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Fall bass fishing

By STEVE VANTREESE

Funny how some of those topwater lures whistle when they zing past your ear with ballistic vigor.

It's not quite as funny when they make contact and render self-induced punishment. That's the anti-reward for the enthusiastic but premature hook-set, something to be judiciously avoided when fishing the surface for bass.

We tend to look for bass down under most of the year. It might be beneath shallow water in the spring and far below in the depths in summer. Some underlying layer south of the surface is where we put our lures most of the time.

Autumn can be another matter. Falling water temperatures in the cooling season tend to bring bass from the shelter of the depths back to the shallows. Baitfish have moved shallow or are on their way to the skinny water back in the bays and around shorelines.

Bass abandoning summer haunts often leave schools of their own kind and scatter like spilled BBs, bouncing wildly over flats, points, back ends of embayments and shoreline areas. They may take a liking to pieces of cover like stumps and brush piles or the overhead umbrella of floating or fixed docks, but they also might seemingly cut ties with features and focus on dogging around schools of shad - moving buffets.

In many cases, these scattered bass, fish that are instinctively feeding to store body fat for the coming lethargy of winter, are looking up to target baitfish that wriggle along just below the surface.

On the big waters of Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, catches of bass typically start declining in the fall, especially for the anglers who specialize on offshore drop-offs and schools of bass that concentrate in big numbers during the hot water season. Bass numbers aren't appreciably lower during the autumn, but shorter days and dropping water temperatures send the fish into such wider areas that it's necessary to probe much more water to find them.

With summer conditions, an angler who zooms in on the right spot of the right deep river channel ledge or creek channel mouth might score bass glory in one place, maybe even while anchored or holding around a carefully placed marker buoy. In fall, however, the angler who loads up is more likely to expend much of his trolling motor battery charge covering the waterfront, catching one here, one there, ad nauseam.

Surface lures, besides performing up there where much of the bass focus is, do a pretty good job of sampling lots of water. Now, you can fish slowly with many topwater lures, allowing for plenty of soaking time as you wait for reluctant bass to come around to your temptation. But it doesn't have to be that way, and it really shouldn't be for most fall fishing.

Because bass are scattered in these circumstances, covering lots of water gives you more opportunity to appeal to more bass. Therefore, it makes good sense to fish the surface at a fairly brisk pace to put a lure over as many aggressive bass as possible.

One of the best fall lures, one that's now old school and maybe a little under-appreciated, is the buzzbait. Like a spinnerbait with its safety pin-like wire rigging and large single hook, the buzzbait instead uses a propeller-shaped blade or two to create lift as it's drawn, blade churning, through the water. Reeled fast enough the keep the buzzbait at the surface, the blade is going to gurgle and thrash water, creating enticing sound and visual disturbance.

A buzzbait is one of the quicker ways to ply the water and tempt active bass from below. Who knows what bass think it is, but a buzzer resembles some sort of small creature swimming like mad. Bass might hit it for food or pure aggression or even just out of curiosity, but the buzzbait to a bass can be like a string pulled past a house cat. Pouncing reflex goes a long way.

Other floating surface lures can work wonders. Cigar-shaped topwaters like the Zara Spook, tiny propelled plugs like the old Devil's Horse and concave-faced poppers and chuggers of countless makes and models (the old Rebel Pop-R is a peach) can be worked pretty rapidly.

These surface lures can cover water at a moderately quick pace, but they also offer the option of pausing them from time to time in provocative circumstances. When you figure bass are right below and pondering an attack, you can halt the floating lure and it won't sink. Sometimes the stop-and-start again action of a lure gets you more strikes than a mere steady retrieve.

In early fall, the topwater bite may be more limited to early morning and late afternoon hours. As the water cools more significantly, the surface action might hold all-day potential. Overcast conditions, too, can extend the activity up on top.

Cast to visible cover targets, sure, but don't hesitate to fish seemingly open, featureless water if baitfish are present. Indeed, sometimes it might pay to watch over wide flats or shoreline sections for a while before the start of casting. Shad squirting out of the water to avoid predators or the bass themselves striking at food at the surface might tell you where you need to start fishing.

Make long casts and appeal to bass over as much high-odds water as possible. When bass are plundering shad in the backs of bays where it's too shallow to follow with a boat, consider rigging your longest rod with a half-ounce or better buzzbait and making Herculean casts waaay back there where the action is.

All topwater fishing, however, tempts that aforementioned flaw in angler performance. When the action is on top, we are tempted to set the hook with gusto the first instance we see a bass disrupt the surface with its strike. This usually is a reflexive mistake, and it often results in the lure being jerked away from the fish.

When this happens at any sort of close range, it very well can cause a topwater lure to come careening right back at the angler. Sometimes it's duck, dodge or endure damage.

A better approach is to keep fishing and wait until the strike is felt through the rod, making sure the bass has the lure in its pie hole, before pulling back to sink the hooks.

One of the greater pleasures of autumn's surface fishing is to see unmerciful predatory bass whacking away at lures right there where the water runs out and the sky begins. It can be quite rewarding for the angler who won't let the visual spectacle of those surface strikes make him too quick on the trigger.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at svantreese@bellsouth.net.

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