Fall Fishing Opportunities
Fall Fishing Opportunities
Sponsored by Wiggly Worm Bait Supply
By Drew Ziehnert of Ziehnert Guide Service LLC
As the trees begin to slowly lose all their decorated leaves, and our local waters continue to cool, anglers are faced with the difficult decision of what they can fish for this time of year. For the majority of outdoorsmen, fall means putting down the fishing gear and heading to the woods in search of that trophy buck. But for the avid, year round fisherman, this can be a difficult time of year figuring out just what to target. Although the turning over of lakes and sub freezing mornings can make wanting to fish a challenge, the fall can present some of the best fishing opportunities of the year for certain species.
The Fall Turnover
One of the biggest keys to understanding how and why fish behave in the fall can be a result of the lakes turning over, which happens twice a year. As we know, in the summertime the surface holds the warmest water and as you go deeper the water gets progressively colder. When a lake begins to turn over, the colder water begins to mix and even flip flop with the warmer water that is closer to the surface, allowing the lake to become the same temperature regardless of the depth. The key to this turnover is when the water temperature reaches around 50-55 degrees fahrenheit, and the surface water becomes denser than the rest of the lake's water column. This dense, oxygen rich water sinks to the bottom allowing the oxygen depleted water from the bottom to rise to the top. It will be a visually noticeable difference, as the water on the surface will look extremely dirty from the decomposing matter that was on the bottom. Eventually, the oxygen depleted water becomes recirculated and therefore allows fish to move wherever they want to.
Depending on what lake you’re fishing can also determine how fast this turnover happens and which areas will turn over first. The northern, larger lakes like Schroon Lake and Lake George will take a lot longer to turn over than smaller lakes, such as Saratoga Lake or Round Lake, which can determine your approach towards fishing them. Anglers in the fall have to be aware that most of the time the fish in the smaller lakes are going to change their patterns much more rapidly than the ones in the larger lakes because of how fast the water temperature changes. Most of us are still used to the same generic summer patterns where the fish are relating to shade, heavy vegetation, and drop offs, so this transition can be extremely frustrating for anglers once these fish have moved.
When the fish are no longer sitting where you had caught them in the previous months, this is the best time of the year to pick up a moving bait and cover water. A moving bait is basically any fishing lure that you are constantly working to imitate a fleeing baitfish. Predatory fish species like bass, walleye, and pike are actively seeking out bait schools this time of year and will often be found schooled up. So if you catch a fish in an area, most times there will be more to come if you continue working the same spot. Our favorite moving baits in the fall are spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, and crankbaits. The bites are usually extremely aggressive and by using a moving bait, you can fish a larger area that will help you uncover where these fish are.
Lakes: If you are stuck thinking about where to start searching for fish, I always like to target some of my springtime areas where I usually see the first presence of healthy weeds or weed beds. In the fall, these will be the areas where the weeds take the longest to die or will even partially remain all winter. Baitfish are attracted to the zooplankton and insect larvae that live in them, which then attracts the predatory fish to the same areas. If you can’t seem to find fish around weeds, the next place to check is winter holding areas, such as rock piles and drop offs. Once the water temperature begins descending into the 40s, fish will begin moving to their winter spots that are generally deeper. So being able to locate these areas after the fish have moved out of the shallows can be key to a successful trip.
Rivers: If you are planning on fishing rivers like the Hudson or Mohawk this time of year, there are a few specific areas to target where fish will be sitting. If you can find small creeks or streams that flow into the main river, these will be key areas that fish will stack up in front of to ambush baitfish. Sometimes this outflow of water may be warmer than the main river, driving baitfish and other prey species to the mouth of them. If we receive a heavy rain, this is also another situation where fishing these creek mouths can be key as forage will be washing down and is funneled directly to the opportunistic predators waiting at the mouth. Backwater can also be another great place to target fish in the fall, as it allows species to work less for their meals. In most backwater spots there is vegetation to attract baitfish, less current, and depth changes which provide a perfect area for bigger fish to sit when they become lethargic.
Locks/Dams: If you are a shore fisherman looking for an accessible spot to catch fish during the fall, locks and dams are a great place to fish as spilling/moving oxygenated water attracts baitfish, creates back eddies/current breaks, and provides structure to fish. Baitfish and other prey species can be chewed up by heavy dam turbines, creating a constant flow of easy meals for fish sitting below. If a predator species such as walleye are following baitfish upriver to a dam/lock, once they get there they begin to stack up as they are unable to move past it. So if you end up catching fish in one of these areas, you can be assured that you will be able to catch fish there until the water temperature gets too cold.
