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Heavyweight Tactics for Fall Smallmouths


As autumn colors begin to appear and water temperatures cool, smallmouth bass replace their summer habits wit new patterns and fall fishing can be some of the best of the year. I will be sharing with you what works for me and for three of the best smallie guides and anglers I know.

Mike Mladenik,

Mike Mladenik is the Dean of river smallmouth bass guides, having guided the rivers of NE Wisconsin for decades, putting clients on some truly monster smallies. He’s also a popular sports show speaker, has authored a few books and numerous fishing article.

Mike generally chases river smallies until the water temperatures drop below 40 degrees. I asked him what his top fall smallie bait is and he quickly responded, “my favorite is a swimbait because they allow me to cover water effectively and will catch smallies on rivers, reservoirs, natural lakes and in all types of structure.” He told me it’s important to fine tune your retrieve to the desired depth and speed, which can be done with different weight jigheads and varying the speed of your retrieve. Mike uses 3- to 5-inch swimbaits, downsizing for cold fronts and dropping water temperatures. His favorite is the Case 3.75-inch Lil Magic Swim in pearl shiner, albino shad and bluegill.

Mike noted, “for my swimbaits I use 10 to 12-pound fluorocarbon line and a 6’6” to 7’ Grandt medium fast action baitcasting rod with a low-profile reel offering a faster retrieve ratio. And, if conditions call for it, I switch to a spinning rod with 8-pound fluorocarbon.”

When Mike finds smallies stacked up in the weeds, he says it’s hard to beat a 5-inch soft plastic jerkbait and as with the swimbait, he downsizes for cold conditions. “I cast over the weeds and make a number of aggressive twitches and let it sink, then do it again. It’s the slow fall that triggers the strike.” The Case Sinking Shads, with the high salt content are his favorite in white pearl and white pearl with gold flake. Mike added, “a tactic I love using with the plastic jerkbait is to insert a tungsten nail weight into the center of the plastic jerkbait so that it will fall horizontally.” For this presentation he prefers a 6’6” or 7’ Grandt medium fast action rod with 12-pound fluorocarbon line.

Number three on Mike’s list of his top fall presentations is the suspending jerkbait which he notes is deadly when the smallies are holding on points and rocks. Mike explains, “for suspending jerkbaits to be effective the angler needs to adapt the presentation to the mood of the smallie. Most give the bait a sharp tug and let sit for a few seconds and repeat. However, in the fall with colder water temperatures, patience is key, and the pause needs to be longer.” The trick when the water temperatures are below 50 degrees is you sometimes must let the bait suspend for up to two minutes.

Mike Norris,

Along with being a successful guide, Mike Norris has fished regional and national bass and walleye tournaments, hosted a weekly outdoor radio show in Chicago, and is an outdoor writer, photographer and sports show speaker. Now living in Wisconsin, he guides on and around Big Green Lake.

When I asked Mike how late into the fall he fishes, he replied, “I only stop when the ice at the boat launches forms thick enough to prevent launching my boat”. At times he has fished open water until early January but does try to pick days with light wind, so the wind chill is manageable.

Mike’s three favorite fall presentations are jerkbaits, swimbaits and tubes. When asked rod, reel and line preference for these presentations he added, “for most of my fall presentations I like 7’ medium-fast action Grandt spinning rods with a 2500-size spinning reel. These are spooled with 15-pound stealth-grey Seaguar Smackdown Braid with a 6-foot 8-pound test Sun PC Sniper fluorocarbon leader for swimbaits and tubes”. For jerkbaits he likes a moderate action Grandt baitcasting rod and reel spooled with 30-pound Seaguar Smackdown line.

Mike finds smallie location in the early fall somewhat predictable with fish on the outside of weed edges and rocky drop-offs. He continued, “before dropping a line in the water, I often cruise around and look for arches on my electronics, which potentially could be smallies. I mark waypoints and go back and fish these areas”. Mike likes jerkbaits as they mimic small minnows, perch and suckers the smallies are feeding on in the fall. He explained, “I have two methods of working a jerkbait. The first is casting it and working back through the targeted area with sharp jerks of my rod followed by a short pause. The second is to make a long cast then troll forward with my trolling motor with an occasional sweep of the lure with the rod, causing an erratic action”.

