Back in February, with 2 feet of ice on your favorite smallmouth bass lake, the possibility that summer could ever last too long seemed unthinkable. But it happens. Consider the typical late-August pastimes– watching telethons, sleepwalking through work, sulking on the sofa while your baseball team fritters away its double-digit lead. Life simply slows to a crawl, and everything seems stale. Even watching Uncle Bob get blasted at the Labor Day barbecue doesn’t hold the charm that it did on Memorial Day.
At first glance our lakes appear equally tired–skinny, tepid waters beneath a blazing sun. It leaves a fisherman with all the initiative of Jed Clampett’s hunting dog. Beneath the surface, though, a different tale unfolds. For smallmouth bass, the pace has quickened. Having recuperated from their spawn and buffed from a summer of feeding on crayfish, smallmouths kick off their annual bid to fatten up for the upcoming winter starvation and subsequent spring spawning.
Can they build enough energy reserves to survive the winter before cold weather puts a clamp on their metabolism? About half will do so. But with forage abounding, rest assured that every single one of them will give it a go, providing some of the best fishing of the year. The following 15 tips will help you find it.
Fish deep. The combination of zebra mussel infestation and effective pollution control has left the Great Lakes system and many other major waterways much clearer than they were a generation ago. And that keeps the bass deeper. Gravel and rock shoals at 20 to 30 feet make good starting points now.
Soften up. Crayfish are the best late-August bait, and the bass will stay on them into September–as long as the water remains warm. (The warm temperature increases crayfish metabolism and growth, and they molt frequently, making them not only abundant but soft-shelled and desirable, as well.) Get soft-shells when you can; if only hard-shells are available, use smaller ones and remove the front pincers. Fewer bait shops sell crayfish after Labor Day, but you can seine your own. The muddy creeks that trickle through golf courses sometimes have great numbers of them, and they may be in some stage of molt. If you turn up a bucket of soft-shells, you can prolong the molting by refrigerating them. My own experience has been that this is the sort of decision you may want to clear first with other family members.
Hit gravel shoals. Gravel shoals are terrific late-August smallmouth spots because they produce crayfish and provide a substrate that allows smallmouths to catch them. Surface area and bottom composition are the best predictors of a shoal’s
Find offshore weeds. With schools of minnows inhabiting them, offshore weedbeds become increasingly productive structures as September progresses. Smallmouths seem partial to those that are pocked with rocks and gravel. Weedy points are good places to try, too. Fish the outside edge first, and then try the rocky areas inside the vegetation. Gravel pockets, even shallow ones of 5 feet, can produce the biggest bass of the season. fertility. The amount of depth change is a secondary concern. In fact, some of the best “shoals” are really nothing more than gravel areas on a shoreline.
Try a big shiner. September brings a shift in smallmouth diet from crayfish to baitfish. Cooling waters slow crayfish molting and activity, and ubiquitous young-of-the-year baitfish reach a size that makes them worth eating. In building their energy reserves, the bigger smallmouths eat these smaller minnows but prefer the larger ones. So when you buy bait, pick up half a dozen “pike” minnows, too, and drift them over your favorite smallmouth spot. Aside from the prespawn, September represents your best chance at a trophy smallmouth. And there’s no better bait than a shiner that looks like it should come with its own bucket.
Troll the dropoffs. Dropoffs provide late-summer and early-fall smallmouths with an opportunity to feed on energy-rich pelagic baitfish. These smallmouths often suspend just offshore, much like their open-water forage. Try trolling blue and silver Rapalas or Rebels at various depths along the dropoffs. If the wind is right, drifting bait can turn up some good fish. Shiners are the top choice, but don’t be surprised if nightcrawlers work, too.
Go shallow on small waters. Smaller reservoirs, ponds, and rivers cool down quicker than big waters. Smallmouths respond accordingly, moving into shallow weed edges and rock piles because chubs, dace, and small panfish stay close to shoreline cover. If your favorite water has a tannic stain, or a bit of color, the bass may be in the shallows even before the water cools.
Fish early and delicately. The best way to tackle clear-water Labor Day lakes, when personal watercraft and pleasure boats are out in full force, is to get out at first light and fish the 10- to 25-foot shelves that lead to deep water. Live bait works, but 4-inch smoke or melon Yamamoto worms, fished weightless on 4- to 6-pound-test line, work even better. Hook the worm through the “collar” and let it settle. Retrieve it slowly–a quarter reel crank at a time. By the time the circus comes to town, the fish will be back in the depths resting, and you’ll be ready for a pre-lunch power nap of your own.
