Labour Day has passed, the kids are off to school and the adults are back to work. For many, Labour Day marks the end of summer. But it’s not! Officially fall isn’t until September the 22nd. What does all this mean in terms of fall fishing? Can I still catch any fish? Should I change techniques?
Let’s start by saying fishing is pretty much year round now and I wouldn’t be packing away your gear any time soon. In fact, fall is the beginning of a special season – the prime musky season! Or perhaps lake trout fishing from shore… This is actually a very exciting time for fishing so keep reading and we’ll get you prepared with some essential tips and tricks.
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It’s All About Water Temperature!
The angler need not concern him or herself with the calendar. It’s just a date. The angler also need not concern themselves with “summer” vs “fall” as that differentiation is simply based on the amount of daylight. September 22 is marked the first day of fall simply because it’s the day we have an equal amount of light and darkness in a day…
What the angler does need to watch VERY carefully is water temperature! In order to successfully pick lures, locations and techniques, you really need to understand a fishes’ habits and movements. These very changes are all triggered by water temperature. As the days get shorter, the nights get longer and colder. The sun isn’t as powerful as it was say in late July. So the water temperature slowly starts its decline. By water temperature, we are referring to the upper layer of a lake.
4 Degrees Celsius
So here comes the interesting thing: deep lakes will always have cold water in their deeper sections. 4 degrees celsius to be exact and that holds true almost ALL YEAR round. In the winter when a lake is covered by ice, the upper layer is also 4 degrees. As the ice melts in the spring, the sun warms up the upper layer, peaking sometime in August or September. The entire process then starts to reverse itself until the lake’s surface freezes up again in the winter.
Water Layers Don’t Mix!
Cold water is more dense than warm water. Based on that simple principal, the warmer upper layer of water on a lake will simply float on top of the colder, dense water below. This is VERY important, because it means the 2 layers don’t mix. Well, I sort of omitted something, they mix a little bit where they meet and this little area is called the thermocline.
By now you must be bored and wondering why you are reading all of this. Well, let’s say it was summer and you were fishing for lake trout from shore, you would be completely and utterly wasting your time. Trout needs the cold water in order to survive. Technically, they may come up on occasion to raid some baitfish but not often and not for long. In fact, you’ll need to find that thermocline and setup your lure to dive deep enough in order to fish them properly.
So let’s get back to fall fishing… As the upper layer’s temperature drops, the cold deep sections will eventually start to mix. At some point the entire lake will be around 4 degrees and the cold water species like lake trout will have access to all the waters in a lake. It will also force all the fish to move around which we’ll cover later.
A Brief on Oxygen
Yes, I know, you want to be a better fisherman and not a marine biologist so I’ll make it snappy. Oxygen is introduced into water by wind/wave action. That very churning on the surface is what drives the oxygen into a specific waterbody. The trouble is during warmer months when the layers don’t mix, fish locked in the colder zones for temperature needs are using up whatever stored oxygen is in the water. By now, that is generally running out. When the upper layer cools enough to mix with the water below, oxygen is re-introduced into the entire lake.
Fish Movement in the Water
Now that we understand what is happening in terms of temperature and oxygen, we have to understand it affects where the fish naturally hang out or move to you. It also helps understand their behaviours so let’s take a look at some specifics for some types of popular fish below.
Fall Fishing for Muskie (Musky, Muskellunge)
Prime muskie season is from Labour Day up until when the snow itself is flying. These fish are literally trying to fatten up for winter and they are now eating voraciously. This is particularly true (at least in my area), when the water starts hitting 15 degrees celsius. It almost activates them. Muskie will come out more and raid wed beds, shoals and shallows in search of food.
The way I was taught Muskie fishing by my grandfather is to constantly move around hitting up islands, shoals and rock. For this, we would toss a big surface plug, the biggest you can find. You then cast and work with a jerk and rest motion cranking the reel in between to take up slack in the line. We used to use a 6″ plug which in hindsight is pretty small. You’ll see a photo of an 8″ below. The most common lure for a muskie though is a big bucktail – start with a black one with a gold or silver spinner.
I’ve decided to hit up the old muskies this season and just bought quite the rod and reel for it along with some shiny new tackle. The problem with muskie fishing is the size and weight of lures. A spinner for example would be around 7″ long and 6″ wide and weigh in around 2.5 oz. Your bass rod may only handle 3/4 of an oz. Muskie fishing really requires a dedicated setup!
