Every fall, Michigan’s outdoor enthusiasts face a dilemma of monumental proportions: do you go hunting or fishing? Nights of sleep have been lost, marriages have crumbled, and vast quantities of Vernors have been imbibed trying to find the right balance. It is an age old problem that thankfully will not go away anytime soon. Let’s face it; Michigan has amazing hunting and out-of-this-earth fishing. I’m struggling trying to decide what to do as soon as I finish this article!
When the leaves start to turn and the days grow shorter, the fishing action really heats up. During the summer months, the sun raises the water temperature and causes heavy plant growth. The plant growth and warmer water causes oxygen levels to drop and fish become more lethargic. Anyone who has spent much time on the water in August knows that the fishing can be spotty. The bite just isn’t there most times.
However, when autumn winds start blowing, days grow shorter, and temperatures drop, the lakes go through a change, known as fall turnover. Previously-deeper water comes to the surface as the now rapidly-cooling surface water grows heavier, thanks to the cooler air and oxygen levels. This turnover effect has a definite impact on the fish. It tells them that the time is soon at fin—winter is coming and it’s time to fatten up to survive the long, cold months ahead. While fish are lethargic and slow during the winter, they are still hungry and will feed. They just don’t always move around much in search of it. During fall, the opposite is true. Fish are on the feed, and the bite can be downright aggressive.
Fall means salmon time has arrived in the rivers. Back when I was in high school and lived in Manistee County on the west side of the state, I was within walking distance of Tippy Dam on the Manistee River. As fall arrived, the small amount of cars in the parking lots near the dam would be readily replaced by a mob of campers and trucks, some with license plates from many states away. Everyone was down chasing after the salmon run that culminated at the dam. I was right there with them, standing shoulder to shoulder in the cold, running waters. During my senior year, I would occasionally be “too sick” to attend class that day. The “chinook flu” was a serious health risk back in the day—it might have been more serious had my mother found out.
It’s not just the salmon that make fall fishing in the river an awesome experience. Trout in non-salmon rivers are on the move for food, too. In salmon rivers, the trout are easy to find. They are right behind the salmon, picking up loose eggs and fattening up on fry that hatch. Fly anglers have a blast with egg and fry imitators. Steelhead also start showing up in the fall. They too move in to feed on salmon eggs and fry.
But, you say, what about those rivers that are not full of trout and salmon? Fear not, my angler friends, for there are great numbers of walleye, smallmouth bass, pike, and catfish to put a bend your rod and a smile on your face. These fish are looking for those energy reserves to pull them through the winter and take them into the spring spawn. Go big on the baits and be aggressive with your presentations.
Michigan’s thousands of lakes hold millions of fish for you to catch. These lakes grow colder with each fall day until the ground freezes and the snow falls, and then they succumb to being covered with a layer of ice. If this winter is at all like last, the ice will come early and thick. Before it gets here, the fish will be on the feed. However, the big predatory fish tend to slow down active feeding when the temperature gets pretty low.
Have no fear, however, as they also seem to go a little bit crazy when the first real ice forms on the lakes. First ice late in the autumn season always brings about some amazing fishing for those “brave” enough to go after them. I may be crazy, but I’m not that crazy. The thought of falling through ice doesn’t appeal to me at all.
Before we got that far though, know this. Lake fish are biting well right now. There are usually some huge bass caught this time of year. The panfish action is out of this world, and walleye are currently biting all over the state.
Live bait works very well in autumn. For lures, have brighter colors like chartreuse and white along with you. The turnover on the lakes often makes the water darker. Also, the shiny lures often don’t have the same effect when the cloud cover reduces the ambient sunlight. I have a jointed chartreuse Rapala that sits in my tackle box all year long, just waiting for fall to get here so it can about catching pike for me.
Watch the skies
The thing about Michigan in fall is that the weather can often be unpredictable. The bright, sunny skies of summer are often replaced by blustery, overcast rainy days. Be cautious of this and be prepared when fishing. Good raingear is a must this time of year. If you’re going to be in a boat, it is also a good idea to wear a flotation device. I know you have to have one in the boat, but in the fall, the water is colder and the wind and waves can be intense—all things that can lead to an accident. I always wear an inflatable life vest when I’m fishing in the fall. Life is too precious to just throw away.
Wherever you should decide to fish this fall in Michigan, you’ll find some of the best angling opportunities of the year. Michigan has so many great places to go, it’s hard to choose just one.
This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.