No matter how you define it, we are now in the fall season. But below the surface of our Nebraska waters, fall started weeks ago.
There are many reasons why fall is one of my favorite times to be on the water, but the biggest reason is it simply is one of the best times of the year to catch big fish. Fish feed heavily in the fall — there is a long winter coming and they need to get ready. In addition, many species are already beginning to develop next season’s eggs and milt, and need to build up their energy for that.
Even as autumn waters cool, fish remain relatively active and feed heavily. Finding enough prey to eat and grow is the primary driver of fish behavior most of the year, and I always think of fish location and behavior in terms of predator-prey dynamics. What are they eating? Where is that prey located? Where is the greatest concentration of prey? That is my oversimplified reply to every fishing situation; the first challenge is finding fish and where their prey is, there they will be. That is most true in the fall.
So, how can that be applied on Nebraska waters? Find the prey, and the fish we seek, especially predator fish, will be nearby. Let me give a few examples.
Aquatic vegetation: Some reservoirs (especially small and medium-sized flood-control reservoirs), pits and ponds, and sandhill lakes are home to submerged vegetation, which is very productive and full of a variety of prey during the summer. In the fall, submerged aquatic vegetation begins to die, exposing a host of small fish, aquatic insects and other food organisms. The fish we like to catch take advantage by patrolling outside edges of beds of submerged aquatic vegetation. Look especially for pockets of aquatic vegetation that may remain green longer into the fall, as any remaining cover will concentrate prey and feeding fish. Inside corners and edges of vegetation beds near steep drops can be particularly good.
Big reservoirs: Our larger reservoirs are entirely different habitats, and most of those waters have very little submerged aquatic vegetation, especially with summer drawdowns. However, those waters are no less productive and are full of millions (literally) of young-of-the-year open-water baitfish like gizzard shad and alewives. The abundance of those oily, spineless, delectable snacks make for well-fed and difficult-to-catch predator fish during the summer. In the fall, Nebraska reservoirs are still full of an abundance of those open-water baitfish, but abundances are less than their summer peaks. That and predator fish on the feed make fall a better window for catching fish.
In general, baitfish and predator fish movements in large reservoirs will be towards deeper water as fall progresses. Baitfish tend to school up and move to deeper waters where water temperatures are more stable. However, in early fall, and even on warming trends in late fall, there can be baitfish movements into warmer, shallow water. Big predators follow.
If you are fishing from a boat, your depth-finder will show you where the baitfish schools are located, and likely there also will be some marks of big fish there, too. If you are not fishing with that technology, use your eyes. Baitfish flipping on the surface or even the presence of migrating gulls can tip you off to baitfish concentrations with monsters lurking nearby.
Go big or go home: I am a huge believer that big baits catch big fish. That is especially true in the fall for a couple of reasons: First, the natural baitfish have grown all summer long and are larger. Secondly, with the need to take in as much energy in the fall as possible, fish can gain more of that energy by eating large prey items. I am telling you, most anglers fish too small, way too small.
This time of year, you can find big fish just about anywhere. Of course the best way to catch big fish is to get out there and get fishing.