By Chris Niskanen
Deer River fishing guide Jeff Sundin says he can no longer count on his favorite lakes to be empty of anglers in the fall, when the grouse season opens and the Minnesota Vikings play the Packers.
He has noticed that today's well-equipped and tech-savvy anglers are more likely to push their fishing seasons past Labor Day—sometimes past Halloween—in pursuit of walleye, bass, pike, and muskies.
"The popularity of fall fishing has definitely increased," says Sundin. "These days my clients and I will fish until just before ice-up, which usually coincides with the deer-hunting opener."
Fishing guides and resort owners say fall anglers mean extra business. "I have one customer who comes up each fall just to fish big pike," says Don Beans of Ely, who guides many fall fishing trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. "Last year we landed 12 pike that were between 12 and 16 pounds."
Department of Natural Resources fisheries managers are keenly aware of the growing popularity of angling in the fall. Though they haven't studied the phenomenon, DNR fisheries managers say they have noticed a new breed of anglers launching boats once the leaves turn colors.
"I've lived in Bemidji 15 years, and around 1990 you'd see the occasional boat on Lake Bemidji in mid-September," says Henry Drewes, DNR northwest regional fisheries manager. "Now on a late September day, it's not uncommon to see 15 boats or more on the lake."
From a fisheries management perspective, Drewes doesn't see a downside to fall angling—there still aren't enough anglers on the water to hurt fish populations, he says.
However, increased fall fishing can have a negative impact on waterfowl on some lakes.
"I don't think there is any doubt that fall fishing is increasing the disturbance of migrating waterfowl," says Ray Norrgard, DNR wetland program leader. "I think it's a real issue for our north-central lakes such as Bowstring, Winnibigoshish, and Leech Lake. While we don't have hard evidence, there is little doubt [fall angling] use on those lakes has gone up."
No single factor is contributing to the growth in fall anglers, observers say. Rather, the boost is the byproduct of some major shifts in angling, including the widespread availability of better equipment and a better understanding of fish behavior.
When Sundin began guiding in the 1980s, fishing boats were not as big or powerful as they are today. "It was common to get wet from the splashing waves on a breezy October day," Sundin says. Today's larger boats offer a dry and comfortable ride to a favorite fishing hole.
Anglers can also fish more comfortably on chilly fall days because they stay warmer and drier in high-tech clothing made of materials such as Gore-Tex.
Sophisticated depthfinders and navigation tools, such as GPS, have "made it easier to find both the fish and fishing spots," Sundin says.
An angler himself, Drewes agrees. He adds that sophisticated boats and motors don't require as much skill and time to winterize, so anglers are using them longer into the fall.
Also, Drewes speculates that expensive boats are likely to spend less time in the garage and more time on the water. "It's nothing for folks to spend $35,000 on a boat, motor, and trailer," he says. "And with that kind of investment, they're going to want to use it more."
With a vast fishing media to educate them, anglers have become smarter about lake ecology and fish behavior in the fall. Drewes says anglers today better understand the ecological mechanics of lake turnover between late August and late September. Turnover occurs when the surface-water temperature cools and becomes denser. Water becomes heaviest at 39 F and sinks, forcing lighter water to the surface. This continuing shift, along with wind action, causes the lake water to mix from top to bottom. The topsy-turvy change makes the lake one temperature and causes fish to scatter and become harder to catch.
Once the water cools, says Sundin, fish begin to congregate in deep water and feed aggressively—making them easier to catch. Pike and muskies begin to feed heavily on tullibees and whitefish—oily and fat-laden prey that are schooling and preparing to spawn. Walleyes, which in the summer are caught on leeches and night crawlers, seek out minnows that they find near 18- to 30-foot drop-offs and points.
"It's a time when anglers should concentrate on lakes with water temperatures of 57 to 65 degrees," he says. "Minnows become more important; and by season's end, we're fishing entirely with minnows as bait."
Muskie anglers, in particular, have taken notice of fall baitfish habits and the fact that muskies are on the prowl for prey.
"I was at a meeting of the Fargo-Moorhead chapter of Muskies Inc., and I met a gentleman there who caught 30 legal muskies after Halloween," Drewes says. "I know that muskie fishing is a part of our fishing business that has certainly grown into October and November."
Fall anglers have also been lured to the water by Minnesota's more frequently mild and dry fall weather, which some see as a sign of climate warming.
"These mild falls are extending our open-water season into December," Drewes says. "You have to factor climate change into the equation."
It's not a coincidence that the north-central lakes Norrgard frets about are also popular muskie and walleye fishing lakes. Bowstring, Winnibigoshish, and Leech are not only popular fishing lakes, but also important waterfowl-hunting lakes. Norrgard says duck hunters are increasingly worried about fall anglers and their boats disturbing late-migrating ducks such as scaup (bluebills), ringnecks, and goldeneyes.
To avoid disturbing ducks, Norrgard suggests, "Anglers could take a lot more care when they see a large flock of ducks on the water by going way around them." To resolve potential angler/duck hunter conflicts, he suggests, "The obvious solution would be for anglers and hunters to show courteous behavior to other lake users."
Fishing guide Beans offers fall anglers another precaution: Beware of cold water and rapidly changing weather before venturing into the wilderness. An unexpected plunge into a remote lake in October could spell hypothermia and death.
"You should put a lot of care and thought into your fall trips," he says. Still, one of his best recent memories is an October journey into the Boundary Waters for brook trout with his son. They encountered three bull moose courting a cow. They also caught a limit of trout.
"It's just a great time of year to be out," Beans says. "I guide all summer, but when fall fishing comes around, it's just a real treat."
Chris Niskanen is the outdoors editor of St. Paul Pioneer Press and a frequent contributor to Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.