Reading Shad: Score Fall Bass by Studying Their Prey

Photograph by Dan Saelinger. Prop styling by Birte Von Kampen

Come late fall, one of the surest ways to score the last big bass bites of the season is to get yourself up a creek. While the main lake may be chilly, creek arms are likely to be a few degrees warmer, and therefore magnets for shad schools and the bass that eat them. What makes the game so fun is that it’s visual; shad fly through the air as largemouths attack, boiling and splashing as they feed. But the error most anglers commit is to move in on the first shad school they find and cast right into the fray. Quite often, you spook more fish than you catch. Patience is a virtue here, and if you’ve got some, my plan will keep you in the action longer.

1. Post Up

Before casting, find an area away from where you expect to see shad that gives you a good vantage point. Now just stay put and watch. Eat a sandwich if you’re bored, but spend at least 20 minutes observing the shad from a distance. Once they give up their location, break out binoculars to get a closer look. Assume the bait—and any bass attacking them—will change their behavior to some degree when you get in close with the boat. This is why it’s so important to get a read on the activity before taking action.

2. Divide and Conquer

As you watch the schools, separate the creek into quadrants, noting which one has the most shad. You can assume this quadrant will also hold more bass. Pay attention to how the shad react to everything from a bass attack, to a boat wake, to a bird swooping overhead. Does the school dive? Push to the bank? Slide downstream? The idea is to figure out their timing and direction so you can be one step ahead. If the school spooks when you get into casting range, you want to throw where you think they’re going to pop up again.

3. Hit Ground Zero

Smaller bass will chase the school around, but big bass often pick an ambush point and wait for the buffet to come to them. Once you’ve figured out where the bulk of the shad are hanging, and how they’re moving, look for places likely to hold a big bass. This can be anything from a laydown tree, to a boulder, to a dock. Pay attention to what happens when the shad pass one of these ambush points. If they get smashed, fish the attack spot first. White spinnerbaits, silver crankbaits, and natural-colored jerkbaits are all great lure choices.