The Opportunistic Angler

    Don't waste time and energy on fickle fish. Target hungry fish species to make the most out of your time on the water.

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    — By Dylan Tramp

    It seems through time we have become specialized anglers and have grown content fishing exclusively for one or two species. In reality, it wasn’t that long ago when people were much more opportunistic, hunting and fishing largely to put food on the table.

    In much the same vein, most of us cut our teeth fishing for anything and everything that would take our bait. In writing this, I am flooded with memories of summer days spent on the dock with my Grandpa, bobber fishing for anything that would bite. These are truly some of my fondest fishing memories to date.

    Somewhere along the line, however, it’s likely we decided which species of fish we enjoyed targeting and became more specialized anglers. While there is nothing wrong with this mentality — after all, why not stick with something you’re good at? — I propose reverting back to our roots and becoming a more opportunistic angler.

    Think of it like this: as you spend countless hours struggling to catch your favorite fish species, on the other side of the lake there very well could be a different species that is putting on a feeding frenzy and is absolutely ripe for the picking. By becoming a more opportunistic fisherman, you might just find a new passion, put more fish in the boat and enjoy your time on the water that much more.

    I’m not telling you to blindly cast a line into the water and see what bites; rather, I’m simply suggesting broadening your horizons, targeting different species and capitalizing on the best fishing opportunities each season has to offer. To do this, a little background information and general knowledge about each game-fish species in order.

    You will quickly notice a trend that some of the best fishing opportunities are heavily influenced by the spawn and seasonal patterns of each species. The spawning period offers anglers a great opportunity as fish prepare or recover from the physical stress of the spawn. Fish will feed heavily prior to and well after spawning, giving anglers ample time to catch a hot bite. Other seasonal factors that might influence or prohibit angler success are changes in water temperature, the seasonal hatch of baitfish or underwater vegetation growth.

    What follows is a great roadmap to becoming an opportunistic angler and taking advantage of the hottest bite throughout the spring and summer fishing seasons here in the Dakotas.

    Northern Pike

    Arguably the most productive time to target northern pike is immediately after ice out. If dreams of landing a monster pike over 40 inches inspire you, or you want the most bang for your buck after the ice recedes, consider targeting northern pike.

    In our region, pike are the first game fish to spawn each year, doing so as soon as the water reaches approximately 40 degrees. These fish are in search of warm water to lay their eggs, which is why you will likely find them in shallow water. Begin your search in the shallowest bays that you can find. A shallow bay with a dark bottom, such as that of a cattail slough, will be the first part of the lake to warm up and will be a prime habitat for spawning pike. Cast larger lures and cover lots of water — think like a musky angler.

    Walleyes

    Walleyes are the most popular game fish throughout the upper Midwest, and for good reason. While you can certainly target walleyes year-round and be fairly proficient, early spring is undoubtedly one of the most productive and enticing times to target these fish.

    Walleyes begin seeking spawning ground and become heavily concentrated as water temps approach the 40- to 45-degree range. This period, which usually spans from March through April, can be some of the most productive walleye fishing you will find all year.

    Like most fish species, once you are able to locate the preferred walleye spawning ground in a given body of water, you can return to this spot each year and find repeated success. A popular place to find pre-spawn river walleyes is below manmade dams or anywhere that you find a break in the current. In lakes or reservoirs, focus on rocky, windswept shorelines with close proximity to deep water.

    Due to the colder water temperatures, fishing tactics must not be too aggressive during this time period. A classic jig-and-minnow setup can be tough to beat.

    Perch

    While most anglers are targeting spring walleyes, they often turn a blind eye to the perch that, ironically, they so heavily targeted just a few months ago during ice-fishing season.

    Like walleyes, perch also spawn when the water temperature is around 45 degrees. During this timeframe, perch will still be found in large schools, making for some fast-paced action. They will remain in these large schools until water temps reach about 55 degrees.

    The water temperature should dictate fishing techniques. While the water is still fairly cold, fish slowly with smaller baits. Live bait is always a fair choice. As the water warms, you can become more aggressive and cast small lures and spinners.

    Electronic fish finders can play a key role in locating a large school of perch, or any other schooling fish for that matter. If you see a large ball of fish appear on the screen, anchor yourself for some high-action fishing. Odds are you might be looking at a big school of jumbo perch, crappie or white bass. There’s only one way to find out.

    Crappies

    In addition to the angling opportunity they provide, crappies also make for fantastic table fare. Photo by Andrew Johnson

    Crappies also present a very fun and fast-paced fishing experience each spring. Like perch, crappies are commonly a schooling fish, and when you find them, you are in for a treat.

    The most sought after time to target crappies also happens to be during the spring spawn when water temperatures reach approximately 55 degrees. Crappies tend to spawn in very shallow water, often 2 to 5 feet, presenting a unique fishing experience.

    In certain clear-water scenarios you might be able to physically see crappies on their beds and watch the action unfold as they take your bait. Look for spawning crappies near vegetation or submerged structure such as trees or brush piles. It can be increasingly difficult to target crappies after the spawn as they gravitate toward deeper, cooler water as the season progresses and summer grips the landscape.

