Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cold Front Fishing Challenge

The great thing about fishing in the fall is that big fish are willing to bite a variety of baits despite adverse conditions.  Cold fronts, extreme changes in temperatures, and shorter days contribute to not only changes in fish behavior, but also to their ecosystem and prey as well.  Two weeks ago my buddy and I fished a lake on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and found a multitude of bass and chain pickerel in areas where weeds and lily pads were abundant.  That area teemed with life.  Baitfish and predators could be seen easily in the clear water slightly tinted by tanic acid.  Just about every piece of woody cover, point of lily pads or pocket of weeds held a predator of one sort or another.  We hit that spot again on Tuesday and that area was devoid of life after only two weeks had elapsed from our last trip. 

What happened?  Where did the fish go?  After spending all morning looking for them, we had only one toothy chain pickerel to show for it, and we all but gave up looking for them opting to catch panfish instead.  We weren't in a tournament, rather, we were out for fun.  And on these particular lakes, multispecies fishing opportunities can expand your fun and panfish can make your day.  But, that last trip spoiled me.  I wanted more chain pickerel and largemouth bass.  I craved that big reaction strike.  So, I'll detail the rest of the trip in this post on how we finally got on those big fish.

We were out on a beautiful fall morning, but the fishing was tough.  Here, Howard is tossing a chatterbait looking for the big reaction bite of big bass and chain pickerel.  We faced post cold front conditions, bluebird skies and other adverse conditions, but were determined to find them, and later we did.
So, before I move on, let me set the stage on what we were up against.  First, the weather wasn't in our favor.  A strong cold front had moved through, and another one was on the way.  The weather normally after a cold front, about three days later, stabilizes and the fishing improves, but when one front moves through soon after another one, the weather doesn't stablize and the fish feel those effects, and the bite is often tough.  And, even though daytime temperatures have been relatively stable, the night time low temperatures have been dropping.  Sometimes though, shorter days trigger feeding behavior in predatory fish that will set them on a feeding binge even during conditions that normally give the lock jaw, and that was what we were banking on.

In addition to the weather conditions, the State Department of Natural Resources launched their electroshock boat to study our lake on this particular day.  They hit four prime spots on the lake, shocking, sampling, and measuring fish along large sections of prime shoreline, deep in cover, out from cover, just about everywhere.  Their modified pontoon boats emit about a thousand volts of electricity using two long metal probes. 

The staff of three DNR Biologists include someone to drive the boat, and two staff to net fish.  After netting stunned fish of all species, they record measurements and population numbers for each species to determine the health of the lake population.  This data helps the DNR to determine the best way to regulate fishing on the lake and to help them determine other management options for the future health of the fishery.  Even though this usually puts a large population of the lakes fish in a non-feeding mode, all of the fish are released alive and well to feed another day, and more importantly will lead to better fishing for all anglers in the long run.  So, we had to decide if it was worth fishing here or moving to another lake. 

We launched on a beautiful morning.  At first, the lake was like a sheet of glass, but that would change.
Also, on a weekday, normally places like this seldom have other anglers.  On our last trip, we arrived to find only one other boat on the water all day long.  But on this day, three other boats followed our launch on the lake throughout the day.  That doesn't sound like much, but on a small lake, it's another concern.  Normally, if the DNR wasn't electroshocking the lake, we wouldn't think twice about that since there's more than enough fish for that number of boats, but about half the lakes prime spots have been fried.  So, that was another reason for us to move.

We fished last trips hot spots all morning and all we had to show for it was this lone chain pickerel.   The question about a spot change lingered in our minds, or should we stick it out?  Quality fish are in this lake, but would they bite?
Finally, the bite seemed to be off.  Where fishing was hot and fish activity once flourished a two weeks prior, it seemed lifeless and dead, and we didn't see but only a few small fish.  The baitfish and predators were gone.  Why?  Where did they go?  We noticed that the lily pads seemed to be dying off.  Also, the milfoil and hydrilla seemed to by dying off as well.  We theorized that the oxygen levels in those areas were low, leaving the fish uncomfortable enough to migrate to other areas of the lake.  The other option was that they may be deep into the cover, up in the lily pads.  We decided to take a look, pushing the boat into the pad fields to see if we could see any predatory fish or spook them, but we saw nothing.  They had migrated to other holding spots.  That was our challenge the rest of the day, to find them.

