Smallmouth bass fishing is a great way to spend a spring or summer day. However, fishing during the autumn months especially September and October can be some of the most exciting action of the entire year. Everything in nature from plants to animals knows when the days are growing shorter at the end of summer. The lesser hours of daylight trigger trees to go dormant thus causing the color change of leaves. Wildlife also recognize the shorter days as an indicator of winter approaching. Squirrels are gathering nuts, deer and elk are preparing to battle rivals for mating rights and fish begin feeding voraciously knowing their food source will soon be in short supply. Crawfish burrow in muddy banks and hibernate during winter. Baitfish and shad begin to die off as the water temperature drops leaving much smaller numbers of them as a food source. Bass are cold-blooded animals so the water temperature controls their metabolism. The colder the water, the less they feed. This in conjunction with the fewer number of daylight hours is why they “stock up” and gorge on prey while the water is still fairly warm.
The “Where and Why”
Before we get into the lures section, let’s first discuss the “where and why” of autumn river basics. The bass are more than likely already trapped in the deep water pools where they will spend the winter months. This is due to the very low water levels being too shallow for larger fish to commute between the pools. If you are fishing a section of the Buffalo that is still floatable at the end of summer then by all means utilize a canoe or kayak to put you on the best locations that are holding bass. Much of the river, in particular the upper section is generally too low for floating by the time September arrives. However, the low water makes for great wade fishing because you can easily walk up or down river and access the fish in the pools without floatation required. The two miles of river between the Ponca low water bridge access and the Steel Creek campground is one of the best places to wade fish for fall smallmouths. You can easily walk up or down river on the old river trail or ORT as it appears on the National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps. This trail follows the streambed and zig zags the river at multiple fords or crossings. This old animal trail in conjunction with the low water levels means that you can easily spend the day walking a mile or further, up or down the river catching smallies as you go. So, without any further delay, here is:
What lures to use for fall smallmouth fishing on Buffalo National River!
1. Hula Grub
A hula grub is a twin tailed soft plastic grub with a hula skirt on the opposite end of the lure from the tails. It is fished on a stand up jig head preferably in 1/8 to 1/4 oz weight. This lure 100% mimics an actual crawfish walking the bottom of the river yet it also qualifies as a “creature bait” which means it mimics a variety of “river critters”working the bottom. Work it very slowly along the bottom around boulders and chunk rock. Seventy percent of a stream smallmouth’s diet consists of crawfish. This time of year it is not uncommon to catch a smallmouth bass that is already trying to finish swallowing a live crawfish that it has just eaten when you’re removing your lure! The best colors are watermelon/red flake or green pumpkin/pepper.
2. Whopper Plopper
The Whopper Plopper is the latest innovation in top water prop baits. It is very similar to a Tiny Torpedo or or Devil’s Horse. However, instead of it having a small propeller or two, the Whopper Plopper’s prop is actually shaped like a fish’s tail. This feature makes it look very realistic while floating motionless on the surface. The lure can be jerked, stop n go, but the best results are from a steady, slow retrieve. The best times for top water action are early morning and late afternoon. However, cloudy days can have great top water bassing all day! Bring the lure over submerged boulders or sunken trees with a slow, steady retrieve. The best colors are black/chrome or clear to opaque.
3. Single Tail Grub
The single tail grub is one of the oldest and most versatile of all the soft plastic lures. This bait can be rigged in many different configurations. I prefer using a 1/8 or ¼ oz darter style jig head. The grub imitates baitfish, tadpoles and other river creatures. Areas to target are structures where riffles run into the pools or where the pools turn back into riffles. Bounce it along the bottom upstream or downstream. The best colors are green pumpkin/pepper, watermelon seed, rootbeer/green flake or shad colors, shades of silver or pearlescent.
