You can read magazine articles until the world runs out of paper and watch videos about chasing smallmouth bass during the fall until you’ve reached the end of the internet and all of those articles and videos will have the same thing in common. They always talk about finding the shad which will lead you to finding the bass. That’s great for most of the country but mostly worthless to those of us that live in the far reaches of the north. We do not have shad in our part of the country. Instead, we have other types of baitfish that react much differently to the cooling water temperatures and shortened days that autumn brings. In this article, I’m going to talk about what I’ve found in my time of living in those northern parts of the country that will help you put some smallmouths in your livewell whether you live up north or in a place that doesn’t have shad as a primary forage base. In fact, these tips will even help on southern, shad filled reservoirs during those times when the bass choose to feed on something other than shad.
The Importance of Bait
Even though shad are rarely found in most of the far northern states, finding what the bass are feeding on at the time still holds true just as it does on any impoundment with shad. Also, while the northern states tend to have a wide variety of bait, I have only found one instance where the bait has traveled to the back of a cove or up a creek like shad do in the fall. The following are some of the types of baitfish found in the north and their habits:
- Smelt- These tend to be an open water species that spends the cast majority of its life in very deep water. Since “deep” is a relative term, as an example, the smelt on an impoundment in North Dakota are rarely found shallower than 20 feet (normally much deeper) at any point in the year. This particular lake has main lake depths that are well over 120 feet.
- Emerald Shiners- These species of shiners are similar to smelt in that they spend a lot of time in open water. However, emerald shiners are often found shallow in the fall around weed beds.
- Various “shore” minnows- Shore minnows are the common name for the random types of baitfish that are found living around shallow cover throughout nearly all of the open water months. Like emerald shiners, they are commonly found around weed beds.
- Yellow Perch- This is probably the most common of any of the baitfish and is what I find that the smallmouth will normally feed on at any given lake. Yellow perch are normally found around weeds with sand or gravel bottoms and occasionally around rocky bottoms such as boulders.
- Sunfish- Bream, bluegills, etc. whatever you call them where you are from, no list of baitfish would be complete without them. Just like on southern reservoirs, these fish frequent any type of vertical or overhead cover. However, I rarely find lakes where this species coexists with smallmouths.
Prime Fall Conditions
Northern smallmouth fishing during the fall holds another similarity with southern reservoirs in that a set of certain conditions have to come together to make the baitfish (and the smallies that follow) start to get active. The conditions that I’m looking for are water temps that have cooled to the low 60’s as a daytime high and shortened daylight hours. As a rule of thumb, when the leaves have started to change colors, I know that I need to be on the water.
The perfect day to catch the hungry smallmouths isn’t necessarily what you would consider to be a perfect day on the water. The great days tend to be windy and have very little to no sunshine. But with the fish catching action, I never even notice the weather!
Places to Look
Throughout the entire fall, I try to focus on shallow weed beds if they are available. If there are no weeds present or if the weeds are not productive, then I’ll look for rocky bottoms in similar depths/locations. Keeping in mind that these bass will be moving up from deeper water early in the fall, I’ll start by fishing these types of cover around main lake humps, islands, and points in depths of 10-15 feet.
As the water continues to cool and the days get shorter, I’ll keep pushing shallow. At some point in the fall, I will catch fish as shallow as one foot of water that are relating to the inside weed edges. This is my favorite time because the fish are more aggressive than they have been since the spawn and are very susceptible to nearly any power fishing technique.
Once water temps have reached the mid 50’s, the fish take the same path in reverse and begin their migration back out to deep water. Therefore, I’m going to take the same course as I did at the beginning of autumn, but in reverse. Throughout the fall, I like to attack the cover with a variety of hard baits made by Skirmish Baits
When they are in anywhere from 1-5 feet of water, I will either rip an M9 Squarebill through the tops of the grass or burn an Mk48 walking topwater over the grass. With either bait, speed is the key. The fish are roaming around that grass looking for an easy meal but they are always a sucker for a bait that is moving quickly through the area.
For depths of 6-15 feet, I rely on the Tango 6 and A10 Wide Wobbling Crankbait. Those are both crankbaits that cover that depth effectively and allow me to do anything from tickle the tops of the grass bed or probe the weed edges. Also, the AIM7 jerkbait is great when the fish are active and roaming the tops of weed beds. A jerkbait with a ton of action is always a good choice to draw bass up to take a look at the bait.
No autumn would be complete without a major cold front that just shuts down that amazing bite that was happening yesterday. In these instances, I stay in the same areas but focus on the deeper edges of the cover. Depending on the severity of the front, tactics may only mean changing to a soft jerkbait or it might mean slowing way down to fishing a jig. Either way, the presence of bait remains the key factor and the bait should remain around that cover.
So there you have it! Now there is finally something on the internet to help northern anglers catch smallmouth aren’t on the Great Lakes. Hopefully, there was something useful in this article for the southern angler as well. If you have any questions about this article or fishing in general, feel free to contact me on my Facebook page at Steve Basinger Fishing.