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Autumn is prime time for catching smallmouth bass on W.Pa. rivers

| Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Pete Cartwright of White Oak reels in a smallmouth bass on the Youghiogheny River on Sept. 19, 2013, in Smithton.

It hasn't frosted yet, but there's been a hint of crispness in the air each morning, and the big box stores are running sales on camouflage clothes and archery gear. So of course there's only one place you'll find Deron Eck these days.

On the water.

The Kittanning man is one of those who knows that fall brings some of the best smallmouth bass fishing of the year. Years ago, he gave up bowhunting to take advantage of it.

“You fish all summer, and it's hard to get bites. Then all of a sudden, when the water gets to that 65-to-70-degree range, there are fish all over,” said Eck, a member of the Pennsylvania Bass Federation. “The fishing can actually seem easy.”

That's not just opinion. Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission statistics show anglers catch more smallmouths per hour on rivers in September and October than any other time of year.

Credit that to a desire to gobble up calories, much the way deer do when they fatten up on acorns each autumn.

“They're putting the feed bag on for winter, so they're willing biters,” said Todd Caddy of Carnegie, west region tournament director for the PA Bass Nation. “When you catch them, they've all got fat bellies. I've even had them throw up a minnow on my boat, they were that full, and they were still eating my lure. It's real crazy.”

That single-minded focus on baitfish causes bass to bunch up much more now than in summer, said Pete Cartwright of White Oak and smalliesontheyough.com. If you can find where the fish are congregating, though, the fishing can be fantastic.

“Fall fishing can be a little tricky because the fish are in transition, and you never know when or where they're moving,” Cartwright said.

“But on the Yough, I've had days in the fall when I've caught 50 fish. Those days do exist.”

Steve Hughes of Rimersburg, a member of Northwest Bassers, looks for fish on the edges of deeper holes.

“Through summer, you catch most of your fish in the riffles, where the oxygen is richest. Now, they've moved a little deeper. They're not in the deep, deep holes yet, but they've moving toward it, following the baitfish,” he said.

Cartwright looks for seams, where current meets slack water or fast current meets faster current. Structure, like boulders, that breaks the current is good fish-holding territory, too.

“If you can find somewhere where the water might even come back around on itself, like a swirl, I would definitely check it out,” he said.

The area around creek mouths — where tributary streams pour into the river — are prime spots, as well.

The key in all cases is to make sure the baitfish are there. If they are, the bass will be nearby.

“If the bass and bait are there at the same time, you'll actually see shad spraying out of the water. You just fire into that melee, and you can usually get creamed,” Enk said. “It's basically chunk-and-wind time.”

Hughes likes to “chunk” hard jerkbaits like Rattlin' Rogues, XCalibur Xs4s and X-Raps, casting upstream and letting them drift with the current.

“Smallmouth fishing on the river is very much like trout fishing. The bass are used to naturally seeing their food float down to them from upstream,” Hughes said. “The more natural representation you can give the fish, the better.”

Caddy likes tossing Rat-L-Traps, crankbaits and buzzbaits. Tubes that imitate crayfish are productive, too, he added. He uses darker colors like black and purple if the water is muddy and natural colors like green and pumpkin if it's clear.

Enk tosses a lot of topwater lures, tubes, superflukes and — in clear water — ¼-ounce spinnerbaits in white and chrome with double willow blades. In cloudy water, he'll switch to a spinnerbait with a Colorado blade to add some extra vibration.

Pairing a 18-ounce jighead with a chartreuse tube bait so it “spirals down slowly, looking like a dying shad,” is also often good, he added.

Cartwright fishes similar lures, along with grubs and 18-ounce Rooster Tails.

Whatever you toss, your chances of tangling with a lunker or two are probably better now than at any time since spring, Caddy said. One of his best river smallmouths was a 5.5-pounder he caught this time of year.

“In the fall of the year especially, it seems the big ones come out of hiding,” Caddy said.

Add it all up, and there's a lot to like about fall fishing for smallmouths on rivers.

“It's some of the best fishing of the year, and people don't realize it,” Enk said. “They've started hunting. Or they put their boat away after Labor Day.

“But you've got nice, cool temperatures, beautiful scenery and the water is usually pretty clear. It's great.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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