Small Waters Strategies – Fall harbors

Small Waters Strategies – Fall harbors

Oct 13, 2012

Autumn’s Harbor Bass a Late Season Surprise

By Mike Pehanich

The chill of change is in the air.

It’s autumn, a time when leaves fall and grown men climb trees.

Mike Albano shows off a bass caught near the convergence of two fish-attracting elements: riprap and docks.

But step out of your tree stand, grab your rods and reels! Big fish and sublime fishing await you, from the salmon and trout in Great Lakes harbors and rivers to the crappie, bass, walleye, sauger, and pike and musky in our lakes.

Let’s back up to those Great Lakes harbors for a moment. For a “small waters” and small craft angler, harbors offer a shot at a mixed bag of trophy fish on compact and manageable water. Think of them as oversized ponds within inland seas, offering the best of both angling worlds!

Pick your species

Timing is everything in Great Lakes pier and harbor fishing. These areas can draw quite a crowd when salmon, steelhead and brown trout make their upriver spawning migrations. But wait out the masses, and you may discover that harbors can yield a pretty wild mixed bag, too.

Another advantage is that, most boats that were moored in the harbor all season are gone by the end of October, opening additional water that probably has been off limits since spring, depending on local regulations.

Pick the right time and place, and you may even experience some of the best smallmouth and largemouth bass fishing of the year.

Bassmaster Elite Series star Bill Lowen found both smallmouth and big largemouth in Buffalo Harbor on Lake Erie. His lure of choice was a jerk bait.

Now harbor bass can be a fickle clan. In my experience, they get very shy when king salmon– or any of the salmonids, for that matter — crowd their lair. But not all Great Lakes harbors draw kings (or coho) in big numbers. Besides, a salmon’s days are numbered once they grow dark and harbor-drawn!

Once they are gone, bass again grow bold.

Where the bass amass

My angling buddies and I found spectacular Lake Michigan bonanzas several seasons back, fishing from downtown Chicago to Racine, Wisconsin.

Mike Albano and I caught 38 bass during one memorable fall afternoon. Most were healthy largemouth in the 15- to 19-inch range, taken on skirted finesse jigs with plastic (twin grub and craw-type) or frog pork rind trailers. I haven’t been able to pass a Great Lakes harbor since without wondering what it would be like to fish it in fall!

While a number of lure types and presentations have worked over the years, the finesse jig with trailer is usually my starting point.

Warning: Before you head out harbor fishing, check out not only state regulations but specific harbor laws, too. Some harbors restrict angling while boats are present or, for reasons mostly inexplicable, even after the boats are in dry-dock.

Unheralded largemouth

Bass guys link the Great Lakes to “smallmouth.” But harbor smallmouth are transients that tend to leave or seek the comfort of current when harbor waters warm.

A Jewel Pro Spider Jig and twintail grub caught bass by the dozens this day.

But the unheralded Great Lakes largemouth populations may spend the entire season – perhaps their entire lives – within the confines of the harbor walls.

Among the many great things about harbor fishing in fall is that both species can answer the call! The smallies are back. The largemouth are hungry. And, if you’re lucky, there’s a good chance neither species has encountered a serious fisherman for weeks!

Cold water can take much of the fight out of bass. But, catch them on a warm day, and you will find Great Lakes harbors house some of the fightin’est largemouth anywhere!

Easy pickin’s

No two harbors are identical. To fish them well, thoroughly acquaint yourself with their structure and habitat using hydrographic maps and your electronics.

But, like most small waters, harbors have easily identified features that consistently hold fish. Many are obvious to the naked eye, and you can easily find others with a $99 dollar sonar unit!

Mike Albano fished the base of the riprap to take this handsome harbor largemouth.

Riprap – Expect much of the harbor perimeter and interior barriers to have “riprap” protection against wave erosion. The large rock you see above the water line continues below it. The riprap provides great hiding places for crawfish, baitfish, insects and fry. Look for bass to patrol this riprap edge. The bottom of the riprap serves as a primary breakline that will produce fish the better part of the season.

Points – Manmade harbors generally have a very regular configuration. Rock points are strategically created to protect moored watercraft from damaging winds and waves; to create safe channels for boat traffic; and to create clear demarcations. Fish them faithfully and thoroughly from shallow to deep. Riprap points can be big producers.

Gaps and current areas – The openings, a.k.a. “gaps,” between breakwalls and points have a variety of fish-attracting elements: rock, deep water channels, and current. The currents running through such areas will vary with wind and wave action. They will reverse, too, when the water that piles up on the windward side of the lake backs up. Fish will also position themselves differently during these currents shift. Make the move with them!

Docks – Piers and docks may be off limits when a harbor is filled with boats, but the boats disappear quickly in September and October. Fall is a great time to access the bass that use dock cover. Most will be floating docks. The best ones are near riprap, vegetation or other forms of cover.

Jerkbaits and jigs are two cold weather favorites, and both will connect you with harbor bass, as Bill Lowen proves.

Vegetation – Find a healthy grass bed in a harbor with a strong largemouth population, and you can usually count on bass to take up residence there.

Yes, fall fishing often takes a back seat to football, deer and waterfowl. But this is a time of year when ramp traffic is minimal, bugs are gone, and big fish are on the feed!

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