Fitting Fishing into Hunting Season

Here are some simple lures and techniques for autumn anglers who want to squeeze in a few casts between hunts.

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— By Chris Nelson

I am always up for a good combo. Pie and ice cream, milk and cookies, Beavis and Butthead — hey, those things take me to my happy place.

A perfect combo takes the right ingredients, though. Throwing any two things together doesn’t always work. You need chemistry.

Don’t believe me? Check out any of Adam Sandler’s romantic comedies. Those movies have less chemistry than an eighth-grade dropout.

The point being, when you find a combination that works, run with it. And because most hunters like to fish, and most fishermen like to hunt, why not put the two together?

Sure, hunting takes priority in the fall. After all, hunting seasons typically last only a few short months. But, if you shoot your limit of ducks in the morning and don’t have to be in the treestand until late afternoon, why not go throw a few casts?

I love fall fishing and always carry a rod and a little tackle with me if I ever travel for a hunt. I pack light — one rod and a small tacklebox — and forgo the hassle and expense of live bait. I rely on a small cadre of lures that catch fish whether I’m headed to Harding County to hunt pronghorn or Day County to chase widgeon.

Below is what I carry, a few reasons why, and how I fish them.

Soft-Plastic Swimbaits

I love swimbaits. They’ll catch fish under almost all conditions. They’re a “super lure” in my opinion.

It’s critical to learn how to rig a soft-plastic swimbait correctly. Pull up a YouTube video and invest two minutes of your time. I’m an ardent believer that a perfectly rigged swimbait is a must. It’s poetry in the water when rigged right.

Swimbaits come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and they’re a versatile tool that can catch a variety of fish, sometimes all in the same location.

A swimbait can be fished several ways. Typically, I like to retrieve it as slow as possible on a straight reel. I want to take in line fast enough to keep the paddle tail wagging, but slow enough so that it’s easy for fish to track and find.

I don’t rig swimbaits over 3 inches long on regular jig heads. Their hook shafts are too short, and I hook less fish with them. I use specialized jig heads that have a longer hook shaft and a sturdier hook, such as those made by Missile and VMC brands.

As far as swimbait bodies go, a variety is available. My favorites are Strike King Rage Swimmers and Keitech Swing Impacts. I’ve tried several brands, but these are my favorites. To me, they’re not too stiff or too pliable. They put out a medium wobble that swims well at a slow to medium-slow retrieve. I use 3.75-inch sizes most of the time.

White or white/gray are my favorite colors. For reasons I don’t understand, fish hit white swimbaits. For that reason alone, I keep it simple and inexpensive and stick with white.

I like to throw swimbaits over a fairly uniform depth, if possible. I’d rather make a cast parallel to the shore or along the side of a point where the depth is relatively consistent and shallow then to throw straight out into deep water. There is no hard rule, but targeting 8 feet or less is optimal for swimbaits.

By bracketing yourself into a uniform depth, you can fine-tune your presentation and cover water thoroughly. Throw a few casts and let the swimbait sink to the bottom before retrieving. If you get no takers, make the exact casts again, except this time count the swimbait down a few seconds and try retrieving it midway through the water column. Let the fish tell you where they are.

Also, always guide your swimbait past anomalies in the water, such as an isolated weed bed, tree branch, boat dock, big rock, old tire — anything that breaks up the monotony of the shoreline. If you can make a cast parallel to the shoreline that also runs along a weed edge, good things will happen.

Walleyes, smallmouth bass and pike are great candidates for fall swimbaits. Often, they’ll be using the same piece of shallow structure. Once you’ve caught all the fish in one spot, move to a similar spot down the shoreline and repeat your approach.

TIP: A dab of Gorilla Glue will help keep the swimbait’s body snug to the jig head.

Kastmaster

The venerable Kastmaster is an undervalued lure. It’s caught fish for decades and shows no signs of slowing down. It’s simply a versatile, proven fish-catcher that’s easy to use.

I carry 1/8- and 1/4-ounce sizes. My favorite is blue/silver. It’s my confidence color, and I’ve always done well with it. But, I’ll also throw fire-tiger, orange and plain silver to mix things up.

As I see it, Kastmasters can be retrieved three ways: straight reel, reel in with small jerks, and reel in with big jerks. Ninety-five percent of the time I opt for No. 2, reeling in with small jerks.

Reeling while mixing in a few small jerks — sometimes gentle ones, sometimes violent ones — works best. Small jerks augment the lure’s already-great natural action. This unpredictability of movement triggers bites.

Big jerks work in certain situations. I’ll do this if I’m trying to imitate a dying baitfish. Most fish will hit as your Kastmaster falls on a limp line after the large jerk.

A straight reel will be the ticket at times, but imparting a little action of my own has always worked best for me.

Anytime I find clear water, a Kastmaster is an option. It’s truly a lure that I tie on thinking, “Let’s see what’s biting.” However, like many folks, I often target walleyes.

