Fall’s Overlooked Shallow Lunkers: Non-traditional places to get your string stretched

Ever catch a bass from under a pier in a snowstorm?

My mentor, fishing tutor, dad and best friend, Larry Mallory, did it to win an October tournament several years ago fishing a jig around and under Michigan boat docks. In fact, he caught a five-fish limit that went 22 pounds—pretty good for the L.P.

Big bass will stay shallow as late in the year as they can. While the mainstream knowledge of bass fishing and bass behavior says to target this species out on the deeper breaks and green weeds now, lots of big bass get overlooked in untraditional places that they’ve been residing most of the season.

Shallow ambush points where fish can inhale a steady supply of food are ideal places. Here, the food—minnows, frogs, young bluegills, crayfish—stays shallow well into the fall and the big ol’ smart bass will stay up there as long as the food lingers.

While I’m constantly trying to educate myself on catching bass both shallow and deep, fishing for those shallow fish around different cover is what really gets my juices flowing. Skipping a jig up under a dock and feeling that bite or seeing my line streak away in a new direction really gets me excited; chucking a big-surface lure and having a bucketmouth inhale it does as well. Ricocheting a shallow-running, square-billed crankbait off of structure and having bass grab it is as awesome as watching a flashy spinnerbait streaking below the surface suddenly go sideways after a largemouth grabs it.

Let’s start by defining shallow as “8 feet,” where you find flats with weeds still green and healthy, all the way up to 6 inches of water. Now, I don’t mean that big bass are lying on their sides in that half-foot of water depth, but you can often find them in areas where it looks like there’s not enough water for them to hang out. Bass will be in depressions scooped out under piers and around any trees hanging in the water. On an unfamiliar lake—or familiar one where you haven’t tried fishing shallow—it’s key to cover a lot of water.

A great lure for probing these areas is a swim jig, which you can pitch up shallow without making a big splash. You also can skip a 1/2-ounce swim jig up where piers meet the shore, and then turn around and swim it through a weed bed on the other side of the boat. Swim jigs are darn versatile, and rig them with a swimbait trailer that’s soft and are used for a couple of fish. Firmer swimbaits can get the job done, and swim jigs with a swimbait look like a bite-sized panfish, so they can get a lot of bites in shallower water.

In areas where the water is at least a couple feet deep, a square-billed crankbait, such as a Strike King KVD 1.5, provides a great option for covering a lot of water around structure and getting reaction bites from bass as you crank it through the strike zone. Square-bills are great for bouncing off pier posts, wood and rocks without getting hung up; I like burning them on 12-pound fluorocarbon. Many crankbait manufacturers test their cranks for optimum performance with 12-pound-test line, so using it often delivers the best action.

When vegetation starts attaching itself onto a hook, a quick switch from a crankbait to a spinnerbait lets you spend less time picking weeds off of treble hooks, and more time fishing. A 1/2-ounce Strike King Burner with willow leaf blades works great. Fish spinnerbaits fast and just far enough below the surface where you can see it. They work because good old-school spinnerbaits have fallen out of favor with the majority of bass anglers, so bass don’t see a whole lot of them anymore. Chatter baits are the new spinnerbait for lots of bass anglers, and they work. But bass see a lot of chatter baits, so spinnerbaits often catch just as many. Painted blades seem to work in real clear water, while flashier metallic blades work great in dingy water.

Surface lures like poppers and chuggers are efficient for covering a lot of shallow water too, with long casts and a fairly fast, popping retrieve. Here, you might want to switch to monofilament, which floats, unlike the fluorocarbon, which sinks. Some guys like to tie braid straight to the lure as braid floats too. Poppers, such as the Rapala X-Rap Pop, work best when there isn’t a lot of wind making the water choppy.

A surface lure that is on a solid upward trend is the River2Sea Whopper Plopper. Not many are using these beasts, which is good for you since lots of bass across the Midwest haven’t seen these intriguing lures yet. Designed by Larry Dahlberg, host of The Hunt for Big Fish, these lures are simple to use. They’re kind of torpedo-shaped, like a Zara Spook, but they have a tail section that whirls and plops as you retrieve it. And a steady retrieve is all you need. The key to success with these is determining the speed and resulting plopping sound that fish want. Vary the retrieve until you can hear the definitive “plop, plop, plop” of the tail section scooping up water and slapping the surface as it revolves around again. Bass looking up at it hit it with authority. I fish these lures on 30-pound-test braided line tied directly to the eyelet. It gurgles along over the bass and creates enough commotion that the fish don’t seem to notice the solid braided line coming off the lure’s nose. The Whopper Plopper is a great lure when the fall winds stir up the surface. This lure comes through waves while creating plenty of noise and is heavy so you can cast a country mile. And, using braided line ensures a good hook-set at a distance.

Another unorthodox ambush point can be a shadow of a house stretching across the water. Big bass can end up claiming these sorts of spots so they don’t have to move far for a meal.

So look for shallow water first this autumn. Work the shoreline, docks and other shallow structure with a variety of approaches. If the water has gotten cold, and the crayfish and frogs burrow and hibernate and baitfish have moved to deeper water, move to that water and switch to “deeper” tactics like throwing deep cranks or speedily working breaklines with a heavy jig. But if you see a lot of bait and other life in the skinny waters, keep on casting until you start hitting the fish. If bait is there, the bass will be there too.

Tournament angler and avid outdoorsman, Buck Mallory, of Lawton, Mich., is a regular contributor to MidWest Outdoors, specializing in bass fishing.