Fall Focus: Herring Fed Largemouths - The Fisherman

Fall Focus: Herring Fed Largemouths

skipping-jig
Skipping a jig up into cover with herring schools nearby, might produce the biggest bass of the day!

Herring ponds enjoy a second season in the late fall.

I grew up striper fishing on the Massachusetts South Shore and when November would begin, I knew my fishing was about to end. It was kind of a sad time of year. Then a few years back, I found myself gravitating to freshwater fishing – one of the biggest lessons I learned, was that there really isn’t a beginning or end to the freshwater fishing season in New England, you’re only limited by how hard you want to work. In the time since, I’ve realized that November is actually one of the best times of the year to target ‘the one’.

If you follow any local swimbaiters, you already know that herring ponds are a huge part of the big bass game plan for early spring, but you don’t hear a whole lot about fishing those same ponds in the fall. In the spring these ponds see adult size herring which are large and can be a little daunting for someone who isn’t into grinding it out all day with a big bait for maybe that one bite. In the fall it’s all about the juvenile herring which are significantly smaller and travel in huge schools made up of thousands of fish. Now you have the opportunity to find multiple good-sized fish shadowing these schools and feeding heavily to bulk up for the winter.

Once the water and air temperatures start to become more consistent in the fall – days and nights with relatively stable temps – you may see the bite slowing down, but the fish you catch tend to be larger. That is one of the main reasons I fish these herring run ponds in the late fall, I know that there will be ample forage opportunities. I also know that if a big swimbait bite isn’t on – and let’s be real about this, not every day is a good day to throw big baits – I can switch to a smaller presentation and match the hatch a bit better while searching for a big one.

cooling-waters
The cooling waters of late fall open up big fish opportunities for the New England angler.

One Day In November

My alarm goes off and I head outside, my truck and boat are already loaded up with what I refer to as my signature “way too many rods”. I’m ready to go despite a sleepless night and when I walk out the door the first thing I see is my breath. “I have to stop getting up so early,” I say to myself as I roll out of the driveway.

I head to one of my favorite spots, a small pond tucked into the woods of the south shore of Massachusetts that supports a small run of herring. I have a game plan and oddly enough, I’ll be fishing two polar opposites. I start the morning throwing big wooden swimbaits, my go to is the Illude Baits Rad Rat in my favorite color, neon pink! Over the years this ridiculously large and vibrant lure has accounted for more big bass than any other bait in my bag. I usually spend the first hour or so of my day, no matter what time of year, throwing big swimbaits, but in November I slow way down, crawling them either right on the surface or just below.

I tend to do most of my swmibait fishing with long casts aimed at structure or tight to the bank, waking it for a bit and switching over to more of a crankdown as the cast nears the boat. One thing I’ve found with swimbait fishing is sometimes doing something out of your normal routine is the way to get bit so I’m never miss the chance to mix in an open water cast or maybe a pause and twitch.

Big To Little

MY BIG THREE

rat

Illude Baits Rad Rat – This bait hit the market back in 2016, I saw the bait on social media and I had to have it. The first thing I noticed about it was it was made from wood. Throwing a handmade wooden bait that someone spent hours creating has always added something to my confidence. The rat is 10 inches long with the tail and weighs 2 ounces, a great size to throw on lighter gear for casting into tight spots and in and around cover. This rat really shines on the surface, slow waking and walking the dog, but also has a nice tight wiggle when cranked down. If you want to throw big swimbaits but aren’t ready to commit to an expensive handmade wooden bait, try the Spro BBZ-1 Rat or Savage Gear 3D Rat, both have good action and get bit.

ned

Ned Rig – This technique has become one of my favorite all around techniques, specifically for its versatility. The Ned head paired with a Z-Man finesse TRD is about the exact size of these juvenile herring and the bait falling through the school and to the bottom replicates a dying herring and an easy meal for any nearby bass. If you don’t get the hit when the bait hits bottom, work back to the boat in short hops or swim it back with lots of twitches.

bico

BiCO Jig – I always like to support small local businesses, BiCO Jigs are made in Norton, Massachusetts and have made a huge name for themselves in the bass fishing community over the last few decades. The 3/8-ounce BiCO Original Jig is super unique and ideal for shallow water, skipping, flipping, and using as a swimjig. The design of the bait keeps it from snagging on wood and weeds which makes it ideal for tossing up into cover and swimming it out without fear of snagging. I fish my jigs with a few different trailers depending on how I’m fishing, but I usually stick with a craw of some sort as the trailer. Although the jig doesn’t necessarily resemble a herring, it is still a smaller profile that I can toss into cover with confidence and I can adjust the size of the trailer if I need to dial in the size of the forage. The jigs come in a huge variety of colors, I favor the black and blue and natural craw color depending on water clarity.

Unfortunately this wasn’t my morning for a big bait bite, so I flip my approach to the other end of the spectrum and pick up my spinning rod. I throw a 7-foot medium heavy, fast action rod loaded with 10-pound braid tied to an 8-pound fluorocarbon leader. I begin scanning the water for signs of life, one of the things I’m hoping to see are schools of baby herring, or as I like to call them, big bass candy, because I know if I can find a school of baby herring I will find some hungry predators close by. I look down at my fish finder and see what I’m looking for, a big cloud of bite-sized herring completely surrounding the boat in about 10 feet of water. I tie on a Ned Rig, I use the BiCO Jigs 3/16-ounce black Ned Head, which has a slightly bigger head than a traditional Ned Head which I find works better when targeting big largemouth. On the Ned Head I like to fish a Z-Man finesse TRD, a small 2.75-inch soft plastic bait made of a very elastic material that is great for multiple hookups without needing to change baits.

