The Rivers Of Autumn: Smallmouth Nirvana by Matt Straw

The Rivers Of Autumn: Smallmouth Nirvana by Matt Straw

Muskegon. Niagara. Mississippi. Grand. Rocky. Tahquamenon. Wisconsin. St. Croix.

Some of the best—if not the very best—smallmouth bass rivers in the world flow through the Great Lakes region. And no better time exists to chase smallmouths than fall.

smallmouth bass smallie great lakes fishing fish matt straw

The specter of icy flows to come drives smallmouth behavior throughout autumn. They know it’s coming. The nights grow longer, the water continues to cool, and bass begin addressing the problem of surviving the approaching cold-water period.

How smallmouths behave in fall alters according to the severity of winter they experience in their region of the world.

In the North, where fall comes earlier and winter hits harder, smallmouth bass absolutely require some depth, still water, and stability during the cold months.

The farther they need to travel to reach ancestral wintering areas, the sooner they get crackin’. When the water begins to cool in fall, smallmouths slip into “here today, gone tomorrow” mode. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find them quick.

When you do, tie your shoes on tight.

Migration Studies

Smallmouth bass migrate both upstream and downstream from summer areas to reach winter habitat in fall throughout the Great Lakes region. Segments of river 20 to 80 miles long that were brimming with smallmouths all summer can be completely devoid of bass after temperatures drop into or below the 60°F range.

Radio telemetry studies reveal that bass move from one feeding station to the next along the way, spending several days on each spot.

By the time waters cool into the 40°F range, all river smallmouths will be in close proximity to their winter homes.

Seasonal migrations tend to be longer in the North, because the needs of bass become more acute. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conducted a radio-telemetry study on smallmouth migrations in the Embarrass and Wolf rivers between 1985 and 1987 (“Seasonal Migration of Smallmouth Bass in the Embarrass and Wolf Rivers”, by Ross Langhurst and Dean Schoenike). It notes that bass began to move away from summer habitat as river temperatures dropped to about 60°F. Radio-tagged bass moved as much as 19 kilometers (km) in one day, and some moved a total of 109 km before settling into winter habitat. In spring, the process reverses, so the complete cycle covers more than 200 km—or about 120 miles.

smallmouth bass smallie great lakes fishing fish matt straw

The Minnesota DNR conducted a tracking study on the Mississippi River in 1994 that revealed bass moved a maximum of about 25 miles between winter and summer haunts, though dams blocked any extended movement beyond that distance in either direction.

Who knows how far bass migrated before dams were in place? In any case, distance traveled depends on the distances between prime winter and summer habitats. Sometimes these migrations, even in the North, are only a few miles long.

In the Wisconsin study, biologists noted: “There was no discernible pattern of migration. Frequently, a fish would move and then remain at one location for a few days before continuing downstream.”

It should be noted that not all migrations are downstream, and the differences in behavior between bass traveling up and those moving downriver are legion.

Biologists may or may not be aware that bass migrating upstream tend to start earlier, use the path of least resistance (inside of bends, current breaks, etc.), and often choose shoreline-oriented cover for feeding stations. Bass migrating downstream take advantage of current to migrate and often set up on mid-river spots along the way unless water levels are unseasonably high—in which case they get pushed over to the banks.

River rats (like me) that follow these fish for decades have an advantage.

Biologists look at smallmouth habits through a tiny one-month to three-year window then move on to other studies. That window may or may not include things like 100-year floods or record low-water years.

The biologists in Wisconsin were able to observe and compare two fall seasons, and noted that bass moved earlier the first year of the study when a severe cold front dropped water temperatures drastically overnight. The second year, temperatures fell gradually, in more normal fashion, and migration was “delayed” according to the human calendar.

What two years of observation cannot tell them is that bass seem to “know” when severe cold weather is coming early, and they also seem to “know” when they have plenty of time before water temperatures drop into that debilitating, low 40°F range, and they move accordingly.

