If you want serious September angling action in Minnesota, set your sights on predator fish — muskies, pike and bass. Here's where to get started.
By Joe Albert
September is something of an "in-between" month in Minnesota, and even within the month itself weather conditions can be vastly different, ranging from mild and beautiful to downright cold and nasty.
While the water temperature in early September may be little different from what it was during the summer, by the end of the month it will be dropping steadily as the inevitable march toward freeze-up gains steam.
For fishermen who don't consider Labor Day the official end to the fishing season, the changes that take place beneath the water during September mean the month can be a great time to target Minnesota's predatory fish, including bass, muskies and northern pike.
Anglers who regularly fish in the fall likely have memories of great days on the water when they caught an abundance of fish on a specific pattern.
And while memories are great, anglers who don't move beyond them but instead pin their fishing hopes to them may set themselves up for frustration. In September in particular, it's vital that anglers keep an open mind about where and how they'll catch fish.
"September can be kind of a tricky month for fishing in Minnesota," said Adam Johnson, an aquatic biologist and avid outdoorsman from the Brainerd area. "With the unpredictable weather we tend to have in September, the water can be really warm — like it is during the summer — so you wind up fishing summer patterns. Or, the water can be really cooling down and getting close to turnover and we're kicking into fall patterns. So September is a very transitional time in Minnesota."
And yet no matter what stage of that summer-to-fall transition is present, there are reliable patterns for bass, muskies and northern pike that can produce fish in both size and numbers.
While fish in September can be scattered and biting in a variety of areas on a particular body of water, the following patterns and lakes represent a good starting point for anglers looking to target some of Minnesota's most ravenous predators.
Minnesota has a strong and growing reputation for high-quality largemouth bass fishing, and September can be a fantastic month to catch them. Generally speaking, anglers don't need to venture very far from the shore to catch bass, as the bass will be in the shallows and feeding aggressively.
"In September, I still like fishing for bass in shallow water," Johnson said. "I'm still basically fishing a lot of those shallow summertime patterns — things such as docks and matter vegetation. The vegetation isn't really dying yet, so it's not really driving fish out of those areas. We are transitioning toward fall, so they are going to start putting on the feedbag getting ready for winter. A lot of your bigger, faster and more active baits are going to start working really well. The larger topwater baits, buzzbaits, and shallow-running crankbaits can work really well when you're running them over those shallow weedbeds and weed flats."
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In many instances, Johnson will select a shoreline that has an abundance of cover — such as bulrushes, docks, and overhanging trees — and simply put down the trolling motor and get to work. His philosophy is to cover water quickly with spinnerbaits and shallow-running crankbaits.
When he comes to matted vegetation, he'll toss out a hollow-bodied frog and work it over the top, hoping to elicit a strike from an active bass below. If such vegetation feels especially fishy — or a fish has blown up on the topwater bait without being hooked — it's not a bad idea to pitch a jig-and-pig or Texas-rigged plastic worm to the area.
If nothing happens, he'll keep working his way down the shoreline and target the available cover, paying special attention to any docks that remain in the water.
"As you first approach the docks, it never hurts to make a few casts along the edges and the outside. If the fish are cruising or sitting on those outside posts, you can certainly pick up fish doing that," Johnson said. "Spinnerbaits and jigs are especially productive around the edges. But before I move on I'll always take a spinning rod and soft-plastic bait and skip it underneath. I want to get under there pretty deep and see if I can get another fish or two."
Johnson is a big fan of Gull Lake near Brainerd in September. Other solid options for September bass include the Alexandria Chain of Lakes, Clearwater Lake, Leech Lake, Lake Frances, Lake Minnetonka, Lake Washington, and the Whitefish Chain of Lakes. All of those lakes have strong bass populations and abundant shoreline cover.
As the water temperature drops through the fall, northern pike head for the shallows. But generally speaking, pike — which are coldwater fish — still will be out in deeper water during September.
And that's just fine with Johnson, who loves to tie on a big spoon or muskie-sized crankbait and start trolling along deep weed edges, or the rocky edges of islands and humps.
