Looking for the hottest places to fish this fall? Our fishing expert shares his top 5 destinations for autumn action across America.
By Colin Moore
Autumn is the season of dynamic changes for fishermen, and sort of a mirror image of spring. Where spawning runs typically define spring fishing, it’s the movement of baitfish that generally provides outstanding fall fishing opportunities.
Here’s a rundown on some of the most popular – and productive – fall fishing scenarios across America.
A smorgasbord of baitfish is served up to striped bass in the fall as they make their way south along the Atlantic coast from Maine to their wintering waters in the mid-Atlantic.
Hot Spots To Fish: Deservedly, Montauk, NY at the eastern end of Long Island is considered a storied mecca for striped bass fishermen. If you’re not going surf fishing on the beach or fishing from a jetty, Gone Fishing Marina (631-668-3232, gonefishingmarina78.com) can set up a charter trip for you. If it’s booked up, try Star Island Yacht Club (631-668-5052, starislandyc.com) or Montauk Marine Basin (631-668-5900, marinebasin.com).
Down south, talk to the folks at Captain Hogg’s Charter Service (757-876-1590, captainhoggscharters.com) about fishing around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Overdrawn Charters (252-202-4623, overdrawncharters.com) in Manteo, N.C. can help as well.
Tackle You’ll Need: Stick with 30- to 50-pound braid or monofilament and a 60-pound-test shock leader of fluorocarbon, with saltwater-ready spinning tackle heavy enough to handle 10- to 14-foot rods. Penn, Quantum and Okuma specialize in fairly inexpensive surf-fishing rods, and reels to match. If you have a reel, but no rod yet, the new Black Inshore Rods from Lamiglas are up to the task. The five spinning and five casting models range from a 6-foot, 10-inch light finesse spinning rod to a 7 ½-foot casting rod rated for lures from 3 to 12 ounces in weight.
Quick tip: The most successful anglers are those who spot gulls or other wheeling seabirds feeding on baitfish driven to the top by stripers and who then cast into the melee without dispersing the bass. From a boat, the trick is to approach schools carefully and take advantage of wind or tide to drift to within casting range. The stripers will stay up as long as the baitfish are hemmed against the surface.
Best Lures/Baits: The 4 1/2-inch Acme Kastmater XL spoon, the 1 ½-ounce Odin Popper, and the 5-inch pencil popper from Tsunami are popular artificials up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Other popular options include the 6- or 7-inch Savage Gear Sandeel Swimbait, 9-inch Sassy Shad swimbait and the 6-inch Rapala X-Rap SubWalk.
For anglers who’d rather soak baits from a boat or in the surf, live or cut bait, such as Atlantic menhaden (peanut bunker), herring, porgies, eels, bloodworms, anchovies and mullet, can flip the switch on chaotic striper blitzes.
Redfish are starting to move inshore and set up at the mouths of bays, inlets and deltas as their annual spawning run commences. The bottom line for fishermen is outstanding fishing from late September through November in the northern Gulf.
Likewise, bass fishing is starting to pick up again as the weather begins to cool. Huge schools of threadfin shad are starting to filter away from open-water ledges into bays and tributaries where feeding conditions and water temperatures are more optimum.
Bass follow the food, first setting up on ledges at the mouths of inlets and creeks to waylay shad, then migrating back toward shallower water to keep up with their quarry.
Bass rule in Dixie and cooler weather brings out an army of anglers who go after them. Whether largemouth, smallmouth or spotted bass, they’re available in most waters and sometimes all three varieties are present in a fishery, ready to aggravate or gratify those who seek them.
Hot Spots To Fish: When it comes to the South’s best lakes for fall fishing, the big TVA impoundments fit the bill. Because this is bass tournament country, dozens of YouTube videos and Facebook sites of pro anglers offer useful advice on where and how to catch autumn largemouths. Likewise, guide services are plentiful; just Google “fishing guides” for the lake you’re visiting or type in the town nearest the lake you wish to fish on the interactive map on this page.
Tackle You’ll Need: A 7-foot medium/heavy rod such as the St. Croix Premier Cranking, a baitcasting reel like the Abu Garcia Revo Winch and 10- to 14-pound-test monofilament makes a good combination to fish downsized lures.
Quick tip: This is strictly a match-the-hatch deal. Use lures that are about the same size as wandering shad. If young-of-the-year threadfins are on the bass menu, try small swim baits fished on drop-shot rigs.
