Wait for the big one

By Jarod Ballardo

October and November can be the most exciting time of the year to fish. A large majority of the fish that we’re after feed very little during the coldest part of the year while relying on what fat reserves they stored up during the fall to get them through the winter. The cooling water temperatures from warm to cold triggers an instinctual reaction to start feeding. For us anglers, this means that the window of opportunity is larger than most other times of the year.

The problem a lot of anglers have, is getting caught up catching one after another of small fish, while missing out on the bigger fish. Anglers that are just looking to get bit are usually okay with that. I prefer to go after the bigger fish. The bites are fewer but the quality is greater.

The Lakes

If you’re a bass fisherman, fishing the lakes during the months of October and November is all about reading your electronics. On just about all of our local lakes, this is the time of year when the shad begin to school up and get pushed around by schools of bass. I usually start out by passing across main lake points while looking for schools of fish on my fish finder. Once I find a school of fish that has vertical lines going through it I know that the school is being preyed upon by either bass or trout. Usually it’s bass if it’s close to a main lake point. Once I locate the school and decide to fish the school there are only a few baits that I use. In the past I used to rely on a drop shotted Robo Worm. That still works but I’ve since gone to a shaky head, actually a Frenzy Nail by Frenzy Tackle Company paired with a 6-inch Reaction Innovations Flirt. This past year that’s been my go-to bait from Lake Shasta to Lake Camanche. There’s something about the nail design that sets it apart from the other shaky head set ups that I’ve used in the past.

Another great bait to use, especially if you’re just looking to get bit, is a Ned Rig. The Ned Rig/TRD rig is more of a finesse Shaky Head. It’s a fraction of the size of a traditional shaky head making it highly attractive to the smallest and biggest fish.

For the bigger bass in the lakes, it’s topwater and swim bait time. More than likely, a lot of our local lakes have been stocked with trout at this time causing some of our biggest bass to seek the shallows for an easy meal. Big topwater prop baits and walking baits are good choice this time of year. As far as swim baits, for numbers you can’t go wrong with a Kitech or any other smaller type paddle tail bait. For big fish anglers rely on large glide baits or boot tailed swim baits. Admittedly I’m more of a Shaky Head fisherman during this time of year but I will dedicate a little time to fishing a topwater and swim bait on just about every outing.

Fishing for trout in the lakes during this time of year is a favorite activity for a lot of local anglers. Most of the lakes are beginning to be planted with trout. For a lot of anglers, fishing off the bank can be your best bet as the trout take a while before they venture off into the main lake. I’ll never forget one year camping as a kid when the lake I was camping at was being stocked with trout. The cove where we were camping in was near the planting site. Many of the trout that were being released swam right into the cove not really knowing where to go. They were so stunned from their recent trip from the trout farm that several campers were actually able to scoop them up with nets as they cruised the shorelines unaware of their surroundings.

As far as baits go, a lot of angers overthink their bait selection. Most of the trout being caught in the lakes are planted trout that have been fed pellets for most of their lives. That’s why it’s hard to beat Power Bait rolled up into a small ball just like the pellets that they’ve grown accustomed to. If fishing off the bank, most anglers fish power bait while floated off the bottom while other anglers fish Power Bait while under a bobber. I prefer fishing just off the bottom. If trolling for trout there’s really no bait that I’ve found to be better than a small Triple Teaser, chrome with a hammered finish trolled anywhere from 15 to 30 feet deep.

I used to think that the spring was my favorite time of the year to fish. These past few years have changed my mind. The fall is an excellent time to fish. The cooler temperatures combined with the reduction of boat traffic alone makes it more enjoyable than other times of the year. Looking back, some of my greatest days out fishing were between the months of October and November. The fish are just as active as ever and the chance of catching more fish in a day than you can keep track of is more likely than not.

The Delta

Living in Manteca for most of my life I’ve learned a few things about this time of year when it comes to fishing for striped bass. When searching for what I consider early season striped bass, I would start by heading towards the West Delta. Many anglers don’t know this but because of its proximity to the ocean, seasonal changes usually happen first in the West Delta. Sherman Island, Franks Tract and the Big Break areas are as far as I usually travel. Pretty much all the flooded islands found scattered throughout the West Delta can be targeted. If fishing with lures, I focus on fishing the main entrance and exit areas of those flooded islands. Some of my favorite lures are chrome and blue rattle traps, or even crawdad colored crank baits. A friend of mine who used to work for the Department of Fish and Game used to check the stomach contents of large striped bass and told me he would always find crawdads. Another favorite of many anglers is small to medium sized swim baits, I prefer the rattle traps though. The best time to fish those entrance and exit areas is when the tide is going out.

For those fishing with bait, there’s nothing as effective as live bait. Live mud suckers or jumbo minnows make excellent bait but can be expensive. Years ago while fishing for bass, I observed an angler catch a nice striped bass right next to where I was fishing. When I asked him what he caught it on he responded “bluegill.” Not sure if that was legal or not, I went home and checked the regulations. What I found was that it is legal to use bluegill as live bait on the Delta, just as long as you caught them there on the Delta and do not transport them over land. Also, they cannot be used as cut bait.

