An ethereal layer of steam hovers an inch or so above the static surface of the lake. The morning hours are rolling by, slowly, like the soft clouds overhead. The legs of my waders have long since disappeared into the murky embankment, and I can feel the mud sucking at my boots. Everything is silent, and my reflection is my only company for miles.
I begin to wonder what the rest of them are up to. Are the boys practicing their aim for next month’s trip? Did the kitchen faucet start leaking again? It’s been forever since I’ve had a moment to myself, so the vast amount of free oxygen around me is almost overwhelming. As my mind was wandering in between the memories of this past summer, I almost forgot what a tug on the line felt like.
Nevertheless, there it was.
That harsh snap in the water was all I needed to pull myself back into the present moment. I could feel him fighting to break the line. The second that he locked onto my crankbait, it all came back to me, like riding a bike.
I mean, I knew the procedure: Go where the shad are, choose your lures wisely, stay in the creeks – but, nothing prepares you for that rush of adrenaline you get once you have finally hooked your fish. The silence around you is shattered by the sounds of splashing and low grunts, and you enter into a tug-of-war challenge with an opponent that you cannot see until you have defeated them. The feeling is nearly indescribable, and only known by those who’ve mastered the art of patience.
I reeled and pulled and reeled and yanked until I had him under control. Even as he broke the surface of the water, he was still flailing and thrashing about. My mind was now centrally focused on this lake, and this day, and this fish. The summer sun had left its mark on me, so I had felt out of place in the doorstep of the fall season, but I quickly regained confidence and held my tackle box with fervor.
Catching the bass became a rite of passage, a step back into a lost love I’d once caught before, but had foolishly released. Now, in this moment, nothing mattered more to me than holding this feeling close. I could sense his angst as he pulsed and squirmed under my hands, and I was sure that he could sense my exhilaration. I sought to calm him, and I retrieved my lure.
I couldn’t cast another line fast enough.
Finding time to do what we love is tough. Especially if we love to fish, because anyone who is ever baited a hook before knows, fishing takes up a lot of time. A good fisherman is built on patience, simplicity, and technique. When it comes to bass fishing in the fall, we like to think of it as a kick-off season – parallel to football! – because, during this time of year, bass are aggressively feeding to fatten up for the winter months. The fall is when bass fishing really becomes a contact sport.
The first question could easily be: Where do I go to find these hungry bass?
Well, according to Bassmaster’s research for the “Best Bass Lakes of 2016,” it is no surprise that the Toledo Bend Reservoir ranked number one in the nation. This is the first time in the history of the poll that the same lake has earned the number one spot two years in a row.
If you have never had the pleasure of fishing here, you will need to know that Toledo Bend straddles the borders of Louisiana and Texas on the Sabine River. Therefore, it is the responsibility of both the Texas and the Louisiana Wildlife Departments. To be clear, you must have a fishing permit for the side of the reservoir you are on, but permits that cover the entire area for both states are available. It is best to obtain the combo permit, that way you don’t have to worry about which side you were on when you caught that lunker.
The Toledo Bend itself consists of more than 180,000 acres of area, and is one of the largest man-made bodies of water in the United States. A wide variety of clubs and angler associations come to fish Toledo Bend, and there are tons of events and tournaments throughout the year. The American Bass Anglers Championship and the 2016 KBF Open (Kayak Bass Fishing) are just two of the major events that have happened recently, with more to come for the remainder of the season.
If – no – when you get a bite on your line here, do not be disappointed if it isn’t a bass. Toledo Bend is known for its bass fishing, but other species are present in the lake as well, such as crappie and catfish. Never fear; Toledo Bend has a record of 80+ lunkers caught in a single year, and a weight record of 15.33 pounds for the biggest bass, so your chances of reeling in a big boy are excellent.
Coming in second place are the Santee Cooper Lakes in Marion and Moultrie, South Carolina. With over 400 miles of shoreline and 160,000 acres of land and water, these lakes will never let you, as a fisherman, down. Lake Marion is the largest of the lakes, and the largest in South Carolina, where locals often refer to it as the “inland sea.” Lake Moultrie is Marion’s little sister, and we say little in the most respectful manner, because her area alone makes up just over 60,000 acres. The two lakes feed into each other and a variety of rivers, swamps, and creeks are accessible all up and down their expanse.