So, we moved down the lake.  The lake is situated along a wooded shoreline on each side along a Northwest to Southeast direction.  The Northwest winds were picking up as the sun rose over top of us.  The skies were bright blue, and the sunlight and glare were making visibility tough even with sunglasses.  The lake was no longer a sheet of glass.  Maybe the winds were piling up warmer water, oygenated water, down the lake, and maybe that's where the baitfish and predators were.  Our numbers were pitiful at this point, so we both opted to find some panfish to pad our catch rate.  Also, by doing that, you find baitfish and eventually predators.  Once you know where they are, a change in fishing methods is the only thing left to catch them, but that is sometimes a challenge in itself.

Finding panfish like this nice crappie can pad your catch numbers, but also help you find where conditions may be right for finding predatory fish like chain pickerel and largemouth bass.
We found plenty of good sized bluegills, shellcrackers, and a few crappie scattered around lily pad fields further down the lake near deeper water.  In some spots, the panfish bit just about every cast while casting small two inch twister tails on 1/32 ounce jigheads and light line.  That was fun, but I had big fish on my mind, and the panfish were starting to bore me.  We each had several chain pickerel bite our jigs off, leaving our line dancing in the wind.  We also picked up a few small bass on the panfish jigs.  We found the predators.  Now we had to figure out a way to catch them.

Chain pickerel like this one were biting off our panfish jigs.  We also caught a few smaller bass on the small lures, so the predators were here.  We just had to find a way to get more of them.  Plus, getting bitten off and retying new lures wastes fishing time and hurts the wallet.  If they're going to bite, I want to boat them.
By now, we had moved all the way to the other end of the lake.  The wind was stronger here, especially on the Southeastern shoreline, where the warmer water was piling up.  Howard and I tried several reaction baits and finesse presentations, but nothing seemed to work.  I managed to catch a pickerel using a larger grub and jighead, but just about every cast brought back some algae on my lure that I kept having to clean off, and that irritated me.  If the fish were actively striking that presentation, I'd put up with it, but the bites were few and far between.  Something had to change.  The fish had to be here.

Last time we fished this lake, we found lots of these golden
shiners, which we assumed were the coveted forage for
both bass and chain pickerel.
I opened up my crankbait box and searched for an answer.  This lake was shallow and weedy, so deep and medium divers were out.  I needed a good shallow crankbait.  Then, something in my box caught my eye and jarred my memory.  Last time we fished this lake, we found huge schools of golden shiners, and when we found them, we also found big chain pickerel and good sized bass.  In my box, the lure that caught my eye should be the perfect imitation of a golden shiner, a half ounce Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap in the gold with black back color. 

Lipless crankbaits are a good choice when imitating large baitfish like golden shiners, blueback herring, and various species of shad.  And, the rattling noise and vibrations on the retrieve often draw reaction strikes on both active and inactive fish.  The strikes when fishing these lures are often violent, and that was what I was hoping for. 

I had never tried lipless crankbaits in this particular lake.  I never had to, because the things that we tried on this day, like spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, and plastic worms normally kept us busy with plenty of bites.  But not today.  So, I thought that I'd give it a shot.

On my first cast, I put the lure into an area that was about three feet deep.  After a few cranks I could feel the bait wasn't working properly, so I quickly reeled it in only to find thick hair like algae hanging from both treble hooks.  At first, I thought that I might be wasting my time, but then decided to place a cast toward deeper water, and try keeping my rod tip high while maintaining a medium retrieve speed.  The next cast went out to the deeper water.  After a few cranks, I had a bone jarring strike and a big fish on.  What did I have?  I wondered if I had hooked a chain pickerel or a big largemouth bass.  It didn't matter as I am tickled to catch either species, and besides, this fish was fighting like crazy.  The fish seemed to dig for the deep against the resistance of my medium power fast action St. Croix Avid baitcasting rod.  After a really good fight, the fish finally came up and boiled near the boat. 

Big bass...I wasn't sure how big, but it was big, and on a tough day of fishing, a fish like this can make your day.  Finally, I was able to get the bass to the side of the boat, careful to lip the fish and boat it without leaving two treble hooks imbedded in my hand.  We measured it and weighed it, twenty inches and four pounds, then I released it to fight another day.