Catching them was easy, and fun. I just purchased a box of wax worms and fished around the boat dock area while loading my live well with a dozen or so small to medium sized bluegill. Not really knowing how to rig them I decided to use a Gamakatsu Finesse Hook size 2/0 while passing the point of the hook from the bottom jaw and out through the upper jaw just between the nostrils. For a weight I used a small split shot placed between 2 to 3 feet above the hook, just big enough to keep the bluegill from swimming to the surface, but small enough so that it wouldn’t hinder the bluegills natural swimming motion.

Once I had the bluegill rigged, I’d let about 50 feet of line out and drift with the tide while using my trolling motor to keep the boat going strait. I learned from using mud suckers and jumbo minnows that it was best to keep my reel set to free spool with my thumb on it just in case I get a strike. Because of the bluegills spiny dorsal fin, in order for a striper to eat it, they have to turn it around so that it can be swallowed head first. So, if you get a strike, let it run with it for a while before you set the hook. What I’ve experienced is that right before a striper strikes a bluegill; the bluegill starts to dance around making me believe that it’s trying to avoid getting eaten. This is when I start giving line at the slightest pull. Eventually the line will start peeling off the reel on its own indicating that I have a striper on the line. Then, it’s just a matter of when to set the hook. Fishing with bluegill for striped bass is definitely my favorite way to catch them.

For those who prefer trolling for striped bass, a broken-backed Rebel in chrome and blue has been catching them on the delta since before most of us were born. One trick that I like to use is to add a white or pink Zoom Trick worm to the tail hook of the bait. When the bait moves through the water the worm will make a snake like motion that stripers have a hard time resisting. As far as areas to troll, I’d stick to the main channels. You’ll pass though more schools that way and have less hang ups than if you were going to troll through the sloughs.
I may get in trouble for this next bit of information but I’ve been told that there are some anglers out there having great success while trolling with umbrella rigs on the Delta. I’ve personally not tried it yet but definitely believe it would work.

For the impatient angler, you can try chasing the birds around the Delta. Usually where there are a lot of birds, seagulls to be specific, there are schools of striped bass. Especially if you notice them diving into the water.

With a top water lure tied on, position yourself just outside the school and wait for the fish to start busting the surface before casting into the school, if you cast too early the school will most likely be spooked.

Lastly, jigging underneath main channel bridges is something I used to do a lot when I was younger. Using a 1-ounce chrome Hopkins Jig with a hammered finish I would vertically jig along bridge pillars. It’s not the most exciting way to catch stripers but it works, especially when a large school of them decide to pass by.

For largemouth bass it’s really pretty easy. If you want to catch a bunch of small fish with the chance to catch a big fish tie on that same rattle trap mentioned previously and you’re sure to get a lot of bites. The Rattle Trap in chrome and blue used to be my go to bait during this time of year. I always knew I was going to catch something and sometimes that something was completely unexpected. There’s really nothing to it, just cast it out there and reel it in on a steady retrieve. Some anglers like to vary their retrieves while others like to try and reel it right over the top of submerged vegetation. All those techniques work, I actually like to vary my retrieve by speeding up and slowing down on my reel handle throughout the retrieve.

For the bigger bass it’s arguably one of the best times of the year to fish a topwater frog, whopper plopper, or punch matted vegetation. With a lot of the summer boat traffic gone combined with mature vegetation lines, it’s a great time to toss a topwater bait. I’ve all but replaced the frog favoring a Whopper Plopper unless of course I’m fishing in areas where there are no clearings for me to retrieve a Whopper Plopper through cleanly. Then and only then do I switch to a frog. Fishing a topwater frog can be one of the most rewarding and at the same time one of the most frustrating experiences. The hookup percentage for a lot of inexperienced anglers is incredibly low while seeing a huge blow up on your lure can be demoralizing. One of the hardest things to do when fishing a topwater frog is to wait after your bait is struck. It took me some time to figure this out and I still even miss my fair share making me opt for the Whopper Plopper whenever I can.

The once secret of punching matted vegetation has been out for some time now. Anglers used to think that this was a summer only technique but it’s also just as good as in the fall and spring. The key though is to find grass lines or grass mats that are closest to deep water. The biggest fish I’ve ever caught, especially in the fall in the grass, have been in the deeper grass. You can catch fish in shallower grass pretty much wherever you go on the Delta but the deeper grass is going to hold the bigger fish. With that said deep is relevant to where you’re fishing. Sometimes the deepest grass in an area may only be five feet deep. As far as bait selection, I prefer a Reaction Innovations Sweet Beaver in either California 420 or Big Texan color. When it comes to weight size, I usually try to go as light as I can for the grass I’m fishing. Often, I have three different rods set up with three different weights.

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