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Michigan's Fall Fishing Smorgasbord

Michigan's Fall Fishing Smorgasbord

We really love to hunt in this state, but you owe it to yourself to try some of these fishing hotspots this autumn, too. (September 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Like many Michiganders, I can't wait for fall to arrive. It's my favorite time of year, because autumn means hunting. Somehow, though, I still get to enjoy some fall fishing, too. It just wouldn't be right to not wet a line with all the awesome fishing we have here.

As waters cool in the fall, fish go on a feeding binge. The end of the summer doldrums makes fish more active come autumn. Aware that leaner times are ahead, fish sense that they need to bulk up for the winter. Food sources are plentiful, so fish take advantage of these seasonal abundances to build up fat reserves to get them through until spring. Some species -- like Pacific salmon -- are fall spawners. They make spawning runs that concentrate thousands of fish in Michigan rivers. These runs are often short and sweet, so anglers need to be there during "prime time."

I know that hunting is a favorite pastime of many Michigan sportsmen and sportswomen, but you owe it to yourself to try some of these fall fishing hotspots, too.


Grand Traverse County's largest inland lake at 2,860 acres, Long is a bustle of activity during the summer months. However, once school resumes and summer cottage owners go home, the lake settles down and anglers reclaim the water.

Long Lake has a long history of walleye plantings, and the persistence seems to have paid off because it supports a good 'eye population now. The fish average 16 to 17 inches, but 'eyes in the 25- to 26-inch range aren't uncommon.

Anglers jig with minnows or troll with crawler harnesses to catch walleyes during the summer months, and these same tactics work in early fall during the daylight hours. Because Long Lake is very clear, don't be surprised to find walleyes in 25 to 35 feet of water or deeper during the day. The 'eyes relate to the myriad of structure here. Sloping contours off the midlake islands are natural hotspots. An underwater point straight out from the boat launch off Edgewood Avenue on the lake's northwest corner is another walleye magnet.

However, the local anglers know that Long Lake's walleyes begin to make nightly pilgrimages into the shallows as the waters cool in the fall, and they produce an entirely different kind of bite.

"The walleyes move shallow under the cover of darkness," confided fishing guide Dave Rose. "Key is to cruise the lake during the daytime and locate green weeds, and then work the edges of those weeds after dark."

Rose recommended using suspending stick baits like Rattlin' Rogues, Rapalas, Husky Jerks and other elongated lures. You can add Suspend Dots to shallow-diving lures. Rose said to anchor quietly and cast parallel to the weed edges. Schools of walleyes will move in to herd minnows against the weed edges. He advised using a light or medium spinning rod-and-reel combo with superline because the sensitive line is perfect for detecting the subtle bite of a walleye at night. Try the shallow flats in the bays on the west side of the lake, and listen for schools of walleyes slashing minnows on the surface.

Rose said "Indian summer days" are perfect to fill a bucket with some of Long Lake's jumbo perch. Rose said the perch average 9 inches here, but there are some real jumbos, and fall is one of the best times to catch them. The perch schools roam the 30- to 35-foot depths where you find deep weeds. The perch can be caught on both minnows and wigglers. Try the flats off South and Fox islands.

For bait, tackle and maps, contact MC Sports in Traverse City at (231) 933-6158.


Northwest Michigan has a bunch of topnotch smallmouth bass waters, so it's hard to pick just one for fall smallies, but Dave Rose said Lake Bellaire is hard to beat.

"You're going to find a lot of smallies in the 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-pound range, and there's a chance for a 5- or 6-pounder," Rose said, "and fall is the best time for big fish."

One of the cool things about Lake Bellaire smallmouths in the fall is that you can catch them on a variety of lures. Rose said he uses spinnerbaits, tubes, grubs and stick baits. They all catch fish at one time or another. You should have several rods rigged, and keep switching until you hit on the right combination.

Rose said autumn hotspots are along the sloping contour right off the boat launch on the east side of the lake, along the dropoff off the mouth of the Grass River, near the inlet of Intermediate Lake and in the north bay. Fishing can be good from mid-September until it gets too cold to launch the boat.

Information on Lake Bellaire and other Michigan lakes is available in Sportsman's Connections' detailed lake map books. Call Sportsman's Connections at 1-800-777-7461.


