Salivate. It’s what the first day of fall makes the bass angler do. We (yes, I am one) know this is the beginning for a mass exodus of bass from the hard to reach depths to shallow waters where they are eager to fatten up for the winter. In theory, not since the pre-spawn period is there a time when fishing becomes “catching” like the fall. Fall reservoir fishing is a dream come true. But not so fast! Unfortunately, reality is not as kind as our minds, and it hits hard. Fall feeding frenzies by bass is a legitimate lore, but anglers must pay heed to their migration routes and apply that most difficult virtue – patience. All bodies of water have their unique patterns, and reservoirs follow a strict code.
Fall Reservoir Fishing
A reservoir is characterized by its use as a water supply for communities. Typically, it produces energy with the assistance of a dam. Because of that, current is prevalent and water levels can fluctuate greatly. Current is produced by water release at the dam, and it is an angler’s friend. Often creeks produce additional current. These currents move bait and activates the food chain, especially bass. It sets bass up on obvious ambush structure – where bait is washed by from current. However, the early fall is the driest time of year for much of the country and a lack of rain can eliminate current.
Kurt Dove of Del Rio, Texas has been chasing down bass professionally since 2006. He is one of few who have competed in the Bassmaster Elite Series, FLW Tour, and Major League Fishing. He is also a fishing guide on legendary Lake Amistad. Contrary to the optimistic angler, he warns of early fall fishing frustration. According to Dove, “The Dog Days of Summer is the result of decreased light penetration, and the baitfish begin to suspend.” He elaborates, “The bait begins to ball up. The bass’s metabolism is still high, but they suspend with the bait and are not often willing to chase a meal.”
There are two phases of the fall, and, luckily, Dove is willing to share the tricks up his sleeve that fill his livewell. Numerous types of baitfish exist on reservoirs across America, but the dominant species is typically blueback herring, gizzard shad, alewives, or American shad. They all follow similar migration routes.
Early Fall Reservoir Fishing Tactics
Dove offers two viable options during early fall on reservoirs.
Fishing on Open Water
1. First look for schooling fish in open water. With early fall reservoir fishing, there is a bigger population of bass on the mainlake, but they are also more difficult to catch. He explains, “The fish are keyed in on specific bait. If your lure does not match it, they will normally ignore your offerings. Matching the bait as closely as possible is important.” He adds, “Low light times are important any time of year, but it is especially important now.”
Swimbaits that closely resemble the baitfish are often the best choice for fall reservoir fishing. However, crankbaits and topwater plugs may also coax strikes. If possible, it is always best to toss a bait directly on top of the fish while busting on the surface.
This can take place in depths between 10-120 feet deep. Fish are not relating to any structure; rather, just the baitfish. Pay close attention to your graph, and once you locate bait, you are in the right area. If unsure where to begin, start on mainlake points and flats, then venture out to the edges. Keep a keen eye for surface disruption.
Fishing Shallow Water
2. Going shallow is another option. Fewer bass are shallow, but they are normally easier to catch. They are not chasing the bait; rather, they are keyed in on bluegill. Instead of schooling, bass are hanging out on ambush places such as docks, laydowns, and other hard structure waiting for an unsuspecting bluegill to pass by.
Buzzbaits and square bill crankbaits worked over or into the structure is an effective strategy, as well as flipping jigs and other creature baits into them. When pursuing these shallow bass, covering water is critical. “There are not as many fish in the shallows,” Dove reminds, “so bites are fewer. To increase your catch, hit as many targets as possible.” Dove stresses to not push the process. Fish the conditions. If the main lake fish will not cooperate, then go shallow. Take what the fish will give you.
Migration of Bait and Bass
“The transition begins in August, but September is when the bait begin moving into creeks, and the bass follow suit.” Baitfish first move into the largest creeks on the reservoir. They continue their migration into pockets and secondary creeks within. They go the back and will get surprisingly shallow. Still, Dove warns, “It takes some time for the bass to begin feeding heavily. It might take several days after the bait arrives and even longer before the bass begin gorging. You might have to check several pockets in the creeks before finding the bass, but when you do, it can be a great bite.”
