Michigan's Fall Fishing Hotspots

Autumn could be the best time of year to catch salmon, walleyes and a bunch of other species. You can't go wrong by fishing these waters.

Beautiful fall colors are just one reason to fish for coho salmon on the Big Manistee River. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

By Mike Gnatkowski

It was about a month after returning from a weeklong float trip down a river in Alaska when I was guiding some clients for salmon on the Big Manistee River near Wellston. It was a bright, sunny early October day, and the fall foliage was ablaze with spectacular colors. The hillsides along the river were made up of a diversity of foliage types, and the result was a collage of stunning colors. Brilliant red maples, golden aspens, beeches and oaks adding shades of orange, purple vines clinging to the streamside trees all against the soft, contrasting greens of the white pines - the scene was breathtaking.

And to top it off, feisty coho salmon were keeping our rods bent with regularity. The belligerent cohos would chase the spinners in marauding packs of three or four suitors before one would snatch the prize and shake it like a dog with a new bone. Realizing his error, the crimson-sided salmon would then erupt into an end-over-end series of cartwheels before bulldogging for bottom or the protection of a logjam, and only after a spirited battle would they grudgingly come to the net.

"You know," I waxed philosophically to my customers after landing our sixth coho, "other than the mountains, I didn't see anything any prettier in Alaska than what you're seeing today. And we didn't catch many more or any bigger cohos than you're catching today. And to think that this is within four or five hours of millions of people is really amazing. We need to count our blessings."

Everyone nodded in agreement.

Michiganders are definitely lucky when it comes to fishing. We have a quality and diversity of fishing not found anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on how you look at it - Michigan boasts a number of other outdoor activities to grab your attention in the fall. It's hard to tear yourself away from the bowhunting, upland bird hunting and waterfowling to take advantage of the great fall fishing. But I'd be willing to bet that if you give the following destinations a try this fall, you'll be adding them to your autumn itinerary.

BIG MANISTEE RIVER COHOS

The "Big M" is famous for its huge runs of fall chinook salmon and steelhead. Anglers come from all over the country to sample the river's great fall fishing. The Big Manistee also hosts a modest run of coho salmon. The cohos are the result of annual plants that are being made in the river, in addition to natural reproduction that is now taking place as a result of run-of-the-river regulations.

The cohos show up in early October between the time when the chinook run is winding down and the fall steelhead have yet to arrive in significant numbers. The cohos can be caught in the lower portions of the river, but they become more concentrated on the gravel flats near Bear Creek and High Bridge. Pre-spawn cohos can be found in slackwater areas adjacent to the gravel, especially around cover. The cohos love bright, flashy spinners in gold and silver with red, orange or pink tape. Key is to cast the spinner across the current, allowing the spinner to swing in a wide arc while retrieving slowly. No. 5 spinners, either homemade or brands like Double Loon or Mepps, work well on the cohos. Most of the salmon will run in the 4- to 8-pound range, but bigger fish are common.

For information on accommodations and amenities, contact the Manistee Area Visitors & Convention Bureau at 1-888-584-9860 or online at www.manistee.com.

BURT LAKE WALLEYES

"October is a great time to hit Burt Lake for walleyes," said avid angler Ron Hanna. "I don't do a lot of walleye fishing in the fall, but when I have, we've done really well on Burt Lake. The fish aren't huge, but most of them will average from 20 to 23 or 24 inches."

Hanna said the fishing is uncomplicated. He usually just drifts with a 1/4-ounce white leadhead jig tipped with a good-sized gray or blue shiner minnow. A methodical 6-inch lift-and-drop technique is usually what the walleyes want.

Burt Lake, at 17,260 acres, is located in west-central Cheboygan County. The lake sees a fair amount of fishing pressure during the summer months, but fall finds the lake nearly deserted. Look for walleyes to patrol the 25-foot ledge off Colonial Point on the west side and off Bullhead Bay where the Maple and Crooked rivers enter the lake. The entire shoreline from Greenman Point to Dagwell Point in 10 to 30 feet of water can be productive for walleyes, too.

Anglers can launch at Maple State Forest Campground on the west side or at Burt Lake State Park on the south end of Burt Lake. For more information, contact the Indian River Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Bureau at (231) 238-9325 or online at www.irchamber.com.

PETOSKEY MENOMINEES

The Bear River enters Little Traverse Bay at Petoskey after exiting Walloon Lake in Charlevoix County. The river sees annual runs of steelhead and salmon that make their way up to Mitchell Dam. The salmonids draw a crowd when they stage off the mouth of the river, but it's a much smaller member of the whitefish family that can provide some excellent eating and some great fall sport.

"The mouth of the Bear River at Petoskey can be a great spot for menominees in October after the salmon spawn," said Ron Hanna.

