Fall Bass Blitz!

Cash in on the seasonal smallmouth feeding frenzy.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

The signs are subtle, starting as the sun breaks over the horizon on a crisp morning in Indian summer. Here and there a ring materializes on the otherwise placid surface of the water. Then other circles appear and the area of disturbance widens. Within moments, larger swirls and boils appear and suddenly the surface tension is fractured by panicked baitfish and determined predators charging into them from below. Water and minnows skitter in all directions.

If you're a fisherman who's close enough to cast, there's no time to think-just react. A popping lure lands in the center of the fracas. The bail on the spinning reel snaps shut, and chug, chug, chug, the popper adds to the disturbance. Before the fourth pop there's a brutal, rod-jarring strike as one of the marauders mistakes the shad-colored Pop-R for a fat herring. You bring it in fast and get the lure back out before the melee ends.

Could be a typical bluefish massacre, right? Bluefish or stripers herding and smashing rain bait? Could be, but it isn't. This blitz takes place in fresh water and the fish are smallmouth bass taking part in an annual fall feeding binge, with densely packed schools of migrating herring and shad as the targets.

Each spring, bluebacked herring, American shad and alewives-collectively called herring-journey from the Atlantic Ocean to spawn in the larger rivers of the East Coast. The adults begin their reproduction rites in April and the spawn continues through May. Once hatched, the herring fry roam streams and tributaries of the river systems, feed and grow, and reach a size of about three inches by summer's end. They in turn blend into the schools and migrate downstream to begin the next chapter of their lives as seafaring adults. Many of the Northeastern rivers where herring spawn are also home to large populations of smallmouth bass and, in some cases, largemouth bass. And it is the congregation and downriver migration of these millions of herring that trigger an end-of-summer glut for foraging smallmouths.

Timing the Blitz
According to research conducted by the Hudson River Estuary Unit of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), there are actually a trio of factors that initiate the outgoing migration of the three herring subspecies. "The first signal is the size of the herring," says Kathy Hattala, DEC fisheries biologist. "When the young herring reach about fifty or sixty millimeters in length, their preference for food changes and they start moving downstream toward the ocean. Water temperatures also play a role in triggering the downstream trip for these fish. The length of the day, or photoperiod, is the third trigger."

The young herring actually start the move in weekly batches as they reach the appropriate size range. In the Northeast, these baitfish runs stimulate major feeding forays for bass and consequently result in exceptional fishing opportunities. The action is fairly predictable, usually starting toward the end of August (depending on the latitude) and continuing through September or sometimes into early October. Weather conditions can change the timing somewhat. The best fishing, though, is usually in the first couple of weeks of September.

Smallmouths are opportunistic feeders. The sudden availability of clouds of baitfish causes bass to shift their focus from crayfish on rocky bottoms and begin foraging nearer to the surface. I drive by a fairly large river (the Mohawk in upstate New York) each morning on the way to work and in late summer find myself looking for the rings and swirls made by the bass as they hammer the schools of bait herring.

The seasonal smallmouth run occurs throughout the larger rivers in the Northeast, including the Androscoggen and Sacco rivers in Maine, the Merrimack in Massachusetts, the Pawcatuch in Rhode Island, the Hudson, Mohawk and Delaware rivers in New Yo and the Connecticut in the state of the same name. In the Chesapeake area, the Potomac and Delaware rivers get runs of herring, as do the Susquehanna and Lehigh rivers in Pennsylvania.

Locating the Bite
Fishing the big rivers of the East can be a bit intimidating, as some of them are several hundred yards wide in places and might also be hundreds of miles long. Finding herring and, subsequently, the bass that are following them can be tough if you don't know where to look.

There are a couple of structural features these rivers have in common that are important waypoints in your search for fish. For example, most of the major rivers have navigational or hydroelectric dams at various points along their lengths. As the baitfish start downstream, they have to pass over or through these dams, and the tailraces or spillways are a good place to begin fishing.

Some of the herring end up going through the turbines of hydroelectric dams as they journey toward the sea. Many of these are injured, if not fatally mangled, and bass tend to stack up below such tailwater areas looking for easy meals. Position your boat so you can cast upstream and work crankbaits, spinnerbaits and minnow baits downstream along the seams where fast water and eddy water meet. Large schools of baitfish often migrate through the lock structures of navigational dams. When this is the case, bass will station below the locks and along riprap banks immediately downstream, waiting for meals to lock through with boats.

