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Michigan's Best Fall Fishing

Michigan's Best Fall Fishing

From walleyes to salmon to panfish, the good fishing starts to pick up again at this time of year. These autumn hotspots are the places to be.

By Mike Gnatkowski

There are basically two times of the year that seem to produce the hottest open-water fishing action.

One is in the spring when waters begin to warm and fish begin to wake from their winter doldrums. The other is in the fall when fish feel an urgency to bulk up for the winter. Fish feed ravenously during autumn when waters start to cool, which jumpstarts their metabolism. Fish sense that leaner times are just ahead and they need to put on weight to get them though tougher times. Baitfish become scarcer the closer it gets to winter, but as weeds die off in the fall the remaining baitfish become exposed. Predators, like walleyes, bass and pike, take advantage of it.

Fall is salmon time, too. All of Michigan's salmon species run our rivers from September through October on their annual spawning runs. Kings and pinks show up first in September, followed by silvery cohos. The cohos are normally still around well into November. Add to this some fall-run brown trout and steelhead and you have all the ingredients of an autumn salmonid smorgasbord that you don't want to miss out on.

Some fish just aren't available any other time of the year, except in the fall. Take whitefish and menominee for example. The delicious relatives of the trout family are rarely found in shallow water, except in the spring and fall. It's then that shore-bound anglers can get a crack at them. If you've ever tasted the white, flaky flesh of these species you'll know they are worth waiting for.

Following is a selection of fall fishing destinations that offer everything from walleyes to salmon to panfish. It's up to you to decide where you want to fish this fall.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

"Picking one or two places to fish in the fall is tough, but South Lake Leelanau is one destination I'd have to pick," said walleye guide Dave Rose. "The walleyes really turn on from about mid-September until the weeds start to really die off."


In fact, weeds are the key to South Lake Leelanau's hot fall walleye fishing.

"The key is to locate scattered weeds in 4 to 12 feet of water," said Rose. "The walleyes school up in the weeds and work the minnows over. Look for cabbage that has some openings in it and cast stick baits, like Rattlin' Rogues and Husky Jerks, right into the pockets. Let the bait sit for up to 20 seconds before you move it. The give a subtle twitch, let it sit, and twitch again. Most times the walleye will explode on it."

Rose said most of the 'eyes will run from 15 to 19 inches - perfect for eating - but occasionally you'll stick one in the 8- to 9- pound range.

Another tactic that Rose employs for Leelanau's walleyes is a 1/8-ounce jig with a grub or worm on it. Natural colors - motor oil, pumpkinseed and red - work best. A chartreuse jighead helps call attention to the bait. Pitch the jig into the holes in the weeds or into inside turns in the weedline and work the jig back with a swimming, hopping motion. The walleye will jump on it.

South Lake Leelanau is a sizable body of water covering some 5,370 acres. The basin of the lake is long and narrow, which prevents it from getting too rough. Good places to prospect for fall walleyes include Perrin's Bay on the south end of the lake, off Robinson Point, and near the inlets of Weisler and Cedar creeks. There are two launches for anglers. One is off CR-643 on the west side of the lake. A second is off CR-641 on the lake's east side.

For more information on bait shops, accommodations and restaurants in the area, contact the Leelanau County Chamber of Commerce at (231) 271-9895 or go online to their Web page, at

According to David Rose, another can't-miss opportunity in the fall is Skegemog Lake smallmouths.

"Skegemog Lake is fantastic for smallmouths in the fall," claimed Rose. "The best fishing is from about mid-October through November."

Rose said Skegemog's smallmouths bunch up in structure around the lake to gorge on minnows. A prime location is in the stumpfields off the mouth of the Torch River. Rose said the best lure is a spinnerbait that will get through the maze of stumps and logs that the bass are foraging in. White and chartreuse spinnerbaits are good choices, with gold or silver blades getting the nod on bright days and painted blades on overcast days. The smallies will run from 2 to 6 pounds, with the average being in the 3-pound range.

Located at the junction of Grand Traverse, Antrim and Kalkaska counties, Skegemog Lake is relatively shallow, with few spots over 25 feet. Covering some 2,561 acres, Skegemog is also famous for its fall muskie fishing. Look for both bass and muskies to concentrate on the undeveloped south end of the lake where several creeks enter.

For up-to-date fishing reports, contact Jack's Sport Shop in Kalkaska at (231) 258- 8892. Information on accommodations and lodging in the area can be had by contacting the Elk Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce at (231) 264-8202 or on the Web at To sample some of northwest Michigan's best fall fishing, contact Dave Rose at (231) 276-9874 or on the Web at

The Big Manistee River near Manistee and Wellston attracts a smorgasbord of trout and salmon in the fall.