The diminutive round whitefish average about a pound and 13 inches, but specimens pushing 17 or 18 inches aren't uncommon. The scrappy whitefish are spirited fighters, and fried up golden brown are a treat on the table.

Hanna uses a slip-sinker, 4-pound-test leader and a No. 10 Aberdeen hook baited with single salmon eggs for the menominees. Boil the eggs for a minute so you can thread them on a hook. Use a handful every once in a while to attract the schools of foraging whitefish. The menominees are delicate bait stealers, so you need to hold your rods and be ready for the lightening-quick strike. If you feel them on the first tap, you might catch them. Wait for the second tap, and they'll have cleaned your hook.

For information on amenities and accommodations, contact the Petoskey-Harbor Springs-Boyne Country Visitors Bureau at 1-800-845-2828 or online at www.boynecountry.com.

SKEGEMOG LAKE MUSKIES

Kalkaska County's Skegemog Lake is part of a chain of lakes that includes Elk, Torch, Clam, Intermediate, Bellaire and others. There is a lot of m

ovement between lakes by the muskies that reside in them. Skegemog, at 2,561 acres, is the shallowest of the chain, and when the lakes begin to cool in the fall, hungry muskies naturally gravitate to the shallow dinner table.

"The muskies in the chain migrate into the shallower lakes, like Skegemog, in the fall to feed," said fishing guide Dave Rose. "In Torch and Elk, the muskies feed mainly on whitefish and herring. In Skegemog, they're eating panfish and other fish, like suckers."

Rose said that Skegemog is not capable of producing 50-pound muskies, but you will find fish in the 30-pound range, and fall is the best time of the year to catch them. Rose likes to chuck big in-line spinners, spinnerbaits, jerkbaits and body baits when the muskies are active in the fall. Prime locations on Skegemog then are on the south end where Desmond, Vargason and Baker creeks enter the lake. Muskies can also be found patrolling the 10- to 15-foot flats on that end. Another hotspot is the dropoff directly off the public access on the southwest side.

For information on accommodations and amenities in the area, contact the Elk Rapids Chamber of Commerce at (231) 264-8202 or online at www.elkrapidschamber.org. For hot baits, tackle and fishing info, contact Jack's Sport Shop at (231) 258-8892.

HAMLIN LAKE BLUEGILLS

Once famous for its big bluegills, Mason County's Hamlin Lake 'gills fell on hard times during the late 1990s. Many pointed to the growing population of walleyes that the lake supported as the culprit. Now the trend has reversed. Hamlin Lake's walleye population is on the skids and the bluegills have come back big time. And early fall is one of the best times to catch a stringer full of slabs.

My son Matt and I were duck hunting one fall when a boat from across the lake came zooming in our direction. The boat came closer and closer until the surprised angler was sitting in our decoys. He couldn't figure out why the birds didn't move. He told us we were set up in his favorite bluegill spot. I told him that it was also our favorite duck hunting spot. He had taken limits of 8-inch 'gills from there the last few days. The area featured a deep weedbed in about 15 feet of water. Areas like this are great places to search for fall bluegills on Hamlin. The bluegills begin moving in from deep water as the waters cool in September to feed on the aquatic insects living in the vegetation. Suspend a teardrop baited with a wax worm under a bobber 10 feet down and you're in business. A piece of night crawler works, too. Most of the bluegills run right around 8 inches.

Hamlin Lake, at 5,000 acres, is made up of two basins. The Upper Lake is relatively shallow, while the Lower Lake can reach depths in excess of 70 feet. Both places harbor schools of good bluegills in the fall if you concentrate on the weed edges in 15 feet of water. Try the area along "The Narrows" and off the dunes, and also along the southwest shore of the Lower Lake.

For boat rental and lodging, contact Country Haven Resort at (231) 845-5882, or North Bayou Resort and Marina at (231) 845-5820 or on the Web at www.nbayou.com.

MICHIGAN CENTER LAKE LARGEMOUTHS

Many Michigan anglers think of bass fishing as being a summertime endeavor, but if you do you're missing out on some great fall fishing.

"Michigan Center Lake has some great fall largemouth fishing," claimed professional bass angler Duane Mroczka. During a September tournament on Michigan Center a few years ago Mroczka nailed a largemouth that tipped the scales at 4.98 pounds to win the $2,500 big-fish prize. Mroczka said that largemouths in the 5-pound range are common.

Mroczka said his favorite technique for fall largemouths on Michigan Center Lake is flippin' with a black jig-and-pig and a Zoom Worm trailer. Mroczka said to skitter and hop the jig along the bottom to imitate the crayfish that the bass are keying on. If the bass are targeting minnows, Mroczka said it's pretty hard to beat a white spinnerbait.