Keep moving. Late-summer smallmouths are consummate gluttons. They basically gather in schools and roam around (up to 6 miles a day in the biggest lakes and rivers), feeding on a structure until they clean out the grub before continuing on to another eatery. Think tailgaters in a parking lot. If the bass suddenly stop biting, they’ve probably moved. So should you.
Remember texture. September smallmouths may be aggressive, but they do have preferences. Success with artificials begins with an understanding of smallmouth triggers, the most significant of which are soft texture (perhaps a reflection of their affinity for molting crayfish) and wriggling action. Four-inch plastic tubes, worms, minnows, and lizards are the most effective– and versatile–artificials in your box.
Swim a tube. Plastic tubes are very effective throughout the late-summer and early-fall period. Work them slowly over the bottom in crayfish colors (melon and copper, for instance) through Labor Day, and then switch to minnow colors like shad and golden shiner. You can stuff tubes with rattles and stick-through eyes, but the most important step in matching baitfish is to use a lighter weight. Tubes dart and swoop on their descent, and a minimal weight extends the free swim. Try to let the bait settle on a line that is just on the slack side of taut and strike at any disruption–even if it is the sudden appearance of slack line. Retrieve in starts and stops.
Pop and chug. September often finds bass busting baitfish over weedbeds. The best surface action will be in the early morning, but by midmonth the topwater bite may continue through the afternoon. Poppers, chuggers, and stickbaits can all be good choices, depending on the smallmouths’ moods. Experiment with retrieves, starting with twitching and stopping and working up to some serious chugging. Try letting the plugs or poppers just float, too. Smallmouths feed in schools and are used to scooping up the baitfish that other bass flush but fail to finish off.
Speed up. As smallmouths focus on baitfish in mid-September, speedier retrieves can provoke powerful strikes. Weedbeds are natural places for a sinking, neutral-density stickbait. Work your lures in rips, with frequent pauses. Fall smallies will often follow your plug or lure to the boat, in line with their propensity for chasing baitfish, and the stop-and-start retrieve will often tempt these “followers.” If that fails, try stirring up some interest by speed-retrieving a chartreuse-and-white spinnerbait through the grass or cranking a deep diver alongside the weeds.
Drag a streamer. Topwater fishing can actually improve with a ripple, but it dies once the breeze slaps a chop on the surface. When that happens, change to a sinking line and try drifting (or trolling) a white marabou streamer along a weedline or dropoff. You’ll get a break from fighting the wind, leaving you ready for the evening rise. And don’t be surprised if you fall in love with drifting through the yellow light of a September afternoon–and the sound of a fly reel bouncing along the bottom of a canoe.
Be ready. The old saw that September means fewer but bigger fish is probably true of smallmouths. And as often as not, the biggest fish will hit on the first cast at a new spot. Some perks come with being the biggest bass in a school, I suppose, and first crack at dinner is one of them. So keep your wits about you. For all that autumn offers anglers, there’s one thing it doesn’t: a second chance.
SEPTEMBER SMALLMOUTH SAMPLER
The following waters are some top destinations for late-summer smallmouth fishing:
LAKE ERIE Simply put, this is the best big-smallmouth water in the world. The action picks up after Labor Day, with September bringing some excellent fishing. Contact: Lake Erie Unit of the Ohio Division of Wildlife (419-625-8062; www.dnr.state.oh.us/wildlife); Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (814-833-2464; www.fish.state.pa.us).
LAKE ONTARIO/ST. LAWRENCE RIVER Smallies in the Thousand Islands area don’t finish spawning until late June in some years; so, given its northern location, the season runs late. The best time to fish is from the first of August through the end of September. Contact: Region 6 of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (315-785-2261; www.dec.state.ny.us).
LAKE CHAMPLAIN Fish the biggest smallmouth fishery in New England. The best action is throughout late summer to autumn in the central and northern part of the lake. Contact: Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife (802-483-2172; www.vtfishandwildlife.com).
RAINY LAKE/BOUNDARY WATERS In Minnesota, Rainy has very good smallmouth fishing from late August through the fall. If you want to canoe to your bass, look to the Boundary Waters for wilderness smallies. Minnesota has catch-and-release regulations for the species after September 13, although Rainy Lake and portions of the Boundary Waters are exempt due to shared boundaries with Canada. Contact: District Fisheries Office of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (218-286-5220; www.dnr.state.mn.us/fishing).
JAMES RIVER You’ll find excellent late-summer, early-autumn smallmouth fishing in this Virginia river. The James is wonderful to float, and especially popular with flyfishermen. The bug and popper fishing peaks with the hot weather of August; subsurface action remains strong through the autumn cool-down. Contact: Blue Ridge Fly Fishers (540-563-1617; www.blueridgeflyfishers.com). –W.R.