When asked about September bass fishing in Mississippi, bass pro Pete Ponds answered with an immediate and unexpected question of his own:
“What type of water are you fishing, because that makes a world of difference?” Ponds said. “Are we talking about rivers or reservoirs, medium-sized lakes or subdivision or farm ponds?”
Too often, top-rung bass fishermen respond to questions with answers related to where their professional careers have taken them, like reservoirs and major river systems, overlooking the obvious point that the vast majority of anglers lack the equipment or wherewithal to fish big waters.
“We have to realize that the average fisherman is going to take one rod and reel, or maybe two, and either float, wade or walk around the edges of a small body of water,” said Ponds, who is from Gluckstadt, and, when home, fishes in his subdivision lake, Lake Caroline, and other nearby lakes. “I rarely fish a farm pond; I did when I was younger. I do fish a lot of 100- to 500-acre lakes. I grew up fishing Barnett Reservoir, and I have competitively fished big lakes and rivers for over 20 years.
“They may differ in size and in forage bases, but I usually take the same approach to small ones as I do big ones. That is especially true in September, when the fish are entering the first stages of their cool-down transition.”
Finding the arteries
Ponds said no matter the size of the pond, there will always be one major September traffic pattern — “usually a creek channel or a ditch, or something that was damned to back up and hold water.”
That’s where he starts.
“In September, especially after the first cool front….” Ponds said, hesitatinge before adding, “Think about it, we always get a small cool front in September, either right at the start or middle of the month. It doesn’t have to be a major change, just enough degrees that you notice it. Believe me, the fish will notice it — bait fish and predator fish — and it triggers a change.”
Biologists will also tell you that photosensitivity plays a significant, if not dominant, role in behavior. Fish and other wildlife are fine-tuned to the amount of daylight in a 24-hour period. The days growing shorter, even if by mere minutes, is enough to impact their behavior. Even if the weather becomes atypical of any given season — we all know how hot it can be in Mississippi in a deer stand — creatures instinctively know that it’s time to change, be it locating food sources or for purposes of procreation.
“When they feel that first change, that first front, fish start to transition into the fall/winter patterns,” Ponds said. “That means they are going to move to whatever the primary channels are in their core areas. Even 2- or 3-acre farm ponds are going to have something like a ditch that they will relate to.
“The bigger the lake or river system, the bigger and more numerous those channels will be. That’s where I start looking in September, no matter where I am fishing in Mississippi.”
Okay, let’s go fishing.
Smaller ponds, lakes
Appropriately named, Ponds said small lakes and stock ponds all have the same kinds of cover and structure as much bigger lake — points, flats, and channels — just on a small scale.
“Find the channel, whatever is, and start in the deepest part of the lake and start moving up,” he said. “Fish will have been in as deep of water as possible during the summer, but as the weather starts cooling, they will start moving back up toward the upper end of the pond or lake.
“Obviously, most smaller ponds are going to have a sunfish-based baitfish supply instead of shad, and there will be a lot of other food sources in the shallows like insects, worms and frogs. Try to see what is available.”
Once you have identified the channel and forage, choose a lure that closely resembles the food supply, such as bream-colors on a crankbait.
“Depending on whether or not you are in a boat will somewhat dictate what you can throw,” Ponds said. “If you are in some type of watercraft, you can get out on the lake in the channel and throw a crankbait that is suitable for depth and work shallow to deep. I like to use a Bandit Series 200 or a shallow Bandit Flat Maxx in a bream pattern, but if the water is a little deeper, say 6 to 10 feet or more, then I switch to a Series 300. If you are throwing from a bank, you will be retrieving from deep to shallow. Then you might can get away with the 200, maybe, but may have to consider dropping to a 100.”
Even on small impoundments, fish tend to group up in September, Ponds said, and that increases feeding activity.
“Look for bass pushing bream up to the surface, and when you do, you can count on bites,” he said. “I like a Yum Pulse, a Fluke-like lure or a Pop-R when they are on top. A small buzzbait is another choice.”
Ponds said soft plastics are always popular on small lakes, usually Texas-rigged but also Carolina- or wacky-rigged. One of Ponds’ favorites to work in the shallows is to wacky rig a Yum Dinger, a Senko-type bait, on a small finesse hook.
“Fish gather up, so look for a pattern to form,” he said. “A place where a point or flat reaches the edge of the channel is perfect. It might be that outside bends or inside bends of the ditch or creek is what holds fish. Try to figure that out, and when you do, work it all the way back up the channel.”
Mississippi has seen a boom in housing developments around lakes, usually those covering 50 to 100 acres.. Joe Watts of Canton lives on a 50-acre lake and fishes it regularly.
“No matter what time of year it is, there is a going to be a shallow-water bite somewhere on the lake every day,” Watts said. “The great thing about a small lake is that a fish can be around a channel or a point, or on some deep cover, and only be a quick swim from the bank. They can decide to move up to eat and just go do it.
