In most circles, bass fishing is considered a summer sport. America’s favorite game fish awaken from inactivity to spawn in the spring, and they spend the summer foraging for just about anything that swims — and tangling with the anglers who love to catch them.
As temperatures cool and the leaves begin to change color, many outdoors enthusiasts trade in their fishing poles for hunting rifles or a football stadium chair. But putting your bass gear away too soon could mean missing some of the best fishing of the year. September and October can be magical months for catching bass — particularly the line-peeling smallmouths that thrive in Idaho’s rivers and reservoirs.
WINTER IS COMING
Bass are warmwater fish, and their metabolism is most active when the water temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees. During Idaho’s chilly winters, bass become sluggish, feed infrequently and are ignored by all but the most diehard anglers. But the last few weeks of warm weather provide a golden opportunity.
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“As water temperatures in the fall begin to drop a bit, smallmouth bass begin moving from deeper waters to shallow waters and feeding more in these areas, where they have a higher chance of being caught,” said Dr. Chris Walser, a fisheries expert and professor of biology and environmental studies at The College of Idaho.
The shorter days also signal to fish that winter is coming — and they feed aggressively in an effort to put on as many calories as possible. Fisherman can capitalize on the feeding frenzy by throwing a variety of lures and baits, including plastic tubes, jigs and crayfish, orange and brown crank baits, large spinnerbaits, minnow imitations, live night crawlers and beefy flies like woolly buggers and leeches.
“Fall fishing to me is like the grand finale at a fireworks show — it can be super hot and full of excitement if you hit it right,” said Boise angler Caleb Nichols, who has been chasing Snake and Payette river smallmouths for more than 20 years. “Every bass you catch seems like it’s at its fattest possible weight, so you have a great shot at catching your biggest fish of the year.”
Smallmouth bass are the dominant species in western Idaho’s stretch of the Snake River, including the reservoirs at C.J. Strike, Swan Falls and Brownlee. There also are bronzebacks in the Payette River, Lake Cascade, Lake Lowell and Lucky Peak, Arrowrock and Anderson Ranch reservoirs.
When targeting smallies in rivers, focus on shoreline structure like large submerged boulders with a steady current running by. Toss a tube, jig or crankbait — pretty much anything that looks like a crayfish — and “crawl” it around the rocks. If that doesn’t work, try targeting channels that pass by rock piles or drop-offs.
Walser said the best fishing usually occurs in the early morning or late evening, when bass like to rest near rocky ledges. Float a soft plastic lure, live worm or fly through the current. If your line tightens or moves sideways, set the hook hard.
“I usually start by working the bottom with a crayfish presentation,” Nichols said. “If the fish are higher up in the water column, I’ll switch to something that mimics minnows, like a crankbait, spinnerbait or fluke.”
Finding fish in reservoirs can be a bit trickier, but the same general rules apply. Smallmouth love to eat crayfish, and crayfish love rocky habitat, so seek out rocky points and coves that have plenty of places for crayfish and bass to hide.
BY LAND OR BY SEA
One of the perks of fall bass fishing is that bank anglers and boaters can get in on the action. No matter where you fish from, floating moss can be a problem in the fall.
Boaters can usually escape the cabbage by anchoring in a clear channel. If you’re fishing from the bank, look for big, sweeping back eddies, which tend to stay clearer than the main flow.
You can also beat the moss by your choice in lures. Weedless jigs and soft plastics will fish much cleaner than treble-hooked crank baits. Worms or flies fished with some split shot or sinking line will get below the weed mats and avoid most of the hangups.
For a fun challenge, bank anglers can try tangling with smallies in the jungle. If you find most of the shoreline clogged with weeds, find a clear channel that’s within casting distance and toss your lure or bait across the weeds to the open water.
Make sure you set the hook extra hard when the bite comes — even a 12-inch bass will give you a run for your money as you wrestle it back to shore through the vegetation.
As long as no major cold fronts roll in, bass should remain active for at least a couple more weeks. So rescue your gear from the storage unit and get in one last hurrah. Those leaves in the yard will still be there when you get home.