If you’re like me, it starts to bring a sparkle to your eyes because you know what’s coming. As the temperatures outside begin to drop, many of us fishermen and women begin to see images of biting fish in our futures. Fall is here and as the leaves on the trees are changing, so too are the eating habits of our underwater quarry with it. As the days grow shorter and the air temperature drops, the water temperature drops with it, spurring on the fish to want to begin to feed heavily in preparation for the coming cold of winter.
Fall has traditionally been one of the hottest times of the year for finding and getting fish to bite, especially the bigger predator species. All fish are looking to put the feedbags on to gain as much body mass as possible in order to make getting through the lean months of winter easier. With most fish having moved deeper during the hottest months of the summer, now the fish will begin to transition back to the shallows in search of food, be it bluegill and perch or bass and pike.
As the water cools, the shallows will hold the warmest water, much like right after the ice comes off in the spring, and fish will gather there again. It’s a great time to fish from a boat and shore fishing also becomes more productive. But the question can be, where to look for to find any of the different species. The best answer is to just pick what you want to fish for and it can be relatively easy to find them as long as you look for much of the same structure you looked for right after the ice melted.
Schools of bluegills and crappie will begin to congregate along the shallower weed lines as well as near brush and underwater trees looking to soak up the last warmth of fall and feed more heavily on insects and any leftover baby minnows before the hatches die off.
The heavier weeds and brush also help with protection from larger predators looking to do the same thing.
Perch will start to school up and concentrate along mud flats next to rock or weed lines searching for bloodworms and other insects in the mud. One thing you can usually count on with all panfish is the schooling they will do as they compete for smaller amounts of available food. Look for bays that still have good weed cover and try slip bobbers with chunks of worms and small minnows, or, if you’re vertical jigging from a boat using your Vexilar, don’t forget those ice fishing plastics which will work very well this time of the year. Small crankbaits can work well too if you’re trolling or casting into the shallows.
Walleyes will follow the smelt, shiners, ciscoes, or other bait fish into the shallows as they seek to feed on plankton and other microscopic organisms in the warmer water as well. Walleyes will be more aggressive towards baits and can strike them with such determination that you may want to make sure you have a good grip on your fishing rod. Typically walleyes will be patrolling along gravel and rocky areas off of points and breaks searching for food. These areas can be found on most lake maps available online or on most GPS/sonar systems.
If you see schools of baitfish on your sonar, chances are it’s a good place to try. Trolling with crankbaits works well in the shallows as does using Lindy rigs or bottom bouncers with worms. If you’re using cranks, be sure to look for lures that have varying diving depths, though for me, ones that dive nine to eleven feet like Flicker Shads have been the most productive ones over the past few years.
Here in the Black Hills, the Trout bite also picks up as the hard fighting fish look to bulk up and they become much more aggressive towards spinners and spoons. Most days, trout can be found on the inside turns of points and back in bays as they cruise around in the warmer water looking for insects and small fish to eat. Being a mid to top water level fish, you don’t have to fish very deep for them once they are in the shallows.
Gold and silver spoons like Kastmasters and Little Jakes spoons work great as well as spinners with bucktails. Look for surface activity in the mornings to be an indication if the fish are around. When fishing for trout, I look to cast beyond where the surface activity is if possible and then bring the spoon back over it. More times than not, there will be a strike.
Lastly are bass and pike. I can usually find both of these apex predators hanging out in the same areas, which is usually in thick weeds and back in calm bays. Bass will gather in warm shallow areas along or in weeds, but will be very aggressive to any bait that comes into their view. I look for gaps in the weeds or corridors that the weeds created and aim to cast into those areas. If you can bring a lure through a corridor in the weeds, you have a good chance at finding bass waiting to strike.
Large spinnerbaits, spoons, and Rapala rattle baits work well when the fish are shallow like this. These presentations will work as well on pike, though casting along or just above weeds and moss beds has a better chance as pike like cruise along these areas. Like bass, they can be super aggressive towards anything that looks like food that comes into their line of sight. The flashier and noisier the lure is, the better. Be prepared to catch a lot of weeds fishing for them in these areas but the reward for patience, though, can be one great fish!
Fall can be one of the best times of the year to catch some great sized fish. It can also be one of the times when there isn’t as much as activity on the water as well since hunting seasons have started. Many times, you might have an entire lake to yourself. Be sure you pay attention to where you are catching fish as well. Where fish are hanging out at now is a good place to look at first ice since they may not move very far from an area with good cover and plenty of food once winter hits. So enjoy the crisp air, the solitude of the water, and the biting fish while you can and look for these areas to find your quarry. Here’s to a great fall fishing season!