The 5 Best Smallmouth Destinations for Fall
And if you’re going to take a fishing road trip amid a backdrop of autumn’s colorful foliage, it might as well be for fat, angry brown bass, right?
Traditionally, fall is the season for busting big smallmouths and lots of them, so we put together a list of five of the best destinations, along with a quick guide on where to go and what to see while you’re there. So do yourself a favor and put down the bow, turn off the football, pack your rain gear and head off to one of these five great autumn smallmouth bass destinations.
Seriously, go right now, before it’s too late.
Dale Hollow Lake
Where to stay: Byrdstown, Tenn.
Best timeframe: late October through January
What to take: swimbaits, small casting jigs, drop-shots, jerkbaits and hair jigs.
Good eats: Check out Anchor Down Bar and Grille for a great casual dining experience located right in Byrdstown.
Don’t miss: Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park in Burkesville, Ky., offers golf, horseback riding, caving and many other activities.
There have probably been more smallmouths topping 8 pounds caught from Tennessee’s famed Dale Hollow Lake than from all the waterways in the rest of the country combined. From the mid-1960s through the ’90s, the Tennessee impoundment pumped out giant brown fish at an unprecedented rate.
Six of the 10 largest smallmouths on record came out of Dale Hollow, including the 11-pound, 15-ounce world record caught by David Hayes. The reservoir also provided the setting where a host of legendary anglers such as Billy Westmoreland, Fred McClintock, and Jim Duckworth made their names chasing massive smallies.
After undergoing a period of reduced productivity due to low water levels and decreased angler pressure, Dale Hollow is back in a big way, and late fall is one of the best times to fish it. Brian Wilson, Walmart FLW Tour co-angler and owner of Cumberland Pro Lures, has a lot of experience fishing Dale Hollow in the fall, and says that the key to success is staying with the bass as they head toward their winter haunts.
“In early fall, they set up on shallow sloped points, and as the water cools they move to steeper and steeper banks, culminating in the vertical bluff banks they occupy in the winter,” advises Wilson. “Fish a bunch of points with different slopes until you find fish, and then run that pattern all around the lake.”
Where to stay: Ashland, Wis.
Best timeframe: right now through ice-up (early December)
What to take: drop-shots, football jigs, blade baits and tubes
Good eats: South Shore Brewery and Deep Water Grille serves awesome beer and pub fare.
Don’t miss: The Ashland Ore Dock is a massive 1,800-foot-long, 80-foot-high ore-loading dock built in 1925 to serve the local taconite mines. Check out the River Rock Inn and Bait Shop as well. It’s got a great selection of tackle and gear for local applications.
When discussing bass-fishing bucket lists, you probably won’t find many anglers who haven’t added at least one trip to chase Great Lakes smallmouths. Famed destinations such as Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and Sturgeon Bay have reputations built on years of spectacular fishing. For fall angling, though – and as great as those places are – it’s a lesser-known big-water smallmouth destination that shines brightest.
Chequamegon Bay is a shallow inlet off the southwest shore of Lake Superior that encompasses more than 40 square miles. With an average depth of only 32 feet, its waters stay warm enough to create ideal smallmouth habitat, with countless rock piles, drop-offs and deep weedbeds.
“In the bay, mid-October through ice-up is probably one of the absolute best times to chase big smallmouths there,” says guide Nate Baron of Up North Guide Service (facebook.com/upnorthguideservice), one of the top local sticks and an expert at catching jumbo brown bass. “In the fall, the numbers can be really good, but it’s also the best time to catch a legal fish. That might sound weird, but we’ve got a 22-inch size limit here, so when I say legal fish, it means one that is almost always over 6 pounds.”
According to Baron, 50-fish days with a 4-pound average are commonplace, and you’ve got a real shot at a true trophy. Make sure to come prepared for serious weather, though. Lake Superior isn’t to be taken lightly, and raging northerly winds, frigid temperatures and snow can come early. The good news is that the smallmouths are used to it, so they generally bite consistently.
Where to stay: International Falls, Minn.
Best timeframe: now through ice-up (mid-November)
What to take: tubes, swimbaits, soft jerkbaits, blade baits and football jigs
Good eats: Almost Lindy’s Swill and Grill offers great BBQ in the North Country.
Don’t miss: Voyageurs National Park is a wildlife enthusiast’s dream. The park is home to grey wolves and moose and contains some of the largest tracts of boreal forest remaining in the lower 48 states.
Rainy Lake sprawls across the U.S.-Canada border like a 227,000-acre inkblot. With more than 1,500 miles of shoreline and more than 2,000 islands, it’s got enough phenomenal smallmouth habitat to occupy a die-hard fisherman for several lifetimes.
Snickers pro Jim Moynagh hails from Carver, Minn., and has been fishing Rainy Lake for a long time.
“I really don’t have words to describe how good the smallmouth fishing is on Rainy,” Moynagh says. “Whatever cover or structure you want to fish, it’s there in abundance and usually covered in bass.”
For fall fishing, Moynagh recommends keying on areas where the fish winter and working over the nearby transition areas.
“Deep structure and vertical banks are classic smallmouth wintering locations,” Moynagh adds. “If you find places like that, the fish will be close by, and once you find them wadded up, it can be one after another to a scary degree.”
Moynagh notes that a football jig and a tube are his primary search baits in the fall. Once he locates a group of fish, he’ll work them over with a blade bait, soft jerkbait or swimbait.
“Fall on Rainy can produce some really big fish too, so make sure you have a camera ready,” says Moynagh. “You never know when that 5-pounder will bite.”
Where to stay: Beckley, West Va.
Best timeframe: mid-October through mid-November
What to take: tubes, Yamamoto Senkos, Rapala DT-6 crankbaits, swimbaits and finesse jigs
Good eats: The Market on Courthouse Square in nearby Hinton, West Va., offers great sandwiches, salads and an excellent atmosphere.
Don’t miss: The New River Gorge Bridge is the longest steel arch bridge in the United States, and at 827 feet above the ground, is the third-highest bridge in the country.
Considered by many anglers to be the smallmouth gem of the mid-Atlantic, the New River is unique in that its source is east of the Appalachian divide, but it runs across the mountains until emptying into the Ohio River.
Historically, the New River has been known more for its legendary vistas and whitewater rafting than fishing. However, Troy Stiffler, owner and head guide at New River Trophy Outfitters (newrivertrophyoutfitters.com), says the great fishing has been there all along.
“The New River has always been a premier smallmouth destination,” he says. “It’s just taken awhile to get the word out.”
Although the fishing is excellent all year on the New, Stiffler is especially fond of the fall, when decreasing water temperatures combined with generally consistent river levels create a combination of numbers and size that is borderline unbelievable.
“Once the water temperatures start decreasing, the fishing can just get crazy,” Stiffler says. “Our clients can expect 50- to 100-fish days, and we’ve had them much better than that. Early in the fall, 2- to 3-pound fish are common, and 4- and 5-pounders make regular trips into our landing nets. Later int [truncated for length]