe among Hopatcong’s deep rock structures to ambush alewives. In the Delaware, what resembles a fingerling shad more than a chrome Rat-L-Trap? Sometimes smallmouths actually bust the shad on the surface, reminiscent of hybrid stripers tearing into alewives in lakes and reservoirs after dark in June. A half ounce Rat-L-Trap can be cast to these fish from a distance, then retrieved at top speed with rod tip held high to result in a jolting strike near the surface.
Colorado bladed spinnerbaits producing the strongest vibrations seem to result in more interest from bass in the fall since the guiding principle is: the more action, the more strikes. Usually I will use a large bladed, heavy headed spinnerbait so that I can retrieve it at a good, moderate rate. Too large a blade coupled to relatively light lead demands a slow retrieve more fitting for late March warm spells. Keep a firm hold on the rod because bass strike spinnerbaits harder this time of year. Often best along weedlines from shallow to 12 foot depths, spinnerbaits may also be perfectly effective along banks and in brush and timber.
Good through October
Traditionally, November 15th is the end of my use of lures for bass, and from thereon through the ice fishing season I prefer shiners. In Mercer County where I grew up, the water temperature dipped below 50 in the afternoon about a week after all the leaves came down. Whether you prefer to use lures or bait is a subjective choice, although no doubt shiners are effective in November. But although water temperatures fall below optimal for bass in October, lures draw strikes as sure as they look snazzy. I do especially well with spinnerbaits as water cools sharply. So many options regarding the blade/lead relationship can provoke bass; generally the idea is to slow down as water cools, and fish deeper.