"There are a lot of lakes that are planted with trout in northwest Michigan that nobody really fishes," offered Dave Rose. "You might find a few people trolling for trout in the summertime, but after that, you hardly see anyone fishing specifically for trout."

Rose said fall is prime time to cash in on this untapped resource. The trout move from the depths into the shallows as the waters cool, and they provide great sport on light tackle.

One of Rose's favorite autumn trout lakes is Big Glen, which is 1,400 acres and has a long history of trout stocking. From 1995 through 2001, the lake received regular plantings of brown trout, lake trout and splake. More recently, Big Glen has been the recipient of rainbow trout and steelhead plants. Those fish are now reaching good sizes. Rose e-mailed me an image recently of two fat rainbows he took from Big Glen last fall. Those trout should have added a few pounds by this fall.

Big Glen Lake doesn't have much in the way of structure. It's basically bowl shaped with few points or humps. The exception is where Little Glen Lake enters Big Glen. A ridge there is worth prospecting for fall trout. Otherwise, Rose advised just to work the shoreline dropoff. As the waters cool, trout move shallow and cruise the edge. Rose said to cast to 4 to 10 feet of water with a suspending stick bait and hold on! "The big ones will darn near rip the rod out of your hands," Rose warned.

Rose said Elk, Burt and Torch lakes are good bets for fall trout action, too.

To sample some of northwest Michigan's best fall fishing

, call guide Dave Rose at (231) 276-9874.


Thousands of naturally reproduced chinook salmon begin converging on the Pere Marquette River near Ludington shortly after Labor Day.

Salmon fans first get a crack at the kings in Pere Marquette Lake where the chinooks stage before heading upriver. When the fish do head upstream, anglers enjoy great sport along the way. Anglers will find well-defined holes and runs in the areas near Scottville and Custer where schools of pre-spawn kings bide their time before heading for the gravel reaches even farther upstream.

The fresh-run salmon can be caught using a variety of methods. One of the most popular tactics is to anchor above a likely lie and drop-back plugs like Storm Hot-N-Tots, Magnum Wiggle Warts, Flatfish or Kwikfish into the path of migrating chinooks. The kings take exception to the roadblock and unleash their frustration on the lures.

Another productive technique is to cast in-line spinners into slack-water areas or near cover where migrating salmon are resting. Many serious river anglers make their own spinners, but Double Loon (online at makes one of the best commercially made spinners for salmon, and their colors run the gambit from green to orange to glow-in-the-dark. A medium/heavy spinning outfit loaded with 15-pound-test line is needed to have a chance of landing these bruisers in this snag-filled river.

Spawning salmon are not supposed to be feeding, but back-bouncing with spawn or floating it under a bobber is another great way to take Pere Marquette River kings. The bronze-colored chinooks will inhale a chunk of cured spawn if it is presented properly. The kings typically run from 10 to 20 pounds, but 30-pound trophies aren't unheard of.

To try your hand at landing a Pere Marquette king, contact Gnat's Charters at (231) 845-8400, or online at


Houghton County's 9,640-acre Portage Lake is famous for producing trophy specimens of a number of species, and there isn't a better time to catch them than in the fall.

"Some of the best smallmouth fishing of the year is during the fall on Portage," stated Upper Peninsula fishing guide Larry Smith.

Smith said smallmouths up to 6 pounds are common on Portage. Plus, the techniques you use to catch smallmouths will likely yield a few trophy walleyes and northern pike, too.

"In the fall, we do a lot of rigging and jigging," Smith said. "We use big chubs on a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce leadhead jig, or we fish them on a Lindy-type rig." Smith secures his bait by netting them himself. Smith noted that heavy jigging spoons like the Hopkins also produce.

Whether using live bait or hardware, work the 8- to 25-foot breaks near shore, advised Smith. Good locations are along the eastern shore of the lake where it enters Torch Bay, the humps off Chassell, in the Portage Ship Channel itself and along the south-shore dropoff.

The catch here averages about 75 percent smallmouths and 25 percent walleyes during the fall, with a few monster pike thrown in to rock your world. Walleyes in excess of 8 pounds and pike approaching 30 pounds swim here. The hottest action begins in mid-September and lasts until ice-up.

To sample Portage Lake's hot fall fishing, contact Larry Smith at (906) 289-4481, or via e-mail at


Another of Larry Smith's favorite fall bites is for splake in Copper Harbor. Splake are a crossbreed created between lake trout and brook trout. The fish are spirited fighters and great eating. Regular plants in Copper Harbor ensure a steady supply of fish.

