Cooling fall weather delivers a double-edged sword for bass anglers.
On one hand it means the fishing season is winding down, a depressing note for those who live in the northern two-thirds of the country.
However, it also triggers what many anglers consider to be the best bass fishing of the year. Shorter days and cooler nights send water temperatures downward and pull bass from summer sanctuaries and into shallows.
And, boy, are they hungry.
That's what makes fall fishing so good. The bass are energized and eating often. Some say they're fattening up for the winter, but realistically, they're probably rejuvenated by the cooler water and taking advantage of vulnerable baitfish that are bunching up in areas where anglers love to fish.
It begins slowly, usually in late August or early September in northern states and around October and November in southern regions.
As days grow shorter and air temperatures become more comfortable, the water temperature drops and baitfish get more active. Throw in a cool rain and substantial cold front and the game is on.
"You may not notice much change until there's a 5 to 10 degree drop in water temperature," says two-time Bassmaster Classic Champion Kevin VanDam. "That's the benchmark I use to know when fall patterns are coming into play."
Cooler water, especially in the backs of creeks, sloughs and bays, attracts baitfish and the bass follow. Late summer triggers one of the biggest baitfish spawns of the season so there is an abundance of bite-size morsels swarming in huge schools come fall — and the bass are there to benefit.
That's not to say crawfish and other types of forage go ignored, but bass tend to focus on baitfish during the fall season.
Because of that, anglers should choose lures such as spinnerbaits, crankbaits and topwaters that emulate native forage.
One of the biggest advantages to fall fishing is the fish are aggressive and you can catch them throughout the day. In fact, some of the best action during the peak of fall fishing can be found in mid-afternoon when the bait is schooled tightly and close to the surface.
Here is a look at fall patterns for various types of waters that anglers will face around the country.
Once the main lake starts to cool, bass will reverse their migration to the shallows, using the same routes they used to reach deeper, offshore structure in early summer. They'll use points, creek channels and ditches, following the bait as it heads to the backs of creeks.
That's not to say you'll find fish on offshore structure one day and in the backs of creeks the next. The migration can be a slow process, depending upon how drastically the weather changes.
Therefore, anglers should consider the routes bass take and check them regularly. If they're not on the points or in the backs of creeks, check the mouths of creeks and secondary points leading toward the back of likely areas.
The fall pattern also can be accelerated by a cold, fall rain, adds VanDam.
Finding the best creeks on large lowland lakes with abundant tributaries can be overwhelming. If you're unfamiliar with a lake, narrow your search to the largest creeks and work from the mouth to the back.
And don't be too concerned about fishing until you locate the bait, says two-time Bassmaster Classic Champion Hank Parker.
"I spend a lot of time driving around looking for bait during the fall," he says. "If you're not seeing much bait, move to the next creek. The tributary with the biggest schools of shad is going to hold the most bass."
During the late afternoon, large, shadowy balls of bait can be seen roaming beneath the surface. You also can find them by monitoring your graph or simply looking for birds.
"If there are a lot of birds in a creek arm, you can bet there will be a lot of shad there, too," says Parker.
Time is of the essence. You can go for long periods without a strike and suddenly find yourself catching bass on every cast.
That's why successful fall fishermen choose fast moving baits and keep the trolling motor moving until they locate concentrations of fish.
During the peak of the fall movement, shallow flats bordering old creek channels are sweet spots and deserve the most attention. They don't have to be deep either, as bass will push shad into inches of water, especially if it's stained.
Texan David Wharton likes to position his boat over the channel and cast lures to the bordering flats.
"In many situations, the creek may be about 10 feet deep but the edges are only 2 feet," he describes. "If the bass aren't up on the flat, there's a good chance they're hanging along the channel ledges."
Not a lot of cover is required. In fact, isolated stumps, sticks, rocks or logs make it even better, as the bass will lie in ambush waiting to pick off the bait as it saunters by.
Grass can be a key element, too. The bait will hover around vegetation for protection and the bass will hang out around the edges.
