Most anglers lament the late summer and into fall fishing period. On all but a few systems, gone are the days of big numbers, shallow, hungry fish, and all-day bites. Most fish species inevitably move to deeper water, and are harder to target at times because of it. Add to that the sheer amount of food available, and you’ve got a recipe for shrinking bite windows (think dusk and dawn) and predators that don’t need to eat quite as often.
Take all of that with a grain of salt of course, as there’s always a bite going somewhere, and fish still need to eat. This time of year for me is all about river fishing and species I don’t normally target. Water levels on an average river system in August are lower, offering fewer places for them to setup. The bottom end of riffles and deep outside bends are among the few places they can still comfortably inhabit. On lakes, I’m finding bass and big gills on deep weed edges, often by mistake when targeting ‘eyes. You’d be surprised how many big gills I’ve been catching in 15-24 FOW on wind-blown rock structure with a jumbo leech. Nearly all of them without trying to.
Yet, if you’re a fan of the fall bite, you know that “better” fishing is yet to come. The question is always “when.” Though it’s always a good time to go fishing, weather is a primary driver to fish activity levels, and consistent weather is always welcome. For the fall bite then, we’re looking for consistent cooling temperatures at night that drop lake temperatures from the 70’s into the 60’s. Where springtime warmth is a welcome factor to the bite getting better, autumn warm-ups reverse that water temperature curve and confuse fish and fishing locations.
That first water-temp benchmark can be a small blip or road bump for most anglers, as depending on the system, few fish will readily change their program due to small swings in water temperature. In most of the waters I target, water temperatures in the 60’s still means summer patterns. That may be vertical jigging deeper edges, or rigging big chubs in these same locations, but either way indicates a heightened willingness to eat.
The next drop into the 50’s is when most anglers would consider the fall fishing to be “on.” In smaller lakes, fish start to congregate more from offshore structure to main-lake points or other shoreline breaks. They can still be deep however, especially during the daytime hours in clear systems without an abundance of wind.
Speaking of, wind is the other main factor in fall fishing, often causing a dynamic change that really excites the bite, or kills it completely. Some of the best days I’ve ever had on the water are during multi-day big fall blows, where fish stack up as shallow as a few feet of water and position to eat anything dropped in their face. In river systems, shad or other minnow species move shallow in cooling water, making the perfect recipe for jigs and crankbaits thrown into the froth for just about anything that eats minnows.
As mentioned, the very wind that can drive a fall bite can also destroy it, specifically when we’re talking fall turnover. Turnover is the process that occurs in most lakes during the fall, where a thermocline and separate layers of different water temperature at depth, mix to form a more uniform temp throughout the lake. In deeper, larger lakes, this can take until late October, or in lakes shallower than 20 feet, be complete in September sometime. Water clarity can decrease from this mixing, and other anglers say they see more loose floating weeds and other debris from the bottom, but one thing is for certain, a big wind certainly accelerates or creates turnover.
Fish don’t care much for this shock to the system, and fishing can be tough in days immediately following, but in many lakes it’s the start of the better fall bite. First and foremost, the shallows are dramatically cooled by the mixing of deeper, cooler water. That allows baitfish and predators alike some new real-estate and great ambush structure to feed on. That’s why when October hits I like to fish shallow and faster, looking for fish to eat artificials over live bait. Mostly because I can cover more water and look for hungry fish rather than try to entice those that aren’t as willing.
Yet, no two systems are alike when it comes to turnover, meaning you can be fishing jigging raps in 25 FOW on a deep summer pattern any given fall, then cross the street and not find anything going in the depths on another lake. That’s what can be frustrating in the fall, as some lakes may be on fire with others still going through the dynamic changes that are a part of autumn fishing.
Water temps that dive into the 40’s see most anglers quit fishing altogether, though it’s quite honestly when the best fishing, especially for trophy caliber fish can be had. A few weeks either side of Halloween can be incredible, and fish seem less bothered by a small warmup during this time. They seem to realize that the cooling trend will continue and actively engage bait in the shallows where available.
All of which underscores the ups and downs of fall that we often wait for, yet seem to miss or never experience. The best time to fish, is when you have time to fish, bar none. That said, if you’ve got the flexibility to pick your spots, look to cooling water temps all the way down to the mid 40’s, and leverage big wind events to experience some of the best fishing of the year. Study water temperatures and recent weather patterns until you dial in magic combinations on the water bodies you target, but don’t fret if turnover puts a damper in your plans temporarily. Better angling is yet to come.