Catch Bass On The Fall Shad Migration
Fall is in the air. The temps are dropping, the leaves are changing and the smoldering hot summer is but a fading memory. There are few things in the South as refreshing as those first couple of cool nights of fall. The same relief comes to the bass just a few weeks later, as consistently cooler nights start to affect the water temperatures, as well.
As summer fades into fall, shad begin to migrate, making their way out of the depths where they sought relief from the sweltering summer heat. The shad move into the shallows where they’ll spend the remainder of the calendar year. But this doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s not even at the same pace throughout a fishery.
It can take months for the biomass of baitfish in a particulate stretch of a fishery to transition from the deepest depths to the shallowest flats, creeks and pockets. As long as you keep pace with the bait, there will be bass somewhere in the general vicinity doing the same.
And there’s always a way to catch them.
Late Summer, Early Fall
Most of our fisheries are probably past this point as the calendar turns to October, but it’s still good to cite the first leg of the journey for those to whom it still applies, and lay a foundation for the rest of us fishing lakes where the migration is underway. As water temps reach their peak and start to descend, bait will often come straight to the surface where those first 3 or 4 feet of water start to cool down.
There will be visual indicators that this is happening. You’ll see little schools of shad scattered along the surface creating ripples on the water. This can be a little tricky to see if there’s a breeze blowing, but you can still find it by looking for the converse. Instead of looking for the disturbed water to find the shad, you’ll actually be able to locate the schools by looking for patches of slightly less disturbed water. The ripples the shad create will interrupt the little waves stacking in a particular direction due to the wind.
Bass, stripers and white bass may also be busting the shad—a much less subtle indicator. Whenever you spot the bait or the fish chasing them, there are several ways to catch them. Topwaters like Zara Spooks and poppers are obvious choices and can yield some big bites. Small single swimbaits rigged on jig heads work great, as well, and these can often lure a few more strikes than the topwaters.
And then there’s the classic Hopkins Spoon. It’s an oldie but a goodie, and it is definitely a bait you don’t want to sleep on, as reeling one right along the surface perfectly imitates a small fleeing shad. And since the bait is essentially a weight with a treble hook on it, you can sling a spoon a long way to intersect the roaming schools of baitfish and busting bass.
Shad Migration In The Fall
As you really get into fall, basically October and November, you’ll start to find more and more of the bait pushing back into shallower areas. While there will still be some shad cruising around out on the main lake along the surface, large groups of smaller schools will begin to make their way into pockets, sloughs and creeks as they transition from deep water to shallow.
Look for the schools to begin grouping up around primary and secondary points, the points where the pocket or creek mouth meets the main lake. Next, look for schools of bait on the interior points—the secondary points—headed back into the pockets and creeks. These points offer fantastic areas for the bass to attack from several directions, while using the bank and the bottom to condense the schools of shad. Topwaters, swimbaits and spoons continue to be some of the best performers in these situations.
The banks between these points act as highways for the bait, which create additional feeding opportunities for largemouth, spotted and smallmouth bass. Look for 45-degree banks and bluffs between points, as these act as great visual indicators when trying to locate the channel swings in these pockets and creeks.
The bait will try to stay in these deeper-water areas and avoid the flatter banks and points if possible, attempting to keep themselves from entering into the pinch points where bass can ambush them in packs. But as the shad try to avoid the bass that are hunting in numbers, they set themselves up to be picked off by the loaners. Along these banks you’ll find boulders, docks, patches of grass, stumps, laydowns and other cover where individual bass lie in wait to ambush their prey.
Interestingly enough, these are often the bigger bass compared to the fish that are out schooling around the points, especially in bodies of water where largemouth are the predominant species. The same topwaters still work well here, but swapping over to buzzbaits, willowleaf spinnerbaits, vibrating jigs, swim jigs and squarebill and medium-diving crankbaits gives you a better arsenal for targeting bass around this cover compared to the swimbait and spoon.
Around mid to late October, you’ll start to see a good concentration of the shad appear in the very backs of these pockets, sloughs and creeks. Often there will be acres of shad and fish schooling on shallow flats. This is when the lipless crankbait really shines.
