Follow the food for fall success

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All photos Seigo Saito

Throughout the year, Jason Christie invests significant time and effort into locating the structures that hold the biggest bass. That objective doesn’t end during the year’s final quarter, but it does become more challenging — and often more productive.

The reason: mobility. Wait, structure that moves? Read on.

“In the fall, the bait is the structure,” Christie explains. “This time of year, the fish live on the bait. They swim underneath it, they swim all around it. Those fish know winter’s coming, they know they want to feed up, so fall is the most critical time of the year for staying around the bait.

“The fish usually aren’t that picky in the fall. If you get a bait around them, they’ll usually bite. The problem in the fall is getting around them. They could be from the bank to out in the middle; they could be from the bottom to the top. So, the tricky thing in the fall is getting your bait around them.”

Find the fish

As Gerald Swindle notes, mornings often find the bait dimpling the surface, but increasing sun elevation pushes them deeper until they rise again in the late afternoon. He’s keen to use his side imaging and down imaging to look for bait schools, but the simplest starting point, he said, is wind direction. Whichever way the wind is blowing, he expects to find shad schools pushed accordingly, as long as the water’s cozy.

“This time of year, you can go into a creek and it’s covered up with shad, but you go into an adjacent creek that looks just like it and there’s no bait at all and it’s tough to get a bite,” Christie says.

The difference? Christie points to water temperature. Snooping around and watching the temperature gauge works, but don’t overlook the wisdom of nature’s professional baitfish assassins.

Indeed, birds will invariably point you to the groceries. Whether it’s diving grebes, hovering gulls or egrets and herons crowding shorelines, the birds realize the same seasonal transition and they’ll park their beaks right on the buffet line — wherever it may go.

“I deer hunt a lot in the fall, and when I drive over Lake Tenkiller, I’ll see hundreds of birds working shad in the creeks,” Christie says. “Those baitfish are bouncing back and forth between warmer and cooler water, so if a cold front comes through, they’ll back out to the mouth of the creek.”

Pro angler Casey Ashley thinks oxygen levels play a significant role in fall bait positioning. That’s why he likes feeder creeks, which constantly deliver fresh, oxygenated water to a larger creek or main river.

Swindle’s ideal scenario is a flat pocket with deep water running into it. It’s not necessarily the flattest pocket on the lake, but one with a good travel lane/fallback zone with a substantial flat in the back. Here, the bass can move in and out through an ample corridor and push their forage onto the shallow ambush zone for easier feeding.

The view below

When bass drive baitfish topside, the ensuing carnage is hard to miss; but as Christie notes, a lot of the action occurs in the middle of the water column. That means frequently monitoring the electronics is just as important as it is when you’re looking for stumps, points, breaks and boulders.

“You may be in 20 feet of water and the bait may be 5 feet from the bottom or 5 feet from the surface,” Christie says. “My Garmin Panoptix LiveScope gives me the advantage of knowing where they’re at, so I’m casting my bait close to them, rather than just guessing.

“What I like about the Panoptix is that I can see what’s going on out in front of the boat in real time. A lot of times, that bait’s really high in the water and if you idle over it, you’ll scatter everything out. I can look around as I’m fishing and I’m able to pick off those fish even before they know I’m there.”

Effective offerings

Swindle’s fall lineup anchors on a Rapala Cover Pop for the higher fish and a shad colored Rapala DT6 for an enticing subsurface display. Christie’s fond of a Zara Spook, a Yum Pulse swimbait on a 1/2-ounce jighead and a 1/2-ounce War Eagle spinnerbait with double willowleaf blades. A good mimic of frenzied baitfish, the spinnerbait adjusts well to various target depths.

“If they’re up high in the water, I can fish it fast, and if they’re down deeper, I can slow roll it,” he says.

Ashley often finds a Zoom Fluke Jr. productive, but he advises fishing with an open mind. Fall bass, he said, can become very fickle when they’re keying on shad, so don’t hesitate to show ’em an assortment until a ­preference becomes clear.

“Once you figure out a bait that you can make them react to, that’s the difference between you having 20 pounds when the rest of the field has 8,” Ashley says. “A lot of times, you can actually see the size of the bait, especially when the bass run them up to the top.

“The fish may be schooling on the bait and you can throw whatever you want in there, but they won’t touch it. You just have to keep trying different stuff. A lot of times, it’s dumb stuff, but once you figure out a bait you can catch them on, you can really mop up.”

Points to consider

Easy pickings: Going deep can play a strategic role in your fall bait game, even if a lot of the action’s higher in the water column. The raw brutality with which bass attack bait schools leaves a lot of wounded shad drifting to the bottom, where opportunistic predators may patrol. Intentionally undershooting the main deal with a spinnerbait, swimbait, shaky head or Texas-rigged worm might reward you with a big bite.

Weather and whether: The words “cold front” often prompt groans and head shakings from those who’ve seen the lock-jaw impacts of spiking barometers, but Swindle encourages an optimistic outlook.

“The fish don’t have nearly as dramatic a response to fall cold fronts as they do in the spring,” he says. “Don’t go out there thinking ‘It’s going to be over,’ because it’s not going to be. It may pause the bite for an hour, but fall fronts usually help you by keeping the shad coming up.”

Ashley agrees and points to another possibility that will also work in your favor: “Even if you get a really hard cold front, it’ll push that bait down into the ditch running into that pocket. The bait’s not going to swim a mile out to deep water; they’re going to get into the deepest water they can get into, and that’s going to be the creek channel.

“That’s why a fall cold front can be your best friend, because when it pushes the bait down, now you’re bringing your stuff through the bait, so matching the hatch isn’t so important. You can catch them on larger baits like Rat-L-Traps and flat-sided crankbaits.”

True blue: Say you have trouble locating bait schools or, for whatever reason, the bass aren’t cooperating around the ones you find; Ashley suggests door No. 2 — bream. One of the most widely distributed freshwater forage species, these chunky mouthfuls hold a noteworthy place in the fall feeding cycle.

“Another big food source in the fall, because of lake turnover, is bream,” Ashley says. “So, any shallow cover, whether it be docks, blowdowns or shoreline grass, that’s where those bream want to be. All summer long, algae has accumulated on this stuff and they’re up there eating on it, and the bass will be up there with them.”

Ultimately, food is food, and fall bass like lots of it. Stay near the chow line and you’ll keep the rod bent.