When using swimbaits, once he’s located smallies, Mike will cast beyond the target area and wait until the line goes slack, signaling the swimbait has reached the bottom. At that point, he told me, “I will then start a steady retrieve back to my boat while maintaining close contact with the bottom. I may occasionally give the swimbait a quick snap, which can trigger a strike”. For his swimbaits, Mike uses a ¼-ounce Sasquatch Weedless Swim Jig in Blue Shimmer and dresses it with the 4-inch Keitech Swing Impact in smallmouth magic color.

Mike enjoys using tubes and mostly the 4-inch ISG Intimidator tubes in green pumpkin or erie green with tube jigs from 1/4 to 1/2 -ounce depending on the depth he’s fishing. He casts the tube to a specific area he believes may hold smallies, lets the tube sink to the bottom, then with his rod tip pointed down, he very slowly will skip the tube along the bottom like prey.

Early in the cold-water period, Mike primarily fishes the outside edges of remaining green weeds and those adjacent nearby drop-offs. As the water continues to cool, he notes, “I begin each trip searching with my electronics for smallies hugging the bottom and the depth. Their location and depth changes from day to day, but once I locate them, I’m fishing them with bottom hugging artificial lures like tubes”.

Doug Schreiber,

For many years Doug Schreiber was a top big water guide, TV show host and top tournament angler. Doug now focuses on speaking, writing, making lures and fishes for the love of being on the water.

When I asked Doug how late into the fall he chases smallies he replied, “once the water temperature drops below 40 degrees I’m usually done. That might be mid-October and some years mid-November”. He pays close attention to fall water temperatures noting, “Temperature dictates where the smallies are and how I’m fishing for them. I’m looking for water temperatures below 60 degrees, which triggers movement of fish from deeper summer haunts to nearby shallow, 4 to 12 feet of water where I’m keying on forage, weed and rock”.

In early fall Doug starts out fishing this shallower water and, as noted, prefers some weeds and rock. He is also looking for fish that are that are suspending in shallow water above sharp breaks leading to much deeper water. He points out, “early in the fall the smallies will be down 5 to 10 feet over the much deeper water and then as the water cools, they will be down farther into the deeper water. Or, they have moved to deeper water from areas with a mix of sand and rock”. Doug looks forward to this fall transition as a great time for truly monster smallies.

Tubes are by far Doug’s top fall presentation and he uses 3.5 to 4-inch Powerbait and YUM tubes. “My favorite colors are green pumpkin with either pepper or orange flakes and dark melon with orange flake. As much as I like 2.5-inch tubes, in the fall it’s about big baits for big smallies”. For his tube fishing, Doug makes his own tapered head jigs with a 4/0 wire hook.

Doug is a talented guy who makes his own rods using blanks from St. Croix Rods or North Fork Composites. He says, “for tubes and swimbaits I use 7’3” to 7’6” medium-light to medium extra-fast action rods”. When I asked him about his line choice he laughed and said, “as I get older, I can see chartreuse Berkley Nanofil and lime green Suffix 832 the easiest and both are outstanding. I use 8 to 10-pound test and add an 8 to 10-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader”. His spinning reels of choice are the 2500 size long cast spools. When tube fishing, Doug likes to imitate the forage base and notes, “I want the tube to look like a wounded prey, so I do a lot of shaking, swim and drop, pop and drop, and at times just let it sit. Mostly though, the pop and drop works best”.

Swimbaits have also been successful for Doug and he uses the Yamamoto Swim Senko in the green pumpkin varieties and Berkley PowerBait Rib Shad in green pumpkin pepper and electric shad. Like most pros, he swims it slow and steady just off the bottom using different weight jigs depending on water depth. Doug reminded me, “tubes are my favorite, but I’ve also had success with drop shotting. My favorite plastics are the YUM Wooly Hawgcraw in green pumpkin varieties and Berkley Flatnose Minnow in green pumpkin and brown back”. When casting he lightly shakes the drop shot and while drifting, he drags it. Doug added, “for swimbaits I use one of my custom 7’ to 7’6” medium extra-fast rods and for drop shotting a 6’10” to 7’3” medium-light extra-fast rods”. For both presentations he’s using similar reels and line as for his tubes.