"The best fishing is during the late fall, usually in November, and lasts until ice-up," Smith said.

The splake generally run 14 to 16 inches, but trophies up to 10 pounds are occasionally caught. The splake can be caught right from shore. A hotspot is off the mouth of Fanny Hooe Creek where it enters Copper Harbor, and it can be accessed via Fort Wilkins State Park.

Smith said Little Cleos, Mr. Twister's Cyclops and other small spoons in blue/silver and orange/silver are hot for splake. Don't be surprised if your catch includes coho salmon, chinook salmon, herring or coaster brook trout either. Then there's the area's unparalleled natural beauty to enjoy as well.

For information on lodging, amenities and bait shops in the area, contact the Keweenaw Tourism Council at 1-800-338-7982, or on the Web at


Lac La Belle is French for "beautiful lake." This 1,146-acre lake on the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the U.P. fits that description and more. Some people claim that the lake is most beautiful in the fall, and many of them are anglers. Lac La Belle is home to an interesting mix of walleyes, pike and muskies that should keep any fisher happy, and fall is a great time to chase all three species.

La Lac Belle doesn't have much deep water. The deepest part of the basin is around 38 feet, so fish can be found just about anywhere. Points extending from three locations on the north shore are perfect places to begin your search for walleyes. The contours quickly drop from 10 to 30 feet of water. Live-bait rigging or jigging is a good tactic for the walleyes that typically average a healthy 22 to 24 inches, and 9- to 10-pound 'eyes aren't unheard of.

Dragging good-sized chubs is not only likely to interest the lake's trophy walleyes, but also the resident northern pike that will routinely top 30 inches. Look for pike to congregate off the mouth of the Little Gratiot River on the lake's west end. Muskies can be found throughout the lake, and the nastier the weather, the better it is for Esox fishing. If you have the patience, soak a big sucker under a bobber off the mouth of the Mendota Canal. A better option, though, is to troll the 15- to 25-foot dropoff while pulling a big spinnerbait or crankbait.

For details on fall fishing opportunities on Lac La Belle, contact Lac La Belle Lodge at 1-888-294-7634 or online at


Higgins Lake's potpourri of trout are somewhat difficult to catch during the open-water season, but late fall is the one time they move shallow, and angler success skyrockets.

"The trout fishing usually gets good about mid-October and lasts until freeze-up," claimed Eric Carlson of the Phoenix Park Party Store. "In fact, it's often the later, the better."

Last fall, one angler brought a 27-pound brown trout into the store, and rainbows up to 17 or 18 pounds are caught with some

regularity. The average 'bow, though, will be closer to 20 inches and 3 or 4 pounds. Browns tend to run slightly larger. In recent years, the Department of Natural Resources has been planting more rainbows than browns in Higgins Lake.

The best location for fall trout, according to Carlson, is between Higgins Lake North State Park and the west side public access. Anglers troll the dropoff there with body baits off long lines and in-line planers. Shore-and surf-anglers use a smorgasbord of spawn, wigglers, crawlers or minnows to tempt the trout. The bait is anchored with a slip-sinker, and anglers then play a waiting game. People also key in on a gravelly area on the south end of the north bay off Sam-o-set Street, according to Carlson.

If you tag your deer early in the gun season, head here next to try your hand at landing some of Higgins Lake's trophy trout. It will round out your smorgasbord.

For live bait, maps and some awesome pizza bread, contact Phoenix Park Party Store at (989) 821-7220.

Fall means hunting to many Michiganders, but if you forget about our great fishing, you're making a big mistake. Be sure to get out there!

(Editor's Note: Fishing guide, author and photographer Mike Gnatkowski has turned his attention to one of his other loves -- wild-game cooking -- to compile a cookbook of easy, delicious recipes everyone can prepare. Wild Game Simple features over 100 straightforward recipes to prepare everything from fish to venison to waterfowl. The recipes are a compilation of the captain's secret blends, customers' offerings and old-time favorites. Signed copies of the cookbook are available for $24.95 plus $4.95 for shipping and handling. Michigan residents need to add 6 percent sales tax. The book is available online at, or by mail at P.O. Box 727, Ludington, MI 49431.)

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