A 1/2-oz. lipless crankbait can be thrown about as far as the line on your reel will allow, and it can be fished at varying depths. So this bait is very well suited for targeting busting bass that are scattered dozens of yards apart back in a pocket where the water might be 6 inches to 4 feet deep.
Depending on the size and abundance of the shad, stepping down to a 1/4-oz. lipless crankbait can often result in several additional bites compared to the 1/2-oz. lure. The shad can be small in the fall, and because there are so many of them, matching the hatch in color and size is often critical. That’s when the smaller lipless really shines.
The Hopkins Spoon comes back into the picture this time of the year, as well, as it’s another bait that can be slung a long way and fished super shallow. In addition, Rooster Tails often unlock the lips of stubborn bass this time of the year. It is another small-profile bait with a lot of weight for its size to aid in casting.
It’s around November when many of us start to see the winter rains pick up, muddying the waters where these shad are located toward the backs of creeks and pockets. The water temps also begin to plummet in late November before they bottom out later in the winter.
Around this time of year, the shad start to disperse a bit. The schools get busted up—or decimated by the feeding predator fish. The cooling water temps encourage the bass to feed up before winter really sets in. The decreased availability of baitfish paired with the urgency to feed leads the bass to lock onto cover even more, and bigger baits become increasingly appealing.
Choosing either a double Colorado spinnerbait or a Colorado/willow combo with a large No. 6 willowleaf blade is a great way to get bit during this time of the year. These are larger-profile baits that can be fished slowly in the cooler water. They also show up well in the stained to muddy water and generate a lot of vibration, two characteristics that make it easier for the bass to find them.
Vibrating jigs also use flash, color and vibration to appeal to bass, but these baits typically have to be fished faster to keep them off the bottom compared to the big-bladed spinnerbaits. This makes the spinnerbait the better of the two baits for the colder water.
Squarebill crankbaits are another great bait for this time of year, as the shad start to become more spread out and move more slowly in the cooler water, and the bass become more cover oriented.
A squarebill can be fished very slowly in shallow water, and its nose-down profile during retrieve makes it surprisingly weedless, despite those treble hooks. This makes it a great bait for coming through laydowns, bouncing off dock posts, banging off shallow rock and ripping out of submerged vegetation.
There are all sorts of color schemes that mimic shad well in any water clarity, ranging from translucent baits for clear-water situations to chartreuse and black back in the muddiest conditions, so you can choose accordingly.
Understanding shad migration is one of the key components to figuring out the fall bite. Knowing where to look and what to look for, you can quickly decide if an area has the potential to be productive. Starting early in the fall and lasting throughout the majority of the autumn months, you’ll see visible schools of shad along the surface or bass and other predatory fish schooling.
Surface and subsurface baits work best as you make your way through early fall to mid-fall, as the baitfish are at or near the surface. Then there’s a steady transition to baits better suited for cover-oriented bass, as the fish find they can set up shop around docks, wood, rock and vegetation to ambush passing schools.
As the shad make their way back into pockets, sloughs and creeks, they hold together in their schools as best they can, typically making it to the flats without having been busted up completely. But as the fish continue to torment them, their numbers diminish and the baitfish schools scatter. The bass follow suit and lock onto cover then, picking off whatever comes their way as they bulk up for the long cold winter ahead.
There’s a slow but steady shift from small baits along or just under the surface to bigger and slower baits fished tight to cover. And it’s important to remember again that the transition of shad doesn’t happen at the same pace from one fishery to the next, or even similarly throughout a single expansive fishery. So, keep your eyes open, and assess each day on the water as a new day. That will help keep you from fishing memories—doing what worked in the past isn’t always the best approach—no matter how fresh those fishing memories may be.
The fall shad migration is a great time to be a bass fisherman. But you can load the boat one weekend fishing primary points on a fishery, and then go scoreless the next weekend doing the same thing on another, or even the same body of water. Don’t get in a rut.
The shad are on the move, and so are the bass. Tuck in with the baitfish and stay in hot pursuit. Apply some of the these simple principles to your approach, and you should have lots of success following the shad this fall.
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