Species to Target
Although the water temperature is now below most fish species' preferred temperatures making them tougher to catch, there are still certain species that are willing to bite to provide you with plenty of action. If you are a pan fisherman, who is looking to eat your catch, Black Crappie, Bluegill, and Yellow Perch taste great and can provide constant action this time of year. They will be headed to their winter weed beds and holes in some of the biggest schools of the year. The other nice thing about targeting them is when you are finished catching them, you can switch baits and target the predatory species that will be found very close to them. Northern Pike, Bass, and Walleye are also catchable right now, as they are capitalizing on schooling baitfish and will be looking for an easy meal. You even have a shot at landing your personal best, as the bigger fish are bulking up for the winter. Lake Trout and Salmon also move from deeper water this time of year in search of their spawning grounds, making them an easy target for shore and wade anglers. Despite the fact that these species are focused on spawning, they are opportunistic and will rarely turn down any bait moving in front of them.
For walleye anglers who struggle with catching countless weeds and have a difficult time locating fish in the summer, fall can provide some of the best walleye fishing of the year, as walleye move into the shallows at night time to feed and school up heavily on deep flats. The fall pattern of covering water to find fish holds true for them because at times they can be spread out. Trolling can be extremely effective this time of year because if you make a pass and end up catching one, going through the same areas will continue to produce more fish. A popular trolling technique this time of year is to use a planer board to spread your baits into shallower water without spooking the fish. A planer board is a flat device made from a floating material such as foam or wood that pushes your line out to the side of the boat. So you can position your boat out over deeper water, and have the ability to cover the shallow weed edges or rock flats. For guys who prefer casting for walleye, you can strictly begin focusing on the shallow weed beds and rock shoals where the active walleye are feeding. The boatless angler also has an advantage this time of year as walleye can be found cruising near docks, marinas, and the shorelines. So casting from shore locations or in waders puts you right where these fish are feeding during the fall. Some good baits to throw include Smithwick Rogues, Floating Rapalas, and Rapala Husky Jerks.
Salmon and Lake Trout
This time of year also allows species of fish that normally sit deep to begin cruising the shallows looking to spawn. Lake trout, which are normally targeted between 80-120 '+ during the summertime can now be found at basically any depth in the lake. Once the water drops into the 50’s, they will begin migrating towards shallow rock piles and rubble bottoms to spawn. During the recent warm spell we just had, while fishing for smallmouth bass on Lake George on rock piles near deep water, I noticed countless lake trout chasing my jerkbait back to the boat and was able to catch a few. So there seems to be a good population of lake trout in the pre-spawn phase that are still willing to eat in 10-20’ of water. We were using white, Megabass 110+1s in white, which was working for both smallmouth and lake trout. Other good casting lures for lake trout this time of year include cleo spoons, suspending Rapala Husky Jerks, and Acme Kastmasters. Atlantic Salmon or “Landlocked Salmon” do not currently spawn in our local lakes like Lake George and Schroon lake because they are all state-stocked, but they do however seek out creek-mouths and streams because it's what their natural instinct says they should be doing this time of year. So many anglers will wear waders and will fish in front of the various brooks and streams that come into the lake in search of salmon. For fishermen who enjoy fly fishing, this is the perfect time to try fly fishing for salmon from shore, as the fish are within casting distance. Some good fly patterns include Gray Ghosts, Mickey Finns, or just streamers that imitate baitfish. One of the most popular fall salmon spots you will see anglers fishing is on Beach rd, where West Brook flows into the lake. So if you were always wondering why you see people fishing off the beach or in waders at this time of year, there is a reason for it.
Even if you have struggled previously in the fall, understanding the yearly patterns can be a huge game changer to your future success. By covering water and knowing which fish to target this time of year, you can continue to catch fish every time you go out. There is also nothing quite like having the entire lake to yourself, with only the echo of geese to break the silence. Every cast this time of year gives you the opportunity to catch a true fish of a lifetime.
Top Producing Fall Baits
Tungsten Jigs- When panfish get finicky, it’s tough to beat a tungsten jig tipped with a piece of nightcrawler, minnow head, or grub (spikes). If you are searching for big crappie this time of year and cannot get them to commit, downsizing to a tiny jig can be the ticket. Crappie also cannot resist upstriking so if you can move the bait away from them and get them to move up the water column, they will be more likely to bite.
Casting Spoons- Cleo spoons and Dardevle spoons have been catching fish for decades and have been a staple in every trout and salmon fisherman's tackle box since. They are heavy enough to cast out into very strong winds, as well as give shore fisherman maximum casting distance to reach fish. The blue and silver pattern (shown in the picture) always seems to work well for lake trout on Lake George this time of year from shore.Then the classic red/white pattern and yellow with red diamonds are two of the best colors we have found for Northern Pike.
Blade Baits- Blade Baits are a good choice for when the water begins to drop below the 50’s and the fish become related to their winter structures. They sink extremely fast and can be fished vertically, allowing you to stay on top of schools of fish. The vibration attracts fish and the fast fall makes them look like an injured baitfish.
Jerkbaits- Jerkbait fishing in the fall can be a blast when fish are schooled up and feeding voraciously on bait. You want to work a jerkbait with a rip-rip pause method and most of your bites will come on the pause. The colder the water you are fishing the longer you want to pause allowing those fish to hit your bait. For our local lakes, white seems to be the top producing color for Smallmouth and Lake Trout. If you are fishing for walleye, gold and orange seems to work the best for them.