Non-residents can obtain an annual fishing permit for $35, which includes access to both Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, encompassing the entirety of the Santee Cooper system. Fishing reports are available online, and even though anglers favor these lakes more in the springtime, the bass are definitely biting on through winter in fair to good conditions here. The lakes will not freeze over during the winter months, and weather is fairly decent during this season, so planning a fall fishing trip to Santee Cooper is probably the best idea we have had in a while.
Third place on the list goes to Clear Lake in Lake County, California. Clear Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in California, and Clear Lake State Park rests on its shorelines, so there are plenty of other activities to do here as well, including hiking trails, swimming, and water-skiing. Boat and fishing gear rentals are available along the way at a plethora of marinas, so if you come unprepared for any reason, you can find everything you need right on site.
Clear Lake has more than sixty square miles of surface area alone. The Basin is home to a variety of wildlife, including blue herons, pelicans, deer, bear, bald eagles, egrets, mountain lions, and more. The site of Clear Lake is said to be one of the oldest lakes in North America, with lake history and findings dating back 2.5 million years. The water in the lake stays relatively warm all year round, so it makes for perfect bass feeding grounds. Other species of fish also reside in Clear Lake, such as catfish, crappie, blackfish, and bluegill.
Annual fishing licenses for Clear Lake are a bit more expensive, because they entail a Sport Fishing clause. You can, however, obtain a 10-day non-resident sport fishing license for roughly $45-$50, which will allow you to fish at your leisure for 10 consecutive days. We recommend this for those of you who will be making a short fishing trip to Clear Lake, rather than buying an annual permit that you may only use once.
Clear Lake is known as the Bass Capital of the West. Since 2012, Clear Lake has held its ranking in the top 10 “Best Bass Lakes” in the nation, so you really can’t go wrong fishing here. Earlier this year, a 16.3-pound largemouth bass was caught, which was “the biggest catch on the lake since 1990,” Bassmaster notes. It is said that two thirds of all fish caught on the lake are largemouth bass, so come prepared to reel in a big boy, which will probably average between 5-11 pounds.
Wondering what bait to use? You will have to check with the wildlife department in your fishing area of choice to make sure that certain baits are allowed before you can use them. For the most part, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, and topwater baits are the best when it comes to fall bass fishing.
Crankbaits are great because they are very lifelike in color, especially the shad versions. It is important to note that you will want to follow the shad, because the bass will be there, waiting to feed on them. Shad are going to be dying off a bit in the colder waters, so a lure that looks realistic and moves like a slow, easy target is ideal. Crankbaits also come in crawfish form, which bass love.
Depths for crankbaits vary, and for the fall, you will want to go shallow to medium – between 4-8 feet deep along the creeks – for the best chance. Staying up against the back of the creeks is where you will find the shad, as they migrate up into those spaces during this season. Naturally, the bass follow, so fishing in shallower water is encouraged here.
A spinnerbait and a nice breeze makes for a perfect day on the water. Spinnerbaits move and churn the water with little metal blades that spin like mini propellers. Hearty gusts of wind that blow over the surface of the water let the bass know that things are moving a little faster, so spinnerbaits are great on these days because they move in congruence. The bass may move a bit slower on calmer days, but they are still in feeding mode so they will eventually nip and strike at the lure. Look for grassy areas and beds along the banks and bait there.
Topwater baits float and therefore entice the bass to strike quite often, and with aggression. There’s nothing more exciting than having a bass strike at your bait on the surface, where they break the water and scare the bejesus out of you. If you are up in the mouth of the creeks or on the flat of the lake near grasses, go for a froglike topwater lure and bob it along the surface.
It goes without saying that topwater bait is one of the best for catching the bigger fish, especially in the fall season. The topwater baits known as “poppers” are great for walking along the surface. Topwater baits are a bit more trying on patience, but a lot more rewarding during a catch. Take your time and stay in a constant rhythm. Annoy the bass, and act like you know he is getting agitated with every move. This type of pattern will land you a lot more lunkers in the long run.
With winter on our heels, the time for a bass fishing trip has never been better. Catch them before the snow rolls in, and the colder temperatures make them lethargic. Remember, tactics vary depending on location, so wherever you are, do not ditch your tried and true methods. If something works for you and has worked for years, chances are that is your niche. The warmer areas, mainly the southern parts of the United States, don’t require shallow baits, because the temperatures are naturally higher. Bass will always follow the food, and in the south, sometimes the food goes deeper than what would be described as “normal.”
There aren’t a lot of championships or elite tournaments in the fall for bass, so use this quiet time to your advantage and get out on the water. Try all kinds of new lures and patterns. Put your rods and reels to the test. Be patient, and be consistent. You will not walk away empty-handed.