Kings are the first to show up in early September. The chinooks bite best after they first enter the river. Anglers can drop-back skein spawn, Flatfish or similar wobbling plugs, or cast in-line spinners. The kings will run 5 to 30 pounds and their flesh is still firm. Look for the chinooks to stack up in deep runs and pools or around logjams and trees during the day and migrate during lowlight conditions. The best areas are near M-55, Rainbow Bend and Bear Creek.

Cohos show up in early October near the gravel bars around Tippy Dam, High Bridge and Bear Creek. The male cohos feature a pronounced jaw and take on their brilliant spawning colors. More aggressive than kings, the cohos will lash out at spinners and plugs that invade their territory. The cohos average 2 to 8 pounds.

Besides salmon, the Big Manistee

is famous for its fall steelhead run. A mixture of planted and naturally spawned rainbows ascend the river beginning in October. Fall rains are key to triggering the runs. The steelhead slowly make their way upstream, pausing to gorge on salmon eggs on the way. Colorful lake-run browns add to the mix in October, too, as they move in to spawn. It's possible for anglers to take five species of salmonids in a single day!

To sample the Big Manistee's fall salmonid smorgasbord, contact Gnat's Charters at (231) 845-8400 or go online to their Web site, at For information on lodging and accommodations in the Manistee/Wellston area, contact the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce at the Manistee Area Visitors and Convention Bureau at 1-888-584-9860 or on the Web at

Muskegon County's White Lake walleyes go on a nighttime feeding binge during the fall.

"There are all kinds of baitfish in White Lake - gizzard shad, alewives and native baitfish," said western Michigan walleye expert Tom Irwin. "In the fall, the weeds start to die and the baitfish have fewer places to hide. The walleyes tear 'em up."

Irwin relies on two techniques to score on White Lake's walleyes in the fall. He'll use his trolling motor to stealth troll along the 10- to 20-foot contours or he'll anchor in the weeds and cast with body baits. Both techniques take their fair share of fish. The chances of breaking that magical 10-pound mark are good right up until ice- up.

White Lake, at 2,571 acres, features an abundance of prime walleye structure, but good starting points are off Long, Dowies and Cook points on the north side of the lake. Try the outside edge of defined weedlines, but listen for walleyes slashing baitfish on the backside of the weed edge in water as shallow as 2 feet. Cast body baits, like Bombers and Rebels, into the shallows, twitch the bait, wait and hold on.

For maps of White Lake, live bait and tackle, contact Armstrong's Bait & Tackle at (231) 894-6753. For details on accommodations and lodging in the area, contact the White Lake Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at (231) 893-4585 or on the Web at

"I would have to consider Gun Lake one of southern Michigan's premier largemouth bass lakes," claimed Southern Lake Michigan Management Unit supervisor Jay Wesley. "Gun Lake has an outstanding largemouth population."

The lake is very popular with summertime bass anglers. Unfortunately, the lake is also very popular with power-boaters and personal watercraft riders. Come fall, though, the boat traffic drops dramatically, fishing pressure eases and the bass move shallower.

Located in western Barry County, 2,680-acre Gun Lake has an abundance of ideal bass habitat in the form of humps, points, canals, docks, islands and dropoffs. As summer traffic wanes and waters cool, big bucketmouths move back into the structure to forage. Plan a midweek outing in September or October and you're likely to have the lake and the bass all to yourself. Boating access can be gained off Murphy's Point in the Yankee Springs State Recreation Area.

A number of techniques score on Gun Lake bass during the fall. Spinnerbaits are the best option for probing docks, canals and shoreline structure. Jig-and-pig combos are great for working weed edges and humps. Crankbaits are good for covering water and working points leading to deeper water. You can catch Gun Lake's fall largemouths just about any way you want to. The average bass will be 2 to 4 pounds, but fish topping 6 pounds aren't uncommon.

For more details on Gun Lake's fabulous fall bass fishing, contact the Southern Lake Michigan Management Unit at (616) 685-6851. Information on local bait shops and motels can be had by contacting the Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council at (269) 925-6301 or on the Web at

"Loon Lake is one of the better panfish lakes in our district," stated Lake Erie Management Unit fisheries biologist Jeff Braunscheidel. "Loon Lake has a very good population of bluegills and crappies, and they're good sized, too."

