Follow shad to more bass
Veteran tournament pro Mark Davis learned years ago he could not always depend on bass behavior to help him catch more bass.
Studying the behavior of bass forage, however, such as gizzard and threadfin shad, provided a much more dependable way to find largemouths, so the former Bassmaster Classic winner has literally spent years studying baitfish habits and movements. His favorite fishing time, not surprisingly, occurs during the autumn months when shad make their annual migration into tributary creeks as water begins to cool.
“Even though this migration is predictable, it can still present problems to bass fishermen because the shad, and the bass following them, pretty much let water temperature guide them,” Davis explained. “Anglers still have to determine whether the bass are deep or shallow, and it can be frustrating, especially if the shad are not visible near the surface.”
Many anglers begin their search for autumn bass in the deeper part of a tributary, but not Davis. He recommends starting at the very back of the creek because that’s where the shad are heading. The water is shallower so it will cool quickest and it also presents the easiest fishing.
“In the back of the creek, I look for shad activity to try to gauge what stage of the migration they’re in. If they’re really there, you’ll see them jumping and flipping on the surface, but if you don’t see them visually, you can ease into slightly deeper water and look for them on your electronics.
“Keep in mind that shad migrate earlier in stained water tributaries and they’ll be shallower overall. A clear water tributary is usually a better fishing choice a little later in autumn just because bass really aren’t comfortable traveling in clear, shallow water.”
When bass and shad are in shallow water in the back of a creek, Davis suggests using a lipless or square-bill crankbait and fishing it around any available cover. His starting depth is about three feet, hopefully with deeper water like a 10-foot creek channel nearby. In many instances, a fast retrieve may be the most productive, but because fall shad tend to remain in large schools, Davis also yo-yos a lipless crankbait under the baitfish, repeatedly jerking it up and letting it fall to imitate an injured shad.
“As the fall progresses and water cools, shad and bass move to deeper parts of the creek, and eventually they will migrate back out toward the mouth of the creek or the main lake itself. On my electronics I look for the depth where I see the most heavily concentrated schools. This is what I call the ‘activity zone,’ and it will be fairly distinct so you can identify it easily.
“Then, I start fishing the edges of the creek channel that correspond to that same depth. This is the real key to finding schools of bass later in the fall. You’ll generally need a deeper diving crankbait, too, because you may be fishing the edge of a drop 8 to 12 feet. Put your boat in the deeper water, and cast up on the shallower flat and retrieve across that edge.
“When bass are feeding, they’ll usually be right on top of the break, but when they’re not they’ll locate just off the edge. That’s why it’s important to make your casts toward the shallow water and bring them across that edge. Make sure your crankbait is hitting the bottom, and use a lot of stops and starts to create erratic movements that get the attention of the bass. Remember, they’re surrounded by real food so you have to make them interested in your bait.”
Davis has learned that once he has determined the depth of the shad activity zone, that same depth will usually be productive in other similar tributaries in that lake. The creeks must be similar in water color, cover and temperature.
As the water continues to get colder, shad and bass continue migrating back out of the creek, and by the time water temperatures have reached the mid-50’s, this migration is usually well under way. Under these conditions, Davis concentrates on secondary points, stump flats, the ends of boat docks and any creek channel bends he can find. It’s still crankbait time, but now the depth may range as deep as 12 to 15 feet, depending on temperature and cover.
“If your tributary has any vegetation, make certain you work it thoroughly,” Davis emphasized, “It will hold baitfish and bass much longer than any other type of cover, and if the vegetation is thick enough and large enough, bass may remain near it throughout the winter. I’ve caught bass on lipless crankbaits in thick hydrilla in January, weeks after the actual fall migration ended.”
While secondary points are an excellent place to look for bass on their outward migration, Davis always checks them earlier in the fall, as well, when bass are still moving to the back of the creek. “Points can offer so many different things to a bass, but I think the best ones are those that have a creek channel or even just a ditch that runs very close by.
“Bass are using the channel as their route of movement but the side of the point provides a type of cover that lets them ascend in the water column without being in wide open water. The option of this up-and-down vertical movement is so very important to both baitfish and bass, and if there’s cover on the point, as there often is, it’s going to be that much better.”