Category Archives: Fall Fishing
It’s been a hot, beautiful summer across much of the south. Temperatures ran above average with rainfall well below; ideal weather for most outdoor activities. Limited rain early in the season baked my lawn, reduced mowing time and provided more free time for fishing but that’s where the good news ended. 2014 was one of the toughest years for summer fishing I can remember. Lack of rain held water generation rates down on the upper-TVA system and free-flowing rivers became crystal clear and shallow, encouraging dense aquatic weed growth. Both provided good conditions for anglers who wade and fish for trout, smallmouth bass and others, but created impassable conditions in most places for those with jet-drive outboards. Several trips to check various sections of my favorite smallmouth river produced disappointing results. When we caught respectable numbers of fish the average size was below normal, partly because we were limited on where we could fish. The river sections that normally produce our largest smallmouth bass of the season were inaccessible this year by jet-drive because of reduced flow and heavy weed growth. Even my favorite section of big carp water was so filled with weeds it was unfishable. This was the summer I wished I owned a Kayak. Night-fishing on reservoirs for smallmouth bass was equally challenging. Local highland reservoirs eventually reached full pool but hot weather drove surface water temperatures to well above normal. We adjusted and fished deeper to catch many bass but our catch rate of big fish, those pushing or above four pounds, was less than normal. So when September brought the first cool night air, falling surface water temperatures and increased generation to drop reservoirs to winter pool, I was eager to find improved fishing and some larger fish.
Soon after water generation increased, tail-water fishing began to improve. The flow of cooler water drew fish into shallow, fast water and on our first trip to check my favorite local tail-water we caught a nine-pound hybrid and several trout. On our second trip, on our first drift in the fast water, a big brown trout smashed my minnow lure so hard it almost jerked the rod from my hand. I looked back in time to see the angry fish clear the water by two-feet and the battle was on. It was one of the hardest fighting browns I can remember with multiple water-clearing cartwheels and line-stripping runs. When we finally netted the twenty-five-inch-plus beauty I was trembling like a shy teenager on a first date. Fishing improved so quickly, I talked my wife Tammie into making a short trip after work one evening to try catching some fast-water trout. True to her reputation, she soon caught a beautiful male rainbow, as if it were no big deal. If you’ve not read my book, there’s a story in the last chapter that recounts how Tammie learned to fish and eventually earned the nickname, “Big Fish Woman”, emphasis on “Fish”, not “Big” as she always explains. Our success in that tail-water soon had me wondering when the exciting fall topwater fishing on area lakes would begin so I decided to visit a favorite reservoir and begin the search under the next major moon phase. My goal was to find some surface-schooling striped bass or hybrids.
A week later, on a mild, partly cloudy afternoon two days after a new moon, a friend and I launched his boat in the headwaters of a local reservoir. Surface water temperature at the ramp was in the low-seventies; not as low as we had hoped but close enough I thought we might find some surface feeding black bass or hybrids. We ran down the narrow lake arm until we found a broad, open section with a large cove, a place that should attract some shad and schooling predators. As we idled across open water, the depth finder showed clouds of baitfish close to the surface and an impressive concentration of larger fish below them. There was no question this area was going to provide some good fishing when the feeding blitz began. However, the temperature had increased since we’d left the ramp. In my experience, the best surface feeding action in fall begins as the water temperature falls through seventy degrees into the mid- and upper-sixties. We sat and watched for breaking fish for more than thirty minutes and covered one point with casts where we saw some smaller fish feeding. But soon we decided to move on. Further down lake the temperature increased further and though we found many schools of baitfish dimpling the surface, they were very small and the larger fish we expected to see below them were absent. It was time to change strategies.