This bass fell for a gold Rat-L-Trap, a good imitation of the golden shiner, probably the meal that this four pound largemouth bass was hunting for.  "Traps" make for great reaction bites especially on weedy lakes.
We figured that the predatory fish were in the deep end of the lake, so we decided to use the wind to drift across the lake while tossing our lipless crankbaits in search of them.  At first, it seemed as if I had a one fish wonder bite.  That is, I wonder why only one fish would bite it.  Maybe I didn't find a pattern, but rather, a lone fish that I fooled, while many others were down deep laughing at us.  Howard put on a six inch Senko and caught a couple decent bass and pickerel, so maybe he found a pattern.  I followed suit and tried one also, but no hits for me as we both drifted that deeper water in search of fish.

Howard found a couple nice bass and pickerel using a six inch Senko in the deeper water.
Well, I wasn't about to give up on my gold trap.  Fish like that bite for a reason.  There had to be more.  So, I went back to it, making cast after cast, joking that bass and pickerel were a fish of ten thousand casts, like the mighty musky.  After about thirty more casts, I gave up and went back to panfishing for a bit, kind of like a rest.  Panfish and minnows were dimpling the surface all around us, tempting me to try and catch them just to see what they were.  I landed a nice bluegill, followed by a nice crappie, only to be bitten off a few casts later by another toothy chainside.  Ah hah!  More predators.  Maybe they want my Rat-L-Trap again. 

So, I picked it back up and began chucking it.  Three casts later and I had a massive strike.  What did I have this time?  Again, the fish fought, sounding for the depths, even taking drag.  Big fish, but was it a pickerel or a bass?  Again, I'm thrilled as I fought this fish.  Finally it came to the surface and thrashed about, splashing Howard in the process.  It was a nice sized chain pickerel, my biggest one so far this year.  Now, maybe I was on to something. 

I brought the mighty pickerel to the side of the boat, and with those teeth and treble hooks thrashing about, I decided it wouldn't be the best idea to try and grab the fish, so I hoisted it into the boat.  Bad idea.  The fish thrashed even more and wouldn't you know, one of the treble hooks headed right for my crotch!  I tried my best to avoid the hooks but one of them stuck in the pants leg of my blue jeans, two of the hooks piercing all the way through my pants, right along my right groin area, with the fish still attached and flopping.  I was happy that I wasn't wearing shorts, because that would have been a nasty result.  Finally, the toothy predator calmed down and I was able to remove it from the lure.  I turned and posed as Howard snapped my photo with the fish, with the lure still hooked to my pants.  I released the beast and spent several minutes removing the lure from my pants, thankful that the hooks didn't penetrate any skin.

This nice size chain pickerel hammered my Rat-L-Trap, then proceeded to hook me!
The afternoon was finally heading to toward a close.  I was happy that I had two quality fish slam my lure.  So far, the catch  numbers weren't great, but any time I catch quality fish it's a good trip, and I'm thankful.  Howard and I decided to fish our way back to the ramp and hit the Western shoreline.  Howard tied on a chatterbait and I stuck with my Rat-L-Trap, fishing it as if it was a spinnerbait, working pockets along the weeds and lily pads, around woody cover, and out to deeper water.  We stayed away from shore knowing that the predators were not deep in the cover, but rather, they seemed to be hunting in the deeper water out from the cover.  We proved this on the trip back, as Howard and I hooked several chain pickerel and largemouth bass.

Several more bass and pickerel hit my gold Rat-L-Trap as we fished our way back to the ramp to end the day.
Howard with a quality chain pickerel that attacked his chatterbait.
After landing several bass and pickerel on our way back, some of them being decent size, we both marveled about how tough the day had been, but were glad that we made the right decision to stay and fish this lake out despite the tough conditions.  I finished with some nice crappie, well over a dozen nice bluegills, a good number of chain pickerel, and a bunch of nice largemouth on the day.  Howard did equally well, although he probably caught two to my one on the bluegills...that boy was on fire with those gills!

In summary, when facing tough conditions but you know that you're on a good lake with quality fish, don't give up on it especially in the fall.  When daylight is short, that's less fishing time, and a spot change takes time away from fishing.  You have to pull the boat out, drive to another spot, and launch again.  Plus, even if it's a good lake, you have to start from scratch to figure them out, and there's no guarantee that the fishing will be any better than what you left.  On the other hand, a spot change could really make your day, so it's a tough decision.  On this particular day, I feel that we made the right decision to stay.  I'll take a four pound bass and a big pickerel any day.  Fall fishing, big fish, that's what it's all about.

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