In addition to man-made structures, smallmouths gravitate to natural features such as the following:

  • Sections where a large river narrows. Obviously, a narrow area is going to funnel herring as they move downstream and make them more vulnerable to bass. Usually, the downstream side of a narrows is the most productive.
  • Shallow flats adjacent to deeper areas or navigational channels. Baitfish instinctively feel safer in shallow water. When they stray along the edges of flats, smallmouths in the deeper water will pounce on them. In a sense, the flats work against the herring, because the lack of depth serves to congregate them into a tight vertical area that doesn't deter aggressive bass. Often, flats are the best places to fish topwaters early in the morning and in late evening.
  • Creek mouths where smaller streams empty into the rivers. Herring schools rest in the creek mouths and usually can be found there. Don't overlook man-made "creek mouths" such as storm-drain pipes and drainage ditches.
  • Islands offshore in the main runs. The flats around island points, particularly on the upstream side, can hold bait-crashing smallmouths.

Fishing Tactics
Fishing tactics for river smallmouths in early fall depend on the time of day. The variable in the equation is light-or lack of it. Bass are more comfortable in the shadows or cover of darkness and tend to confine their peak feeding to low-light periods. Often the best fishing begins at the crack of daylight. During the early hours, before the sunlight gets too bright, bass will charge the migrating baitfish with impunity. Once you spot the rings of smallmouths "popping bait" on or near the flat you're prospecting with topwaters, move to within casting distance of the action.

It is interesting to watch bass herd bait. Typically, a school of smallmouths will work together and alternately rush at the herring, pushing them toward the surface, before they begin to feed in earnest. When bass are in such attack squads it is frequently the bigger bass that are doing most of the dirty work. The size of the schools of bass engaged in such forays is usually small, perhaps involving fewer than a dozen smallmouths, but individual fish generally are heavyweights by that river's standard.

In their rush to get to the head of the cafeteria line, bass often injure the baitfish in the process of crashing into them, then return to pick off wounded fish from near the surface. Fishing with surface lures is the surest way to get a strike in such circumstances. Among the more popular lures for the task are Heddon Zara Spooks and other "walk-the-dog" topwaters. Popping baits such as the Rebel Pop-R, Rapala Skitter Pop or Iovino Splash-It are good choices.

Smallmouths become less inclined to take surface lures as the day grows brighter. In mid-morning, working shallow flats and shaded areas with hard jerkbaits such as Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue and Rapala Minnow or soft jerkbaits such as Cabela's Livin' Eye Glass Minnow and Lunker City's Fin-S Fish can produce jarring strikes.

Except on overcast days, by early afternoon the best fishing action takes place around deeper water. At this point, the high-percentage opportunities are near channel drop-offs and deeper holes near flats. Given the general clarity of Northeastern rivers, even in deeper water it is possible to tease smallmouths from the depths to grab a jerkbait or even a surface stickbait. If the bass refuse to budge, try crankbaits and bucktail jigs or swimming-tail grubs.

As the first chilly nights of late summer mark the advent of fall, a hidden signal also is sent far up the small feeder creeks that feed the great rivers of the East. Young bluebacked herring, alewives and American shad that have spent the summer in fresh water begin to feel the pull of the ocean. It is a call and a challenge, because there is a long gauntlet of hungry mouths to run before the baitfish reach the warm waters of the inshore Atlantic.

When those cooler nights arrive, and the days grow shorter, look for the rings and spreading swirls that also signal a change of seasons important to river fishermen-the smallmouth blitz is on. the process of crashing into them, then return to pick off wounded fish from near the surface. Fishing with surface lures is the surest way to get a strike in such circumstances. Among the more popular lures for the task are Heddon Zara Spooks and other "walk-the-dog" topwaters. Popping baits such as the Rebel Pop-R, Rapala Skitter Pop or Iovino Splash-It are good choices.

Smallmouths become less inclined to take surface lures as the day grows brighter. In mid-morning, working shallow flats and shaded areas with hard jerkbaits such as Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue and Rapala Minnow or soft jerkbaits such as Cabela's Livin' Eye Glass Minnow and Lunker City's Fin-S Fish can produce jarring strikes.

Except on overcast days, by early afternoon the best fishing action takes place around deeper water. At this point, the high-percentage opportunities are near channel drop-offs and deeper holes near flats. Given the general clarity of Northeastern rivers, even in deeper water it is possible to tease smallmouths from the depths to grab a jerkbait or even a surface stickbait. If the bass refuse to budge, try crankbaits and bucktail jigs or swimming-tail grubs.

As the first chilly nights of late summer mark the advent of fall, a hidden signal also is sent far up the small feeder creeks that feed the great rivers of the East. Young bluebacked herring, alewives and American shad that have spent the summer in fresh water begin to feel the pull of the ocean. It is a call and a challenge, because there is a long gauntlet of hungry mouths to run before the baitfish reach the warm waters of the inshore Atlantic.

When those cooler nights arrive, and the days grow shorter, look for the rings and spreading swirls that also signal a change of seasons important to river fishermen-the smallmouth blitz is on.