Fall Bass

by Bob Gwidz | BY EARLY OCTOBER, most anglers have stored their fishing rigs for the fall. It’s deer season, bird season, duck season. So much to do, so little time. But anglers - especially bass fishermen - who put up their boats to pursue other pastimes in fall are missing some of the best action of the year.

This article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Michigan Out-of-Doors. Subscribe by becoming a member of Michigan United Conservation Clubs here!

Take, for example, a day I shared with veteran fishing guide Gerry Gostenik in late October last year. One of us (perhaps both of us?) had obviously been living right. We were on Lake St. Clair and it was as pleasant as a June day. There was little wind, unusual enough anytime, but especially so in autumn. The weather gods were smiling upon us and we were determined to make the best of it.

And we did. We were fishing in two to four feet of water, targeting small depressions on the bottom (on Lake St. Clair, a six-inch drop practically qualifies as a major structure change) around rock piles and weeds. It took only a few minutes to find the fish, but once we did . . . I wouldn’t say it was every cast, but it was at least three out of five. And these were the sort of smallmouths that have made Lake St. Clair legendary in the bass fishing fraternity - three- to four-pounders with an occasional five -- big, fat, solid smallmouths. I lost track of how many we’d caught from the area when it got into the high 20s. When we stopped fishing for a few minutes to take a couple of photos, I asked Gostenik how many we’d caught. He guessed 50.

And that was just the beginning. We moved a couple of miles, to similar (but somewhat deeper) water, and fished there for a couple of hours. We caught another 20. Had we been going for numbers – say, 100 – we probably could have gone back to where we started and spanked them some more.
We caught as many fish that day as many bass anglers catch all season. And they were great fish; Gostenik guesstimated that our best five would have easily gone 25 pounds.

“It’s not that unusual in late fall,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it happens every day, but if you’re in an area where those fish are herded up and biting, you’re going to have 23 or 24 pounds.”

Ringing them up in autumn is not unusual, said Gostenik, who usually fishes until December. But the real kick-butt days, like the one we enjoyed, don’t happen after the weather gets cold, he said. We hit it just at the right time.

“Just a couple of days ago, the bass had been spread out all over the flats,” Gostenik said. “You could just cover water, fling a Rat-L-Trap and catch them all over. But two days ago we fished them for an hour and half and didn’t have bite. So we started throwing a tube and, whammo. That slower presentation was how they wanted it.”

“”They’re in their fall feeding mode,” he continued. “There’s a window when they’re putting on the feed bag and I think we caught them at the peak of that feeding spree. It starts in mid- to late October. I think it’s partially water temperature dependent, too.

“The latest I’ve been out here is December 1, but I know some people who have been out there in late December and even into January,” Gostenik said. “Once those fish park for the winter, they stay there and they don’t move much. If you don’t get a lot of wind and the water doesn’t get too dirty, you can get on them and catch them real well. But once it starts getting down in the 20s and you start getting ice on the launch ramps, then you can’t get out.”

That’s the rub. Some years, the launch ramps are practically unusable by mid-November. But other years you can fish well into winter.

Like last year, when I spent a December day with my buddy Jim Horn. A hard-core fisherman – for about anything that swims, but mostly bass – Horn says the bass’ll bite as long as you can get a boat in the water.

“They’ll go until it’s iced up.”
We were fishing with blade baits, roughly fish-shaped stamped metal lures with a lead belly. The iconic blade bait, the Silver Buddy is so well known that the whole range of blades are often called “buddies.” There are a ton of other blade baits on the market, but when Horn tossed me one to tie on my line at Lake of the Woods in Van Buren County in southwest Michigan, I didn’t even know who made it. That’s because they pretty much all look the same. Heddon’s Sonars and Reef Runner’s Cicadas are among the best-known, but these are simple baits that lots of guys turn out in their garages.

Horn fishes them S-L-O-W-L-Y, picking his rod tip up maybe a foot, then following it back down. Though the strike most often occurs on the fall, Horn theorizes that when the bait is sitting on the bottom, the fish look at it and respond by striking when it comes back to life. Though I tend to fish them a hair more aggressively, I can’t argue with Horn; he is among the best all-around anglers I know and it’s a very rare day that I can keep up with him.

So, as you might suppose, Horn scored first (as well as more often) when I met up with him that day. I heard a “there’s one,” and next thing you know he was swinging a not-quite keeper largemouth into the boat. It was the start of a day Pat McManus would describe as “A Fine and Pleasant Misery” – temperature in the low 30s (and falling); non-stop rain, snow or sleet; and wind blowing like all get out.

“That’s the thing about winter bass fishing,” Horn said. “The wind is always blowing.”

We were fishing in an area, out of the worst of the wind, where the bottom dropped dramatically (from about six feet to 17 where it leveled off) and the fish were on or near the bottom. Our bites were pretty much coming from the deeper water – occasionally one of us would hook one a little shallower – but it was tough to fish as there was some dead grass on bottom and it doesn’t take much to completely kill the action on these baits.

We picked up a fish here and there as we made our way along the drop, then reversed course and then did about the same on the way back. It was never fast and furious – as it can be as bass are often schooled up thistightogether in cold weather – but maybe we were just catching the hungry ones. We missed a fair number, too, indicating that they weren’t biting that well.

As the day played out, the bites became fewer and further between.

