Winkelman: Fishing Rivers: 20 Autumn Smallies in 26 Casts!

Smallmouth bass are definitely one of my favorite species to catch. Pound-for-pound, they pull harder and longer than any other freshwater predator. They’ll fight deep, they’ll jump with high-flying spirit, and they never, ever want to give up!

As much fun as it is to battle smallies, it’s equally rewarding to hook one. It means figuring out the fishing pattern based on the season; what mode the fish are in (pre-spawn, spawn, post-spawn, mid-summer, early fall, late fall); where are they located; what they’re eating; and then why they’re eating it.

Of all the smallmouth “seasons,” none compares to the late fall pattern on North American rivers. At this time of year, the bass have abandoned shallow, fast-moving water where they’ve enjoyed high oxygen and plentiful summertime crayfish buffets. Instinct drives the fish to migrate from these warm-weather haunts to seek deeper, slower-moving water where they’ll feed heavily before winter (and also spend the cold months in the same deep areas).

Babe Winkelman

In addition to cooling water temperatures and shortening daylight, there’s another “trigger” that sends smallmouth bass out of the shallows and into the depths during late fall, and that’s crayfish.

They love to eat them, but in the autumn crayfish get less active and develop harder shells. The crayfish buffet line is closing. The bass need something to replace that protein, and baitfish are the answer.

So smallies go where the minnows are, which is in deeper water as bait moves out of shallow backwater sloughs and flats and down the breaks into deeper river channel “holes” or reservoirs above dams where water depths are typically greater.

Notorious schoolers, smallmouth bass will really stack up on late autumn spots if the bait is there and they have adequate cover, oxygen and agreeable current. The fish intuitively know that winter is coming on, and that they’ll be less active to conserve energy through the cold upcoming months. So they feed heavy, then they feed again, followed immediately by more feeding. You get my point.

The lucky angler is one who encounters an active, hungry school of big smallmouth bass right in the middle of a fall feeding frenzy. I was one such lucky angler recently. From experience I knew roughly where to look for fish, which I did initially with my sonar unit. I was downriver of a feeder creek that held large numbers of big smallies all summer long. I knew those fish, and others from the main river, would migrate to deeper water downstream (and also adjacent to a large backwater slough brimming with wild rice and other vegetation). The minnows would be there, surely, and so would the bass (hopefully).

Finds Fish On Small Hump
While surveying the underwater world on my sonar screen, I came across a small hump in the middle of a mid-river basin. The surrounding depth was 19 feet, and the hump came up to about 16. The hump wasn’t big — about the size of a Volkswagen bug. And just above it, a giant school of big “hooks” lit up my sonar — along with a cloud of suspended bait visible on my screen, too.

I pitched a marker buoy near the spot (but not directly on top of it), moved off a cast’s distance and slowly lowered my anchor. From that spot I cast the simplest of baits: a small white marabou jig beneath a slip-bobber set at 12 feet. I’d throw it upstream and let the current take it lazily over that hump. The water’s movement made that marabou pulsate and to the fish, it looked like a distressed minnow tumbling in the slow current.

On my first cast I caught an 18-incher. On my second, a 19. A modest 16 fell to the third cast. It was then that I started keeping count.

With the exception of six dud casts, I hooked, caught and released 20 near-consecutive smallmouth bass between 15 inches and just over 20 inches long. And all from a spot the size of a small German car!

Was it fun? Oh my goodness yes. Did I go back the next day and do it again. Um, yeah! Will I give you the GPS coordinates? In your dreams.

But I will say this: Get out there before winter and locate some late-fall smallmouth of your own. You’ll probably have the whole fishery to yourself, and if you find an active school like I did, you’ll make a memory that you’ll never forget.

Good Fishing!

Babe Winkelman

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