4. Rebel Crawdad
The Rebel Crawdad is an oldie but goodie. This timeless crankbait is a hard plastic lure that is molded in the shape of a fleeing crawfish. It floats until retrieved then it dives to the bottom as it wiggles creating a visual and throbbing vibration in the water that attracts fish. Crank it around boulders and sunken trees as well as riffles. This lure works really well in clear, shallow water situations. The best colors are stream crawfish or moss crawfish. This is an excellent lure for youngsters to learn river fishing with because all that is required is to simply crank the reel and retrieve the lure.
Buzzbaits have been around since the mid 1970’s and are still a top producer for big bass. They are essentially a modified spinnerbait, including wire frame and silicon skirt. The wing shaped blade creates lift when the buzzbait is retrieved causing the lure to run or “buzz” along the surface while making a bubbling, purring sound. A slow, steady retrieve is very important for this lure. Also of great importance is beginning the retrieve as soon as the lure hits the water’s surface and not letting it sink. Buzzbaits are most productive in low light situations. However, they are also effective under cloudy skies or in shaded pools anytime of day. They are excellent for coaxing bass out of logjams or from under sunken trees. Because buzzbaits are reaction lures, colors aren’t as important as the presentation itself. However I prefer ¼ oz buzzbaits in baitfish colors like white, chartreuse, silver, etc.
Time To Fly
Fly fishing for smallmouth bass has become extremely popular across most all of the United States especially among millennial anglers. So of course, in the top seven countdown, we wanted to be sure and include selections for the fly enthusiasts who wish to do battle with big river smallies. Buffalo Outdoor Center’s fly fishing expert Brodee Graham is going to finish out the list with his top choices for fall bronzebacks.
6. Murdich Minnow
The Murdich Minnow originated as a pattern for striped bass, but has proved itself an incredible freshwater fly for catching smallmouth bass. With a perfectly neutral buoyancy, this streamer will dart and hang in the strike zone, making it irresistible to any predator fish chasing baitfish. Fished on either a floating line, a sinking line or an intermediate, the Murdich Minnow will tempt even the wariest of smallmouths. Fish it around boulders and sunken trees. This lure would also be a good choice for pre-spawn smallies in springtime when bronzebacks target baitfish. The best color pattern for river smallmouths is white/gray.
7. Boogle Bug Popper
Last but certainly not least, the Boogle Bug Popper is one of the highest quality bass poppers to be found today. This popper is almost indestructible and has had monumental success for producing smallmouth and largemouth bass. The Boogle Bug Popper has become the standard for river smallmouth fishing with a fly rod. The lure makes a very pronounced “bloop” that bass cannot resist. Because of the Boogle Bug’s smaller size, it is very easy to cast. The smaller profile also makes it a good eating size for bluegill, rock bass and other sunfishes. Pop it over underwater structure such as boulders, rock piles and trees. The choice colors for river fishing are solar flare, pearly white and electric damsel.
Don’t Forget The Bug Spray and Sunscreen
Yes, autumn has finally arrived in the Ozarks and soon the trees will be changing to beautiful hues of yellow, orange, purple and red. However, summer is still trying to hang around. The days, for the most part, are still warm and sunny with highs in the 80’s. So, you will still be dealing with summertime like conditions. All of the usual suspects are still out in force such as ticks, chiggers, horseflies, etc. So, it may come in handy to have on hand insect repellent as well as sunscreen for those hotter days. Take plenty of water or sports drinks to stay hydrated, especially if you plan to wade fish long distances. I suggest wearing a small backpack which can be used to carry the above mentioned items as well as extra fishing tackle and snacks. Wearing the backpack also frees up both hands so that you can always be fishing! Buffalo Outdoor Center’s friendly and knowledgeable front desk staff can certainly offer suggestions and provide directions to river accesses if you are not familiar to the Ponca area. I hope you have the opportunity to get out and enjoy the fall splendor that occurs on the Buffalo National River. But most importantly, I hope you get to experience some of the best smallmouth bass fishing of the entire year. Be safe and good luck fishing!
– Written by Tony Harlan, Buffalo Outdoor Center Staff