“I’ve got a couple of other places where I can usually catch them on this lake, but we can’t stay on them in this wind,” Horn said.

So we stayed the course and fished the same stretch and picked away at them, catching mostly undersized fish with an occasional keeper-sized largemouth catching our attention. We wound up over the nearly five hours of fishing catching 19. We did almost all our damage on blades though Horn did catch a couple on a home-made spade-tailed plastic grub (kind of like the old Mann’s Stingray) that he started tossing when it got real slow.
Pretty good fishing given the conditions, I thought.

“Tell you the truth, I’m kinda bummed,” Horn said. “We didn’t get skunked, but I thought they’d bite better than that. I’ve had lots of 50-fish days this time of year, fishing by myself. The best day, two of us caught 88 with a few walleyes thrown in. And we should have caught some real good ones, but you get those mostly on main-lake breaks and we couldn’t stay on them.”

Still, Horn is sold on cold-weather bassin’.

“Twenty-five years ago, if you told me we’d be bass fishing in December, I would have said you were crazy. But I’d rather bass fish in November and December than July and August. You don’t have the jet skis and speed boats and all the other guys moving in on you.”

No problem there; I’d bet there weren’t 10 bass fishing in the county. Maybe the state.

And that’s the way it is in late fall. I remember a day a few years back when I was fishing with Greg Mangus on Coldwater Lake in southcentral Michigan. Mangus – a Hoosier tackle rep and lure maker, who has the good sense to do the bulk of his fishing in Michigan – told me he’d been spanking the bass, good ones, for several weeks.

It didn’t take long for him to prove it.

I was fishing a jig with a swim bait trailer, but was retrieving it more like a crankbait than a jig, No pumping, lift-and-drop action, just cast, let it sink, retrieve slowly.

I felt the jig stop as though it were hung up on weeds, but when I shook it, it shook back. So I swatted it, hard, and it bent my medium-action rod into a veritable parabola.

When I reeled it in – the fish stayed deep and didn’t come to the surface until it was upside the boat, my partner, Greg Mangus, announced: “You’re going to need help with that,” as he leaned over to lip the fish.

“That’s better than five pounds, easy,” Mangus said as he hoisted the long, fat largemouth. “This is the time of year you catch the biggest fish. Now and at ice-out. But at ice-out it seems like you catch more numbers. This time of year, you’re catching bigger ones.”

We’d been working a 10-foot deep, weedy flat when the fish hit, but when another half hour went by without a bite, Mangus decided to make a move. He took me to a hump that was surrounded by deep water but came to within feet of the surface. I had a bite – this one cracked it, unlike the first, which was just there – and I swung and missed.

“Sometimes this time of year you’ve just got to keep reeling it until it feels heavy,” he said.

Minutes later, Mangus tied into a fish that looked every bit the equal of mine, maybe even bigger, but it jumped off at the boat. But he connected on the next one – a solid four pounds if it weighed an ounce -- and followed that up with a fish that would have gone about a half pound better.

I’d figured we’d do well, but we had more than 14 pounds for three fish. That’s good bass fishing anywhere this side of Cuba.

While most bass anglers believe the reason the bite is so good in late fall is the fish are feeding heavily pre-winter, Mangus has another explanation.
“I think they’re eating more during the day,” he said. “I think in the summer they feed a lot at night.”

I stayed with the swim jig. Mangus played around with a blade bait, an Erie Darter (a spade-tailed grub), and a crankbait (deep-diving C-Flash), but it seemed like the swim jig was the ticket.

“You want to experiment every day,” he said. “Basically, you let the fish tell you what they want. Crankbaits are good this time of year, but it’s a day-to-day thing. You can’t count on a crankbait every day.”

Our November day corresponded to a warming trend, which Mangus said was both good and bad. Good, obviously, because it made it more comfortable to fish (though it was still plenty cold). But not so good because, Mangus said, the bite was slower than it had been.

“Last week we caught 15 big ones, from around three and half to five pounds,” he said. “But two weeks ago we had a little warming trend and we couldn’t hardly get a bite. The fish seem to like it when it’s really rotten.”

What impressed me most was where we were catching them. Instead of concentrating on the deepest water in the lake, Mangus was fishing relatively shallow.

“You can catch them anywhere from shallow to deep this time of year,” he said. “It all depends on what’s going on on that particular lake on that particular day. Deep is relative.”

We kept moving, concentrating on structure elements – channel turns or humps – that came up significantly 

from the surrounding depths. Most of the bites came as the jig came down a slope, but well before it was in deep water.

We caught a fish or two – or sometimes none – every place we stopped, but never banged a bunch in a row, as you sometimes do this time of year. But what was striking is how consistently good they were. I had one that was short of the 14-inch size limit (a fat, chunky thing, nonetheless) and Mangus boated one that was probably just shy of three pounds. But the rest? All big ‘uns.

“You catch the biggest fish that are in the lake you’re fishing this time of year. At some lakes it might be two- or three-pounders but here. . .”

He didn’t have to finish. He caught one that he slapped on a digital scale. It read: 5.12 pounds and was about the same size as the one I caught first. (I’d put it in the live well hoping I could get a photo of a pair of good ones.) I asked Mangus what our best five would weigh. He guessed around 23 pounds.

“It’s a Saturday and how many boats have we seen?” Mangus asked.

Not a one. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

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