Michigan Center Lake is part of a chain of lakes that includes Big Wolf, Little Wolf, Big Olcott, Little Olcott, Round and Price lakes. Although any place on 850-acre Michigan Center Lake can hold bass, Mroczka advised concentrating on the flats with stumps in the fall. The shallows warm quickly, and bass will look to them for active schools of minnows and crayfish among the stumps. Try the shallow stumpfields on the south end. Another hotspot is along Duryeas Point on the opposite end of the lake. Try around Goat Island, too.

There is a state-owned launch ramp on the northeast side of the lake. For information on amenities and accommodations in the area, contact the Jackson Convention & Tourist Bureau at 1-800-245-5282 or online at www.jackson-mich.org.

WIXOM LAKE LARGEMOUTHS

Wixom Lake, at 1,980 acres, is in Gladwin and Midland counties and offers anglers another topnotch bass fishery, according to Duane Mroczka.

"Wixom Lake fishes pretty good in the fall," said Mroczka. "During a tournament in September there we caught a mixed bag of largemouths and smallmouths. And you can catch 'em just about any way you want, from topwaters to flippin.' "

Mroczka said the key to finding concentrations of bass on Wixom in early fall is to concentrate on points off the main river channel. The bass will be chasing the schools of baitfish that stage there, which gradually move back into the shallow cuts as the water cools. Wixom is an impoundment of the Tittabawassee River, so there are plenty of stumps and timber.

Depending on the conditions, Mroczka said that just about any technique will produce on Wixom during the fall. Topwater action can be fantastic if the water is calm and warm. Flippin' with a jig-and-pig combo near the stumps can be very effective. Mroczka also rates crawfish imitators and Senkos highly. White spinnerbaits excel in the turbid water of Wixom, too. You'll find largemouths that will, on occasion, push 7 pounds, and smallies that routinely top 5 pounds.

There is a state-owned access on the east shore. For information on lodging, amenities and bait shops, contact the Midland County Convention & Tourism Bureau at 1-888-464-3526 or online at www.midlandcvb.org.

LITTLE BAY DE NOC WALLEYES

The waters of Little Bay de Noc in the central Upper Peninsula are known for producing outstanding catches of walleyes throughout the year, but if you want a trophy for the wall, bundle up and head for the bay in November.

Open-water fishing in the U.P. in November can be brutal, but the rewards are walleyes that routinely top 10 pounds, and 15-pound hawgs are not unheard of. Walleyes move into the shallows of the bay when the water temperatures begin to dip into the upper 30s to chow down before winter hits. The cold temperatures make slow trolling a must, and anglers creep along at 1 to 1.5 mph when trolling. The walleyes can be found suspended or holding tight to bottom. Anglers cover the water column by deploying shallow-set downriggers, l

ead-core line and in-line planers trailing stickbaits, like Rebels, Rattlin' Rogues and Storm ThunderSticks. Natural colors seem to produce the best.

Schools of walleyes can be found throughout the bay along the 30- to 40-foot contour, but reefs and subtle humps will hold concentrations of fish. Try off the beach house at Gladstone City Park, along the East Bank and along the reefs off Kipling.

For more information on Bay de Noc walleyes, contact Bayshore Resort at (906) 428-9687 or online at www.bay-shore-resort.com.

PEAVY POND

MUSKIES & PIKE

Peavy Reservoir, also known as Peavy Pond, is a 3,500-acre impoundment of the Michigamme River in Iron County. The lake is home to plenty of panfish, walleyes and white suckers, which make perfect fodder for the lake's burgeoning population of muskies and pike. Peavy Pond receives modest fishing pressure during the summer months, but come fall, Yoopers' minds are on grouse and deer. On most fall days the lake is deserted, and that's one of the best times to fool the lake's toothy critters.

Peavy Pond supports both a remnant population of tiger muskies, as well as northern muskies that occasionally top 50 inches. Northern pike in the pond are numerous but tend to run between just legal and 30 inches. Twenty-pound monsters aren't unheard of, though.

A good area to try for both species is near a cluster of islands right off the access maintained by the Wisconsin Electric Company at the end of Lake Mary Road off M-69. Set up a trolling pattern with big Rapala Husky Jerks and other oversized stickbaits, and weave your way around the dropoffs surrounding the islands. Also concentrate on the old river channel, and the narrows north and east of the launch. If the sun is shining and you just want to kick back, throw a big sucker out below a big float.

For more details, contact the Crystal Falls Department of Natural Resources at (906) 875-6622.

* * *

Fall is a perplexing time for Michigan outdoors folks. So many things to do, and so little time. But you'd be wise not to put your fishing tackle away too soon.



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