Best Lures/Baits: Shad-colored, shallow- and medium-diving square-billed or coffin-billed crankbaits are autumn standouts. Popular lures include the Strike King 6XD, Bandit 100 or 200, Duo Realis M65, Livetarget Magnum Shad BaitBall Squarebill, Megabass S-Crank, Lucky Craft Squarebill 2.5, Storm Arashi and Rapala Shad Rap.
Fish them around shoreline cover and on the flats between creek drop-offs and the bank. Other fallback baits include spinnerbaits like the Booyah Super Shad, Stanley Vibrashaft and Nichols Pulsator. Good buzzbait options can be found from Lunker Lure, Damiki, Santone and Dirty Jigs.
Along the northern Gulf Coast from Carrabelle, FL, to Grand Isle, LA, the redfish season begins in late September and continues in stages through December. Some anglers fish in the surf with cut bait, while others station themselves on area piers or in boats on relatively shallow flats near channel cuts.
Hot Spots To Fish: For boating anglers, a couple of spots stick out. Pensacola Bay Pass is a must-fish for boaters. Anchor up on the broad flat between old Fort Pickens and the channel, set out lines as the tide changes to incoming, and hang on. Need more help? Redfish University Pensacola Fishing Charters (850-748-4368, redfishuniversity.com) specializes in the big drum.
At Grand Isle, LA, book a trip with Gotta Go Fishing Charters (225-921-3642, gottagofishingcharters.com). The marshes and inshore waters around Venice, LA, are primo redfish haunts as well. Captain Mike Frenette (504-782-0924, laredfish.com or (email@example.com) is a top guide here.
Tackle You’ll Need: “Rat” reds of 3 pounds and up, or real bruisers weighing in excess of 20 pounds require a range of tackle options. Bass fishing tackle – whether spinning or baitcasting – is perfect for handling smaller fish and for casting jigs or swimbaits that weigh less than an ounce. A Shimano Stradic spinning reel and 7-foot medium-action Shimano Compre rod with 14-pound-test monofilament.
For bigger fish, consider a Penn Battle II BTLII5000 with 20-pound-test monofilament or 40-pound-test braid, and a 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. A 7-foot medium-heavy spinning rod (such as the Penn Battalion BATIN1220S70) should handle any bait rigs or lures and wear down a bull redfish in short order.
Quick Tip: Incoming tides in late evening or at night are primo times for reds as the fish free-spawn then in the mouths of coastal bays and estuaries. If you can’t fish any other time, make sure you fish the incoming tides.
Best Lures/Baits: Redfish aren’t particular about their dietary requirements and will eat anything from blue crabs to halved mullet. Swimming spoons such as the Johnson Sprite (johnsonfishing.com), swimbaits and jigs or even topwater poppers, such as the Heddon Saltwater Spook, will elicit strikes.
For offshore saltwater fishermen, tuna grab most of the attention along the Pacific Coast in autumn as the pelagic fish work their way up the coast following vast schools of Pacific anchovies and sardines. Tuna or salmon – either way, there’s a real tug-of-war involved. Check with state and local tourism offices for information about charter boat and guide services.
In July, a trio of tunas –yellowfin, albacore and bluefin – start showing up in numbers offshore in northern Mexico, and by October it’s an all-out fishfest for anglers aboard charter boats from California to Washington.
Considering that most boats are likely to fish well offshore, tuna-fishing expeditions might stay out up to a week in the peak of season, though some trips can be shorter if the skipper thinks anglers can fill their limits in a day. With San Diego, CA the southern epicenter of tuna charters, and Westport, WA, on the northern end, visiting fishermen won’t have any trouble finding rides.
Expect to pay $215-$275 for day trips to the inshore tuna grounds. Some charters go farther offshore and stay a few days. The cost then is about $275 multiplied by the number of days.
Hot Spots To Fish: H&M Landing (619-222-1144, hmlanding.com) at San Diego is a recommended portal to adventure. Go north as the season progresses, and try a boat out of Westport Charters (360-268-0900, westportcharters.com) in Washington.
Tackle You’ll Need: Any of the three types of tuna might weigh from 20 pounds to more than 300 pounds (for bluefins). Thus, unless they plan to rent rigs for about $20 and up per day, anglers take along their own tackle and that might include two or three fishing outfits to cover any contingency. Everything from medium baitcasters or spinning outfits to heavier revolving-spool rigs, such as the Shimano TLD 20 and TLD 25 reels matched with Shimano TDR70MB 7-foot trolling rods (10- to 17-pound test) or TDR70MHB 7 foot medium-heavy (12- to 30-pound test line), match up well with most tunas likely to be encountered.
