Now comes the very best time of year for many sportsmen in the Great Plains for fall fishing. It’s a time when fishing success picks up considerably and when one can combine that with a hunt for game in the field as well.
By D.H. Willis
For anglers, the dog days are past and the fish are getting friskier and feeding more heavily. What follows are some of the very best fishing opportunities anglers can enjoy this time of year.
The salmonid species really pick up this time of year, and some of the best fishing in North America is in sprawling Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota.
Sakakawea salmon are well known in surrounding states, but the lake is underestimated as a salmon fishery across the rest of North America.
Picking up lots of fish this time of year is the norm, noted Terry Focke, who has years of experience on Sakakawea. He runs Terry’s Guide Service out of Pick City right by Garrison Dam.
“Salmon fishing is good,” advised Focke. The clear and cold water of Sakakawea makes a good habitat for salmon. And the prey fish now in the lake are good food for them.
In September Focke often fishes near the dam.
“Usually that east end of the dam,” he says, “in the deep water.”
Salmon try to spawn in Sakakawea, but they are unsuccessful in those attempts. That’s why the North Dakota Game and Fish Department stocks baby salmon every year to replenish the population.
But it is that attempt of salmon to spawn that Focke keys on. It concentrates them in particular areas of the lake, making them more catchable.
“Usually they are staging and trying to spawn, which of course they don’t do,” said Focke. “Where they are released is where they pretty much return.
These Missouri River salmon are Chinooks that live three or four years.
Other good Sakakawea spots to go after these fish in September are Rodeo Bay and Government Bay.
“They stock a lot of fish in there,” noted Focke. “That is on the east side of the lake. The west side has some bays, too. They do some stocking in there. Anywhere out in that area is good.”
The best Chinook fishing starts in late summer and then runs through September. Salmon move into shallower water and can be caught by shoreline anglers. But most of the action takes place farther out, with boat fishermen.
Salmon have been running 6 to 10 pounds. Last year Focke won a salmon tournament on Sakakawea, with his boat taking the 10 fish allowed. And the total weight was 76.5 pounds.
“Normally when they are deep you troll with downriggers,” he stated. “We use whole herring or a lot of them use squids or needlefish plastic bait. Sometimes with a flasher and sometimes without. A flasher is just an attractor ahead of it. When I fish herring I rarely use an attractor. I normally fish them naked, which is without an attractor ahead of it.”
The bite for other salmonids also picks up this time of year. In the Sakakawea tailrace there are trophy size cutthroat, brown and rainbow trout being caught. Trout range from 6-inchers to 10-pounders.
One of the first places autumn arrives is the northeast glacial lakes region of South Dakota.
These natural lakes tend to be shallow, so cool nights will lower the water temperatures relatively quickly. Some of the famous names here remain good — Kampeska, Enemy Swim and Waubay.
Lots of this can be fished very well from shoreline. Walleye are everywhere. As temperatures continue to drop the yellow perch fishing picks up clear through the freeze and ice-fishing season.
On Lake Francis Case and Lake Sharpe on the Missouri River, lots of walleyes are being taken in the 1- to 3-pound range.
“Usually they go on a binge going into fall,” reported Garry Allen, who guides out of Chamberlain.
This is also a good time to shore fish on these Missouri River lakes.
Allen runs a spinner and minnow, trolling and drifting from a boat. Fish are often in 15 to 20 feet of water.
As autumn progresses and the water continues cooling, the fishing pattern stays the same, said Allen, except everything slows down. The presentation, retrieve and drifting slows.
In addition to the good walleye fishing, anglers take excellent smallmouth bass here. It’s an under-rated fishery because most people still go after walleyes. But crayfish imitations catch very nice bass. And some anglers do well with fly rods and streamers this time of year.
One of the most beautiful fall fisheries lies in far western South Dakota in the Black Hills. Spearfish Canyon is a magnet for lovers of fall beauty.
All along this stretch are parking pull-off spots for anglers to go after mostly wild brown trout, but some rainbows and brookies.
The limestone cliffs rise above all this, and in late September and early October the aspens and birch turn yellow.
Trout are feeding now and this is fly fishing territory.
“September fishing is really good,” said Ryan Gabert, with Dakota Angler & Outfitter in Rapid City.
He especially recommends blue-winged olives for dry fly fishing. He uses sizes 18 and even 20s.
The main part of Spearfish Creek with the biggest water flows will hold bigger trout, but these sections also tend to have more particular trout. The smaller reaches upstream such as Hanna Creek and Little Spearfish Creek are also good, and can have fish a bit easier to entice.
“They are a lot less picky in the smaller creeks,” noted Gabert.