Bill Schultz,

Until six years ago, my fall smallmouth bass fishing was on smaller rivers in southern Wisconsin while wearing my Frogg Togg waders or paddling one of my Jackson kayaks. However, now with a place in Sturgeon Bay, I’ve enjoyed spending time there chasing Door County smallies through early November. My two top fall presentations for the big water are swimming a Keitech FAT Swing and working the Ned Rig on the bottom with a Z-Man Finesse TRD. Both presentations are productive year-round.

Fall smallies have the feedbag on preparing for winter and like mid-summer locations tend to be deeper than in early summer and spring. I’m usually fishing from 8 to 30-feet deep water in the fall in Sturgeon Bay, so getting the lure down is key. Using either 1/4 to 1/3-ounce Z-Man ShroomZ jigs or 1/4 and 3/8-ounce Kalin’s Google Eye Swimbait Jigs, I swim a 3.3 or 3.8 size Keitech FAT Swing slow and steady just off the bottom. For shallower water I use lighter 1/6, 1/5 and 1/4-ounce jigs. Shad, black shad, goby and electric shad are my favorite colors. For swimbaits I prefer spinning gear and St. Croix 7’ to 7’6” medium-light fast and extra-fast action rods. For line, I’m using 8 and 10-pound test braid and superlines like Daiwa J-Braid 8-X or Berkley Fireline Ultra 8 Carrier with a 35 to 45-inch Berkley Professional Grade fluorocarbon leader.

I’m a big Ned Rig fan and with the Spot Lock feature on my Minn Kota Ulterra trolling motor I am able maintain boat control in the frequent rough conditions therefore allowing me to fish the Ned Rig using the 1/15 and 1/10-ounce Finesse ShroomZ and NedlockZ jigs. However, going deeper while kayak fishing becomes a challenge, so I’ve been experimenting with heavier jigs up to 1/5-ounce with surprising success. What makes the Ned Rig so successful for me are the Z-Man finesse baits made are from ElaZtech plastic, which is buoyant. This gives the Ned Rig a different look to the smallie as the buoyant plastic stands upright on the bottom. So, along with whatever twitching I do, it might sway slightly with current giving an enticing look smallies can’t resist. Z-Man has several finesse plastic baits, but my favorite is the Finesse TRD, available in many colors, but most of the time I’m using Green Pumpkin Goby. I’ve had luck with a few other colors including Mud Minnow and Goby Bryant. Cast the Ned Rig, let the jig go to bottom and then do very little beyond a few twitches. Most hits come when it’s just sitting motionless on the bottom. For the Ned Rig I use the same reels and line set-up as for swimbaits but prefer 6’10’ to 7’ medium extra-fast action St. Croix rods.

On the small rivers I fish in the fall I am using the Ned Rig, which works so well in all smallie waters. Along with the Finesse TRD, I add the TRD TubeZ in a variety of colors and stick with the light jigs. I cast to the opposite shoreline slightly upstream and let the current, with a few twitches, do the trick. Yes, you will get snags, but with the buoyancy of the ElaZtech plastic, not as many as with normal plastics. I’ve also had success for many years swimming a 4-inch Kalin’s Lunker Grub in Blue Pearl Salt & Pepper on a 1/16 or 3/32-ounce mushroom head jig. I use the same reel and line set-up as noted previously, but with more small fish in these rivers I’m using 6’10’ and 7’ medium-light extra-fast action St. Croix rods.

As I said earlier, fall is a great time to go out and catch and release some beautiful smallmouth bass on your favorite lake or river. Smallies feed heavily in the fall in anticipation of winter, and you can be catching some of your biggest bass of the year. Hopefully, the tips shared by me and my three friends will help!

Special Note: This article is a current feature in September/October, 2020 Badger Sportsman Magazine