Quick Tip: Make friends with the mates on the charter boat you’ve chosen. They’ll be more likely to help you when the big tuna on the end of your line is ready to come into the boat. Be sure to tip generously – say 15 to 20 percent of the charter fee.
Best Lures/Baits: Depending on the flexibility of the skipper, anglers might be limited to using live bait such as anchovies or sardines, or jigging spoons such as the Shimano Flat Fall. However, sometimes anglers can troll big crankbaits such as the Rapala Magnum X-Rap 30, the Yo-Zuri 3D Magnum or the Mann’s Giganticus.
Like the fall tuna run off the Pacific coast, the chinook (king) salmon run advances in stages, with October being the peak month and extending into November. For the widest window of opportunity, plan to fish the rivers and tributaries of Washington and Oregon that feed into the Columbia River.
Hot Spots To Fish: Though much less known and much smaller than its more famous neighbors to the north, Oregon’s Chetco River produces hundreds of jumbo kings weighing more than 20 pounds throughout the fall. The Winchuck, closer to California, is another small fishery with big salmon. Call Ironhead Guide Service (530-598-0530, ironheadguideservice.com), to set up a trip to either.
Tillamook Bay and its feeders are prime hangouts for chinooks, and Marvin’s Guide Service (503-314-5087) can put you on them. For numbers, it’s hard to beat the Winchester Bay, Rogue River, Umpqua and Coos systems. Salmon Harbor Tackle & Marine (541-271-2010) is well-stocked with tackle and salmon fishing advice. Up the Columbia River Gorge, the folks at Jones Sport Fishing (208-861-0654, jonessportfishing.com) have the latest scoop on salmon.
Tackle You’ll Need: Fall chinook might weigh more than 50 pounds, so meat fishermen who go after salmon typically use heavy spinning or baitcasting gear. Consider the Ambassadeur S Combo with a Model 6500 baitcaster and matching 7-foot medium-heavy rod. For spinning fans that do a lot of casting, the Shakespeare Ugly Stick 9-foot rod with matching reel is a good choice. For the sportier types who like challenges, 10- or 12-weight fly fishing tackle is popular. Just make sure the reel is spooled with lots of backing.
Quick Tip: The big waters such as Tillamook Bay and the Columbia River basin yield tons of salmon to hundreds of fishermen in prime time, but don’t overlook the other rivers along the northern Pacific Coast. Get a map and locate some streams that range far inland, then find out what you can about the fishery via the internet or calls to local tourism and Game and Fish offices. You might be happily surprised with what turns up.
Best Lures/Baits: Chinooks will eat a variety of cut bait gleaned from the local larder, or go after any lure that is large, wobbling and shiny. Various trolling spoons from Luhr-Jensen such as the Coyote Spoon or the Moonshine Trolling spoon, as well as the Luhr-Jensen Crippled Herring jigging spoon, work well. The original Buzz Bomb or Zelda jig are good choices when salmon are ganged up on herring schools.
Any time is a good time to be outdoors in the Rockies, but considering the fall scenery as the big visual attraction, autumn might be the best time of all for trout anglers. The biggest brown trout of the season start getting frisky and aggressive as their spawning run in regional rivers approaches.
Hot Spots To Fish: Rock Creek, which empties into the Clark Fork River southeast of Missoula, Mt., has become a prime destination for brown trout in recent years. The creek has tons of 16- or 18-inch fish and is known more for numbers than size. Contact John Herzer at Blackfoot River Outfitters (406-542-7411, blackfootriver.com), or Blue Damsel Lodge, (406-825-3077, bluedamsel.com), for information about guide services or information regarding accommodations.
If you’re more interested in going after a behemoth of a brown trout, contact Joe Gilsnyder at Trout Stalkers on the Madison in Ennis, Mt.. Joe and his crew of guides know of some fishing holes off the beaten path that harbor bigger fish (406-682-5150).
Tackle You’ll Need: Wherever you wind up fishing, tackle Rocky Mountain browns with a 9 1/2-foot, 6-weight rod such as an Orvis Helios 3. A 5-weight will work if you’re an experienced caster, but a 6-weight handles big streamers better.
Quick Tip: If you make a quartering cast upstream with a Wooly Bugger or similar pattern, let it dead-drift downstream until the current catches it and sweeps it up in the water column. Sometimes the darting motion, as the fly is caught in the current, will trigger a reaction strike from a following brownie.
