Fall Fishing? Repeat After Us: Bait Fish

Like the rest of us, aquatic populations are preparing for the winter months.

Autumn is a difficult time for anglers, hunters, and outdoors men and women. The reason is simple—there are so many activities to choose from and we simply can't be everywhere at once. Oh, the injustice. 

Should we gear up for a beautiful fall hike to a favorite waterfall? Should we focus on heading out in the wilderness with hopes for a grouse, moose, or deer? Or will we hit up a favorite fishing hole in hopes of a big catch? It’s the fishing option that’s lured me in. Temporarily, I’ve left my firearm and pack behind in pursuit of the giant fish of the fall.

Fish Get Ready for Winter, Too

Like the rest of us, aquatic populations are preparing for the winter months. This means it’s a great time to encounter heavily concentrated schools of aggressive and active fish. If it’s not already obvious, I’m going to straight up advise you to think twice about that partridge hunt on a frosty Saturday morning.

Now that I’ve got your attention, repeat after me: BAIT FISH. Bait fish is the key to success throughout the fall; they are more plentiful and abundant than at any other time of the year. Dace, shiners, smelt, suckers, perch, bluegill, and sunfish have all the same strategies heading into winter – congregating and feeding. The offspring of these bait fish have had an entire summer to grow and reach a tasty size for the larger game fish we are in pursuit of. 

Schools are denser than ever, generally doubling or tripling in size from the spring and summer months. This is not only from a healthy spawn. Multiple schools congregate and travel in packs throughout the fall and winter. I have seen clouds stacked up 30 feet high off bottom and in a 50-foot radius around the boat! Your target species is often not far behind waiting for the right time to strike.

Cisco (lake herring), on the other hand, school up and spawn in the late fall, leaving their fertilized eggs on the lake floor to hatch in the early spring. As the water cools and gets close to freezing, cisco and whitefish start to return to their shallow spawning sites in areas such as the backs of creeks, shallow channel swings, or shallow sandy bays. The cisco spawn in the fall can be one of the best times to target larger species, since it’s basically an all you can eat buffet of large, high-protein meals.

If you’re angling for muskie, pike, or other larger predatory species, keep a close eye out for schools of lake herring this fall. Anglers in Ontario are permitted to dip net cisco and whitefish; this is very similar to dip netting smelt in the spring. So for a full day on the water, locate these spawning sites, fish for muskie and/or northern pike, then wrap up by netting cisco and whitefish in the evening. Now that sounds like a fun late fall day!  For advice and locations on whitefish spawning sites, ask around at your local tackle shop about timing, but hold off on telling them that your strategy is to target large Esocids.

Finding the Bait

You’ve heard my sermon on the importance of bait. Now to find it, electronics are essential. Most electronics provide surface temperatures and, knowing these temperatures help determine if a lake has started to flip or if it has already. But what do I mean by “flip”?

Let’s start here: deep lakes in the summer months stratify into three sections (see diagram below). The thermocline is an area of the water column where temperatures start to cool and oxygen levels are at their highest. But in the fall when the lake is flipping, the lake’s water mixes from the top to the bottom. The warm surface layer cools at a faster rate causing it to become dense and settle below to what was previously the bottom layer of the lake. This means that oxygen levels and temperatures start to even throughout the entire water column, which no longer limits the habitat for fish as in the summer months.

Temperature is a strong indication of how to present your bait and where to look for fish. Once temperatures start to drop below 21C (70F), the fall frenzy is about to begin. Fall, unlike the summer, is one time of the year fish like to look for warmer, shallower water—this speeds up their metabolism allowing them to digest at a quicker rate and continue feeding. 

Faster baits in the upper portions of the water column are a great place to start, always mimicking the baitfish in your local waterbody (using spinner baits, jerk baits and lipless crankbaits). The 10-12C (50-55F) temperature is a good indication to start slowing your presentation down. If the shallows aren’t yielding results, focus on deeper adjacent waters (using tubes, drop shots, jigs, swimbaits). I can never stress enough the importance of matching the hatch with bait selection, especially in clear water lakes.

Structure to take advantage of at this time of year should include main lake flats, reefs, and creeks where baitfish can be pushed up by schooling predatory fish. Other areas to use include points, isolated rocks and steep drop-offs—all taking advantage of likely ambush locations. Keep in mind spring time spawning areas of your target species, as fish tend to winter in the deeper water in close proximity. This is a good place to look and can yield impressive results. One should also never forget to treat a big school of bait as a structure in itself – it is likely one of the best fall patterns.

Where to Fish

Some of my favorite species to target in the fall include smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike and muskie. Always check your local regulations prior to heading on the water as many species are closing during the fall months. Some of my favorite places to fish include the Ottawa River out of Mattawa and Temiskaming Shores for walleye and smallmouth bass. Lake Nipissing is a great smallmouth and muskie fishery, and one can never underestimate the potential of the Lake Huron fisheries including Manitoulin Island, Killarney and the French River. These are all great spots for those native species we love to target in the fall.

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So check the forecast, dress for the conditions, bring extra clothing, be prepared for the unexpected and ready with anticipation to catch the fish of a lifetime. The fall is the time to do it, as fish are often gluttons with their bellies filled to the limit, chasing and thrashing at everything in sight!

About Mathew Koprash

Mathew Koprash has been passionate about fishing for his whole life, and is dedicated to sharing his tips and techniques with others who share his passion.

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