It’s as predictable as sunrise, as traditional as college football. It’s the concentrated bass action that occurs each fall in creeks and backwaters throughout Mississippi.
Often frenetic, always entertaining, this annual migration can deliver stellar days with loads of targets and lots of solid opportunities.
The premise is simple: food. When bass’ internal clocks detect shortening days and declining water temperatures, they know full well that winter will soon overtake the south.
Fall, then, is the crucial time for preparation. Like squirrels gathering acorns, bass pack their bellies with as much chow as they can hold before heading to their winter retreats in deeper main-lake or river water.
“The biggest key to the fall fishing is finding the shad,” Jackson angler Web Collums said. “The fish have one thing on their mind in the fall, and that’s gorging themselves to make it through the winter and into the prespawn.”
Specific creek setups, scenarios and plans of attack will vary from one water body to another. However, the basic routine comes down to locating the fish — mostly by locating bait pods, but also through relevant cover — and presenting a handful of baits based on what the fish are doing and/or how they react.
Spending much of his fall fishing time on Ross Barnett Reservoir’s Fannegusha, Mill and Filahachee creeks, Collums follows a routine that provides a flexible template for most creek scenarios you’ll encounter.
Factors for finding fish
Starting at the mouth of a creek, Collums methodically works his way progressively farther into the tributary until he finds the bait schools.
Modern sonar units with side-imaging technology have greatly facilitated the location of bait schools well beyond your boat’s passage. Often, Collums noted, finding the food is just a matter of looking at the surface.
“If you’re around the shad, odds are you’re going to see the fish because they’re going to show themselves schooling,” he said. “Last fall, I got on (an area with schooling activity) in Fannegusha Creek and I literally sat on one spot for over two hours and never went more than three casts without catching a fish.
“The shad had positioned at the mouth of the creek, but they hadn’t started their move into the creek. It was just a textbook fall patter. I was sitting there at the mouth of the creek and I saw four or five fish blow up 100 yards away from me. I turned and got 40 yards from them, and sat in one spot for the next two to two and a half hours. It was unbelievable.”
As Collums noted, locating the meat ball is absolutely critical to a successful day. Nevertheless, more is definitely better for fall bass.
“You can put together a good day just finding smaller pods of shad and just catching onsies, twosies, but typically your better days are going to be when you find the big concentrations of shad,” he said. “In the heat of summer, you might go out and say ‘Look, there’s a little ball of shad. There’s probably 100 shad in that group.’ Well, in (the fall), you might look 100 yards up the river and all of the sudden there’s a ball of 5,000 shad.
“If you can find those schools of shad that are 3- to 5-inches long, I catch more around that size shad than I do the little bitty ones. If we go to eat steak, I can offer you a 4-ounce filet or you can get a 12-ounce: You’re going to go for the bigger meal.”
It’s not uncommon to have a tough time finding shad schools on an early fall morning because lower nighttime temperatures leave the water chilly at sunrise.
Collums said he fares best from mid-morning to sunset because the creeks warm and bring the shad higher in the water column. In those morning hours, he looks for some vegetation or some hard structure because it will retain a little bit of heat and you might coax a few early bites.
Cypress trees, grass mats, docks and rocks all fit this scenario.
Collums said he has actually found fall bass relating to steel dock cables hanging in the water; the cables absorbed the previous day’s head and offered a cozy hangout the next morning.
As raging hot as fall fishing can be, it will cool off in a hurry when an autumn cold front arrives. So expect the fish to chew like crazy right before the weather’s onset, but once a front drops the air temperature the water will quickly follow and even the sweetest of creeks will fizzle for a few days.
And when high, bright skies follow a front’s passing, well, things can get pretty boring for a day or so.
Collums said another fall-weather woe occurs when thunderstorms bring freshwater runoff that muddies up a creek and makes life tough.
Here, those sneaky little protected pockets off the main creek can hold partly clear water, and that’s the gold mine: Shad will pack in there, and bass will follow.
Now, if a fall weather system has the fish a little moody, maybe they’re holding low during the high pressure following a front, reduce your pace and show reluctant bass an easy meal. Remember: Just because a bass doesn’t feel like feeding doesn’t mean he’s not hungry.
Carolina rigs, dropshots, shaky heads can all keep you in the hunt when lethargic fish won’t bite reaction baits.
In rocky spots, a bare football head with a plastic body will enable you to probe without snagging. Try a variety of baits, from the standard craw bodies to a big worm or lizard.
In even your smaller creeks, you’ll never catch every fish swimming there, but the good thing about creek fishing is its day-to-day consistency. Barring a significant weather change, consecutive fishing trips will likely deliver the same or better opportunities.
As Collums observed, fall offers multiple recreational options, and fishing does not always take top priority. For those who choose to hit the creeks, a decrease in boat traffic is a good thing.
“The nice thing is, everybody has hunting and football on their mind,” he said. “So you can really have some phenomenal days out there, and pretty much have it to yourself.”