When the bite is on

By Ben Leal

September…ahhhhhh…cooling temps, well at least we hope they start cooling off. We’ve just wandered through the heat of July and August and it was in a word, hot! Fishing, for the most part, was an early morning or late afternoon evening event. Two reasons really; you want to avoid sweating for eight hours in a boat and the fish are typically more active in the early morning or late afternoon.

As we bid farewell to August we warmly welcome September with temperatures averaging between 72 degrees and 79 degrees throughout Iowa. We can and have experienced above average temperatures like we did in 2015 where the average was 6.3 degrees higher than normal and a 94-degree day stuck its head in there on the 6th of September. Nights will be nice and cool with averages ranging to between 47 and 56 degrees.

So what does this cool down mean for us? Active fish! Last month we talked about the thermocline and where the most dissolved oxygen or DO is present. Fish will tend to hang around in that region of the water column for that specific reason, oxygen. In the fall as the water begins to cool the lake will “turnover”. In other words, the cooling surface water becomes denser and starts to mix with the already cool water down in the depths and turning over, all the layers of the water column mix. DO is not as big a factor as it was and fish will become increasingly active.

Another thing that the cooling water does is to signal the fish that winter is on its way and they will begin to put on the fall feed. All of our favorite quarry will be roaming about looking for a buffet line to get in and feast away. We can take advantage of both the cool days as well as the “hot bite”. Oh and for all you parents out there…kids are back in school!

As the water cools fish will spread out because the bait fish will spread out. While the water is hot and we have a defined thermocline, like the predator fish, the bait fish will concentrate in and around that area. Now that the water is cooling off, Bob’s your uncle and off the bait fish go. You’ll find bass moving into shallow areas, vacating their deeper summer haunts chasing bait fish. Pattern fishing for bass this time of year will be difficult because they won’t concentrate in one area nor will they stay there very long. Why? Because the baitfish won’t stay long either.
Crankbaits in a variety of sizes and colors will work very well searching for active and feeding bass. Spinnerbaits are also a good search tool. For bass, you have to be willing to move around a lot and expand your search. Once you find em, stick em! If you have a windy day, concentrate your efforts on the windblown area because the bait fish will get pushed up against shorelines and easy fodder for the hungry bass.

Like bass, northern pike will also move from the cool depths of the lake to shallow areas. They like the weeds so look for them in weed beds ranging from 6 to 15 feet in depth. Spinnerbaits with big Colorado blades work well, giving off great vibrations as you retrieve. It’s also good because it’s less likely to get hung up on weeds as you do retrieve it. Add a 3 or 4-inch grub to the trailer hook for added bulk and visibility. This is also the time of year where you might just get lucky and land your personal best. Big northern pike are very active in September and are aggressive. Medium heavy to heavy rods loaded with 17 to 20-pound fluorocarbon work well. The same will hold true for musky, they will hide out in the weeds looking for an easy meal. Cast up close to shore and use a fast retrieve. The speed and vibration from the large spinner blades will certainly get you some attention and likely a reaction bite. Hold on! These are explosive strikes and a blast to watch.

While bass, northern pike, and musky will move up into shallow areas of the lake, walleye continue to feed on baitfish in deeper areas of the lake. But, as we’ve noted with other predatory fish the cooling water temps, even at depths of 25 to 30 feet will ring the dinner bell that it’s time to feed. You can use a jig tipped plastic grub or minnow with success almost every month of the year, however vertical jigging in September, not only with a jig/trailer combo but spoons as well with great success. As the month rolls on, temperatures will continue to fall however the walleye bite will heat up. Don’t forget that walleye have excellent eye sight in low light conditions and heading out at night can result in some amazing catches as well.

Crappie…do I have to say it? Yes…they move shallow as well. Many of these fish will migrate back to areas where you’ve caught them in the spring. They will follow baitfish to creek channels and ledges that move up into shallow areas. Timber will hold fish as well and they will sit in wait and ambush bait as it swims by. Minnows are an excellent choice for live bait rigs but try upsizing to larger minnows in the fall. The baitfish in the lake has had all summer to grow. Match the hatch as it were. For artificial baits such as jigs and spinners, go bigger. As we’ve noted, crappie are chasing after baitfish that have grown, so something with a bigger presentation will yield results.

Large bluegills leave their summer hangouts around late September to prepare for fall and winter. They move from deep water to places with mid-depths, often near their spawning sites. Shoreline points that extend far out into the lake and drop off sharply often hold bluegill. Another “hot spot” is an underwater ridge or saddle in 8 to 10 feet of water. Flooded timber, brush or rock improves the fish-holding ability of these locations.

Bottom Line
As we’ve kind of walked our way through some of Iowa’s favorite quarry, there is one distinctive pattern that we need to pay particular attention to. Fish are on the move! They follow baitfish and are putting on the fall feed. As September moves into October and we see water and air temps continue to drop, you can be assured that the fishing will heat up.

Be prepared to move, a lot, and keep in mind that tactics will have to change as the fish change. There will be those days during the month where we see a spike in the air and water temps, affecting where the fish will be and how readily they will be to take a bait.

As the fall bite begins to heat up let’s keep this in mind as well. When fishing by hook and line you cannot use more than two lines or more than two hooks on each line when still fishing or trolling (Iowa DNR Fishing Regulations). Fish responsibly.

Taking care of the resource and the fisheries that we enjoy also means abiding by the laws set forth by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. It’s our responsibility as anglers and as outdoors men and women to be good stewards of our natural resources so that generations to follow will enjoy them as well.