As school starts and the calendar turns to September, many outdoorsmen and women eagerly turn their eyes toward the skies and fields as hunting seasons get set to open across the state in the coming weeks.
What often lies in the shadow of fall hunting seasons, however, is how great fall fishing can be, said Mark Ermer, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department northeast regional program manager from Webster.
“Once the hunting starts, the amount of people who choose to go fishing really starts to go down,” Ermer said. “With so many options in the fall when people can go hunting for ducks, pheasants, deer and more it becomes a choice game, and the people that are die-hard fishermen make the choice to go fishing.”
A primary reason fall fishing is such a great opportunity is the lack of fishing pressure compared to other times of the year.
Ermer said the most popular months for fishing in the state are May and June, when boat ramps are full of people.
“If you compare a time period like that to what you would find on those same boat ramps in September and October, it would be night and day,” he said. “It would be a surprise to me to go anywhere and see more than five or 10 boats fishing. The folks that take advantage of that fact alone have great fishing and nobody to compete with.”
In addition to low pressure, another reason why fishing during the fall is advantageous is that fish activity increases after going through a summer lull.
“Just like the spring, fish literally put on the feed bag in the fall,” Ermer said. “Each fall fish begin feeding actively to put on weight so they can survive the winter.”
Ermer said warmer summertime water temperatures are a stressor for fish that prefer cool water, such as northern pike and walleye. While those fish still need to eat during summer, warm water temps slow down their activity and, consequently, their growth rate.
“In the fall they become pretty aggressive and more active again as surface water temperatures start moving from the 70- or even 80-degree range back into the 60s and 50s,” he said. “September and October are when fish, in general, are eating and growing the most. Fish put on significant weight and length during the two or three fall months.”
Big baits, big fish
Ermer said that, historically, some of the biggest fish are landed by anglers during the fall. And big fish, he said, prefer larger baits.
“Across the board, most fish are typically eating bigger baits so they can consume more calories per meal,” he said. “Once the growth and metabolism are growing, you have to feed the fire. They put on all that growth in the fall because they’re eating big items.”
According to Ermer, there is typically much more food available in the fall than in the other seasons. Additionally, most of the young bait fish that walleyes and northern have been feeding on all spring and summer are much larger.
“For example, an age-zero yellow perch, meaning it was born that spring, is going to be 3 to 4 inches in size by fall,” he said. “Even a white bass will be 3, 4 inches, and crappies or bluegills might only be 2 inches. Fall walleye anglers should ratchet up their bait choice and pull much larger cranks in the fall. The guys after big fish will use also big chubs or suckers — whatever the biggest bait is that they can find at bait shops, really.”
For other fish species, such as bluegill and perch, Ermer said the presentation size doesn’t change that much once fall arrives, primarily because their diet is limited by the size of their mouth. Their bodies may grow, but their mouth size doesn’t grow in proportion to their body like the mouths of pike or walleye.
However, he said perch anglers have as much of a reason to look forward to fall as those seeking walleyes.
“Perch are more restricted on the size of bait they’ll go after, but in September for sure, and even better in October, there is a yellow perch bite that happens almost every year,” he said. “This year, for example, I would predict a nice perch bite on Lake Poinsett. There’s a lot of nice fish in the system, and once the water cools off people will start targeting them. The same goes for Waubay Lake up on the north end, as perch anglers should have some good days on the boat before the water freezes up.”
Ermer said success in the fall isn’t solely relegated to boat fishermen, as anglers who choose to fish from shore or by wading into shallow water can also expect to find more fish.
“In the fall those fish are coming near shore again,” he said. “They’re moving up out of the deep water at night to feed in the shallow water.”
Large, shallow-running crankbaits cast horizontally along shore or jigs tipped with a large soft plastic that create a large profile are are popular shore fishing options, Ermer said.
Ermer also said aquatic vegetation that hampered fishing from shore during the summer recedes each fall as water temperatures drop, opening up more real estate for anglers.
“One reason summer fishing from shore drops off is due to all the near-shore vegetation that hampers fishing,” he said. “In the fall, though, once water temps get down near 50 degrees, a lot of that vegetation is dying or falling back, clearing things up again. Fall’s a great time to fish either from a boat or shore.”
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