Fall flows are generally lower and the water can be exceptionally clear. So, fishing becomes something of a hunt and a stalk situation.
Some of this is catch-and-release water. And many fly fishermen here practice that even where not required.
Winter can come early. Once in the deep freeze the main fishing moves downstream into the city of Spearfish where it’s warmer and trout continue to be fishable clear into next spring.
The lakes along the I-80 interstate crossing Nebraska are bass and panfish havens. They have some of the best largemouth bass and bluegill fishing in Nebraska. They are also public fishing waters, so you can fish them without getting anyone’s permission.
Their locations and details are available on the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission website. The lakes were created when the interstate was built.
“The key is how to get to them,” said Steve Satra, with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. “Some are a little difficult to get to.
That’s where the maps and directions on the website come in handy. And for a quick fish, some of these lakes are located right next to the road and are easy to fish.
Beside the classic largemouth-bluegill combination, a lot of these also have good crappie fishing.
The I-80 lakes are perfect for fishing with float tubes. And some anglers use smaller craft that can be easily launched, such as kayaks or the small pontoon floaters. The wind does rush through here, and the lower the boat and fisherman profile, the better. More launching ramps are also being gradually installed in prime locations, says Satra.
For bigger water and a different environment in September, Satra recommends big Lake McConaughy. It’s a prime walleye fishery, and angler numbers dwindle this time of year in the sparsely populated southwest.
Another top walleye fishery right now is Merritt Reservoir in northern Nebraska. Alewife prey species from the Great Lakes were introduced here, and they have proven a good food for walleyes.
The alewife grow up to 9 inches in length and are eaten even at that large size by lunker walleyes.
“They are very prolific as far as prey fishes,” said Satra. “The big walleyes will eat them. They are just the right body shape to slide right down. Walleyes will settle down right under them.”
Most fishermen are jigging spoons, said Satra. “At this time of year the fish are putting on their winter groceries,” he said. “The water temperature is still pretty warm. They see some flash and they are looking at schools of alewife and shad. They will come up and nail it.”
These alewife are also in McConaughy and in Calamus Reservoir, which is also highly recommended this time of year.
“Calamus Reservoir is good walleye fishing,” noted Satra. “But I don’t see that many people fishing in the fall up there. They certainly do in spring and early summer. That might be something to try. It is in the middle of the state, and it is easy to get to. It is drawn down more this time of year so fish are more confined. It’s not a bathtub type thing, but the water in the bays has receded.”
In Kansas the cooling water starts off a fall feeding frenzy with two somewhat similar species — white bass and wipers.
These fish will be schooling up even more this time of year and the feeding binge gets into full swing.
“In September when it cools down our wipers and white bass can be really good,” reported Jeff Koch, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism research biologist out of Emporia.
Wipers are a cross between white bass and striped bass, and some grow to more than 20 pounds in Kansas. Milford is now one of the best wiper fisheries in the state. But this species isn’t fished very hard because anglers are going after other species such as largemouths and channel cats. Wipers are still in the background here. Probably not for long, however.
“Personally they are one of my favorites to catch,” said Koch. “It is one of those things, to be honest, in late summer and early fall they get really predictable. They are off submerged points, every single day. They can be pretty easy to catch. Shore anglers can also get on them when they come up in evenings or mornings.”
The wipers are often chasing terrified schools of shad, and when these prey fish blow up along shore and onto the points, shore fishermen tie in with feeding wipers.
The shad are one of the main foods for wipers and also for white bass. They can be located on sonar devices. But they’re also spotted in more traditional ways, such as watching for gulls in a frenzy over the water surface. The birds do that when wipers herd schools of shad up to the water surface in one of their feeding frenzies.
“The gulls can see that and they know the shad are on top. So, they sandwich that school of shad,” said Koch.
Wipers and striped bass also school together. But they often do it by their size, with for instance both wipers and stripers weighing about 2 pounds in the same school.
So, if a fisherman catches a 10-pounder, there is a good chance there are more right nearby
“The smaller 1- to 2-pounders school together,” said Koch. “Five-pounders school together. Ten-pounders. They will get on schools of shad and push them on top of the water at dawn and dusk. You can catch them on topwater.”
For fishing all over the state anglers get in the last really good channel catfishing of the year before colder weather dulls the appetite of these warmwater fish.
Smaller to medium sized rivers such as the Wakarusa, Delaware, Cottonwood, Republican, Neosho and Blue Rivers have lots of cats feeding on the edge of the current. These catfish aren’t named “channel” cats for no reason.
Some channel cat anglers make their own secret bait concoctions. Nightcrawlers are an old standby and are still excellent.
Rivers entering and flowing out of the big reservoirs hold channel cats, and there is usually public access fishing in these areas.