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Five Factors for Fantastic Fall Fishing

Mike Bednarski with a big largemouth from Lake Chesdin. He caught this fish on a chartreuse and white buzzbait, in 52 degree water, around thinning lily pads in the fall.

By Dr. Mike Bednarski, DWR Fisheries Chief

As temperatures cool down, vegetation starts to die, and there is plenty of forage available for fish to eat. Largemouth capitalize on this situation and put on weight for the winter and to prepare for the next year’s spawn. Savvy anglers who understand the factors that impact largemouth bass in the fall, and implement tactics to capitalize on the situations, can do very well.

Factor #1: Cooling Water

As summer makes way to fall, temperatures drop from their peak (typically the upper 80s in Virginia) into the 70s and 60s. This temperature change causes fish to move and summer patterns to fall apart. When the temperature starts to drop, anglers should start moving around and looking for fish, as there are usually active fish present somewhere in the lake.

If you don’t catch a fish in your first half hour in an area, move. Fish remain active as temperatures continue to fall into the 50s, but slow down significantly as temperatures get into the 40s. As a general rule, as long as temperatures are above 55, active baits (topwaters, spinnerbaits, rattlebaits and crankbaits) will work well, but at temperatures below 55 you may need to slow down. However, it’s always worth it to try an active bait in colder water—some of the best days I’ve had on a buzzbait have occurred in 52 degree water.

Factor #2: Turnover

Turnover is often used as an excuse for every bad fishing day that occurs between the first cooler day in September and the onset of winter in December. In actuality, turnover occurs over a short period of time, typically as waters fall into the low 60s and upper 50s.

When it occurs, the top of the water column becomes cooler and denser, ultimately sinking and mixing with the water at the bottom of the lake. This water is often devoid of oxygen and full of nutrients, and its mixing can cause water quality to deteriorate. Fish can become stressed until mixing is complete and conditions stabilize. Turnover resolves in about a week or two.

If you find yourself in a turnover situation, look for areas of the lake, such as large creeks, that are shallow (<6′), as shallow water doesn’t stratify and may be unaffected by turnover. More importantly, many of these creeks have a source of fresh water, which causes conditions to be more stable. You can do well if you find an area unimpacted by turnover—my favorite tactic is to throw a soft stickbait, wacky rigged, on a spinning rod at shallow targets.

Factor #3: Changing Habitats

In addition to turnover, significant changes occur in vegetation, repositioning fish. Beginning in September, vegetation such as hydrilla, water willow, and lily pads start to die off and thin out. This thinning has two impacts. One, it reduces the amount of places for forage fish to hide, making them more available to bass, triggering the fall feed. Second, it reduces the places for a largemouth to hide, concentrating them on remaining vegetation.

As vegetation thins, continue to target what remains, and you’ll find fish. Largemouth will hold on vegetation as temperatures get into the 30s. I’ve had great days fishing thinning lily pads in 4’ of water in 45 degree water. Try a shallow crankbait, a suspending jerkbait, or a small swimbait on a light jighead.

Factor #4: Forage Availability

In the fall, there is a lot of forage available. Young fish born in the spring have gotten significantly larger, and now is the time when those young fish have grown into 3- to 4-inch protein-packed morsels, and largemouth will key in. In most of our reservoirs, there is an abundance of shad, and bass will relate to shad. This causes them to stay on the hunt, and really rewards an angler that stays mobile and looks for fish.

Fast-moving baits such as topwaters and rattlebaits are great for finding fish relating to shad. Don’t underestimate a soft plastic swimbait on a jighead, either—with the hundreds of swimbaits available, you can match the forage almost exactly. Following forage is definitely feast and famine, but a good day makes it worth it.

Factor #5: Preparing for Winter

Fall foraging helps largemouth to prepare for winter and the upcoming spawn. Largemouth put on weight, and you can catch your biggest bass of the year in late fall, especially as waters fall into the low 50s and upper 40s. This is trophy time—fish will relate to remaining vegetation and hard cover near their fall foraging areas. Steep shorelines and points outside of coves can hold large fish, particularly where there is hard bottom. Try a jig and pig in these areas. You may not get a lot of bites, but it’s likely that you’ll get a decent one. My personal best largemouth came doing just this, on a black jig and pig in 49-degree water. The only better time for a really big bass may be mid-winter, but that’s for another article!

Putting it all together

Fall is a dynamic time of the year for largemouth but presents great opportunities. If you find good cover and forage, you can do very well. In the early part of fall, stay mobile and throw shad imitators. As fall progresses, find flats and areas where vegetation and other cover remains, checking deeper and steeper areas as the water continues to cool.

If you find yourself in the midst of turnover, you can salvage the day by running into shallower creeks and looking for fish that aren’t exposed to adverse conditions. And, even on a tough day, keep in mind that your next bite could be a real giant.