“The banks I look for in the summer are nearest the deep end, but in September and on into October, they move up the old creek and back toward the big flats on the upper ends of the lake and coves. My favorite bait then is red lipless crankbait, mainly a Strike King Red Eye Shad. They kill it, whether I’m fishing from the bank, a pier or a two-man boat.”
Dan Smith of Ridgeland primarily fishes a 500-acre subdivision lake and a 20-acre stocked private lake, both in Madison County. He’s a hardcore cover fisherman.
“Both of these lakes were built in the last 30 years after the fishing world discovered the importance of creating cover in lakes,” he said. “Instead of just digging out a big hole for a lake, they knocked down the trees and formed structure. They did it with a lot of thought, too, in how it needed to be arranged for maximum effect. The smaller lake has a lot of cover in rows in deep water, and then isolated cover along the main ditches and the old creek. The bigger lake has acres of old timber in the windrows all over the place, but some isolated patches.
“Those isolated patches on the points and along the channel is where I find the best fish holding in big numbers in September and really good in October, but the giant fish are always on the isolated stumps. A stump in 6 to 8 feet of water near a creek is going to have a big fish on it. If I can’t get one on a crankbait or a swimbait, then I will use a 10-inch worm.”
When Ponds talks about big waters in Mississippi, he talks mostly about Barnett Reservoir, his home lake and where he learned to fish. He’s still learning.
“You might think you know it inside and out, but there is always something different,” he said. “Like in the last five years, I’ve learned that in September, the upper river area of Barnett is a great place to try a drop-shot worm on sandbar points. It works great on the spotted bass, but it also catches largemouth.”
Little discoveries like that keep fishing interesting for pros, and weekend warriors.
“I like that, but I also realize that the same patterns that have produced great fishing for decades still work on Barnett, like fishing the points and pads upriver when the gizzard shad start showing up,” Ponds said. “That’s always September magic. Gizzard shad are bigger than threadfin, which are more populous, but this time of year is when they migrate out of the deeper main lake and river and start moving toward the shallows. They are the ones you can see jumping, and when you do, it’s worth investigating that area because they aren’t jumping because they like it. Something is trying to eat them, and that is usually big largemouth.
“Both gizzard and threadfin shad migrate off the main lake, either toward the shallow coves of the lake or up the river or Pelahatchie Creek. When you see the first signs of dying pads, then you know the shad are coming. When they come, the bass will be right with them, usually in a school.”
Barnett bass are famous for crushing plastic frogs, and the pattern will work in September, but Ponds likes a buzzbait.
“They will be actively feeding and are aggressive most of the time,” he said. “A buzzbait can produce a lot of action, and if it slows, then I will switch to either a swim jig or a Yum Dinger in the pads. The key is finding the places where ditches or creeks enter a pad field, or pad fields on points and secondary points off the river. That’s where they really load up.
“When you find a school chasing those big gizzard shad to the point that they are jumping out of the water, you need to get on that right away, because those will be bigger bass, like 3- and 4- and 5-pounders. Those gizzard shad are game changers. Fish your way into those creeks and openings, starting on the outside and fish in.”
On overcast days, flats on the outer edges of the pad fields on the main lake or along popular creek channels, become fish havens as bass move out to feed on the shad.
“That’s when I want a crankbait and cover as much water as possible,” Ponds said. “I really like the shallow version of the Bandit Flat Maxx or the lipless Yum One Knocker or Hard Knocker. It can get wild.”
“I really like the rivers in September, and for me, that means the Pearl on the upper end of Barnett, but the same things work on other rivers around Mississippi,” Ponds said. “September is a great time to be on the rivers.
“That’s where the shad migrations are the biggest, and where you find a great combination of points and cuts, secondary points and cuts and moving water. Current is important, and it is important for a fisherman to learn how current can place fish on certain structure, like a point. The aggressive fish are always going to be on the outside of the point in the current, looking for something to pick off. Less aggressive fish that will still be hungry are going to be on the inside of the point, the slack side. How you approach the two is going to be different.”
The aggressive fish in the current will hit just about any bait, Ponds said.
“It’s ‘Katie bar the door’-type fishing,” he said. “A crankbait that matches the depth will work; a lipless crankbait will, too. Heck, anything will, but you want something you can work it quick with. There won’t be as many fish in the current as there will be on the slack side, so after picking off the aggressive fish, move around and start fishing the slack side. Most times, you will have to slow down and use more finesse, like a drop shot.”
The ideal situation, Ponds said is finding a point that creates a natural eddy in the current.
“You find those eddies, and it’s like finding a vein of gold ore instead of a nugget or two,” he said. “It’s the jackpot.”
Another good place to look is the outside bends of the river, where Ponds said the current is naturally the strongest.
“Anything you can find that breaks the current and creates a little eddy water, that’s where you can find pockets of bass,” he said. “They’ll be sitting in that slack water always watching for something to pass by that they can pounce on. A Whing-Ding (tail-spinner) type lure is deadly, but so is a drop shot. Don’t think a big fish won’t eat a 4- or 5-inch drop-shot worm. They will and not think twice about it until they are in your hand in a boat taking a picture.”