While Oakland County's Loon Lake sees a fair amount of fishing pressure during the winter and summer months, the lake is just about devoid of anglers in the fall. And fall is one of the best times to catch Loon Lake's biggest panfish.

The crappies and bluegills begin to move shallow as the waters cool in September. Look for schools of panfish along the well-defined weed edges adjacent to steeper dropoffs. Just about anywhere around the 243-acre lake can be a hotspot. Toss tiny 1/32- or 1/64-ounce twistertail jigs or suspend an ice-fishing teardrop baited with wax worms. Try a minnow if you're more interested in crappies. You can take a limit of bluegills that will average 8 inches, and specks topping 12 inches are common. Plan an Indian summer day, relax and enjoy some great eating.

Loon Lake is located just east of Drayton Plains. To rent a boat, contact Drayton Plains Boat Livery at (248) 673-3407. To launch your own craft there's a public boat launch on the west side of the lake in Drayton Plains. For bait and tackle, contact KD Outdoors at (248) 666-7799 in Waterford.

"The whitefish usually show up right around the fifth of November. Between there and the 10th, and the fishing remains good right through November," said Steve Kirby of Kirby's All Season Sport Shop in Tawas. "Most of the fishing takes place right off the main DNR pier in town. It's pretty simple fishing. Use a slip-bobber with a teardrop baited with wax worms and put it about 10 or 11 feet down." Some anglers use eggs, worms or minnows, but wax worms are a proven favorite.

Kirby said the best fishing is when the weather is at its nastiest.

"The waves stir up the bottom and cloud the water," said Kirby. "If there's no wave action the water is too clear and the fish are really spooky."

Kirby said the whitefish can be really finicky and many anglers chum the water with eggs to put the fish in a biting mood. The whitefish will average 2 to 10 pounds. If you've ever tasted a flaky whitefish filet smothered in a white wine sauce you'll understand why it's worth braving some nasty weather to catch one.

For up-to-date fishing reports, bait and tackle, and fishing advice, contact Kirby's All Season Sports at (989) 362-4512 or on the Web at Contact the friendly people at the Tawas Chamber of Commerce at (989) 362-8643 or on the Web at for information on accommodations in the area.

"Millecoquins Lake is one of the top lakes in the eastern U.P. for both largemouths and pike," claimed Lake Superior Basin coordinator Steve Scott.

Millecoquins fishes best during the spring, before the weeds take over, and again in the fall when the weeds begin to recede. Relatively shallow with few spots over 12 feet, Millecoquins Lake is fed by the Millecoquins River, which exits on the south end of the lake. Off the inlet and outlet of the river can be good spots to try for both bass and northerns in the fall, plus off many of the smaller creeks that enter the lake.

Millecoquins, at 1,062 acres, is basically one large weedbed, and weedless lures work best. White or chartreuse spinnerbaits are pretty hard to beat for both the lake's largemouths and pike. Another proven favorite is a Johnson Silver Minnow or Weed Wing with a pork-rind trailer. The lure can be pulled through the thickest weeds and allowed to flutter down into openings where both northerns and bucketmouths are waiting for it. You can expect Millecoquins' pike to run up to 30 inches and bigger. The bass are generally 2 to 3 pounds, but fish up to 5 or 6 pounds are possible.

For more information on Millecoquins Lake, contact the DNR's Northern Lake Michigan Management Unit office at (906) 786-2351.

"If I had to pick just a couple of places to fish in the western U.P. during the fall, Lac Vieux Desert would have to be one of them," said Robert Moody, Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist. "There a lot of good muskies in the lake and fall is the best time to fish for them."

Lac Vieux Desert, which means "Old Desert Lake," is one of Michigan's premier muskie lakes. Relatively shallow with few spots over 35 feet, the lake is fairly weedy, which poses a problem for anglers. As the waters cool, muskies begin to patrol the well-defined weedlines off Duck, Near and Draper islands. Approximately one-third of the lake lies within Michigan's boundaries, so check regulations before you begin fishing.

Muskie tactics are largely a matter of personal preference. Some like to chuck big jerkbaits and bucktail spinners. Others are content to watch a big sucker under a bobber. Both tactics work. The lake contains both northern muskies and a remnant population of tiger muskies.

For information on cabin rentals, bait shops and boating access on Lac Vieux Desert, contact the Western Upper Peninsula Convention & Visitors Bureau at (906) 932-4850 or on the Web at

* * *
There are so many great fall fishing destinations in Michigan that we need to get another September and October on the calendar. There's just not enough time!

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