After discussing our options, we decided to move back up the lake into the headwaters to a place where my friend and his wife had seen surface schooling shad the previous week and we had found some striped bass during late-summer last year. It was shallow and hazardous, more river-like than lake, but the shad were still there and my confidence increased when I noticed the water temperature had dropped below seventy degrees. So we slowed and moved ahead, though the waning daylight was beginning to make navigation even more hazardous. Soon, it became so shallow we turned off the big motor and cautiously moved forward with the trolling motor. We decided to continue as far as depth would allow, then cast our way back out toward deeper water. By the time darkness fell, we were in water less than three-feet deep in a river little more than two casts wide so we slowed the trolling motor to a crawl, grabbed our rods and prepared to start casting. My friend grabbed a long spinning combo rigged with a five-and-a-half-inch Storm Jointed ThunderStick and I a heavy baitcasting combo with a seven-inch Cordell Red Fin. If there were stripers or hybrids present, one of these lures retrieved slowly along the surface should elicit a response. Expectations were high when we made our first casts but we didn’t expect what was about to happen.
Several casts into our adventure, the water exploded under my friends ThunderStick and “Fish on!” echoed through the darkness. But after a brief, thorough thrashing of the water, the big fish pulled free. Two casts later, a big boil rose beneath my Red Fin, but the fish didn’t touch the lure. Whether they were stripers or hybrids, I knew they could be very size-selective and quickly exchanged my baitcaster for a heavy spinning combo loaded with the same Storm ThunderStick. In minutes my rod bent under the weight of a fish, a small striper between three and four pounds. Soon after my friend landed another; a hybrid between five and six pounds. In the next few hours, the topwater action we experienced was nothing short of incredible and the stripers got larger as the night progressed. We moved slowly upstream and later learned we were in the last hundred yards or so of water deep enough to float the boat, or hold fish. So when we finally reached the farthest point, we turned the trolling motor off and quietly drifted back downstream. Several times, large wakes streaked across the shallows in the dim starlight and we could see baitfish leaping clear of the water to escape. We had several more hits and misses but landed four striped bass between eleven and eighteen pounds. The most impressive event of the evening occurred around midnight while drifting silently downstream. We cast simultaneously toward the far shoreline and our lures landed not more than thirty-feet apart. After a short retrieve, both lures exploded as if on timers. We’d already caught several good stripers but quickly realized these must be older relatives, perhaps grandparents. My fish turned and headed down the river so fast I had no time to react. In seconds, it stripped off thirty feet of line as if my reel had no drag and then pulled free. My partner’s fish decided it wanted to play first. After a few energetic wallows, short screaming runs and an explosion or two, the giant simply spit the lure back at him at boat side. That’s little exaggeration because there wasn’t much left of the hooks on the plug; just fragments of twisted metal. And the split ring mounting loop on the front of the plug was bent at a forty-five degree angle. I was surprised the split rings weren’t straightened and gone. It was an impressive display of power by two huge striped bass.
Several nights later, we returned for a rematch. This time we brought two boats; my friend with his wife, and I in my boat with frequent fishing partner Andy Barnes. Both our passengers had limited experience fishing for striped bass but were about to be fully initiated. In the next several hours, we collectively boated thirteen stripers up to fifteen pounds. I had another mid-teen fish pull free at boat side while Andy stood ready to net it. I waved it off as a victory because the fish had fought to near exhaustion. After quickly checking the hooks for damage, the topwater minnow again sailed into the darkness; no time to pout over a lost fish when the next cast might produce another. We all had more blowups and a few fish were lost but it was one of the most memorable trips I’ve had fishing for striped bass. This trip was made most special because we introduced newcomers to the exciting topwater fishing these powerful game fish offer. And the occasional shrill screams of a female voice echoing through the darkness made me chuckle every time. Later, as our companions drifted by us to leave, my friend’s wife started describing all the things she’d experienced. Her dialog began before we could hear her well, continued as fast as she could talk while they drifted slowly by, and finally dimmed into a series of high-pitched notes as they disappeared into the darkness. It was hilarious to hear that level of excitement in a grown woman’s voice. I was happy for her and proud of what she had achieved.
