By Mike Gnatkowski
I can understand why hunters get excited about the fall hunting seasons. You can’t really hunt 12 months out of the year like you can fish. After several months off you’re anxious to get back at it. I’m the same way, but I’ve learned to not give up on fishing in the fall. If you do you’re missing out some of the year’s best angling.
A number of things work in your favor in the fall. For one, there are fewer anglers on the water. Sportsmen are dividing their time between hunting and fishing, and many are choosing hunting.
As waters cool and become more oxygenated, fish get active. There’s an internal clock that tells fish tougher times are ahead and they need to pig out while they can. Some fish like salmon, brook trout, and brown trout spawn in the fall and are more readily available then, especially for river anglers.
Iron County brook trout
Fall is an ideal time to sample Iron County’s picturesque trout streams. Combine the brilliant fall colors, a cool autumn day, and orange-finned brook trout, and you have the very essence of autumn in the Upper Peninsula. Iron County boosts five Blue Ribbon trout streams that offer some of the best brook trout fishing in the state. The Paint, Cook’s Run, Iron, Fence, and Brule rivers are teeming with brookies. Fishing pressure is nil in September, bugs are gone, and the surviving trout have had a whole summer to fatten up in preparation for spawning. Waters may be low and clear, but a timely fall rain or two can jump-start the bite.
Brook trout migrate upstream in the fall often from the more expansive, deeper stretches of the river towards the headwaters. Places where beaver dams, rapids, logjams, or obstructions block their passage can be gold mines. There are few fish more colorful and resplendent in their fall spawning colors than a brook trout. I have very fond memories of brookies sputtering in bacon grease in a fry pan, too.
You can catch brookies any way you want. Flies, particularly terrestrial patterns, spinners, and live bait will all work. Wade slowly upstream and work the undercut banks and vegetation, or stalk the banks and quietly dabble here and there. Either method requires stealth.
The trout generally will run 7 to 9 inches, but trophies topping 16 inches are taken from Iron County streams every year. For more detail, contact the DNR Crystal Falls field office at (906) 875-6622.
Copper Harbor splake
A close relative of the brook trout, splake draw anglers to Copper Harbor in the fall. Splake are a cross between a brook trout and a lake trout, which are both members of the char family.
Splake are stocked in Copper Harbor and return in the fall to spawn. There’s evidence that the trout are reproducing naturally there, too. Their numbers peak in October. Splake take on the coloration of brook trout, but attain the size of laker. The result is a brilliantly colored, spunky sport fish.
Hall-of-Fame angler Mark Martin said the splake can be caught in Copper Harbor proper, but if those fish are stale there are plenty of fish outside the harbor.
“Troll with No. 10 or 12 Husky Jerks and locate schools of active fish,” Martin said. He added that the splake have an affinity for pink, smelt-colored, and silver stickbaits. Once you locate fish, cast jigging spoons in shades of pink, orange, and fire tiger. Use your trolling motor’s Spot-Loc feature to stay with active fish until the bite dies and then continue trolling to find more active pods.
The splake will run from just-legal size of 15 inches to 10 or 11 pounds and sport the white-edged fins and orange bellies typical of their brook trout ancestors.
Portage Lake walleyes
If you have your sights set on catching the walleye of a lifetime Martin advises making your way to Portage Lake this fall. Double-digit trophies are common catches in this Houghton County lake.
“There are some giant walleyes that migrate into Portage Lake from Keweenaw Bay and Lake Superior in the fall, “ Martin said. “They had a (professional walleye) tournament on Portage and offered a $1 million bounty for a new state record. They came pretty close with a 16-pound, 2-ounce monster. There are lots of fish topping 10 pounds that are caught there in the fall.”
Martin said you can cast jigs and plastics, troll with deep-diving crankbaits or use live bait rig with big chubs, shiners or suckers to catch Portage Lake walleyes.
The monster ’eyes are scattered around the lake and can be caught along points, reefs, and drop-offs out from Pike Bay, along US-41, off Grosse Point, and in Torch Bay.
Big Manistee steelhead
I’ve told friends and contemporaries that if I had only one type of fishing to do it probably would be fall fishing for steelhead. There’s something about a cartwheeling steelie attached to a frail leader that tests the skills of even the most seasoned angler. If you land half the fall steelhead you hook while bottom bouncing with spawn you’re doing well. Sensitive, long rods that help detect a steelie inhaling your spawn bag act like a shock absorber and give you a chance at landing a spastic chromer – if it doesn’t find a log first.
Although bottom-bouncing with spawn is a proven fall tactic, casting in-line spinners allows you to fish spots you wouldn’t think of fishing with spawn. During midday the rainbows will take cover near logs, undercut banks, and overhanging trees where you can’t fish with spawn, but you can cast a spinner.
Five- to seven-foot runs are ideal. Cast slightly upstream and allow the spinner to swing just above the cover. You’ll be shocked when a silver lightning bolt blasts up and crushes your hardware.
Try to set aside some time to spend on the water this fall. You won’t be disappointed.