As summer wanes, many fish species put on the feed bag to fatten up for winter. This season, consider targeting one of these prime suspects.
The leaves are turning, there’s a slight chill in the air, and you have an itch to go fishing? Fall is the perfect time because the fish feel winter coming, too, and they’ll be feeding hard as they try to pack on the pounds before food becomes scarce. No matter where you live in the country, one of these five fall bites offers you a shot at red-hot fishing action.
Due to their widespread availability (they live in all 48 of the contiguous United States) and their willingness to bite, crappie are a popular fall target for countless anglers. They’ll be found sticking close to structure like fallen trees, beaver dams, and bridge pilings, slowly shifting deeper in the water column as the season progresses and temperatures continue to drop. Peak fall feeding occurs in most bodies of water when temperatures are in the 60s. Even after the waters grow cooler, a good bite generally continues until winter roars in.
Casting a minnow suspended under a bobber is one of the easiest ways to fool crappie into biting, although many anglers opt to cast small lures like tube jigs, bladebaits, and soft plastic twister tails. In any case, getting your offering close to the structure they’re holding near is usually the key to catching crappie in big numbers.
2. LARGEMOUTH AND SMALLMOUTH BASS
Many inland and Great Lakes anglers will be focusing in on bass – the largemouth is the most popular sportfish in America, and the smallmouth rule the roost in northern states – as the seasons change. Early in the fall, when the waters begin to cool, you can hope for top-notch topwater action, particularly at dawn and dusk, along shoreline structure, points, and vegetation. Walk-the-dog style plugs are a prime choice. During midday hours, bass will likely shift slightly deeper so lures that sink down a bit – like plastic worms, spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, and crankbaits – should prove productive. As cold fronts pass through and temperatures drop, expect the fish to move to areas with abrupt depth transitions, such as shallow flats that drop off to 10-plus feet of water. And once water temperatures drop into the low 50s, the bass will move to deep-water haunts. The bite will likely drop off at this point, but you can still catch fish by using lures like spoons and deep-divers.
3. RED DRUM
Fall is a red-hot time for red drum, whether you do your fishing along the Gulf Coast or on the southern Atlantic Seaboard. Gulf Coast anglers will be watching for a migration from the bays into open waters, often focusing their efforts on the passes and inlets where the fish concentrate as they make their journey. The same is true along the southern Atlantic states, where after completing a late summer/early fall spawn, the fish will be feeding hard as they look to replenish their energy.
Some anglers like to fish for reds with baits like crab or mullet, using circle hooks to minimize harm to the fish when large “over-slot” red drum (those too big to keep) are the target. Baits are generally cast out on bottom rigs of one sort or another and allowed to sit while the angler watches his or her rod tip for signs of a bite. Other fishermen prefer to toss soft plastic lures or plugs, often in the shallows or along jetties, particularly when hunting for slot-sized redfish destined for the dinner table.
4. STRIPED BASS
Anglers at opposite ends of the nation will be waiting for the fall striped bass to run, with action ramping up from Maine down through the Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast, and also in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta on the West Coast. Easterners can expect the peak of the action to shift from north to south as temperatures cool, with a wide range of tactics including trolling, live-baiting, and jigging all working well. Westerners will be tossing out baits like gobies or threadfin shad around channel edges, or casting and retrieving plugs, jigs, and other lures that mimic baitfish.
Wherever you may be targeting stripers, keep your eyes peeled for diving birds, because these fish regularly chase schools of bait to the surface when a fall feeding frenzy breaks out. The birds move in to snap up those baitfish and should be read like a neon sign that says, “Fish here!” Just about any baitfish-imitating lure like a soft plastic paddle-tail, a swimming plug, or a spoon will prove effective in this scenario.
Big-game anglers headed offshore in Florida from Palm Beach down to the Keys, and in the Mid-Atlantic region from Delaware to North Carolina, will be waiting for fall swordfish runs. Catching multiple swords in a day becomes possible, but the tactics include deep-dropping to 1,000-plus feet – so this fishery requires very specific tackle and gear plus quite a bit of expertise. On top of that, once you get your bait down there, staring at the rod tip to detect the subtle signs of a bite requires complete concentration. Still, for many fishermen, the prospect of battling billfish weighing hundreds of pounds up from the depths is tempting enough to invest substantial time, effort, and money.
Common swordfish deep-drop baits include whole rigged squid and strip baits sewn from belly strips of fish like false albacore or mahi-mahi. Several pounds of lead is used to get down deep, where flashing strobe lights attached to the line attract the fish’s attention. Many anglers also employ electric reels so they don’t have to spend a half-hour cranking on the reel to bring in a bait after a missed strike. As I said, very specific gear and knowledge is a must-have for successfully dropping to swordfish, so most anglers will take several trips with an experienced friend or with a guide before trying it on their own.
These five hot fall bites barely scratch the surface when it comes to the fishing opportunities you have from coast to coast. In many northern and western states, walleye will be feeding like crazy; some Gulf anglers will be waiting for the cobia to begin an eastward fall migration; and West Coast tuna aficionados may well decide to run far offshore as they seek to fill the freezer before winter sets in.
Wherever you may live and whatever species you may decide to target, when the leaves start turning, expect to feel that itch – and be prepared to grab your fishing rods to scratch it!