Many days of rain and high winds kept us from returning to our newly found striper honey-hole though we were impatient for one last visit before draw down of the lake erased the possibility. I was also concerned the cooling weather would drop the water temperature low enough the stripers would disperse back into the lake. So one calm, overcast evening when Andy called and said he could spring free for a few hours, we scrambled to pack the boat and leave for the lake. What we found was disappointing. The lake had already dropped so low that our previous fishing area was no longer accessible. After repeated attempts to find a channel deep enough to reach our hotspot, we decided to start fishing as far upstream as possible and fish what we could. We had a few boils on our topwater minnows but landed only two stripers. But to end on a high note, Andy caught his largest striped bass ever; a long, slender fish that pulled the scales to more than twenty pounds. To reinforce his memory of these powerful fish, he hooked another not long before we had to leave. It was another giant that easily ripped line from his reel as it streaked toward the main lake, then pulled free. It was an impressive way to end a late-summer encounter with one of our most powerful freshwater game fish.
So my focus has again returned to the great fall fishing that is about to occur on reservoirs across the south. It’s time to renew the search for surface feeding stripers, hybrids and black bass. And very soon, shallow water fishing for largemouth bass will rival the great fishing of spring, minus the heavy fishing pressure and recreational traffic. However, I’m sure it will be some time before our thoughts and conversations drift away from the incredible striped bass fishing we experienced as summer passed to early fall. If you’d like to learn more about finding and catching striped bass in small rivers throughout summer, refer to the “Hunting for Trophies” chapter in my book, The Weekend Angler’s Guide To Good Fishing. And if you need help finding some great fall fishing on your home waters, the information you need to get started is there as well. Be safe, have fun and great fall fishing!
The fall period offers some of the best fishing of the year because most game fish feed heavily as day length decreases, many in shallow water where baitfish are attracted to cooling surface temperatures. However, finding good fishing is rarely that easy. Weather patterns, water temperature and condition are still important considerations when deciding when and where to fish. Ignore any of these factors and you may drive by great fishing on the way to a long day of poor results.
The impact of weather on fish activity during fall is similar to that in spring, though the effect of high-pressure systems and accompanying lower temperatures is less intense because falling water temperatures won’t drop below the preferred range of most game fish until late in the season. Nonetheless, most shallow water feeding activity decreases with clearing skies so anglers must make adjustments in time-of-day, location and presentations to enjoy good fishing success as weather patterns change. I monitor barometric pressure to help me decide when and where to fish and what species I’ll fish for based on whether the barometer is rising, falling or stable. Stable or falling pressure often supports the best shallow-water fishing but changes in location and target species can keep you catching fish when the barometer is rising and skies are clear and blue.
Fishing for largemouth bass moves to the top of my preference list this time of year. When surface temperatures begin falling and baitfish move shallow in October, I grab my tool box of largemouth lures and go to work. As water levels drop in reservoirs during fall, many bass move and feed closer to deep water along main-lake shorelines so shallow coves and smaller tributaries that produced good catches during spring often hold few fish. Because the best bass fishing occurs most around shallow structure, I have many lures that fish well through heavy cover so scattered floating leaves are little deterrent when choosing places to fish, though I avoid places where the surface is covered with mats of fallen leaves. In heavily fished waters, I use lures with natural finishes and actions like swimbaits, soft-plastic stickbaits and topwaters to fool educated fish conditioned by fishing pressure. Where floating leaves are present, I use weedless versions of these or similar lures. When deciding when to fish for largemouths, weather patterns must always be considered. Rising barometric pressure and bright clear skies offer poor conditions for largemouth fishing in shallow, open water anytime so I schedule my fishing time during periods when the barometer is falling or stable. Also, a major moon phase or lunar feeding period during time spent fishing for bass can make the difference between a good day and great day of fishing. Water temperature isn’t an important consideration for shallow-water largemouths during fall until surface temperatures begin dipping below about sixty degrees. Bass remain active and shallow in these and lower temperatures but deeper water and slower presentations begin to shine in cooler water. Also, as in spring, the colder the water the more likely the best fishing will occur in mid-afternoon when surface water temperature and the fish’s metabolism peaks.