Water temperature is crucial now, but varies regionally when it comes to fall reservoir fishing. In the South where Dove calls home, “When it drops from the low 70s into the 60s, the fishing gets good. But the best temperature is in the low 60s.” Optimal water temperatures are lower in northern states, and the feeding opportunities are also shorter lived. The fall pattern may hold up for many weeks in southern states, but only a couple up north as arctic cold air can hunker down in early November.
Dove adds, “Keep in mind that shallow is a relative term. On some reservoirs with slow tapering banks, 10 feet is deep. However, if you’re fishing a reservoir with steep banks, I’d consider anything less than 30 feet to be shallow. But depth is really irrelevant, as, ultimately, it depends on the depth of the bait.” Dove asserts, “It is impossible to get too shallow. Place your baits in the same depth as the baitfish. So long as the bait is present, and ambush points exist, the bass are going to be there.”
Fall Reservoir Fishing Baits
When he finds the perfect recipe – bait, bass, and the right water temperature, he employs search lures. He uses buzzbaits, Whopper Ploppers, squarebill crankbaits, lipless crankbaits, spinnerbaits, jerkbaits, and swimbaits, depending on the situation. He advises to match your lure to the bait as closely as possible. Umbrella rigs have also gained popularity in recent years. These rigs hold 3-7 swimbaits, each with its own hook. Be sure to consult with your state’s laws before using these, as many states have restrictions. Umbrella rigs excel where bass are eating on small schools of bait. It is possible to catch multiple fish simultaneously.
Horizontal baits typically outproduce vertical presentations because it better mimics what the fish are eating. Also, it allows an angler to cover more water, which is vital because the fish are constantly on the move looking for bait. Dove keeps his trolling motor in perpetual motion looking for fish actively feeding. If the fish are constantly on the move, then so should the angler.
Like current, wind is an angler’s friend. Windblown banks often pushes the bait together, which creates easy targets for predators. Wind will make the ecosystem active. This is where noisier baits, such as lipless crankbaits, spinnerbaits, and jerkbaits excel. If lake conditions are calm, a swimbait is a subtle approach that is also more realistic to predators.
Fall Reservoir Fishing Equipment
The most important piece of equipment is the rod and reel – get a combo that ensures long casts. You can maximize the amount of water being covered by using the right combination. Dove recommends using fresh fishing line, but, with the exception for topwater baits, not as important. Monofilament and braid line float, so they are better choices than fluorocarbon line, which sinks. Fluorocarbon excels in clear water with plugs that are meant to be retrieved under the surface.
Fall Reservoir Fishing Tips
The professional also recommends keeping the bait high in the water column. With the bass keyed in on bait, they are looking up to feed. Putting baits in the bottom half of the water column places the bait out of their sight – out of sight, out of mind. I want them to see and hear my baits right now.
This does not mean Dove won’t pitch a vertical bait to structure, “Anytime I am in an area where my horizontal presentations are working and I come across a piece of hard structure, I will throw a jig to it, because there might be a bass resting on it.” However, it is not a slow presentation, “If the fish is there, I will get a reaction bite. There is no need to crawl it through the structure. If it is there, it will bite quickly, so I do not spend a lot of time probing structure.”
The End of Fall
“When the water temperature dips to 50 degrees or lower, the fall feeding binge is all but over,” reveals Dove. “When it gets that cold on reservoirs, the bait retreats from the creeks and coves and return to the mainlake. Their departure actually begins once the water gets into the mid-50s.” As the bait leaves, the bass follow suit and settle into their wintering holes.
As fall reservoir fishing season approaches, keep in mind how Dove accesses and executes during the two phases. But do not venture into shallow water without protecting your boat. Underwater obstructions such as rocks and logs are waiting to destroy your skeg and damage the keel. Experience the thrill of a bass feeding frenzy, but avoid unnecessary and expensive damage by installing a KeelGuard and SkegGuard first.