By Chad LaChance
Hyperphagia. It’s the word of the day, or month, or season even. What’s it mean, you ask? It means bears are consuming 20,000 calories per day. It means squirrels are digging up every bulb you just planted. And it means baitfish have become the dominant force in fishing, and by that I mean if you don’t follow the omnipotent bait schools, you’re not likely catching trophy fish.
What hyperphagia really means is an increase in appetite due to external factors. For today’s lesson, the external factor is the impending harsh reality of winter and the meager pickin’s for grub most fish and animals will face. Just about any animal in the Northern climates will experience some level of hyperphagia, and geez, even we humans aren’t immune to it. Do you put on a few pounds in fall?
The obvious take away at this point in this discussion is that fish are eating – over eating, even – so they must be easy to catch in fall. That’s true, but they can also be really tricky to catch. The tricky part comes into play when trying to figure out exactly where all this binge feeding is taking place, and what exactly they’re eating. Figure that out and all you have left to do is get one to locate and bite your offering amongst the jillions of baitfish that hatched this year only to become food in fall. Simple.
Really astute anglers know that knowing the habits of the primary forage fish in any system is at least as important as knowing the habits of the sportfish in said system. At no time is that more important than in fall. But notice I said “primary forage fish”? That’s because often times reservoirs have multiple forage species, and as long as there is plenty of them, any species can become important to anglers on any given fall day. A lake I fish is often stocked with 8”-10” trout in fall; walleyes and bass line up to chow them immediately, forgoing all the natural “bait” species that occur in the lake. ‘Nuff said.
Smelt, shad, shiners, alewives, fathead minnows, stocker bobo’s, or even crayfish migrating with falling water levels, whatever the baitfish is in your lake, study their travel habits in fall. Know where they come in contact with good structural elements like off shore humps or ridges, creek channels, large flats, bluffs or whatever, and also when they’re likely to do it. Put yourself in a position to be there, and make hay when the sun shines.
A good example is a lake we fish that is loaded with gizzard shad. Typical of shad-based lakes, there is three year-classes (read: sizes) at any given time, and they segregate by size. The 12”-18” adults go wherever they want because they are too big to be eaten much, and they will likely die the first cold snap. The two-year-olds roam the main lake basin in dense schools, rarely contacting structure. Fish eat them (they’re about 4”-6” long), but they are hard to pin down because they constantly roam. If you locate them and can stay on them, you can clean up on big smallies and walleyes, but like I said, they are very difficult to pin down. The young-of-the-year two inchers, well, now your talking! These little fish mostly stay near shallow water and there are lots and lots of them. They are commonly working in small schools either along windy rip-rap banks, over shallow humps, or on sandy flats as they too are feeding up for fall. What they lack in size, they make up for in numbers and accessibility, and every sportfish species in the lake plunders them.
Typically, we’ll try to be at the lake at first light. That’s when the surface is usually calm and feeding activity of both baitfish and sportfish can be spotted. The shad will be dimpling the surface and will basically create “nervous water,” water that looks like there is some sort of activity just under the surface. The sportfish will, in turn, charge these shad schools causing a ruckus. The shad will jump each other frantically attempting to escape in the same way that you don’t have to outrun a charging bear, only your hiking buddy now running with you. The water surface will “boil” momentarily, and then it’s done. The school of bait has broken up and the sportfish will wait for the school to regroup before attacking again. Get your lure – I prefer a Johnson Sprite spoon for this– in that boil ASAP and you’ll be hooked up immediately.
In lieu of that activity or in case of wind, watch for seagulls. Not those roosted up, rather the ones actively hunting overhead or better yet, diving. Fish that vicinity with a spoon, lipless crankbait, or jerkbait and you’ll raise some fish that way. If that scenario doesn’t happen, then fish windblown shorelines with decent structure and cover with whatever shad-type lure genera is appropriate.
A couple of fundamentals apply to all our fall fishing. First, don’t discount small lures even though the fish are feeding. Often a lure that is slightly smaller than the prey species will draw more bites. Second, keep all your colors along the natural fish lines, whites, pearls, chromes, etc. If you have stained water, use vibration and sound rather than bright colors to help fish locate your lure. Third, always consider fishing shallow, but cast over deeper water or along very steep banks. In most cases, the young baitfish reside above the predators. Similarly, if you fish steep rocky banks, land your offerings as close as possible to (like inches from) the rocks. You want to create the illusion that your lure has it’s back against the proverbial wall.
The last thing I’ll point out is that stealth can be helpful. Anything that spooks the baitfish will likely move them away, forcing you to relocate them. Sneak up on the activity if at all possible. I use my longest St Croix’s in fall to increase casting distance, and usually pair them with light NanoFil line for the same reason.
Yes, hyperphagia is a big word, but learn to deal with it’s affects on fish and so too will be the fish you catch!