September 8, 2023 at 5:55 a.m.

Fish Like a GIRL

Tournament season winds down and fishing heats up

It is always sad to come to the realization that open water fishing opportunities are, once again, coming to an end. We have at least two more months left, but with gardening and garage projects and work and so many other responsibilities, when the season starts to wind down, it seems it comes to an end fairly quickly.

This year is no different. 

The only tournament we have left for the Wisconsin Bass Team Trail this year is our championship. That event will be held on the Minocqua Chain on Sept. 23 and 24. While we are looking forward to that tournament, it is a bit bittersweet, as it will be the last one of the year. 

I think part of what makes this portion of the season seem to go so quickly, other than outside responsibilities, is just how good the fishing can get. As fish start to prepare for the long, cold winter under the ice, they really start to put on the feed bag. Not only are they hungry and getting prepared to slow down and not chase forage as much, but as they eat, of course, they get much bigger. Catching big fish is always fun, and sometimes fish in the fall are even a little easier to catch. At least that has been my experience. Not that I necessarily load the boat every time I go out in the fall, but once the summer heat starts to dissipate a bit, it does seem a bit easier to catch fish, and to find bigger fish. 

When fishing for bass in the fall, I like to think back to spring on any particular lake. In the spring, fish often come up onto shallow flats to find food. This can also be the same in the fall, so starting in those places can be a good idea. While I tend to gravitate toward crayfish imitations most of the rest of the year, in the fall I like my bait to imitate a minnow of some sort. By fall, all of the bait fish born this season are about perfect eating size for bass. Bluegills, crappies, shiners, and other bait fish have gotten big enough now that it is worth expending the energy to chase them down.

Finding the transition areas between those shallow flats bass utilize in the spring and their deep summer haunts can usually provide some success, too. Those areas are where fish will hang out, waiting for pods of bait fish to swim by. 

“Target the first drop,” I can hear my late husband Rod saying about bass fishing in September. He won a whole lot more money bass fishing in his lifetime than I have up to this point, so I tended to listen to him and he was usually not wrong.

That first drop off of a feeding or spawning flat, if the fish are not up on the flat, will likely be where the fish are sitting. Those pre-spawn areas can be productive in the fall.

The big thing, of course, is to find the bait fish. This is one place where electronics can be a big help. They make it much easier to find schools of bait fish. Once you find the fish, though, it is important to know what they are. I will change up my presentation based on whatever the fish are chasing at that time in that lake. Matching the size and basic color pattern can be important here. That is not to say an angler won’t catch a fish on a pink worm that was originally chasing cisco, for instance. That will happen. Fish are hungry and they know food will be scarce in short order. So they will take a chance on something that might not look quite right. But at the same time, the bigger fish did not get to that size by being dumb. Yes, again, they do have a brain the size of a pea, as we fishermen like to remind ourselves, but they must use that space well to keep all of the important information (i.e. how to stay alive) they need. 

I always talk about “matching the hatch,” which really comes from fly fishing, I would suppose, where an angler is looking to match which insects are hatching at any given time. But over the years the term has evolved to mean showing the fish a lure that looks as close as possible to what it is already eating. Then you make that lure look like an easy meal, like it is injured or sick in some way. Game fish are powerful swimmers, but if they can be lazy and take an easy meal first, they are all about it.

So, with all that said, what do I throw in the fall? I will first say, I will still have crayfish imitations tied on. But I will spend more time with a bait fish imitation in the water. This could be a good time to use an Alabama rig, although I have still not thrown one for any length of time or with any success (less time = less success, basic fishing math at work here.) An Alabama rig mimics a small pod of bait fish. It usually has 5 baits, but in Wisconsin we can only use three hooks, so if anyone reading this wants to try one out, keep that in mind. I keep the middle and bottom two swim baits with a hook and in the top two spots I will just run baits without hooks or simply naked blades of some sort, usually willow leaf shaped. The fish will be “feeding up,” or looking up to find bait fish swimming by, so they are more apt to take the bottom or middle bait. Running willow leaf blades on the top two arms adds to the flash, which can get a fish’s attention.

Swim baits are an obvious choice for fall, as far as I am concerned. Swim jigs, too, produce great results. The retrieve will vary, depending on what the fish want. And I did learn something pretty important from arguably the best jig fisherman in the area (definitely the most successful one I know) about fishing a swim jig. If fish short strike a swim jig, it is the trailer color that is off. Just switching the color of the trailer can make a difference. I took that to heart and it has worked very well. 

This is the same person that told me to always set the hook twice on a smallmouth on a swim jig. 

Again, he was right. 

I have yet to lose a smallmouth after setting the hook twice. The first hook set may just be turning the jig in the fish’s mouth. The second will slam the hook home, if it is not already there. Good tips.

My own personal favorite for fall fishing, though, is a small swim bait on a Scrounger Head type hook. The longer the bill, the more wobble the bait will have. The earlier or later in the year I am fishing, the wider wobble I like, similar to a crank bait. I will not get into crank bait fishing here, as there is a lot to that. I will write a separate article on that. The scrounger head gives the swim bait a lot more action than just the tail wobble. I use it to tick the bait along the top of the weeds, even in summer. It can be fished at any depth in the water column, making it effective in various parts of the lake. It is not completely weedless, but the bill does give it a better chance of coming through weeds clean. 

This is also a good search bait. It allows me to cover water quickly when looking for fish. Again, the idea, once I find fish, is to make the bait look like an injured bait fish. The action of this bait itself is helpful in that, but using a retrieve that is not exactly steady can be helpful as well. Brief pauses in the retrieve will make the bait look as though it is injured or sick. In other words, a great, easy meal for a big bass.

At this time of the year, anything that imitates a bait fish is a good place to start. Even a wacky rigged stick worm or a soft plastic jerk bait can be good choices. I like fishing a soft plastic jerk bait all season, from early spring to late fall. It has such an erratic action and seems like it can move a fish to strike when other presentations fail.

Before I end this, I do want to say a word or two about moving water. Moving water, such as at the mouth of a creek, inlet or outlet, is another great place for a fish to lie in wait for an easy meal. 

Fish will likely sit in either a ditch or depression, behind some weeds or anywhere near moving water where they do not need to expend much energy. They will simply sit there, not moving much, until an unsuspecting bait fish happens to swim by. 

Bait fish will move with the current, chasing their own prey. And game fish will follow the bait fish. As those little fish look to move into the creek channels and back bays, they can be ambushed by bigger fish just looking for a quick meal.

I hope those of you who enjoy fishing get a chance to get out this fall. I know we will make some time, outside of the championship, to get out on the water and make some more great memories before the cold and snow has us shoveling and wishing for warmer weather once again. 

Beckie Gaskill may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].


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