Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Fall is that special time of year when the weather cools down, the leaves change color and Hoosier sportsmen begin to think about hunting. But it’s also an excellent time for fishermen to cash in on some fantastic late-season angling action, so don’t put that fishing tackle away for the year just yet.
Many game fish species really put on the feedbag at this time of year in preparation for a long, hard winter. Some of the most notable and popular are largemouth bass, striped bass and muskies. Other fish, like Lake Michigan’s bruiser salmon, enter the shallows in the fall in search of their spawning grounds and provide a short-lived but very exciting fishery.
This last burst of excellent open-water fishing is accompanied not only by cooler, pleasant weather, but also by less-crowded lakes. Lines at the boat ramp are generally a thing of the past after Labor Day. Luckily, the fishing isn’t affected, and at times it can be red-hot. The only tough decision is to decide where to fish.
Although good fishing abounds in our great state, Indiana Game & Fish magazine has singled out six places that should not be ignored this fall. They include Patoka Lake for largemouth bass, Lake Michigan for chinook salmon, Webster Lake for giant muskies, Sullivan Lake for saugeyes, Brookville Lake for striped bass and Starve Hollow Lake for largemouth bass.
The early fishing action is usually the best, both in time of day and time of the month. By the beginning of September, loose schools of big chinook salmon have arrived at many of the harbor entrances and creek mouths, and these early-arriving fish are much more aggressive and eager to hit a lure than they will be by the end of the month.
Lake Michigan’s salmon seek out the places where they were stocked, and they mill around and stage in those areas for days or even weeks. Some of these places include the mouth of Trail Creek in Michigan City, the mouth of Burns Waterway in Portage, Whiting Park in Whiting and the Indiana Ship Canal/Inland Steel breakwall near East Chicago. The fish at Trail Creek and Burns Waterway will eventually run up the creeks when conditions are right, while the other fish will continue to mill around in the harbors until they are caught or find a spot to spawn and finally die.
One of the big reasons fishermen pursue fall chinook is that they are so big. Everyone likes big fish, and average-sized kings at this time of year are 16 to 18 pounds. Big ones are 20 pounds or more. Every year there are even giants in the 25- to 30-pound class caught in Indiana waters, and those are trophies in anyone’s book.
Fall chinook can be caught on a variety of artificial lures, but diving plugs with internal rattles are among the most productive. The best lure colors often change daily, but traditionally hot colors include silver, black, chartreuse, green and pearl. These plugs can be set as flat lines, set deep off of the downriggers or run behind diving disks. Spoons and dodger/fly combinations are also good, especially when run off downriggers.
Convenient places to launch your boat when chasing these fish include the Hammond Marina in Hammond, Pastrick Marina in East Chicago, the Portage Marina on Burns Waterway in Portage and near Washington Park in Michigan City. The wind and weather will often dictate where you can fish, so choose your launch site appropriately.
Jim Bagnoli, the Indiana public relations director for Muskies, Inc. and a board member of the Hoosier Musky Hunters, says Webster Lake is hard to beat when it comes to size and numbers of fish. Although other lakes like nearby Tippecanoe are also good for giant fish, Bagnoli gives Webster the nod. “Right now, Webster is probably the best muskie lake in the state,” he said. “Lake Tippecanoe has fish just as big as Webster does, but it just doesn’t have the same numbers.”
Jim Bagnoli is not only a spokesman for muskie fishing and related issues but is also an avid muskie fisherman. “Fishing action for muskies across the state of Indiana is probably the best it’s ever been,” he continued. “And it’s the same for Webster. Although in the fall you can have days when you’ll get blanked, you will also have days when you can catch up to six fish. On a good fall day on Webster, you’ll put a couple fish in the boat, and don’t be surprised if the fish are 40 to 48 inches long.” When it comes to describing muskie action, that says it all.
However, before you can catch one of Webster’s muskies, you have to find them. In the fall, Bagnoli suggests fishing edges and dropoffs. Weed edges are easy to find early in the season, and dropoffs should be found with a depthfinder. As the season progresses and the weeds begin to die off, use your electronics to find submerged weeds.
“The other thing I would do is look for baitfish,” he said. “A lot of times, when you find baitfish, you’ll find muskies.”
It’s not unusual to find schools of baitfish with your electronics at this time of year, and they may be in deep water. If they are suspended only 5 or 10 feet from the surface, cast large crankbaits around the edges of the school. Big muskies often lurk only a short distance away, waiting to pounce on any wayward baitfish.
Try bucktails and large spinnerbaits along the weed edges, but don’t overlook jerkbaits. Sometimes oversized jerkbaits can be deadly. Bagnoli also uses large rubber baits in the fall. “They look more like a sucker or a live fish because of the way the plastic is formed,” he explained. “At this time of year, good colors include perch, gray and white, black and white, and black and chartreuse. Even motor oil color seems to work pretty well.”
One of the big things to remember when fishing for Webster muskies is to look for stable weather patterns. The more consistent the
weather at this time of year is, the better the fishing is. If a cold front does come through, slow down your bait presentation and keep in mind that the fish will be less aggressive.
Although striped bass are not native to Indiana, they have adapted well to the open waters of Brookville. Sustained stocking efforts by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have resulted in a strong fishery that provides nearly year-round angling opportunities for this sleek game fish.