Hybrid striped bass are another favorite target species during fall, and for good reason. Catching big fish on topwater lures is an adrenaline-pumping experience and hybrids offer some of the most exciting topwater fishing of the year throughout the fall period. In reservoirs where they’re present, you can find hybrids in places that hold the highest concentrations of baitfish in mid-lake sections or where large tributaries join the main lake. Dense baitfish concentrations always attract schools of game fish so be prepared to cover water with your depth finder on until you find them. Feeding hybrids are voracious predators that often circle and drive baitfish against the water’s surface before attacking. When feeding begins, it’s hard to miss jumping baitfish as they try to escape the onslaught among the splashes of feeding predators. My first choice in lures for surfacing hybrids is a Super Pop R or other popping lure. Zara Spooks are another good choice and similar rubber-bodied weedless versions work well where the water’s surface is littered with leaves. When surface feeding stops, it’s hard to beat a 1/2-ounce rattling lure like a Rat-L-Trap with a chrome finish. You can cast these lures a mile, cover water at various depths and they’ll attract strikes from many species of shallow-feeding game fish. Hybrids have a tendency to stay close to the dinner table so unless conditions change they frequently stay in the same area for extended periods and often becoming predictable in their feeding habits. If you see them smashing baitfish between five and seven o’clock in the evening, be in the same spot the next day by four-thirty with fresh line, sharp hooks and high expectations because the same scenario is likely to repeat. But hybrids, like largemouths, respond negatively to weather changes that bring clearing skies and a rising barometer. When this weather pattern develops, you may find some surface activity but feeding usually shifts into deeper water with less intensity.
So under stable weather, or when the barometer is falling, I prefer fishing in reservoirs with good populations of largemouth bass and hybrids during fall. I choose lake sections with the highest concentrations of baitfish and cast to main-lake flats, points and fallen trees for bass while I watch for signs of surface feeding along the main river channel. Fish this setup under stable weather or an approaching front and you’ll often find good mixed-bag fishing for bass, hybrids and other shallow feeding predators. But as in spring, the arrival of cold fronts is common so high blue-bird skies, falling temperatures and rising pressure are frequent visitors. When this weather pattern arrives I shift from shallow-feeding predators in still water to those in moving water. Smallmouth bass fishing in rivers is a good choice if you use lures weedless enough to fish through the plentiful fallen leaves and other floating vegetation. Leave lures with exposed hooks at home, pack your most reliable weedless soft plastics and you can enjoy good fishing for smallmouth bass in rivers throughout fall when water clarity is normal. However, when skies are clear and blue, I prefer to move to cleaner water in tail-waters where trout are plentiful and active.
Trout fishing in tail-waters is a more reliable choice during cold-front conditions when most shallow water fishing is poor. Moving water negates some of the affect of clear skies and rising pressure and trout are less affected by clearing conditions because of their feeding habits. So when a high-pressure system moves in during fall, I start checking generation schedules below local dams to find the right combination of water flow and time of day. When generators are off or flow is lowest I fish for trout during low-light periods in early morning or the last few hours before dark. Under these conditions, thin low-visibility lines and small lures are the best choice in tackle and trolling is the best approach for covering water to find feeding fish. When generation is moderate to high, I move to swift water closer to the dam and cast to current edges with larger lures and heavier tackle. In high swift water rainbows and browns may feed all day under the clearest skies though periods of low light often produce the most and largest fish, especially big browns. Hard-bodied minnow lures in natural baitfish colors are top choices for tail-water trout throughout fall if you match lure size to the rate of flow. Smaller sizes fool feeding fish in slow current where visibility is best; larger sizes often run better in swift current and are easier for trout to see in turbulent water. Where floating leaves are present, swimbaits rigged weedless in similar sizes and colors are good choices. Tail-water trout fishing remains good well into winter because these fish prefer a lower range of temperatures than most game fish. Then, as water temperatures continue to fall, tail-water trout become a more reliable choice for good fishing.
