Telling a dancer to “work on those steps” might come across rather crass, but on Pickwick Lake, that’s just sensible advice for fall bass fishing.
Indeed, ages of geological layering have left much of the shoreline with a step like appearance, something that local guide Jimmy Mason views as a prime autumn target.
“When you have the stair-step banks it almost always means you’re on the channel side of a creek,” he said. “So when the fall drawdown occurs, that’s where the fish will congregate because the opposite side is usually a shallow, flat bank with a mud or gravel bottom.
“The deep side is where the bait runs, so the fish go there to feed. Also, as it cools off, the fish relate more to the rock bank for its warmth.”
The temperature advantage plays a key role in fall fishing, as this turbulent period sees fish needing their heating blankets during meteorological fluctuations.
“It’s a front-proof pattern,” Mason said.
Timing the moves
Mason looks for stair-step banks in all of Pickwick’s tributaries, with the major runs of Bear and Yellow creeks particularly productive. Depth, he said, is relative, but a seasonal principle guides his effort.
“I’ll go back in the creeks until I hit the line where the bank makes a rapid rise and it gets really shallow; then I’ll start working my way out until I find the fish,” Mason said. “In the backs of the creeks, near the channel, the fish may be in 5 to 6 feet of water, as opposed to two-thirds of the way out or near the mouth of the creek they may be in 20-25.”
When the fall drawdown first starts, Mason finds the backs of the creeks especially attractive, as the fish that had been chasing shad on the flats will pull back to the channel and usually orient to the stair-step banks.
“Later in fall and into early winter, I’ll want to fish closer to the mouths of the creeks and work my way out to the river channel,” Mason said.
Water temperature guides much of this movement, but so does bait positioning. The shad move in as fall commences and then pull back out with winter’s approach. Mason focuses on the areas of the creek where the shad schools are thickest, but he also pays attention to quality.
“I look for those schools of shad with the 3- to 3½-inch shad,” he said. “They’ll definitely group by size.”
In addition to bait, Mason looks for:
Wood– Logs and laydowns offer handy ambush points and instantly paint a red X on the shoreline.
Structural changes – Random notches or indentations, points, or rockslides create gathering points for bait and bass.
Springs – Subterranean water sources create mini current spots, while also influencing water temperature and clarity. Said Mason: “A lot of times you find a spring by chance. They’re easier to find during dirty water times, so keep eyes open for clean water pushing out from the rocks.”
Run-ins – Visually distinguished by a terrestrial funnel strewn with matted leaves and random wood, these shoreline drains direct concentrated rainwater into the creek. In early fall, it’s the cooler flow that fish favor, while later in the season, a warm rain makes that drain site the cozier spot.
“Something that causes a little comfort difference; that’s one of the things that you can’t plan on, but when you see it, take advantage of it,” Mason said.
Bluff it up
In a different, yet related scenario, bluffs also factor into Pickwick’s fall game. Even on those vertical rock walls, subsurface steps create scenarios similar to the visible shallow steps.
Largemouth may be the main deal, but FLW pro Wesley Strader notes that smallmouth favor the bluff’s bait-corralling edges. Get a school of brownies fired up, he said, “and life is good.”
For either species, the main bluff benefit is the immediacy of moderation.
“They’ll move up and down on the wall, depending on their feeding times,” said Bassmaster Elite Series pro Terry Scroggins. “They can go down and suspend over deep water or they can pull up shallow and feed on the bluff.”
Adds Mason: “The reason those fish like the vertical walls is that they can move up and down and find the right temperature zone. Unlike a flat where they might have to swim 20 or 30 yards to find the right temperature, on a bluff, they may only have to move up or down 8 or 10 feet.”
Mason’s stair-step arsenal includes a mix of reaction baits like a Heddon Super Spook Jr., a YUM Breaking Shad, 100 and 200-Series Bandit crankbaits and a Booyah Spinnerbait. For walking down the steps, Mason finds a Booyah Finance Jig with a shortened YUM Mighty Craw trailer creates the right look. And when he finds some isolated wood cover, Mason flips the Booyah Bankroll jig, also with a Mighty Craw trailer.
Mason finds early fall brings greater morning activity, with bass pulling tighter to cover as midday temperatures rise.
Later in the season, the opposite becomes the norm. Fish hold close to cover until temperatures reach active levels by mid morning.
Matching his tactics accordingly, Mason starts his early fall mornings covering water with reaction baits and then he pulls in close to flip the cover once the temperature rises. Late fall requires the opposite approach – start with flipping and then go to your moving baits later in the day.
On the bluffs, Strader prefers a jerkbait to mimic all the gathering bait, especially those stunned by late fall’s chilling water. An erratic cadence of twitching and pausing can yield big results.
Mason also uses a YUMBrella rig fitted with four 3½-inch YUM Money Minnows and a 5-inch bait in the center. In cold weather, he’ll swap those outside minnows for YUM Pearl grubs.
Whatever bait you prefer, this seasonal opportunity won’t last forever, so step to it.