Anyone who has spent time on a man-made reservoir knows that the bass are anything but static. One veteran tournament competitor likens bass movement to a “yo-yo” effect. Bass move up and down, and from deep water to shallow as the seasons change. Spring sees them shallow as they engage in their annual spawn. From there they filter back to deeper areas for the summer months, as they seek cooler water. The chill of winter also sends bass deep, but this time looking for stable water.
For a couple of months in the fall, bass once again move shallow and can sometimes be found in the same areas they spawned in during the spring. Now they’re looking for food, and on virtually any man-made reservoir in this region that means shad.
Few baitfish are more appealing to a bass than shad, whether of the largemouth, spotted, or smallmouth variety. Nor are any other baitfish as predictable in their fall season behavior than threadfin shad.
For much of the year, threadfin shad are open-water, main-lake, nomads. Traveling in significant schools, they strain the open waters for plankton and insect larvae. When feeding they are normally found within 5 to 10 feet of the surface, where sunlight promotes the growth of plankton. When not feeding they roam channels, and often pause on deep-water structures. Wind and current can play a major role in their location, and can often move schools considerable distances. A hard wind, for example, from the west may stack a major portion of the lake’s shad population along the east shoreline. Reverse the wind, and the shad are blown back. They can be “here today and gone tomorrow”. But, that is less of a problem during the fall months.
As the days shorten, sunlight penetration is reduced, and that affects the amount of plankton in a lake. With the young-of-the-year shad fully grown, they need more food and move to shallower water to find it.
On virtually any reservoir — whether highland or lowland — the fall months find massive schools of shad leaving the main-lake waters and migrating into shallower creek arms and coves. That’s an ideal situation for bass. Not only do they need to stay relatively close to their groceries, but fall’s cooling temperatures bring their metabolism back to full peak, and they feed up to put on fat for the lean winter months to follow.
The bottom line is simple — the shad are moving to shallow creek arms and coves, and so are the bass. It’s been called the “fall fling” and it can offer some of the fastest fishing on the year. In much of this region, anglers can expect that to begin this month.
The best tactics for getting in on the action depend upon whether the reservoir is of the highland, or lowland type.
Highland reservoirs are characterized by the abruptness of their depth changes: stark, rugged contours and a notable lack of aquatic vegetation. The primary cover for bass in this type of reservoir is wood and rock, and the water is often quite clear.
Lowland reservoirs are often significantly shallower in their maximum depths and frequently contain a variety of aquatic plant life. These impoundments are criss-crossed by a maze of twisting, submerged channels that offer a far greater variety of depths and cover for bass to utilize when ambushing shad.
The most effective lures and tactics can vary between the two water types. But regardless of which you fish there is one rig you don’t want to leave the dock without — an outfit designed for long casts to surface schooling bass.
Bass pushing shad to the surface can be a common sight during the fall, and the two species can meet under a variety of circumstances. In some cases, a school of bass may be chasing the shad in open water. In others, the bass are holding on a submerged point or hump, waiting to rip into a passing school of shad. The surface explosion as dozens of bass massacre a shad school can be frantic, brief, and is frequently “just out of casting range” of whatever rod you happen to be holding at the moment. Savvy anglers are ready to drop that rod, and grab one rigged for range.
A 7-foot spinning rod spooled with 14-pound-test braided line or 10-pound monofilament is an excellent choice for reaching distant fish when rigged with a heavy, shad-imitating, lure. Popular lure choices are countdown, vibrating crankbaits like the Rat-L-Trap, Sebile Flat Shad, the venerable Mann’s Craw George, a Hopkins Shorty Spoon, or even a 1/2-ounce lead head jig with a shad imitating plastic tail like the Bass Assassin.
Any of these can be cast a long way and provide the bass with a shad profile like they’re targeting. You might also have another rod rigged with an aggressive 4-inch topwater plug such as a Zara Spook, Rebel Pop-R or Storm Chug Bug.
When bass explode on shad many of the baitfish skip across the surface to escape and that can draw an instinctive strike, especially from the larger bass in the school. Many schooling bass experts grab the topwater rod first, and if they don’t get an immediate strike, they drop that one and grab the rod rigged for sub-surface. The point is to be rigged and ready, because a surface explosion seldom lasts long enough to dig through your tackle bag and tie on the right lure.
Bass school on shad anytime the two meet, but early and late in the day are often the peak time for surface action.
Where the bait and predators meet is another consideration. Some shad are in shallow water throughout the summer, but most aren’t. The majority of the threadfins are in deeper, main-lake waters and won’t start moving to the creek arms and coves until early fall.
On either highland or lowland reservoirs, the first major point of contact for bass and shad is the main-lake points leading to the shallower areas. September is the beginning of fall, and anglers this month can find some of their best action on those points. A tapering submerged point is the perfect ambush spot for bass to wait for shad, and then corral them in shallower waters.
There often are a number of such structure features on most waters, but the first ones that should be checked are those that have had the wind blowing onto them for the last day or so. That can put a lot of shad onto a submerged point.
If bass are feeding on visible shad, the schooling rods get the nod from most anglers. If no activity is visible, try probing the various depths along the point with diving crankbaits, Carolina-rigged worms or lead head jigs. You might even anchor on the shallow side of the point and vigorously walk a jigging spoon “up the drop.” Even if the shad aren’t there, the bass already may be waiting for them.