So weather patterns, water temperature and condition are important factors to consider when deciding where and when to fish as well as which species to target. Make the correct decisions and adjustments in tackle and lure selection and you’ll catch more fish during this beautiful season of change. If you’d like to learn more about how I apply changing weather, water temperature and other environmental factors to my seasonal fishing game plan, pick up a copy of book and refer to Chapter 4: Peak Fishing Periods. With a basic understanding of how various fish react to changes in their environment, you’ll enjoy greater fishing success.
It’s that time again. Day length is decreasing, surface water temperatures are falling, and baitfish are beginning to ring the surface on reservoirs across much of the country. Depending on where you live, great fall fishing may already be underway or about to explode. Once it begins, good shallow-water fishing will be with us until cold temperatures drive fish into deep water and all but the hardiest anglers to a warm recliner in front of a TV. If you’re not prepared, it’s time to get tackle in good operating condition, take an inventory and restock favorite lures in your toolbox. I fish often throughout the year so I put a lot of mileage on tackle and lose, break or strip the finish from many lures. Therefore, I service my tackle and lure inventory twice a year; during midwinter and again during late summer. If you’re a part-time angler, it’s still a good idea to do some midseason maintenance on tackle because inactive equipment may need attention as much as heavily used equipment. Depending on how you store your rods and reels, they may need some TLC worse than those heavily used but with good routine care and storage.
You can quickly and easily provide adequate midseason service to any type of reel if you have the materials needed to do it and get organized before you start. Before removing anything lay out a lint-free cloth to hold parts in the order in which you remove them and set out a small screwdriver, wrench, toothbrush, cotton swabs, cleaning solution, oil and reel grease. If you intend to remove more than the handles and spool, it’s a good idea to find the schematic that came with your reel. The schematic will show each part inside the reel, where it goes and the order in which each is assembled. A schematic will also show how parts should be turned before reassembly including the slightest bends in otherwise uniform washers or spacers; an important thing to know because you can reverse a single crucial component in a reel and it won’t work properly. If you don’t have a schematic for your reel, you can find and download one free at Mike’s Reel Repair online. Mike’s also sells replacement parts if you need to replace something or buy an extra spool for your favorite spinning combo and they’ve always provided me with good customer service.
To provide minimal service, take each reel off the rod, remove everything that can easily be removed such as handles and spools, spray them with WD40 or a good cleaning solution and wipe them clean of dust and grime. Use WD40 sparingly because it’s a degreaser, not a lubricant, so anything it touches will need fresh oil or grease. Use a toothbrush or other small brush to remove dirt and old lubricants; use cotton swabs for hard-to-reach spots being careful not to leave cotton fibers on moving parts. After external parts and casings have been well cleaned, apply a small amount of oil to all moving parts before reassembly. Unless the owner’s manual that came with your reel advises otherwise, apply oil to all moving parts and grease only to main gears. Apply grease to main gears with a finger tip or other handy tool and be sure the grease doesn’t contact adjoining parts. Where metal rubs metal or other material, apply a little oil. Many manufacturers offer good-quality lubricants and cleaning solutions for fishing reels. I use those made by Quantum and Ardent, who offers a full line of cleaning and lubricating supplies for reels.
