Fishing patterns for most species change as autumn fades into mid-fall. This is particularly true for smallmouth bass inhabiting rivers, as cool nights and cold rains spur major adjustments in fish location and behavior.
During summer, family groups of smallmouths spread throughout countless miles of shallow river habitat, some here, some there. But in early fall, they begin moving to areas with deeper water and slower flows to find safe spots to spend the winter. The fish instinctively desert shallow stretches where they might be trapped in ice, in favor of deep holes located below dams or at river bends, or the reservoir sections above dams where current dissipates and deeper water is abundant.
In early fall, with water temperatures in the 50º Fs, it’s not unusual to see packs of 10 to 20 smallmouths swimming downstream across shallow sand flats as they move toward deeper water. When you see this, it’s a signal that fish are on the move. You need to move, too, in order to locate them, because they’re here today, gone tomorrow.
September is prime time to cast shallow-diving crankbaits like Rapala DT 6’s, which dive about 4 to 6 feet deep. Get on the electric trolling motor and go, firing casts toward every fallen tree, rocky patch or shoreline point that might temporarily hold moving groups of smallmouths. Midriver shoals, too. Every so often…you intercept a pack, and it’s bang, bang, bang. Then it’s time to move again.
Entries to and exits from shallow backwaters are also prime places to contact schools of passing fish. Cast crankbaits at the mouths of these areas, and you’ll find and feel small “sweet spots” with exposed rock, swept by current, that draw smallmouths like crazy. But once again, it’s only temporary. The good thing is, after one group leaves, another may soon take it’s place.
By October, as water temperatures drop into the low 50º Fs, heavy schooling may draw hundreds of bass into areas with immediate access to deep water, yet just out of the current flow. Shallow humps, the downstream sides of shoreline points, or other structures that drop into perhaps 15 feet of fairly calm water are best. Often, the first few structures that fish encounter as they move downstream out of free-flowing river sections, into the comparatively calm and stable water at the head end of a reservoir, provide key holding spots throughout late fall and winter.
At this time, switch to slow, precise, vertical tactics. Walleye systems like jigs and minnows or livebait rigs tipped with minnows are obvious choices. So are subtle bass lures like marabou jigs, jig & pork combos, or dropshot rigs dressed with 4-inch plastic worms.
The fish bite remarkably well down to a water temperature of about 43º F. Below that, however, it’s often like pulling teeth. As in ice fishing, occasional flurries of activity spurred by warm, sunny condition may entice a few fish to bite despite their chilly surroundings. But for the most part, they’re hunkered down for the duration until springtime.
Smallies school so heavily in fall that they become susceptible to overharvest. That’s why the state of Minnesota enforces a catch-and-release season for smallmouths, beginning September 13th this year and extending until the last day of February. So you can catch 20, 30 or more bass a day—but you can’t keep ‘em. It’s a good principle to apply in other states where the season remains open, ensuring great smallmouth fishing in the years ahead.