Bass utilize similar migrations on highland lakes, but there are a few variables. Missourian Brian Snowden says the bass will move around the main lake more and will use deeper water in the coves and creeks.
"They're constantly moving, following the bait, so places where you caught them one year may not be as productive the next," he describes.
Fellow Missourian and Elite Series pro Mark Tucker says bluff banks and riprap are key ingredients to finding fall schools of bait.
"A lot of algae grows on the rocks and the shad will move in to feed on it," he describes. "That's why the bass are there."
He fishes a 3/8-ounce Team Supreme buzzbait or spinnerbait and allows the blades to "clink" against the rocks.
Most pros say that you want your lure deflecting off the cover regardless of the bait you choose to fish. The sudden change in action or direction will draw reactionary strikes.
Wind helps, too, says Tucker. Wind moves the bait around and the bass get more aggressive around windblown banks.
Watch for bass to change forage preferences. Baitfish are their primary concern, but cooling water can cause them to change to whatever is most prominent.
Bass go through similar rituals on northern lakes except the waters don't offer many tributaries into which the baitfish are drawn. Instead, they will move onto the same large flats they used during the spring.
The migration isn't nearly as drastic, either. The fish simply move from the deeper edge of vegetation (where they spend most of their time during the summer) to the shallow edge of the grass.
Points or turns on weed edges that rim the biggest flats are ideal places to find bass during the cool-down of fall.
On windy days, the bass will move farther up on the flat and the same lures that apply to reservoirs — crankbaits, spinnerbaits and topwaters — will produce your best catches. Again, flats with isolated boulders or weed clumps are even better.
Cover is important, especially on lakes with ultraclear water, because it attracts the most forage. However, be wary of the quality of the grass during late fall. Aquatic vegetation dies off and uses up oxygen during the fall, so it's less appealing. The greener the vegetation, the more fish will be attracted to it.
Lily pads are bass magnets during the fall period. They will die back and the grass around them will thin, making them easier for fishing. Bass that felt secure in the jungle of vegetation around large pad fields during summer become more susceptible to a variety of baits.
A proven technique is to swim a jig over the top of the pads and allow it to drop in the holes. Opt for a 3/8- or 1/4-ounce jig tipped with a frog-style trailer, and work it an inch or two beneath the surface. Bass will chase it down like a spinnerbait, and if they don't hit it on top, they will crush it when it falls suddenly in their face.
Stephen Browning believes the fall season may be the best time to fish rivers.
"When it comes to catching numbers of bass, this is the best," he says. "You may catch better quality at other times of the year but this is consistently the best period for catching numbers of bass."
The bass are schooling and targeting baitfish just as they do on lakes, Browning notes. They don't move far from their summer haunts in early fall and they will continue to relate to the current until the water temperature drops substantially.
"On our rivers around Arkansas, there isn't a lot of current in the fall unless we get a lot of rain," he explains.
"The fish still relate to the current just as they did in summer. One nice thing about rivers is the fall pattern seems to stay longer than it does on lakes."
Again, baitfish are the key. Browning says anglers need to focus on small crankbaits and spinnerbaits that best resemble the shad or whatever baitfish forage is prominent in that river system.
The fish will relate to objects, such as a log, stump or cover scattered on the back side of a rock jetty. They also will move into major creeks, following the baitfish, just as they do on lakes.
"Sandbars are key spots, too, especially if there is a log or two lying on them," Browning offers. "The bass really use those sandbars this time of year. And if you can find a sandbar point with some wood on it, there's a good chance you'll find fish on it during the fall."
Late season weather changes will affect river bass somewhat, but not to the extent they do bass living in lakes. Browning says river bass are basically shallow water creatures, and except for the extreme cold periods of winter, they can be caught relatively shallow.
"If you get a couple of warm days following a cold snap during the late fall, you can count on catching those bass shallow," he adds.
If the water is in the low 50s in the South or in the 40s in the North, anglers should slow down and make repetitive casts at brushpiles or trees that are away from the current.
Once the shallow vegetation begins to die back during late fall, bass will leave and seek out wood. Find the nearest stumps and logs near where you caught them in grass and that's where the fish will be.