JEFF KNAPP: Wild bait works well in fall
Indigenous species of minnows trapped from local creeks, found within the same watershed being fished, are forage that gamefish are accustomed to feeding on. Being wild, when approached by a predator, they react as nature programmed them to do, not in the manner of a hatchery-produced fathead or shiner. The nervous behavior of a wild creek chub gives the angler a heads-up while providing gamefish with a more natural predator/prey response.
Minnows can be trapped and netted. The first step, though, is finding a proper creek. Mud-banked, low-gradient creeks tend to harbor various subspecies of creek chubs and suckers, both of which are excellent bait. Minnows in the 3- to 5-inch range are right for bass and walleyes; smaller minnows of about 2 or so inches work well for stocked trout.
It’s common for smaller streams to be carried under back roads by a galvanized steel culvert. The nozzle-like discharge that shoots through the culvert during high flows scours out a plunge hole directly downstream. Even on streams you can step across it’s common to have culvert holes 15 to 20 feet across and four or five feet deep. Such spots are ideal for tossing in a minnow trap. Just be sure to gain the landowner’s permission before doing so.
Standard torpedo-shaped minnow traps excel at collecting minnows. The 1-inch openings in such traps allow minnows up to 6 inches to enter. A variety of baits can be used to lure minnows into the trap; I’ve had great success using a cup or so of kibble-style dry dog food. Use dry dog food of a larger diameter so it doesn’t flow through the trap’s mesh.
In lakes, remaining living weeds tend to be found in the deeper zones of a lake that support such cover. In other words, if in your favorite lake during the summer you find weeds in water as shallow as 3 feet and as deep as 14, at this time it’s more likely you’ll find green weeds in the 10- to 14-foot range as opposed to shallower. Common weed varieties to find at this depth include coontail, milfoil and a range of pondweeds. The deep edge of the weedline often lies in conjunction with a drop-off into deeper water, especially during the fall. The more productive areas include bars, points and humps that have remaining green weeds and also a relatively sharp break leading to deeper water.
An angler has two basic options for working these kinds of areas. You can cast/pitch to the cover and work the bait back to the boat, or you can fish in a more vertical manner, hovering the bait. The best option depends on the layout of the structure, as well as how fish are relating to it.
When working a more gradually sloping weed edge/structure, it’s often preferable to pitch back into the weed edges, where small turns and points create fish-holding pockets. Since minnows will quickly die from repeated casts/pitches, I prefer to use a leadhead jig to present them in this situation. Action will be imparted to the bait by the working of the jig. It doesn’t seem to matter to the fish that the bait remains alive, so long as it was in good shape when initially hooked. Any minnows that died in the bucket will likely make poor bait for bass or walleyes.
On rivers, rigging and jigging have their applications. As water temperatures drop from the low 50s into the 40s, smallmouth bass and walleyes begin collecting in predictable locations. Deeper pools, ones exhibiting little current, provide the needed habitat at this time of year.
Many of the deeper pools that hold bass and walleyes at this time have steep breaking shorelines. One of my favorite fall tactics is to drift 20 to 30 feet off of the bank and pitch a jig-n-wild minnow downstream toward the shore, allowing it to bump down the drop-off as the boat catches up with it.