If you leave the deer stand one day for the lake this month, look shallow for shad schools and the bass that are following them. It might seem bass-ackwards, but it make sense.
You wouldn’t exactly call it a pickle, but fall is a time when Dustin Gates of Jonesboro often finds himself in a quandary, perplexed and uncertain over exactly what to do. He loves to pick up his bow and target big bucks, but he also loves to keep one hand on his fishing rods and a bait in the water, trying to fool a big, old bass.
It’s prime time for both.
“I love to go out and catch bass this time of year, because they are really gorging themselves on shad, trying to get fattened up for the winter and prepped for the spawn,” Gates said. “But if I’ve got a big, old buck on the (trail) camera, and I think he’ll come out in the daytime, I always feel like I need to be in the woods.”
Gates isn’t alone. Plenty of other Louisiana outdoorsmen face the same decision.
But when he does choose to head for the lake, there’s no doubt what he’ll do to target Mr. Bass, whether it is to catch a mess of 1- and 2-pounders for a fish fry or land a monster lunker fit for a Facebook brag-board photo. Gates is known for that, and while some anglers think bass head deep this time of year, they go the wrong way first.
“Once we’ve had a couple of cold fronts and the days start getting shorter, you are going to find the bass doing two things,” he says. “First, they are going to be starting to gang up more and start staging on the edges of creeks in the coves. And second, they are going to start pushing big balls of baitfish up into the shallows where they can go on a feeding frenzy.”
Gates said there’s something in the DNA of a bass that lets them know that baitfish are going to be gathering up, too, and heading for shallow water. The natural inclination is to believe that bass are going to start moving out to deeper water at the first sign of cold weather, but that theory is bass-ackwards. The fish are going to make a shallow run, then go deep.
The reason? That’s what the shad will do, and bass will follow the shad.
“The hot summer has come to an end, and it seems like a switch goes off,” Gates said. “All the fish start gathering up, and where they have been lethargic, they get aggressive in a hurry. The good news is that when the weather is right, you can catch bunches of bass as they chase the shad in shallow — and then again on the way out before they scatter into deep-water holes.”
They key is following “fish highways” as he calls them: channels, ditches or edges of ridges that baitfish and bass seem to follow.
Everybody has a favorite bait this time of year, but Gates has two go-to lures he seldom puts down. The first is a Rat-L-Trap in Tennessee shad color. He has one trusty, old favorite that he has put a half-dozen sets of hooks on and barely has any paint left, but the fish love it. He also likes the chrome/blue back color. His second choice is KVD Perfect Plastics Swim’n Caffeine Shad in smoky shad color.
“You’ve heard this before, but I really try hard to match the size of the bait I’m fishing to the size of the shad (bass) are chasing,” he said. “A lot of times, they’ll be after 1- or 2-inch shad, but other schools of shad have 4- and 5-inch shad in them. I think it’s important to match that. And if I’m ever in any doubt, I’ll up the size a bit. They aren’t ever going to go after a smaller meal than the other ones in front of them.”
Gates does fish his swimbaits a bit differently. Most people put a weight on it and do as the bait’s name suggests — swim it. But he uses a weighted hook and hops his along the bottom — if the fish will let it get to the bottom. With the Rat-L-Trap, he just tries to keep it in the strike zone where fish are showing up on his electronics.
There are a couple of reasons that shad make this erratic trip. First, they are very sensitive to temperatures, and while they like it cool, they can’t stay shallow too long, because when it gets too cold, they can’t survive. They head into the shallows to feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton, stuff fishermen can’t even see. But once it gets too cold they head out. This pattern lasts through November and often into the December days of deer season.
“I have to tell you, if I’m on the deer stand and not seeing anything, or just seeing a bunch of does, my mind wanders back to the lake, and I start thinking I should have gone fishing instead of wasting the day in a tree,” he said. “It’s a tough call when I know fish are biting. And if the mosquitoes get too bad, I’ll leave the deer woods and go back to the lake in a heartbeat.”
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