Sep 9, 2017

Following Fall Migrations 

By Larry Smith 

Fall is a season of change.  The days are growing shorter, temperatures are falling from their summer peaks, and trees begin to change into spectacular reds, yellows and oranges; setting the landscape ablaze with a seasonal color profile that is something to behold.  Fish are changing too.  They are preparing for the winter months by fattening up on abundant prey from the summer growing season.  When the autumn season rolls around, you can bet that baitfish will be migrating up river systems all across the state.  Fish are sure to follow.  

Now, everyone knows about the spring run for walleye, white bass, etc. in river systems all across the state.  Thousands of anglers flock to river systems in the spring to experience some of the best fishing of the season.  Let me tell you, the fall migration can be just as good if not better than the spring run.  A lot of sportsmen trade their fishing tackle for bows and shotguns this time of year, so you might be able to enjoy a little more elbowroom on the river in fall.  The key to this fall migration is baitfish and current.  Shiners, in particular, invade the rivers of the Winnebago system this time of year and game fish are sure to follow this abundant food source.  Not all game fish are created equal, however, and there are a number of factors that will determine what species actually make this migration, and the location of these fish once they have moved into the river. 

Walleye will be the main focus of this article, but I will also touch on the habits of crappies and smallmouth bass when it comes to river migration as well.   Although these three species make river migrations in fall, they differ slightly in their preference of lures and general location within the river system.  Let’s start with crappie.  

Minnows are a staple in the diet of crappie, so where there are baitfish in big numbers there are sure to be crappie.  A big factor that determines crappie location in rivers is current.  Crappie tend to shy away from strong current, so that’s why they are usually found around fallen trees and any kind of current breaks in the river with ample depth of water.  Strong current will push crappie into backwaters adjacent to the main river channel, but they will definitely be in the river system because of the supply of baitfish.  Crappie can be taken with a variety of presentations, including plastics, live bait, etc.  I have written previous articles for Badger Sportsman on crappie tactics in rivers along with producing videos on the subject as well.  Check out Larry Smith Outdoors on YouTube to see these techniques in action. 

Smallmouth bass also inhabit river systems, such as the Wolf on the Winnebago system, and make similar migrations into main river channel areas like crappie.  However, smallmouth bass do not shy away from stronger currents, and will be found in breaks and cover areas off of the main channel waiting to ambush the plentiful food source that has made its way into the river during the fall season.  Most of these fish spend the summer months in the smaller tributaries of larger river systems only to migrate down into the main river areas when the baitfish arrive.  Smallmouth are completely at home in current, and can be caught in good numbers on plastics, jigs, cranks and other presentations that have a baitfish profile during the fall season as they put on the feedbag in preparation for the cold winter months ahead.  

Finally, we come to the walleye.  Walleye make the same migration into river systems, just like crappie and smallmouth, following the seasonal migration of baitfish.  However, walleye need a couple of factors to be in place for this to happen.  There has to be a decent amount of current, and the water temperature has to be right to trigger the fall feeding binge that makes this situation appealing to anglers.  Walleye will not migrate into the river systems without the right amount of current.  I always say that current is like a magnetic force that brings fish up into the upper parts of river systems.  This holds true for walleye more than any other species mentioned.  If current flow is right, the fish will migrate. But, the factor of water temperature also has to be right for the bite to be on.  Water temps from 60-54 degrees are ideal for walleyes to begin feeding heavily in preparation of winter.  However, like we have seen the past few seasons on the rivers of the Winnebago system, above average water temperatures in fall will stall this walleye feeding binge.  Temps that don’t fall into the aforementioned range will have walleye thinking that the plentiful times of summer are still in play, and will result in the walleye having a relaxed approach to feeding.  It is possible that prolonged warmer temps in the crucial feeding period of fall can have a negative effect on walleye body mass.  When the temps finally do crash, the walleye will have lost valuable feeding time leading up to winter. 

When the factors of current and water temperature do come together in the right combination (and I hope they do this fall), fishing for walleye on river systems can be outstanding.   Staying vertical with jig and minnow combinations is probably the most effective combination this time of year, although plastics do have their time and place.  The bottom line is fish migrate into river systems in fall in pursuit of baitfish and the observant angler with knowledge of the right factors associated with this migration can take advantage of some great fishing.  Great fishing and great fall weather make each day of the season a great day to be alive!