The Wisconsin paper states that, “The majority of studies of movement by these fish in streams have been for one season in the southern portion of the range of smallmouth bass.” In those studies, they note, such long-range movements seem non-existent. They comment on the Todd and Rabeni study (1989) on the Jacks Fork River, Missouri, and note that “no large scale movement of smallmouth bass during autumn or winter” was observed. They concluded that “winter severity in northern latitudes may make migration of adults to the deeper water of a larger river or lake necessary for survival.” But river smallmouths tend to migrate seasonally throughout Great Lakes country.

smallmouth bass smallie great lakes fishing fish matt straw

The Hunt

Experienced smallmouth anglers know they have to hunt for river fish in fall.

Spots where smallmouths choose to stop and hold for several days at a time can change from day-to-day and year-to-year. In a quarter century of chasing Mississippi River smallmouths, I’ve found many spots that were used heavily one year but are never used again to my knowledge—especially when they’re migrating upstream.

Crayfish are key. Smallmouths hold on spots where crayfish are thick, and those populations vary from spot-to-spot, year-to-year. It seems like a quarter inch of water level or visibility can make or break an otherwise perfect looking spot, too—which makes predicting exactly where bass will be a bit difficult.

The places to hunt during an upstream migration are shoreline-oriented spots. Rip-rap, eddy pockets, and indentations along the shoreline provide current breaks required more by baitfish than the smallmouths themselves. Smallmouths go where the bait is, especially in fall, because they really need to stock up for winter.

They can be hundreds of yards away the next day, so you have to put the trolling motor on high and cover water.

Often the bite is very shallow in fall.

Most of the action in the Mississippi takes place in 8 feet of water or less. From September through mid October, topwater action can be incredible. Or not. A popper like the Rapala Skitter Pop or walking bait like the Skitter Walk often draws bass up top. Make a lot of commotion followed by long pauses. A lot of strikes come on the pause, with the bait drifting free in the current.

smallmouth bass smallie great lakes fishing fish matt straw

If nothing happens real shallow, throw a crankbait like the Rapala DT 6 along the breaks from 4 feet down to 8 feet. Then work the channel or next level with a DT 10 or whatever it takes to make bottom contact. Move fast. Fish aggressively. Contact is key. Crack the bait off rocks and hang on. Retrieves should remain relatively fast until water temperatures dip below 50°F. And once you find fish, work the area over thoroughly with jigs and plastics.

Intercepting Fall Bass

Bass tend to run upstream to tailraces or downstream to reservoirs to find wintering habitat in the North (not necessarily true down South). Or they run up tributaries to natural lakes or downstream to bigger rivers with deeper holes.

Where I live, on the Mississippi River in Minnesota, the segments of river between dams varies from 8 to 100 miles. A point about halfway between those dams is the demarcation: Bass that summer below that point tend to winter in the reservoir downstream. Bass that summer above that point run upstream to winter below a tailrace. But some bass winter in 20-foot holes along the way, according to tagging studies conducted by the Minnesota DNR.

Bass sometimes begin to migrate in August, sometimes in late September. If they’re moving in August, expect winter to show up early (don’t ask how, but they seem to know what’s coming). I always begin looking for migrating bass in August, but the migration begins in September about 8 years in 10 around here.

smallmouth bass smallie great lakes fishing fish matt straw

Smallmouths stop on spots rich with crayfish where they can also take advantage of river chubs and 1- to 2-year-old suckers. When they move upstream, they hug the insides of bends and move up behind current breaks—the path of least resistance from the flow. This is a critical point: Fishing the side of the river with the strongest current is generally a waste of time during a migration. Think like a fish swimming against the flow: Where would you go?

The search isn’t easy, so use all the clues. If anything breaks the surface, look there.

Check every fallen tree, every wing dam (natural or otherwise), every shoreline point, and every adjacent indentation. The very top (upstream end) of an eddy behind a current break holds the most active fish—under the seam of broken water between slack areas and fast current.

