Riege: Staging for Autumn

Published 5:25pm Wednesday, October 2, 2013

By Bob & Ginny Riege

For most anglers, the spring and early summer constitutes the bulk of the fishing season. Their excitement and motivation runs high before the “opener,” but by the time late August rolls around they are ready to throw in the towel. And that’s to bad because late fall and early autumn can provide some of the best fishing of the year.

The late summer then, is a time of transition. In the Upper Midwest, that transition usually occurs toward the end of August or the beginning of September. The days become noticeably shorter, the nights cooler and the first hint of fall is in the air. In our natural lakes, a corresponding process has begun. Weedbeds have begun to die off, water temperatures are cooler, food production has slowed dramatically and predators eagerly seek the little remaining forage.

Fish activity is also different at this time of year. Largemouth bass begin to form larger schools and start feeding voraciously. Northern pike move in from larger schools and start feeding from their deep open-water locations and actively cruise weed flats. And walleyes shake off their summer lethargy and begin to enter shallower feeding waters.

This sets the stage for all kinds of fishing. In fact this is the “staging time of year.” These fish are in a process of transition also. These conditions work together to create one of the year’s peak fishing times. It’s as if the game fish suddenly realize the long winter is approaching and know they have to chow down in preparation for the hard times ahead. The most important aspect is that all of this will occur before the colors really form on the trees.

The “staging” is not identifiable with a specific weather occurrence. This “staging period” comes as the trees start to show a sign of ending of the summer and just before the major frost starts to blanket the ground. The dramatic changes are going on under water, but on the land the clues are much more subtle.

The best example of how I stumbled onto this was on a late October evening. Fishing had been poor for about three weeks and it didn’t seem this evening would be any different than the previous ones. As I motored across the lake I noticed from my Lowrance depth finder that the water temperature had fallen from the low 60′s to the mid 50′s. I didn’t give it much thought, but what I didn’t realize is that this was enough to start the fish on their “staging” process. I motored over to a small point where I had caught a few walleyes during the summer months and I cast out my 1/8 Blue Fox jig tipped with a minnow. As the splash subsided I felt that familiar tug on the line and I quickly set the hook. I reeled in a nice two-pound walleye. Since the fishing hadn’t been fast and furious over the last two weeks and the family was interested in eating a few fish before winter set in I decided to keep this walleye. I unhooked the walleye and put him in my livewell. I hooked up the minnow again, because it wasn’t too badly destroyed and cast to the exact same spot. Just like the first cast as the splash subsided I hooked another walleye.

In the next fifteen minutes I caught 10 walleyes in this exact same spot releasing all but four for dinner. These fish were aggressive, if one walleye got off another latched onto the bait and I used the same minnow two or three times. It really didn’t seem to matter what condition the minnow was in, they just kept hammering the jig and minnow combination.

The subtle difference was the water temperature and the structure that they related to. The fish congregated in this area to feed and fatten up for the beginning of the autumn season. They came together to hunt in schools and possibly to move into deeper water as the season started to progress.

Just because this time of year offers excellent fishing, that doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed every time. First of all you have to find the fish.

I tend to look for smallmouth and largemouth near the same areas where I found them in the summer, but I expect them to be in the healthier looking weeds. Remember the weeds are dying off and the best area for the bass will be in the lush weeds. I use Reed-Runner spinnerbaits and cover the water quickly. These bass are active and they should slam the bait. If not I will switch over to a Bug-A-Boo tipped with a minnow.

For northern pike I troll and cast crankbaits across the shallows on the flats. Again I want to cover water quickly looking for the active fish, so I will use a #7 Shad Rap or a shallow running X-Rap Minnow. I check the drop off areas and cruise the flats using a zigzag pattern.

For walleyes I switch from the traditional night crawler to a jig and minnow combination. The minnows are not as plentiful during this period of time so the walleyes tend to go after this offering. I might also use a shallow running Rapala in the shallows by long lining them across the flats.

With the cool weather and the beginning of school around the corner we all know that fall is not far behind. The leaves are beginning to turn colors and the birds and ducks are on the wing. The call of the fields and the woods are sirens to many an outdoorsman.

The angling pressure is no longer present and the fish must feed in order to store fat for the winter. The boat should remain out and ready for the warm, “Indian summer days” to come.

The stage is set and all you have to do is be present to watch and listen and to interact with the many players of autumn.

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