By Chad LaChance
As much as I hate to think about it, ice lids on western lakes are in the very near future. If not solidly iced, than at least there will be rim ice around shallow bays and boat ramp areas which makes boating tough. If you’re lucky, the lakes and reservoirs in your area don’t freeze, but they’ll still chill down a bunch heading into winter. This all leads to a sense of urgency for the sportfish contained in said reservoirs, and it should have the same effect on anglers that pursue them.
While the fish are focused on a fall feast, anglers can find themselves in a fall famine if they don’t keep one key concept in mind when approaching reservoir fishing in November and beyond; namely staying in tune with the baitfish. In late fall and early winter, if you’re not fishing around a concentrated bait supply of some sort, your probably not doing much catching. Regardless of the sportfish species, they will all be sniffing out fat-building calories to carry them through the long dark winter.
What constitutes a good bait supply varies with the region and specific body of water. A very common one is the shad, which will “ball up” in concentrated areas. Shad are present in a wide range of areas and offer excellent nutrition. Other types of common schooling baitfish include emerald shiners, spot-tailed shiners, smelt and a few others. These baitfish can be located several ways, my favorite of which is to follow the birds – literally. Active and diving seagulls are the obvious and stereotypical birds to follow, but that is usually an earlier fall thing when the baitfish are still shallower in the water column, albeit often suspended over deep water. Diving pelicans are another good sign. Less obvious are areas where herons are stationed consistently or in small loose groups.
A more consistent way to locate schools of baitfish is with your sonar unit. In late fall and early winter, my guide trips look more like video gaming than fishing because I spend so much time with my eyes glued to the Lowrance HDS 8 mounted on my boat’s dash. Besides looking for the bait itself, I use the GPS mapping features to position the boat over deep structural elements (usually river channels, long tapering points, and humps). These are areas preferred by baitfish in winter and I’ll begin by finding the structure, then locating the baitfish. Earlier in the season (say, late October or early November depending on your region), the baitfish may locate on the shallower portions of the structure, but will want good access to deep water. By late fall or early winter, they’ll be in the adjacent deep stuff and tightly schooled.
Keep in mind that access to deep water is key – but what is “deep”? Well, that will depend on the reservoir. Some have lots of really deep water, while others are more like bowls with tapering sides. Either way, the baitfish and sportfish will want to be able to access wintering waters in short horizontal distances. Large flats and shallow bays will not be nearly as desirable as the deep edges of those flats or the mouths of those bays. A deep creek channel dissecting the flat or bay…now you’re talking!
Besides baitfish, crayfish can be a good resource for fish on the chow. They may be harder to locate because birds won’t often key on them and they don’t show up on the electronics, but other factors can help to locate them. Isolated rocky cover on flat mud, gravel or clay bottoms will hold them, as will sand points. Areas that transition from weeds to sand are perfect. In general, a mix of sand, rock, and gravel will be preferred and crayfish too will want access to deeper water. In lakes without strong baitfish populations, working out the crayfish locations will pay off big time, especially for bass, wiper, and trout anglers.
Finding significant bait is the first goal but does not ensure you’ll load the boat. Getting fish that are relating said bait to bite can be tricky. Personally I rely on a three-pronged approach to my lure selection; the surface itself, shallow suspended fish, and deep fish. What defines the shallow and deep ranges will change with bodies of water as noted above, and the lure selection will vary with the requisite depth.
For very shallow fish relating to surface activity, I’ll generally employ a topwater bait of some fashion, commonly a walking bait typified by a zara spook in white or pearl. A floating minnow bait like an F9 Rapala can be killer too, as can a buzzbait. Other choices can be a spinnerbait (or better yet, a spinner arm tipped with a jighead/Gulp! Minnow combo), a small wake bait, or a Power or Gulp! Jerkshad.
The shallow suspending fish are tackled with either a suspending jerkbait, a lipless crankbait or slightly weighted soft jerkbait, depending on the conditions. This is the lure range that is most consistent in my home waters for everything from classic “boils” to fishing “nervous water” without noticeable feeding activity.
For the deep fish often associated with late fall or early winter, its almost impossible to beat a spoon of some sort. It could be anything from a large flutter type spoon to a small dense jigging spoon, but that erratic fall has a way of making even cold and well fed fish bite. Incidently, a well chosen and presented spoon will work form just under the surface to the very bottom in any realistic depth, making it a key bait to master. Our spoon fishing is done with Fireline Tracer Braid because that stuff is great for visible bite detection on slack line presentations, is extremely sensitive, and provides instant hooksets due to the lack of stretch. Fish will not hold onto a spoon, so quick detection and hooksets are vitally important.
All of our fall bait colors are white, chrome, pearl or something along those lines. In very clear water and bright sun, chrome is hard to beat in fall. If it’s overcast, slightly stained or very windy, pearl or white is better. Same for deep water too. If the water is very stained or muddy, fish elsewhere.
When were mimicking craws, we opt for browns and oranges mostly, though some green pumpkin, rootbeer, or blue may enter the mix. We’ll mimic them with crankbaits that maintain bottom contact. This technique involves cranks designed to run deeper than the water you’re fishing. This creates an erratic action and leaves a mud trail to boot. We’ll also employ a soft plastic crayfish imitation on a heavier than normal jighead to hold it tight to the bottom on faster retrieves.
Most of our lures will be sized just a little larger than the baitfish we hope to copy, and actions we impart are mostly erratic and fast. Since the fish are often well fed this time of year, getting a reaction bite or forcing a biting decision with pure lure speed can be the difference between follows and short strikes, and landing lunkers.
So, keep your angling focused on the bait this fall. Choose lures to mimic baitfish in both size and color, and use fast and erratic actions. The frozen lid may be on its way, but the last couple of weeks of open water may be the best of the year.