Football season is in full swing, boat ramps are virtually empty, and most outdoorsmen seem to be wearing blaze orange. However, this is the time hardcore bass anglers secretly take advantage of some of the best action of the year.

Even though lakes may seem to be devoid of all life in the fall as the bass school up near their wintering grounds, when you do finally locate smallmouths, more often than not you’ve found the mother lode. Here’s what you should know.

The Need to Feed
Much like walleyes and panfish, smallmouths can be found both extremely shallow and deep at this time of year. Shallow fish will be on reefs and structure near shore on both small and large bodies of water. For the most part, these shallow-water fish are there to feed.

Trophy-fish hunters often forgo these shallow-water here-one-minute-and-gone-the-next fish to focus on deep water instead. Deeper smallmouths are typically homebodies at this time of year, moving very little until ice-out in the spring.

Old-school paper maps or even cartography on your boat’s GPS unit can help locate these spots before you even launch your boat. Three key areas to look for fall trophy smallmouths are:

1. River-Mouth Holes: Deep holes near river mouths can act as both a current break and a place where baitfish pile up. Don’t overlook extremely shallow flats in close proximity to these holes as a backup for transitioning fish.

2. Main-Lake Drop-Offs: These areas are perhaps the most likely fish-concentration zones. Look for steep breaks near deep water. Small points that stick out perpendicular to these often long, featureless breaks are the high-percentage areas.

3. Large Bays Near Islands or Shoals: On large bodies of water there can be miles of very little, if any, structure. Smallmouths that might suspend much of the year in open water will migrate to these bays along with the baitfish. As with main-lake drop-offs, look for steep rock breaks that have quick access to deeper water.

Cold Considerations
Knowing where to find these elusive smallmouths is very important, but knowing what to use in cold water requires you to learn a whole new set of rules. Temperature is relative. In the north, cold means water temperatures anywhere from 30 to 50 degrees, whereas in southern climes the numbers are considerably higher. When the temps dip below 40, popular presentations such as tubes and drop-shots become less effective. While it may sound more like an ’80s flashback than a fishing program, hair and metal rule for cold-water smallmouths.

Hair Jig

Hair: Hair jigs pulse and swim much differently from plastic when the temperature dips down. In the old days, hair jigs were actually tied from deer, squirrel, and other animals’ hair, depending on the intended color of the jig. Today, many are made from synthetic materials that offer more color options and are much more readily available to the average angler. Hair excels when fish are lethargic and looking for a natural presentation, particularly in clear water or when heavy fishing pressure exists.

Metal: At first glance, a blade bait looks like a power-fishing tool, yet it seems to finesse trophy smallmouths when they refuse to hit more traditional presentations. The flash and vibration blade baits put out are likely the reason they tend to work better in stained water. Their appeal, however, has a lot to do with their profile as they flutter down, as a majority of strikes occur then. In extremely deep water, look to a vertical jig with slight lifts. If you feel a large ripple of vibration, you’ve probably moved the bait out of the strike zone of all but the most aggressive fish. In more pressured areas or shallower water, cast out the blade bait and work it back with small hops.