September is one of the best months to target Brookville’s stripers, too. As the water cools, schools of big stripers move from deep water to shallower coves and creek arms and become more active. Heavy fall rains can trigger a feeding binge in these creek arms, especially where silt-laden water enters the lake.
Since Brookville has a very dense shad population, lures that imitate small shad are very effective. Although resident walleyes and largemouth bass eat their share of shad, the voracious stripers are probably the main shad predator. Chrome crankbaits and silver spoons are among the top artificial lures.
Striped bass have gained a reputation as a tough customer over the years because of their speed and brute strength. They also have very tough mouths, so it can be difficult to get a good hookset when they do hit. Once hooked, they take off like a freight train and can easily destroy inferior tackle. Make sure your fishing line is fresh and that there are no nicks in the line. Stripers in the 10- to 12-pound class are caught regularly here.
Expansive lily pad beds cover much of this shallow lake’s 145 acres, and the bass use this cover to avoid the midday sun and ambush unsuspecting baitfish. Fishermen cruise the edges of the pads and work weedless lures over the surface in hopes of tempting one of the lake’s trophy-sized largemouths.
Shannon Winks, the assistant property manager at Starve Hollow SRA, says the bass fishing on the lake is good, depending on whom you talk to. “Some of the bass fishermen have really good luck, and they like to fish the lily pads,” she explained. “If you know how to fish them, you can have excellent luck.”
One local angler, Ralph Coda Jr., catches lots of bass at Starve Hollow. “We’ve got pictures on the wall here of a gentleman (Coda) who catches big bass every year, and he releases all of them,” Winks said. “One photo shows him with a 7-pound bass, and another shows him with an 8-pound bass.”
A recent problem with Starve Hollow’s fishery is that shad have been illegally introduced to the lake. Although these baitfish have only been noticed in the last three or four years, they are already starting to cause problems. A short-term benefit of the shad is that the lake’s big bass will continue to get bigger as they gorge on shad, but only for a while. In the long run, the shad will likely overpopulate and completely ruin the lake’s good fishing. Property managers are already considering renovating the lake’s fishery sometime in the future.
There are three boat ramps available to anglers here, but boats can use electric trolling motors only. Boats can be rented here, too. According to Winks, the rentals are typically still available in September. “It usually goes from May until October, but it depends on the concessionaire,” she said. For more information, call Starve Hollow SRA at (812) 358-3464.
Saugeyes are a hybrid species, the result of crossing a male sauger with a female walleye. In general, saugeyes look very similar to walleyes. They often have faint blotches on their sides (similar to saugers), and they have a white streak on the lower edge of their tail. They do not have a white corner on the lower lobe of their tail like a walleye.
When asked how Sullivan’s saugeye population was faring, the DNR’s District 6 fisheries biologist, Brian Schoenung, replied that it was very strong. “In the sampling that we did last summer (2001), we caught saugeyes up to 25 inches in length,” he said. “Those fish probably weighed 6 or 7 pounds, and there’s quite a few fish over the 14-inch size limit. They’re really growing well out there.
“Most of the saugeyes are caught incidentally while people are fishing for crappies. If you can fish down through the crappies, you can catch saugeyes,” he said. Fishermen who are targeting saugeyes often troll crankbaits and bounce large jigs off of the points out in the lake.
Currently, the DNR is stocking 100 saugeyes per acre at Sullivan. In the past, the stocking rate was 50 fish per acre. Schoenung explained that in 1995 the stocking program was switched from saugeyes to walleyes to see if the walleyes would do as well as the saugeyes. The stocking rate was also switched from 50 to 100 fish per acre.
“We did a creel survey in 1998, and the results were unflattering, to say the least,” he said. “So we switched back to saugeyes in 1998, and we kept the stocking rate at 100 per acre, which is twice what it was in the past. We had a successful fishery before, so now it’s even more successful, with lots of hungry saugeyes out there.”
Bass fishermen flock to Patoka, but not for the scenery. They are interested in catching some of the trophy-sized largemouth bass that inhabit the lake. One of those anglers is Tim Gibson, who is also a local fishing guide and an expert bass fisherman. According to Gibson, fall is prime time to pursue Patoka bass.
“September is a fantastic month for buzzbait surface action around here,” he said. “It’s one of the best surface months on this lake, as far as I’m concerned.”
Besides surface buzzbaits and jerkbaits, Gibson also likes to fish the lake’s gra
ssbeds with soft-plastic baits. “We use plastic worms, tubes, flukes and lizards, in and around the main lake’s grassbeds,” he said. “You’ll catch several smaller bass under 2 pounds, but you’ll really catch some good 4- to 6-pounders in the grassbeds, with a chance for an 8-pounder.”
Although a lot of the productive grassbeds are out in the main lake, there are also good grassbeds in the smaller fingers, like at Lick Fork. According to Gibson, there are several very good grassbeds in the Patoka River itself, too. “If you can find some adjoining timber, it’s 10 times better,” he said.
There are plenty of boat ramps all around the lake, too, and that makes launching a boat very convenient. If you need fishing supplies, bait, lodging, etc., or just want more information on the lake, call Patoka Lake Marina at (888) 819-6916.
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