All across the media are stories of fall fishing. Tips and techniques on how to get the last few drops out of the bass fishing season. Shallow smallmouths and schooled-up spots. Immediately, the reports take me back.
I’ve been fortunate to participate in some incredible autumn fishing. True, it was my generation that likely opened up the coldwater smallmouth phenomenon that attracts so many anglers today. As you can imagine, the early adventures were often something to be a part of.
I can vividly remember sympathizing with other November regulars when we’d rehash our stories of Lake Erie, and no one would believe us. Hundred-fish days were common. Granted, few smallmouth surpassed the 5-pound mark at the time, but, my gosh, the schools of chunky fish were immense!
Let me give you an idea of what I’m talking about. The best way to find the bass then – back before side-imaging or any modern mapping – was to take a 3/4-ounce jigging spoon, cast it as far as you could (which was far) and retrieve it back in the fastest, jerkiest motion possible, like a jerkbait on steroids, 20 feet off the bottom. The smallmouths would destroy it. Occasionally a 12-pound steelhead would make a leaping appearance, trying to shake the spoon. It was unreal.
This was after my early days fishing the natural lakes of western New York, where only the diehards stayed out past October. The deer woods were busy and the waters vacant. Autumn foliage put on a breathtaking show. There, schools of massive smallmouth – surpassing in size any of the green bass we’d caught all summer – would seemingly come out of nowhere to invade shallow rock piles. The colder it would get, the better the fishing. A black jig was deadly, but, given the right weather conditions, big spinnerbaits brought heart-stopping action. After a brief tutorial on how to throw a baitcaster, my wife yanked a 6-02 on a big blade with 10 feet of line out, the violent strike resulting in an audible scream like she’d been attacked by a monster. I’ll never forget that day, or that bass.
Chasing high-stakes tournaments in my 20s somehow landed me in a B.A.S.S. Invitational on Old Hickory Lake in Tennessee. There, I’d see firsthand how to play the shallow-water game so common in autumn across the mid-South. Threadfin shad represent the wildcard in the deck, regardless of your strategy. I’d remember that lesson when fishing places like Kentucky Lake and Pickwick, responsible for getting my career off the ground. Nothing beats a ball of shad and a stick.
Later, it was off to Lake St. Clair, where shallow-water largemouth and a duck-blind addiction often kept me away from the smallies. Still, given a few days of calm weather and it was impossible to keep off the vast open waters of Ontario. By November, the boat traffic had finally subsided, leaving a playing field that can only be described as liberating.
With the sun perpetually lower in the sky, calm autumn days on St. Clair offer an unmistakable reflection off the water. Even on a 70-degree day, it just looks like November. And smallmouth.
Shallow and deep, there’s a chance for a fish of a lifetime on every cast. In recent years, the lake’s best anglers have caught multiples in a day.
Erie, of course, always received the bulk of my attention, and remained so even when I moved away. My early adventures were in the central basin. Later, the famed Canadian waters around Pelee Island saw visits.
I can’t take credit for opening the wintertime excursions there, but I can say I was part of the earliest. At first, we’d gone to productive summertime spots, then went deeper. And deeper still. When we finally marked a group of fish in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, my best buddy and I were sure they were walleye. Until we dropped a Hopkins.
I can’t tell you how many fish we caught that day; the memory remains more like a dream than a journal entry. In a leaky boat that required almost constant bilging, we wrestled bass after bass over the gunnels as the weather deteriorated. Twenty-five miles from home, our best chance of rescue would have been a Coast Guard helicopter. I slept in the truck on the way home, waking up to wonder if it all really happened.
Somehow, I ended up in the Upper Midwest this same time of year. The Mississippi is good anytime, really, but a condensed window of autumn makes the fish there crazy. Migrations mean finding bass can be a challenge. But when you do, they’re in a barrel.
I’ve never fished the West. I can only dream of autumn on the Delta, or the recently evolved fisheries of Havasu and Mohave.
I have, however, fished Lake Martin this time of year, and nearby reservoirs filled with deep-water spotted bass. Living anywhere close would require no travel outside the region. I can only dream of a sunny day there in early December.
Dreams are what autumn is made of. A glimpse of an antler, a whistling of wings. Those will get lots of sportsmen out of bed.
Unless, of course, they’ve experienced the bass fishing that only comes once a year. Springtime is for rookies. Charge your batteries.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)