"I don't necessarily feel like September is prime time for the biggest pike, but you can catch good numbers of fish during the month," he said. "In the summer, a lot of the bigger pike are pretty stressed. They hang out near the thermocline and suspend most of the summer, especially in lakes that have ciscoes and whitefish. A lot of times during September, those big ones are still under stress from the heat of the summer. That said, September is the turning point where they begin to move up shallow and start chasing more aggressively."
Anglers who target deep weedlines and other edges can spend the day catching pike of a variety of sizes and, especially if the weather in September is cool, also have a chance of intercepting a trophy fish that's on its journey from deep water to shallow.
Such fish often will stop at weedlines, which gives anglers the opportunity to catch them. Johnson makes contact with all sizes of pike by trolling crankbaits and spoons at a rapid pace — speed-trolling, he calls it.
"My style is to cover water until I figure out where those fish are hanging," Johnson said. "Sometimes, I'll notice more fish on points, or on inside turns. Or maybe there will just be a general area where I'm getting more bites. If I notice that, I'll slow down and do some casting with those same lures. And if I'm getting a bunch of bites on weed points, for example, then I'll look around the lake, find more of them, and just go and cast to them."
Lake of the Woods in far northern Minnesota is hard to beat when it comes to numbers of trophy northern pike, although Upper Red Lake just to the south of there should be mentioned in the same breath.
True trophy pike are difficult to come by in Minnesota — the state record weighed 45 pounds, 12 ounces and was caught in 1929, making it the state's longest-standing fish record — but Lake of the Woods and Upper Red kick them out with more regularity than other lakes in the state.
Leech Lake also holds good numbers of pike, as does Cass Lake just to the north. Mille Lacs holds huge numbers of pike, as does Lake Minnetonka. In the southern part of the state, lakes Elysian and Pepin are good bets.
Huge bulrush stands and reed beds in shallow water seem synonymous with bass — or with crappies in the spring — but they also hold big numbers of muskies when the water temperature falls into the mid-60s, which occurs sometime during September. While anglers can find some muskies in bulrushes and reeds throughout the fishing season, more fish seem to pile in during the early fall.
Just about any lure will work for targeting the edges of bulrush and reed beds, including jigs, shallow-running crankbaits and topwater baits. But anglers who fish only the edges of the vegetation are missing out on what's likely the majority of fish in the area.
That means fishermen who really want to be effective and give themselves a good opportunity to catch a muskie or two should fish in among the vegetation.
That's no easy task, given that lures almost have a habit of snagging on bulrushes and reeds, and line almost magically wraps around the obstructions. True, anglers may be frustrated and physically exhausted after a day of fishing bulrushes, but it's likely part of that exhaustion will be the result of winching big fish through heavy cover.
Bulrushes and reeds aren't spots where anglers should rely on treble hooks. You can either choose baits without trebles, or switch them out for regular hooks.
Buzzbaits are particularly productive in bulrushes and reeds, as are safety-pin-style spinnerbaits. In both instances, threading a 4- or 5-inch grub onto the bait can make them more buoyant and less prone to snagging. Additionally, the bigger profile can be attractive to bigger fish.
By focusing on natural lanes in the vegetation or pockets where the cover isn't as thick, and making precise casts to those areas, anglers can maximize the time their lures spend in the water and minimize the time they spend retrieving snagged lures or pulling off vegetation.
It's worth noting, too, that a stealthy approach and a quality pair of polarized glasses can go a long way when it comes to fishing bulrushes and reeds.
Muskies in these areas tend to be fairly easy to spot, even if they aren't willing to bite. But once anglers know the fish are there, they can return to the areas at higher-percentage times — dawn and dusk, for example — and attempt to coax a strike.
Favorite spots for September muskie fishing in bulrushes and reed beds include Cass Lake, Lake Bemidji, Lake Miltona, Lake Vermilion Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, and Wabedo Lake.
In addition to bulrush and reed beds along the shoreline, anglers shouldn't overlook those beds that grow in shallower areas — such as around islands or on humps — in the main part of the lake.