Fall Forage Shift for Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass
At first, I dislike the change of season. I enjoy fishing a plastic worm or topwater plug as if the retrieve will take all day, because summer is the home season. An early September cold front presents a chill that makes me feel loss instead of anticipation. Nevertheless, bass fishing will get more exciting. By the third week in the month, I’ve adjusted to the new season just as bass begin to feed especially on fish as the summer smorgasbord recedes. Chilly days feel invigorating. By early November when bass fishing slows, I’m hoping for ice fishing. How odd for someone who likes a day when temperatures peak over 100, and yet fall is a transition I celebrate before eagerly accepting what comes next.
With temperatures falling, adult insects, larvae, crayfish, leeches, newts and other salamanders, tadpoles and frogs, and the occasional small snake or baby muskrat become less and less available to bass. If you watch damselflies skitter about over an aquatic weedbed on a calm summer afternoon, you may witness a bass or two leap for these bugs that don’t seem to offer much of a meal. Most of the time, the damselflies seem too quick to get caught, but I’ve seen bass score by pointed leaps. The range of forage alternatives during summer amounts to a massive availability bass often don’t have to expend much energy to obtain.
Fall bass prefer prey they can chase. The forage particular to summer recedes, as do weedbeds and terrestrial vegetation which help support it, and forage fish of all descriptions become vulnerable to bass’s increasing diet. The situation amounts to a fall forage shift.
The most dramatic example occurs in the Delaware River. I’ve never seen it happen, but more than one angler has told me about smallmouth blitzes in late September and early October reminiscent of cocktail blues after spearing. By the billions, shad fry come downriver heading for the Atlantic. Rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, some evidence exists that shad fry is particularly healthy for smallmouth bass. Fish farms, for example, include Omega 3 in fish feed because it’s healthy for the product.
In any event, forget live crayfish bait and tube plastics on the Delaware when the shad head down. Half-ounce lipless crankbaits cast a mile and can be zipped by quick retrieves right through pods of herding bronzebacks. Sweeping the rod to provoke aggressive reaction strikes may give you some of the best thrills you’ll ever experience on the river, because the bass strike as they do no other time of year. Topwater plugs effective also, quick, churning retrieves produce, rather than attempts to tease out reluctance. And in the shallower, fast moving water with eddies and slack behind boulders where bass stage to snatch fry headed downstream, a jerkbait like a Rapala or Smithwick’s Rattlin’ Rogue gets slammed like thunder.
The lure doesn’t have to look like a shad. Nevertheless, I prefer chrome patterns for any and all plugs, if only because I think the flash better provokes quick, aggressive response. Sunlit afternoon or misty evening, the bass hit, and especially with sun rays to reflect, chrome adds appeal. Diving crankbaits especially produce around deeply submerged boulders and through deep currents. For open river situations, go with lip-less crankbaits you can retrieve at various levels of the water column.
Small rivers experience the forage shift without shad fry in the mix. A wide range of species including spotfin, common, rosy face and satinfin shiners; blacknose and longnose dace; creek chubs; banded killiefish, and juvenile panfish and bass. They serve smallmouths’ need to increase in size and vitality. Nothing seems to work better than smaller jerkbaits like size 7 and 9 Rapalas, Rebels and any of the multitude of plugs from all over the world. Recently, Noel Sell introduced me to an Ecogear jerkbait from Japan, which cost him $18.00. It has an internal rattle and the rear lifts high as it floats upward. As the fall season deepens, live shiners become most effective in deep pools. Use a light wire, size 6 hook so the shiner swims freely hooked through the lips, and allow 18 inches between the hook and a medium split shot.
Many New Jersey ponds have no soft-rayed fish forage, but lots of sunfish of a few species. Bluegills especially prevalent, other sunfish include the green and pumpkinseed variety, and on rare occasion a few warmouths may inhabit a pond, which resemble rock bass in shape and mouth size, but sunfish in coloration. Some ponds have crappies, and although I’ve never encountered yellow perch in any pond of just a few acres, I know of a 15-acre pond with plenty. Bass feed on the smaller of their own kind, also, and many ponds contain bullhead catfish. Small, slow-swimming bullheads serve as a summertime treat for largemouths, but may get eaten in the fall, also.
Ponds thick with summertime forage cool faster than lakes, and a shift can happen overnight with largemouths slamming spinnerbaits and jerkbaits the next day. Despite a prevalence of bluegills and no soft-rayed forage present in many ponds, minnow-imitating jerkbaits produce as if shiners scatter everywhere. Any remaining weedbeds should be fan casted, and if a pond has no weeds, always fish any shallow flat and close to shorelines, particularly where any cover or overhanging trees present themselves. Corners and spillway areas may be especially productive.
Lakes and reservoirs do have soft-rayed forage. Many host alewife herring—another example of forage loaded with Omega 3. Whatever the reason, gamefish of all kinds gorge on herring whenever they can. In lakes like Hopatcong, Greenwood, and Swartswood, reservoirs like Spruce Run, Manasquan, Monksville, and Merrill Creek, smallmouths may feed on herring more than largemouths, because of shared habitat. Round Valley Reservoir is also worth mention, but has seen a sharp decline in herring forage base, although I spotted a smallmouth of at least six pounds recently and caught another pushing three.
Beginning in October, herring bunch together on the rocky drop-offs of points and ledges, and smallmouths seem to have the advantage of feeding on them, although largemouths approached with spinnerbaits in declining weedbeds and near wooden structures like docks will feed on any herring in their senses’ range. Besides, October largemouths associated, oddly enough, with rocks at the shallow end of drop-offs strike jerkbaits.
Diving crankbaits with lips allowing the plugs to bounce off boulders and stones possess great effectiveness for largemouths and smallmouths alike down to depths of 15 feet or so, so long as the habitat isn’t weedy. Crankbaits tend to trip over submerged branches and other snags, but weeds get caught on the treble hooks. In addition to spinnerbaits, weedless jigs tipped with twister-tail or tube plastics get through thin vegetation with ease. Moderate retrieves broken by jerks of the rod tip cover water range and provoke hits, but if weedbeds remain too thick, a jig will get messy.
We all feel the change in the air of fall. But in the water, where it counts for anglers, the bass never feel the loss of summer fervor.