FALL BASS FISHING IN THE TEXAS HILL COUNTRY
Cooling air and water temperatures in the fall is a recipe for great bass fishing on the rivers of the Texas Hill Country. The summer doldrums will cause bass and other warm water species to spend most of their days sulking under or around structure, and require fly anglers to have to either fish early or work heavy streamers in and around structure. As air and water temperatures cool, the bass that have spent the summer months conserving energy in the warm, low oxygen waters, will begin to move off these structures to a degree that makes them much easier to target with fly tackle. This time of year often means something even better: top water action!
Bass are spring spawners, and fishing to bass near their spawning beds is a common practice in the spring that can result in chances at big fish. In the Fall these same bass are interested in packing on additional weight ahead of the cold water temperatures of winter. This means similarly aggressive fish to what we see in the spring but rather than looking for bass in shallows and near beds, as we do in the spring spawn, in the fall we are working structure such as dead falls, grass lines & banks.
Bass are aggressive by nature and a well placed cast near to structure or a bank can turn a big basses head. The benefit we have in the fall is that, much like in the spring, and unlike the mid-summer, these fish will quite often move a long distance to take a fly. The “hit them on the nose” principle is still in play in the fall, but it is possible to work a fly much farther off structure (6 feet or so) and still expect some good action. In the summer months we often see eats in the first 2-4 feet off structure but in the fall these same fish will become more willing to move to flies. For novice anglers, inexperienced in casting tight to banks or for those who just don’t like putting their $5 popper in harms way against a gnarly log or root ball, this time of year will make up for some of the frustration of the summer months, when you have to put casts to within a few inches of the structure to entice a fish. Simply put, the margin for error in casting tends to be a little greater in the fall.
Flies & Fly Selection Pattern selection in the fall is similar to other times of year for bass but in the fall I tend to add a few more poppers into the mix. Streamers such as wooly buggers, articulated baitfish patterns, clousers, crawfish patterns and other “big nasties” will work many days throughout the year. Colors vary, with some of my personal favorites being black, olive & chartreuse/white. One tip to consider is that when fishing off color water, in low light or on overcast days you will quite often have better success with darker colors in your streamer selection. On sunny days and in clear water, using lighter colors such as white, yellow, chartreuse tends to move fish. That being said, I will throw crawfish colors in most any condition.
Fly sizes vary depending on the river I am fishing, with smaller patterns (10-6) on rivers such as the Llano or San Marcos, and larger patterns (6-2/0) on the Colorado. Don’t lock yourself into one pattern, size or color. If you work a fly for 20 casts & are not getting any follows or hits, change flies. If you are seeing fish follow but not take your fly then your probably have a good pattern but possibly the wrong color or vice versa. Change flies often & don’t lock yourself into a “this is what worked last time, so it must work again” mentality.
More importantly in the Fall (in fun and, quite often in effectiveness) are poppers and other top water patterns. Color here is important, with white, chartreuse, green, orange, black & red being some of my favorite colors. Patterns such as perfect poppers, VIP poppers, crease flies & pencil poppers are all good choices, with my preference being towards flies that move water and generally “chug” along the water. Much like the streamers, popper sizes depend on the river fished, with smaller poppers (6-10) on rivers such as the Llano or San Marcos & larger patterns (6-2/0) on the Colorado below Austin. The “bigger the bug, bigger the bass” theory holds very true on late season bass fishing, as you are working to entice a nice bass off their holding cover.
In addition to poppers, I like divers and swimming patterns in the Fall (and in the spring for that matter), with a Dahlburg Diver or similar pattern being one of my go to flies, especially in yellow & black or olive. Another go-to is a Turks Tarantula in most any color. I will play around some with hoppers and even cricket patterns if the sunfish are slapping my big bugs.
In both streamers & poppers, a mixture of flash in the pattern can be effective and with streamers I will use a mixture of weighted vs. lightly weighted patterns. Typically the larger the streamer the more weight (cone head, bead head, lead wrap, etc.)
Cover Water Much like streamer fishing for spring bass or for trout, covering water will produce more fish. Putting a fly to the same spot 10 or more times is much less effective than putting two casts to five different spots. If you find an area where you are getting activity, then slow down and work that spot in greater detail. Sunfish will be more willing than bass, but often you will find that in an area where you get some decent sunfish you will find a nice bass or two. If you are finding small fish, it is likely that you will not see that many nice bass in the area, as the smaller baitfish tend to school in areas where they feel safe from larger predator fish.
Rod Selection One benefit to bass fishing vs. trout fishing is that you typically do not need as much gear. Rod weights for bass in the Hill Country range from a 3wt to 6wt. I typically use a 6wt more often than not, as it allows for working larger fish with greater easy and makes casting heavier and more wind resistant flies more manageable. For smaller rivers and rivers with smaller fish such as the Llano and when targeting sunfish, I often use a 4wt rod. I tend to prefer a faster action rod, as it is easier to turn the larger flies over & you have more fighting strength.
Leader & Tippet Bass and other warm water fish (carp excepted) do not tend to be leader shy but can be spooked by piled casts or slapping the line on the water in an attempt to make one “perfect” cast. Keep your leader fairly short (7.5-9 feet) and heavy (0X or even 15-20 lb test). I often make my own bass leaders, using about 5 feet of 40 pound test for the butt section and 2.5 to 3 feet of 15-20 pound test.
Knots For most streamer fishing I stick with an improved clinch knot but do also like to use a non-slip mono knot for streamers to give a little more movement to the fly. For poppers, I only use a non-slip mono knot, as it give much more action to the top water fly.
Fishing on Fronts
As fall continues and cool fronts start coming in from the north, you will do well to keep an eye on the forecast. Bass respond to pressure changes much like salt water fish & fishing just ahead of a front can make for some tremendous days on the water. I use the NOAA hourly weather graph feature (see here) and watch for the wind shift patterns ahead of a front. For most purposes, timing your pre front trip so that you are on the water a few hours ahead of the front and fishing until the front has completely passed will give you the better chance at those big bass that are responding to the pressure change associated with a cool/cold front.
Final Thoughts Fall bass fishing in the Texas Hill Country can typically run as late as mid-December. So long as water temperatures stay warmer (somewhere above 65 degrees) you will have active fish but once there is a series of strong fronts or one good front where temperatures drop to near freezing the bass will start to move off the shallow structure that makes them more available for fly fishermen. Once this occurs, switching from a floating line to a sink tip or intermediate line will enable fly anglers to get deeper to these fish but makes casting and fly placement more difficult. One upside to the end of the fall bass season is that the transition into the winter trout season on the Guadalupe is almost immediate.