    Walleyes

    I know we already talked about walleyes, but transitioning from fast-paced spawning panfish bites back to post-spawn walleyes in the late spring and early summer (May into early June) is an option anglers should consider. The walleye action typically stays strong throughout the month of May and into early June before water temperatures begin to skyrocket. Water temperatures during this period range from about 55 to 65 degrees.

    During this time period, walleyes are extremely aggressive and are putting weight back on after the long winter and spring spawning season. You can hardly go wrong during this period and can commonly catch walleyes using whatever presentation you prefer.

    Popular tactics during this timeframe include bottom bouncing, trolling and even casting plugs. The walleyes tend to be found slightly deeper than they were during the spawn, but not so deep that they become difficult to catch. Once the water temperature begins to approach 70 degrees, however, walleye fishing becomes a little more technical.

    Largemouth & Smallmouth Bass

    As the walleye bite begins to slow and they transition to deeper water, I find much joy in focusing on largemouth and smallmouth bass from June to July. This can be an ideal timeframe to catch pre- or post-spawn topwater bass.

    Smallmouth bass are prevalent in the lakes and reservoirs of the Dakotas, and when the walleye action shuts off, targeting these hard-fighting, aggressive fish is a great way to make the most out of your time on the water.
    Courtesy photo by Plano Synergy

    Largemouth spawn when the water reaches 62 degrees, while female smallmouth lay their eggs around 65 degrees. This means that as the water temperatures exceed 60 degrees, the bass move shallow to make their beds — and shallow bass make for prime topwater targets.

    In my opinion, it doesn’t get much more exciting than watching a lunker largemouth erupt from the surface and devour a topwater frog. Focus on shallow shorelines with good structure. Bass fishing, especially largemouth, will remain good throughout the warm-water months of summer.

    White Bass

    White bass are an under-appreciated species that are abundant in many lakes throughout the upper Midwest. When you are experiencing a lull in the walleye action, consider going after these abundant fish.

    White bass are extremely aggressive, making them exceptionally fun to catch, and, contrary to popular belief, they make great table fare. These fish are largely a schooling fish, so when you are able to locate them, they can provide ample opportunity and prolonged excitement.

    Use your electronics to locate a massive school of fish. In many glacial lakes, there’s a fairly good chance that this will be a school of White Bass. Use a buoy or add a waypoint on your GPS to mark the school, and cast lures and jigs into the school. It is not uncommon to pull dozens of fish out of a single school.

    Witnessing a summer white bass feeding frenzy can be a very exciting experience. On occasion, the bass will push baitfish to the top of the water column and the surface will erupt with white bass on the attack. Pitch your lure into the frenzy, and enjoy the show.

    Bluegills

    These little fish can be an appealing quarry with ultra-light spinning tackle and small bait presentations. Once again, the preferred timeframe to target bluegill is during the spawn when water temperatures reach 70-75 degrees. This typically occurs sometime in June, but is relative to each body of water.

    These fish also spawn in very shallow water, sometimes as little as 12 inches. In order to catch the bluegill spawn, you will want to check the surface water temperature in shallow bays and weedy stretches of shoreline. Bluegills are another species that can be caught by means of sight fishing, adding an extra element of entertainment.

    Later in the summer during their post-spawn period, the bigger bluegills will retreat to deeper water for safety and to feed on aquatic insects and invertebrates. Look for these fish to be hiding in the deepest weed bed that you can find.

    Productive bait options for bluegills can range from beetle spins, micro lures and even ice-fishing jigs to tiny jig heads tipped with waxworms or a pinch of nightcrawler.

    Catfish

    As spring fades to summer and water temperatures reach their peak, it can become increasingly difficult to catch fish that prefer colder water. Late June into July can be a very opportune time to key on flathead and channel catfish. These fish spawn at a balmy 75 degrees and thrive as the water warms. Catfish move into the shallows seeking structure — submerged logs, holes or washouts, bank cutouts or even rip rap — to lay their eggs. Catfishing is often prime throughout the remainder of summer, when they can be caught in large quantities while other game species remain covert.

    If you time it right and fish are pre/post spawn, begin your catfish hunt shallow. If the shallow waters aren’t currently producing, begin checking deep holes, current breaks, river channels or submerged logs. Live bait, such as large shiners or creek chubs, is a great starting point. Other catfish aficionados may swear by cut bait, chicken livers or stink bait, but my go-to is typically a large shiner freshly seined from the same river I’m fishing.

    Trout

    If you are looking for a unique Midwestern fishing experience or are caught up in the dog days of summer, pick up some fly-fishing tackle and give trout a go. Tranquil trout streams can be found throughout the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Driftless Area of Southeastern Minnesota/Northeastern Iowa. While trout can be caught in these streams throughout most of the year, summer can be a great time to try some dry-fly topwater action, or keep it simple by casting a Mepps spinner on a spinning rod.

    This season, consider expanding your horizons by becoming a more well-rounded angler. Chances are you will land more fish and simply enjoy your time on the water that much more. Hopefully the brief insight above will give you a good starting point to expand your fishing skills and take advantage of the season’s best fishing opportunities.

    About the Author: Dylan Tramp is an avid angler, public-land bowhunter and freelance writer from Rapid City, S.D.