I like to throw Kastmasters wherever snags are not a problem. Sandy beaches, treeless points and back bays often fit this niche. Because I often retrieve a Kastmaster close to the bottom, I like a clean area. The lure’s treble hook can hang up or collect weeds and moss, which kills its action.

However, I’m not afraid to throw one around snags. I’m just more conscious when I reel it in about keeping the lure higher in the water column, above any trees, rocks or weed beds. Walleyes will tuck into tough cover at times, and a Kastmaster waggling above can draw them out.

TIP: If you’re using line like Fireline, add a 16-inch fluorocarbon tippet. The treble hooks on Kastmasters often get fouled in limper super lines or braids when imparting a jerking action, and adding the stiffer fluorocarbon leader prevents this.

Spoons

Spoons, known by the Dardevle brand name to some, are an oldie but a goodie. They’ve been around for years for one reason — they freaking work.

The retrieve principles for Kastmasters hold true for spoons. However, I’ll straight reel a spoon way more often then I will a Kastmaster. I have confidence in a straight-reeled spoon.

I carry small spoons, nothing exceeding 3 inches. I’m super simple on colors, as all I use is the patented red-and-white. I buy a five-pack of red-and-white spoons at Scheels for around $6, and I’m set.

It’s no secret that spoons work great for northern pike. If I’m in pike waters and looking for action, spoons are hard to beat.

Casting shallow bays and paralleling weed beds is a tough pattern to beat. It will produce pike, especially in smaller lakes, reservoirs and stock dams where pike are less likely to relate to deep water and forage.

Conversely, if you’re fishing a small reservoir that is rip-rapped with rock, fish that area as well. Throw parallel to the rocks, staying shallow, and flutter your spoon around at different speeds. Pike, walleye, smallmouth, catfish and other species often stage on the rock benches of the dam grade.

I carry 3-inch spoons, but if you’re targeting pike alone, feel free to upsize. I use small spoons because I have a better chance of nailing an eater-size walleye or smallmouth on them. This time of year, I’m all about bonus incidental catches.

TIP: Cheap spoons work great, but their hooks are subpar. Spend a few bucks and add quality hooks. I’m a big believer in good hooks.

Husky Jerk

The Rapala Husky Jerk has replaced the floating Rapala in my tackle box. Its action and ability to suspend won me over years ago. Also, it’s heavier than other minnow-style baits, and the added weight makes all the difference when casting into the wind.

I retrieve it three ways: reel in with a slow, straight reel; reel in with small jerks; or reel in with huge, slashing jerks. All work at times.

Experimentation is required, but don’t be afraid to try some huge, slashing jerks followed by a pause. I really like this retrieve in the fall for smallmouth bass, walleye and northern pike.

TIP: If you’re fishing northern pike waters, use a steel or heavy fluorocarbon leader. I hate losing a $7 lure when I can prevent it.

Ned Rig

The Ned rig is new to my tackle box. It’s a roundish, mushroom-shaped jig head with a small, soft stickbait attached to it. The roundish head and buoyant stickbait allow it to rest near upright on the bottom. It looks sort of like your pinky finger waving hello to the fish, and they can’t seem to resist it.

It doesn’t look like much, but a Ned rig can be devastating on smallmouth bass. Fishing with a Ned rig takes some patience, however, as you’re not supposed to fish it like a normal jig. Rather, its buoyant body is meant to rest upright on the bottom and wave hello to the fish.

I started using the Ned rig a few years ago for smallmouth. Boy, does it crush them, especially on sand or gravel bottoms. It’s my go-to smallie lure.

However, I started catching sheepshead, walleye, pike, catfish, etc., all while bass fishing. These incidental catches gave me confidence in this presentation. I’m still learning, but the Ned rig is a keeper.

I like the Z-Man brand of jig heads and bodies. The bodies are buoyant and extremely durable.

TIP: Fishing it like a normal jig reduces its effectiveness. Fish it slow, and let it sit on the bottom and undulate. Patience is required.

Conclusion

While hunting still takes priority in the fall, sneaking off to catch a few fish can round out any outdoorsman’s day like it did for the author’s father, pictured here with a slab crappie. Photo by Chris Nelson

I’ll always have one or two regional specials in my fall tackle box. For example, when I’m pronghorn hunting in Harding County, I’ll stick a spinnerbait in my box for bass at Gardner Lake. If I’m near a tailrace along the Missouri, I’ll tuck a few finesse tails in for walleye. I like to be prepared, but not overburdened.

But, fishing isn’t my priority this time of year. It’s the Robin to my hunting Batman. Yet, it’s a tag-team opportunity I can’t pass up. And neither should you.

Fish well, my friends.

About the Author: Chris Nelson is an avid fisherman and freelance writer from Pierre, S.D.