"November and December are terrible months to be a shad on Kentucky Lake," notes Scott Loxley, a veterinarian and lifelong bass angler from Clarksville, Tenn. "These baitfish are trapped between gulls overhead and predator fish below. There's nowhere for them to escape. The only thing a minnow can do is hang with the school and depend on the law of averages that he won't be eaten."
But many are, both by the birds and the fish, and Loxley says in late fall the former can be the key to finding and catching the latter. He routinely uses feeding birds to pinpoint where bait and bass are congregated. In the process, he experiences some of the most consistent and exciting fishing of the entire year. Loxley says other anglers who "fish under the birds" can do likewise.
He begins, "Shad start migrating from the main lake into tributary creeks when the water temperature dips below 60 degrees. In our part of the country, this usually happens in late October or early November. The baitfish seem to prefer open-mouth creeks with big shallow flats toward the backs of the creeks. Enormous schools of shad roam these flats in open water or just above mats of submerged vegetation. When they do, both the birds and the fish zero in on them for the feast."
Loxley says in early fall, this feeding activity doesn't start until late afternoon. But as fall progresses into winter (water temperature continues dropping), feeding starts earlier in the day.
He continues, "You just watch the birds. If gulls are spread out and circling, it doesn't mean anything. But if they're 'popcorning' —diving straight down and feeding hard in a confined area, you need to check it out. And if the birds don't leave when you come in, the baitfish are there and so are the bass."
When he goes to investigate where gulls are diving, Loxley is careful not to make too much commotion. "I don't rush in at full throttle," he explains. "Instead, I'll shut my big engine down 50 to 100 yards from the birds. Then I'll ease my electric motor into the water and troll in on low. You can absolutely spook the fish if you make too much noise during your approach."
Loxley says it's typical not to see surface-feeding activity — minnows flitting and predators splashing. "A lot of times you won't see anything, but don't let that fool you.
Almost every time the gulls are working, the bass and other predator fish are there feeding beneath the surface. You've just got to learn to trust the birds."
To catch bass beneath these shad schools, Loxley casts four main baits: a tailspinner, a blade bait, a lipless crankbait and a fluke.
In tailspinners, Loxley's choices are a 3/4-ounce BPS and a 1-ounce Little George, both in chrome. "These are the baits I'll throw if my boat is in 6 to 12 feet of water and there's no grass present. I'll make a long cast under the birds and allow my tailspinner to sink straight to the bottom. Then I'll hop it up a foot or 2 (fast rod tip motion from 9 to 11 o'clock) and let it sink back, or I'll just slow crawl it over the bottom so I can feel the blade turning.
Largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass typically hang near the bottom beneath the shad, which are being preyed upon up near the surface by small white bass and yellow bass. The tailspinner falls quickly through the little fish down to where the big ones are waiting to pick off injured shad that come drifting down."
Loxley's second favorite lure for this situation is a 1/4- to 3/4-ounce chrome blade bait (Silver Buddy, Cotton Cordell Gay Blade, XPS Lazer Blade). "Sometimes the fish will crash this bait when they won't touch a tailspinner. Go figure! So I always keep a blade bait rigged, and I'll try it if bites on the tailspinner slow up. I just let it sink to the bottom, sweep it up with my rod, then let it fall back again." (Loxley uses the 1/4-ounce blade bait when water depth is 6 feet or less.)
If the birds are working over a grassbed, Loxley switches to a lipless crankbait. "Any chrome colored lipless crankbait will work, but my favorite is the old Heddon Bayou Boogie in 1/3-ounce size. This bait doesn't sink as fast as the others, and it'll run slower in shallow water. It's a great lure to fish over sunken vegetation or along the edges of vegetation mats."
Loxley also uses a fluke over and around sunken grassbeds. "I like a white 5-inch Bass Assassin fluke rigged Texas-style on a 3/0 wide gap hook. I'll crimp a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce split shot on my line 18 inches above the fluke, or I'll peg a small bullet weight ahead of a barrel swivel, then fish the fluke behind the swivel on an 18-inch leader. This is like a mini-Carolina rig. I'll use spinning tackle to cast and pull this lure through the tops of submerged grass. I just random-cast it wherever I see minnows or tail swirls."
Loxley emphasizes that once this pattern kicks in, it's very dependable, and it lasts until water temperature falls to about 40 degrees. "When the birds were feeding, I've caught bass under a bright sky and an overcast sky, when the wind's calm and when it's blowing. The only thing that matters is seeing the gulls 'popcorning.' When they're feeding in a frenzy, you can just take it to the bank: The bass are there doing the same thing."
Gear To Grab
Following is a list of tackle that Scott Loxley uses when fishing under the birds in late fall.
With tailspinners, lipless crankbaits and blade baits:
7-foot Daiwa Light & Tough heavy action rod
Shimano Chronarch 100 or Daiwa Zillion casting reel (high speed)
12- or 14-pound-test Trilene XL (clear)
7-foot G.Loomis IMX medium action spinning rod
Shimano Symetre spinning reel 6- to 10-pound-test Trilene XL (clear)
Scott Loxley's fluke technique has produced many late fall bass from Kentucky Lake's submerged grassbeds. He says, "If the birds scatter and the bite slows down, I go to this bait and method, and it'll almost always produce a few more strikes."
Loxley explains, "I'll position my boat at the edge of the grass, and I'll cast both along the edge and also back into the expanse of grass. When I feel the sinker fall into the grass,
I'll pop it out with my rod tip. This gives the fluke a darting action, and this is when many strikes come. But if I don't get a bite, I'll slow swim the fluke and jiggle it through the grass. I want it to look subtle, like a dying minnow."
Loxley adds that bites are usually a definite "thunk."
"The fish will come up out of the grass, grab it and burrow back down. It's easy to tell between grass and bass."
Before You Go
Scott Loxley completes the following checklist prior to "fishing under the birds."
Take polarized sunglasses. (These help you see gulls and minnows.)
Take binoculars. (You can check the back of a creek for working birds without running into it. This saves a lot of time and gas.)
Carry long-nosed pliers on your hip. (Sometimes you catch a fish on every cast. Having pliers handy to remove hooks is a real time-saver.)
Pre-tie four rods with four chosen baits and arrange them on your boat's bow.
Check your running lights. (Sometimes you fish until dark, and you need running lights to get back to the ramp.)
Fill your boat's gas tank. (You may have to check several creeks before you find the right one.)
Main Lake Flats, Bars, Points
If the birds aren't working, or before they start, Scott Loxley tailors his fishing to water temperature. He explains, "If the water is 54 degrees or higher, I'll cast lipless crankbaits, small diving crankbaits and spinnerbaits on main lake flats. I pay particular attention to cover objects or grassbed edges that border a dropoff into deep water.
"But when the water falls below 54 degrees, I'll switch to light spinning tackle and Road Runners, little jigs or grubs, and I'll go hunting for smallmouth. Kentucky Lake has plenty of big 'brown bass.' These fish hang on main lake bars and points, and late fall and winter is prime time to catch them."
Loxley adds, "One crucial tip for fishing for smallmouth: Always cast upstream and retrieve your bait back with the current. That's the direction the fish are facing
looking for food."