After cleaning spinning reels, apply a drop of oil to the spool shaft, any spacers or drag washers on the shaft, the line guide and rotor arm on either side of the bail, and the bearings through which the handle mounts; less is better if each part is adequately oiled. Place a couple drops of oil into the maintenance port, if the reel has one, and include any spare spools you use in the cleaning and lubrication process. After cleaning baitcasting reels, apply oil to the bearing under the handle, the case for casting brakes and all spacers and washers before reassembly. After reinstalling the handle, use a cotton swab or lint free cloth to clean the worm gear. Turn the reel handle to turn the gear and move the line guide while wiping the length of gear until it’s clean. And again, on moving parts and gears is not the place to leave cotton fibers or lint from an old rag. When the worm gear shines and looks clean, add a drop of oil to it and the levelwind shaft and turn the reel handle several times to spread oil along each; then wipe away the excess with a cotton swab or cloth. As you reassemble your cleaned and lubricated reels, check and tighten all external screws. Don’t over-tighten them but ensure each is snug. If you find one loose, remember to check it occasionally because it may need replaced. Follow these simple steps and you’ll be impressed with how much better your reels feel and operate. A more thorough cleaning should be done annually. If you’re not comfortable fully disassembling a reel for cleaning, many local tackle shops offer reel cleaning services at reasonable prices. Bass Pro Shops and a few others also offer mail-in services for reels including parts replacement and cleaning. Invest a little time and money once a year and you can get many years of good, problem-free service from most mid- to upper-priced reels.
While the cleaning supplies are out is a good time to clean and inspect rods. I spray each rod blank with WD40, wipe it clean, then check and clean each line guide individually. After cleaning, run a clean cotton swab around the surface of each guide to check for cracks or wear from braided lines and carefully straighten those that are slightly bent. I also touch up darkened cork handles by holding them under running water and lightly scrubbing them with a steel-wool soap pad. My brother-in-law, the musky hunter, likes his rod handles dirty; “Gives them character”, he grumbles. Whichever look you prefer, it only takes a few minutes to make old cork look like new.
The final step in getting tackle ready is replacing lines on reels. I change monofilament often because of line memory, a leading cause of poor line performance and reduced casting distance. And monofilament is inexpensive so when I know fishing is about to get hot, I always spool up with fresh line. However, before replacing it I consider what type fishing I’m going to do. For fishing shallow cover, I choose heavier, abrasion resistant line; for chasing schooling fish in open water, I use thin-diameter, limper lines that support greater casting distance. Fluorescent lines are good choices for high-speed search baits, where line color is less noticeable, or when fishing along bottom with slow-moving baits where line watching is important. Clear monofilament, even fluorocarbon, is a better choice for medium retrieve speeds in clear water. So choose a line that matches best with the type fishing you plan to do then replace enough for a long cast plus a respectable amount of backing and a single replacement spool of monofilament will keep you in fresh line the rest of the year. I recycle most braided lines because they have low or no memory and are expensive to replace. To replace worn, discolored braid, I tie a bright rubber band or other object to the end of the line and walk in well-spaced loops around my yard as I feed line until all has been removed. Then I cut the line, walk back to the rubber band and blood-knot the used portion to the backing left on the reel. If the spool wasn’t full, I add more backing to insure the spool is properly filled after respooling. When finished, I have like-new braided line on the business end of the spool and I’m ready for the toughest fish.
I often replace my most dependable lures well before the fall bonanza but am especially attentive of hook condition on those that remain in my toolbox. I do a thorough inspection of hooks on all my lures and sharpen or replace them if they’re dull or bent so my most common expenditure during restocking is for replacement hooks. I may do a little touch-up on lure finishes with fingernail polish or jig paint but rarely replace them unless they’re proven favorites and mangled beyond use. But hooks are the single piece of equipment that connects me directly to fish so I don’t compromise on quality and always choose the best-of-the-best available, mostly chemically sharpened models. And because the fall period offers great shallow-water fishing, it’s a good time to try new lures or new colors of old favorites. When fish are biting well is the best time to experiment with new things. It takes discipline to test new lures or methods of presentation when fish are biting well but there isn’t a better time to learn new ways to catch fish. So get your tackle ready, restock on old favorites and grab a few new products you’ve been dying to try. Great fall fishing is upon us and it’s time to go catch our share!