Labor Day signals the end of the boating season in the North; a collective sigh of disappointment can be heard as the kids head back to school. For persistent anglers, the same period marks the beginning of things to come.
Nothing offers better fishing than an oncoming winter. And the colder it will be corresponds directly with the angling opportunity. Sure, frost on the pumpkin can get them biting in the hills of Tennessee, but nothing like the true North.
In places where bass near the edge of their range, a large portion of their lives are spent in a slow state. Now, Iíve always argued that the fish around the Great Lakes region and beyond are far less inactive than their southern counterparts when it comes to winter. In fact, Iíve watched bass feed under the ice many times, some in water only waist deep. But, for the most part, the amount of food going down the hatch is drastically lower, and eaten less frequently, than in the warmer months.
Take into consideration that, once spring comes and love is in the air, a bass must be healthy and strong to reproduce. So, in order to get there, the feedbag goes on in the fall. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the locales with the shortest growing season find the fish most hungry this time of year.
Each year, around the last week of August Ė sometimes the first of September Ė a cold front will hit the region and temps will dip into the 50s at night. The casual cruiser may not even notice, as the sun heats things up by lunchtime. But veteran fishermen will feel it, as will the bass.
First will come the baitfish. Emerald shiners, sometimes shad; in a few places alewives. That first dip and the corresponding north winds will push the bait onto the flats Ė much the same way threadfins run up the creeks in the South. A smart fisherman follows them up, taking notice whether yellow perch follow his jerkbait.
Bass will feel the push and shallow-water fishing will be the talk of the town for a few weeks. Old timers around Lake Erie note 60 degrees as the magic water temp. In upstate New York, locals buy a couple dozen ďcrabsĒ at the bait shop, as smallmouths show up on the rockpiles for the first time.
Fall can be a difficult time for the northern outdoorsman; bass arenít the only fish interested in feeding. Walleyes are forming their largest schools of the year, crappies show up as the weeds die and giant muskies are eating everything.
Add on the prettiest woods in the world, rutting bucks and a duck opener, and itís tough to choose. The most dedicated bass anglers keep fishing and continue to wait.
As the calendar cycles, and the brilliant colors of autumn change to the drab tones of winter, the bass begin to move. A great gathering begins, where fish from all over the lake come together in pre-chosen areas known only to God. Some are attractive and obvious, others so subtle the only distinguishable marks on a sonar screen are those of the fish themselves.
At times, so many fish will be in a school that you canít help but snag them. Largemouth, smallmouth; on rare occasions, both, together. The massive schools will go through periods of dormancy, when anglers may catch a couple here and there. But when the stars align and the winds crank up, the hardcore bassmen finally get their due.
You may recognize when you meet one, as I did my first time. As you exchange stories about fishing and the great days youíve had in the fall, the wintertime vet wonít bother to go into details.
He wonít insist that youíve never really had a hundred-fish day, even though heís right. He wonít show you pictures or toss around figures and weights. Because, you see, no one would believe him.
Itís a measurable thing when you come across this fishing for the first time. Often, the whole thing is an epic fail. Weather turns bad. Waters muddy up. Itís miserably cold and rainy, and the season is a loss.
But then it comes together. I vividly remember fishing one winter through December, and the looks our crew got at the boat ramp as we launched in Coast Guard-issued survival suits. And I remember trying to recount the story of the 7-pound Goliath that took a 3/4-ounce hair jig in 30 feet of water and anchored a 30-pound bag. But no one understood. They couldnít.
Later in life, I watched the scenario repeat itself with shallow-water largemouths on a lake known for smallies. I remember catching so many on consecutive casts that all the rubber in my jig skirt was gone, leaving me with just a lead head and a chunk that was immediately inhaled before it hit the bottom. That time, I never told.
Itís this time of year that the best adventures takes place, as everyone else seems to quit. Itís the time when possibilities are endless. Youíll know youíre close when youíre the only one left.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)