Put the trolling motor on high and cast topwaters to every current break on the slow side of the river, then cast cranks along the breaks in those areas and on up the slow shore. My best cranks, the past few years, have been Salmo Hornets, LiveTarget Crayfish, and Rapala DT6s.

crayfish crawfish crankbait plug cranks walleye bass fishing rapala smallmouth

Top To Bottom: Rapala DT 6, DT 10, and Skitter Pop

When you find fish, go back through with a 3/32- to 1/4-ounce mushroom-head jig and 5-inch grub or, where bottom allows, a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce football head tipped with a plastic craw or spider grub.

1/32 oz 1/16 jig grub shad grubtail bass fishing fish smallmouth smallie

Top To Bottom:
Strike King Swim-N-Shiner—Keitech Tungsten Super Round Jig
Yamamoto Hula Grub—Owner Ultrahead Football Jig (hand painted)
Kalin’s Lunker Grub—Gopher Tackle Mushroom Head

When hunting downstream migrations, spend more time on mid-river rock piles and humps unless the river is really high. On the Mississippi, smallmouth moving downstream seem more likely to set up on the same spots year-after-year.

Between 10 to 20 years ago, after the migration started we could hit key spots and rip 20 to 45 nice fish, many over 5 pounds, from one anchored position—all on cranks.

Now that fall bass have rocketed skyward in popularity, we’re lucky to catch a dozen, mostly with jigs and plastics. But cranks and topwater remain the way to find the most active fish in a group—which highlights another point: Smallmouths migrate in pods, which show up near wintering habitat at different times.

Find one bass and more should be nearby.

Before the water cools to a point near 50°F, the depth to target is the 4- to 8-foot zone. At just under 50°F, most of the smallmouths in the system have condensed into larger groups near wintering habitat.

Bass winter in plunge pools below dams, deep river holes, and reservoirs. South-facing shorelines, which get the most sunlight exposure and protection from north winds, tend to be key spots. They winter where crayfish do, apparently—on clay or boulder-strewn flats in depths of 15 to 30 feet. Some winter closer to the dam, some near main-basin areas.

smallmouth bass smallie great lakes fishing fish matt straw

Until water temperatures drop below 40°F, Northern smallmouths in tailrace areas rise up out of that plunge pool when active to feed, typically in 6- to 12-foot depths.

Smallmouths begin staging on the same spots as soon as they arrive, and can be caught with a variety of methods. In the 50°F range, topwaters and crankbaits often rule. We fish those options with light, 8- to 10-pound braided lines and 10-pound mono leaders tied in with back-to-back uni knots. The braid produces mega-long casts and strong hooksets. The mono is for stretch, stealth, and abrasion resistance.

As water temperatures drop below 50°F, football heads and hair jigs begin to take over, fished with 10-pound mono and 7-foot, medium-power spinning rods. And below 45°F, the biggest bass in the system start reacting to float-and-fly presentations with relatively tiny 1/32-ounce synthetic hair jigs. 

Always a good idea, though, to work areas over with plastics after finding them with cranks or spinnerbaits, early through mid-fall. Find ‘em then grind ‘em. For the past few seasons our most productive baits have included soft-plastic swimbaits, like the Strike King Swim-N-Shiner or Storm 360° Search Bait, on 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jig heads.

Cast upstream or up and across, let the bait fall to bottom, point the rod tip down and start reeling. If it drags on bottom, speed up. If it never touches bottom, slow down. It’s the same method we use to fish a jig-grub combo with Kalin’s or Get Bit plastics with 6-pound mono on 7-foot, medium-light spinning rods.

 smallmouth bass smallie great lakes fishing fish matt straw

Fish hard, fish fast, cover water with hardbaits, and it will pay off. The good news is, once you find a good spot, it will stay good for 6 weeks to 2 months, as every pod of migrating fish will stop on that spot to feed. Bass don’t migrate all at once, or cover water at the same rate—and the biggest fish often migrate last.

The only way to stay on fall smallmouths in rivers is to hunt them down.

Cover water and keep your shoes tied on tight, because they’re pumping iron in the current.  No other bass—and few other freshwater fish—are tougher to wear down than river smallmouths in fall.


…And Destroy

 - written by Matt Strraw

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