and photos by Dan O'Sullivan
The cold season can be one of the most dynamic times of the year to fish for bass. Everything in nature becomes more active as the bursts of cold air begin to awaken life from the oppression of the summer heat. The breaths of crisp air have the effect of making birds begin to fly south, and it begins the progression of events causing baitfish to migrate upstream; triggering the bass to begin feeding.
Along with the bass, anglers also make a move to get into the mix of the late season frenzy, and one of the first is usually Randy Howell, the 39-year-old Bassmaster Elite Series Pro from Springville, Ala. For Howell, late season fishing hits its stride when the air temperature starts dipping into the 50’s, causing the water temperature to start falling from its summer highs. “When the water gets below 80-degrees, I start looking for a late season pattern to start developing,” said Howell.
However sure he is that a fall pattern will be the ticket, he doesn’t just blindly start casting his lure hoping to find a fish that will bite; he starts with a little investigation. “I usually start the morning riding around looking for baitfish that are up shallow,” he said. “I usually begin my search in areas where the north wind blows into, those are the first bays and creeks that baitfish will enter.”
His approach is to pilot his Mercury powered Triton around bays and creeks that are not far off the main channel. What he is searching for are flat pockets with the north wind blowing into them. “That wind will push baitfish up into those pockets, and when I see bait flickering on the surface, I know they are being pushed around by something eating them,” he said. “When the surface of the water looks like its raining shad, that’s when I go to work with a rod and reel.”
His first choice, if the pocket is “thrashing and crashing” is a Livingston Lures pro Ripper on a 7-foot medium action Daiwa Zillion rod and 7.1:1 Zillion reel spooled with 15-pound-test Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line. He selects a 1/4 to 1/2-ounce chrome and blue Pro Ripper on a sunny day, or pearl and chartreuse on a cloudy day or stained water; if the water is dirty, he turns to fire tiger.
If the pocket is relatively calm, but he knows the bait and the bass are there, then he will start with a diving plug, either a shallow running Livingston DM JR or their medium diving DM 14, in similar colors based on the conditions above. The reason for the diving bait in calmer conditions is because Howell claims they are less obtrusive to bass when they are not actively chasing shad. He uses the same rod and line in this application, but uses a 6.3:1 retrieve reel.
In either case, his approach is to start fan casting the pocket in search of a response from the bass. Obviously, the hunting for the school is less difficult if the school is boiling at the surface chasing bait, but becomes a broader search mission if the bass are not schooling.
Howell said it is key to make long casts to avoid spooking bass, and the other important factor for triggering strikes with shallow crankbaits is the pace that an angler retrieves their lure. “I want the lure to move quickly and erratically through the water, he said. “That way I’m forcing them into making a decision, triggering strikes.”
After he makes a loop through the pocket, and finds the quality of the bass to his liking, Howell will spend a little more time with the crankbaits, but if he doesn’t get the response he’s looking for, makes adjustments. “If they stopped biting, but I think they are still in the area, I start looking for cover they would hide in,” said the Alabama pro. “If there are docks in the pocket that will be the first place I turn.”
He may make a few casts with his crankbaits around the dock structure, but it won’t take long for him to change his approach. “A jig, especially in the low water conditions that can dominate the cold weather, is an excellent lure for generating strikes,” he said. “But, I don’t limit myself to only pitching the jig and letting it fall to the bottom, swimming it will get a ton of bites.”
He revealed that his favorite for the technique is a 3/8-ounce black, blue and purple Lunker Lure Rattleback Jig with a Sapphire Blue Yamamoto Twin Tail Trailer. “I skip and swim that thing all around those docks,” he said. “It’s important to get it as close to the cover as possible, because the shad are going to be right there.”
He also said to pay attention to the baitfish activity around the dock, because they will let you know when it is best to use the technique. “You will see them up at the dock eating algae of the posts,” he said. “That’s when I really try to keep the jig tight, and bump the wood.”
For the jig, he relies on a Daiwa Steez SVF-XBD Frog Rod, a 7’4” extra heavy rod designed for pulling bass out of thick matted weeds. “I throw the jig on the 7.3:1 Type R because I can use the speed of the reel to pick up slack for a hookset, and for retrieving the lure between casts,” he said. “I also use 20-pound-test Gamma Edge Fluorocarbon in clear water, and sometimes Gamma Torque braided line in dirty water.”
Howell also pointed out that the jig helps him remain versatile. “I might come across a laydown or some vegetation while I’m moving through the pockets,” he said. “Having the jig at the ready gives me something I can make a quick presentation with to pick off a bonus fish or two.”
After he has exhausted all of the shallow cover options in the pocket, or, if he stops in a pocket that previously had baitfish activity, but has gone quiet, he will sometimes look to his electronics and a different kind of jig to decide if he needs to stay.
“Bass might stay in the area waiting for the shad to come back,” he said. “But, they may have just hunkered down near the bottom until the shad schools move through again; I’ll turn to a football jig for those fish.” He said his primary choice is a 1/2 –ounce Lunker Lure Rattlin’ Football Jig in Peanut Butter and Jelly, with a matching Yamamoto Twin Tail Grub for a trailer. “I use that color most of the time, but will mix a different color trailer in if I find the bass munching on crayfish,” he said. “If I find shell pieces in my livewell, I might add a green pumpkin trailer with the tips of the tails dyed orange.”
he does around the docks, Howell doesn’t let his jig soak for too long, but
instead; he keeps the jig slowly swimming along the bottom. “Keeping the jig
moving across the bottom gives me a different look than most others fishing a
jig,” he said. “I’m really slow crawling it more so than swimming it, but the
point is, I keep it moving the whole time.”
Critical to his success in the late season is to keep a couple of things in mind. “This is cold conditions, and the bass are usually pretty active, you just have to locate them,” said Howell. “A lot of times they will be roaming in the morning, actively searching for food, but as the day progresses and the shad get more actively schooling, the bass will become a little more focused in their locations.”
“The key is to keep moving from points to pockets,” Howell opined. “You have to find the schools with the right size bass, and once you do, you can fill the boat quickly.” That’s how Randy Howell haunts late season fishing, keep moving, stay aggressive, and you too could scare up some impressive cold water results.
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