Just be warned, it’s known as the fish of 10,000 casts! It’s a commitment of money (gear) and TIME. But if you land a 4 foot monster in the boat, well, let’s just say bass fishing may never quite be the same:)
Fall Fishing for Walleye (Pickerel)
Unlike let’s say bass, walleye is a generally a much harder fish to catch. Regardless of the season. I’ve also been looking at MNR reports from their netting/identifying activities and walleye are definitely in the lower count levels compared to other fish in almost every report I saw. Nonetheless, it’s an amazing fish to eat and highly sought after.
In the summer, I’ve always trolled with a homemade rubber worm rig. Few beads (usually yellow) before and after a spinner on mono fishing line. The key is to troll dead slow as they get lazy in the hotter water. Oddly, I’ve used the same system in the fall with great success for decades.
There comes a pivot point generally sometime in October where they simply head deep. You’ll know when that happens – what worked for you before, doesn’t work anymore. It’s because the walleye left for deep water.
To fish the deep, I usually find a drop off where I can anchor over 50-60 ft deep water and drop a live minnow on a simple hook. Yes, it’s boring but it works! and this method has always carried my walleye fishing right into November where it’s really time to start getting the boat out of the water.
Fall Fishing for Bass
As temperatures drop, the baitfish will leave and the bass will follow. Bass will head towards the top or bottom of the water column and it’s when your focus should also leave the middle. At first, the focus should be more towards the top as the baitfish seek warmer, shallow water. An excellent topwater lure is the good old buzz bait.
I personally like running some traditionals like the Hula Popper or Jitterbug. Basically, it’s my choice for a “popper” kind of lure. But going back a step, I LOVE the buzz bait the most and have done really well with it lately, particularly in yellow colour. Remember one thing about buzz baits, while you can always try them, they are THE go to anytime its raining. Try to get them as close to shore as you can, its where my strikes are happening most – shores of islands.
Update: Our new post Choosing the Best Bass Fishing Lures: A Beginner’s Guide has a lot of info on lure selection including some of our new favourite topwater lures!
If in really weedy areas including lily pads, a frog is amazing at getting through. Here’s a photo of my 6th sense frog:
I’ve been literally bouncing frogs over lily pads for the last few days and can’t seem to get them stuck on anything… The rule of thumb for when it is time to use a frog: when nothing else will get into the cover that you are fishing. Understand this though, it means literally getting into the cover and not beside it. All your lures can get beside cover, try your luck getting right in there with a frog.
Crank vs Jerk Baits
There’s nothing like the excitement of topwater strikes. However, don’t forget the timeless crank and jerk baits. There may come a pivot point when the crankbait can be replaced with jerkbaits. If the bass in your area are indeed eating up vs down, the shallower action of a jerkbait will get your lure into the hot zone. Some lakes can also get a little clearer as the cold sets in. It’s another cue to put the jerkbait into service. Jerkbaits are based more on flash than rattle. If one’s not working, try the other and if its the right choice, there will be a dramatic difference in the number of bites you are getting.
When it comes to lures, remember you are just trying to mimic the local baitfish. Keep that in mind when picking shapes and colours. Even between a jerk vs crankbait, the idea is to copy the type of fish natively present in your waterbody. Jerkbaits are shaped more like minnows, shad and so on. Crankbaits will cover bluegill and perch shapes.
Our Favourite Crankbait: Megabass Deep-X 200
Basics Don’t Change
It should also be noted that this is the time of year when you see all the boats spread out and working all the shores and islands. It’s that pivot point when all the boats no longer sit on top of each other over some hole. It’s time to spread out and start chasing the bass the same way they are chasing baitfish.
Don’t forget the basics which is to work cover: weed beds, brush piles, rock, docks, etc. Areas with lots of current is always another good bet. The fundamentals of fishing hasn’t change, we just need to adjust for fall patterns.
Fall Fishing for Lake Trout
Sorry folks, my tips end with the trout – it’s not a fish I go after and I can’t really speak to it. The good news is as the water get’s cold, they come up from the deep. What I will say is this opens up the species for anyone that doesn’t own a boat as it’s the only time of year you’ll get them from shore. It also removes the need to drop lures super deep or trying to guess where the thermocline is. For anyone wanting to take up trout for the first time, the fall fishing season is the perfect time to start!
If you think we missed anything or you have any questions, see our contact page and feel free to reach out to us at any time. A little parting tip: as things are transitioning, there can definitely be some lulls here and there in fishing. Just work through them, they will pass and most importantly, don’t give up!