As far as color goes I let the fish decide that, but I almost always start with black and blue or my personal favorite, “yoga pants” which is a straight black. I prefer darker colors on my Ned because I feel it gets the fish’s attention better than a lighter more natural color, however if I know I’m trying to imitate a specific bait, i will match my color as best as I can to the bait. When I am fishing this technique I am using it to find fish so I make long casts and work it back, I enjoy this technique because it is super versatile, it can be bounced on the bottom, dragged, swam back in the middle of the water column with twitches and pauses, it’s all about what the fish want.

Now is the moment, the adrenaline starts pumping because I know any cast I make into this big school of herring could be the one. I give my Ned a few seconds to get down and BOOM, before it even has the chance to hit bottom, I’m on! It feels like a good one and I check behind me to make sure my net is close, just in case. The fish takes some drag and the anxiety of what’s on the end of my line begins to build. The fish pulls a little more drag before I finally get a good look at what I’ve tied into. On the end of my line is a solid reminder that the cooler water of fall doesn’t always mean big bass, it’s also a great time to catch big pickerel! I unhook the fish, check my leader for nicks from that mouth full of razor blades and send my Ned back to the depths.

Jigging Structure

After a few hours of chasing these herring schools around and catching smaller fish, I decide to switch up my technique again. Sticking with the finesse game, I pick up my 7-foot medium/heavy baitcaster, I spool this rig with 50-pound braid tied to a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader with my all-time favorite jig tied onto the other end; the 3/8-ounce BiCO Jigs “Original” in black and blue with a Z-Man TRD Craw to match the color for a trailer. The sun has been out for a while now so I push closer to the bank and start hitting structure such as rocks and logs. The fish seem to like to stack up in downed trees in this pond, and sometimes I’ll catch multiple fish out of the same tree on consecutive casts. After catching my fair share of smaller bass and a few more toothy devils, I head to a spot where I landed a nice 5-pounder earlier in the year.

Scanning the shoreline, I see exactly what I’m looking for, a small pod of herring making a commotion underneath an overhanging tree. It was obvious they were being chased and I skip my jig far beneath the tree. I let it hit the bottom and bounce it a couple times before I feel the bite. I set the hook and immediately my rod doubles over: it’s a big one, I get a few cranks on it and it takes off under my boat.

I struggle to control the fish and I’m worried that it will chafe me off on the motor or the side of the boat so I stick my rod tip down into the water to try and lead the fish out of trouble. Finally, I get it on the right side of the boat and get my first look at what is a solid largemouth. I grab my net and slip it under the fish, it’s hooked perfectly, right in the top lip. Once I have her in the boat, I stare at the fish in awe – at the time it was my personal best jig fish. I weighed her at 5 pounds, 15 ounces—just under 6! Naturally I was excited, but most fishermen would agree, that ounce sure would have been nice!

bico
The BiCO Original catches lots of solid fish and rarely snags in heavy cover.

Nightcap?

With a new level of focus I continue fishing the shoreline with the jig and pick away at a few more fish, the sun is now dipping low, and I’ve had to pull on my winter coat to keep warm. At this point I would normally call it a day, and a great one at that, but I was hungry for more. Tightening my headlamp around my hat, I’m determined to spend the next couple hours throwing my big pink rat in the darkness. I begin tossing it at shorelines and crawling it at ridiculously slow speeds with plenty of pauses. After about an hour and a half of not catching, and losing feeling in my hands with temperatures dipping into the low 40s, I start making my way back to the truck.

TOO MANY RODS

Ned Rig:
Rod: Shimano SLX Spinning 7-foot Medium-Heavy, fast action
Reel: Abu Garcia Premier 6.2:1

Jig:
Rod: Okuma TCS, 7-foot MH moderate fast action
Reel: Abu Garcia Revo SX 7.3:1

Swimbait:
Rod: Okuma SBX Swimbait, 7-foot 11-inch, XH fast action
Reel: Abu Garcia Revo Toro NaCl 60 5.4:1

I rolled up on one last laydown and sent my rat almost into the tree. I let it sit for a bit and then slowly begin the retrieve. About halfway in, I paused it and watched as something surfaced beside the bait and bumped it, like it was interested, but not convinced enough to take it down. I gave the rat a few more twitches and that was enough to get her to commit. She rushed the big rat and smashed the bait – maybe 30 seconds later I had her, my 7-11 extra heavy swimbait rod made quick work of this fish that went 4 pounds, 9 ounces. I snapped a few photos and sent her on her way.

It had been more than 12 hours since I made my first cast, it was dark and cold and time to go home. But as tired and cold and I was, I was also happy and satisfied with what was a phenomenal day of November fishing. The herring schools keep these fish very active well into the cold of the eleventh month and the fishing can be awesome. As I drive away, the thought that ‘this could be the last trip of the season’ looms heavy in my mind, but I know in my heart that I’ll be back as soon as time allows.

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