Best Patterns: Fall browns will take nymphs and small dries such as the Blue-Winged Olive, but more likely the bigger fish will go after Size 2 Sparkle Minnows, Wooly Buggers, Clouser Minnows, Zonkers and Bighorn Specials fished on short leaders with no tippets.
If you’re fishing from a drift boat with a guide, regular weight-forward floating line will suffice. If you’re wading, a sinking-tip line probably is a better choice, depending on depth.
Walleyes and a variety of salmon are on the autumn menu in the Midwest as anglers have a last chance to fish open water before the winter freeze starts to set in. Fishing for either species can be excellent; how the weather and the water temperatures line up are more critical where salmon are concerned, but the fall run extends well into November.
Walleyes aren’t so picky, and all the traditional waters such as the Mississippi River, Big Saint Germain Lake in Wisconsin, Otter Tail Lake in Minnesota and Great Lakes feeder streams give up tons of ’eyes in the fall.
The big attraction nowadays is king (chinook) salmon that make their fall spawning runs up rivers and creeks. Whether fishing from a small boat or a Great Lakes charter boat, latching on to a 20- or 30-pound king can quickly warm up an otherwise chilly fall day.
Hot Spots To Fish: Michigan’s Grand River, which empties into the eastern side of Michigan, is a prime destination for salmon. Getting Bit Guide Service (616-570-2946, gettingbitguideservice.com) in Grand Rapids is a good starting point. In fact, any port of call along Lake Michigan on either the east or west sides is likely to have plenty of knowledgeable salmon guides or charters. Fishing from jetties or piers – such as the famed McKinley Pier in Milwaukee – is also productive during the fall salmon runs.
In northwestern New York, the Salmon River lives up to its name through mid-October, but the run might linger into November in the Lake Ontario feeder, depending on the weather. Coho and steelheads also are in the mix too.
The Yankee Angler (315-963-2065, yankeeangler.com) in Pulaski, N.Y. keeps tabs on the fishing. In the big waters of Lake Ontario’s southern shore at Rochester, N.Y., give Reel Em In Sportfishing Charters (585-317-5325, reeleminsportfishing.com) a call.
Farther to the northwest, the waters and feeders of Lake Superior near Sault Ste. Marie are teeming with big salmon. One of the benefits here is that you can always slip in to the St. Mary’s River System to get away from those rough autumn nor’ westers. Live To Fish Charters (906-440-7797) can help make it happen.
Tackle You’ll Need: Salmon tackle and striped bass tackle (see above) are practically interchangeable. Fish might range from a few pounds to well over 20 pounds, and rods and reels should be in the medium- to-heavy range. A light- to-medium spinning outfit capable of holding a couple of hundred yards of 10- to 14-pound-test monofilament or 30- to 50-pound-test braid should do for most applications, especially when casting lures. Try the Okuma Epixor XT-20 with a matching rod.
Quick Tip: Just to hedge your bets, tie a foot-long section of 2x mono to your streamer hook and add a beadhead Prince nymph or similar pattern to the other end. When salmon are finicky, they might flash at a streamer, but not take it. Sometimes, a smaller mouthful such as a nymph trailer will seal the deal.
Best Lures/Bait: For the most part, spawn-run salmon hit spoons, crankbaits or roe bags out of reaction rather than hunger. Shiny lures, such as the Luhr-Jensen Twinky Rig behind a flasher, the Acme Kastmaster Spoon and a variety of soft-plastic swimbaits or hard crankbaits, will elicit strikes. Fly fishermen favor Dahlberg Divers, Wooly Buggers, Hex Nymphs and Glo Bugs.
In similar fashion to bass, walleyes follow baitfish from the bigger lakes to feeder creeks and rivers with current.
Hot Spots To Fish: The Van Hook Arm of Lake Sakakawea (701-421-0360, vanhookguideservice.com) in North Dakota is a prime walleye destination, as is Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago (920-598-0586, walleyepatrol.com)
Tackle You’ll Need: Power fishing it’s not. Though walleyes might fatten up to well over 10 pounds, 2- to 4-pound fish are more the rule. Depending on the average size of the fish, 4- to 10-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon will do.
For spinning enthusiasts, the Quantum Vapor PT with matching rod will work. If you prefer trolling to casting, or bouncing a weight and natural bait on the bottom, try a baitcasting outfit such as a Fenwick/Pflueger Night Hawk or Iron Hawk combo.
Quick tip: Trolling at night with diving jerkbaits, such as the Storm Original ThunderStick or Lucky Craft Pointer 110, is a great way to catch walleyes. Troll in patterns from deep to shallow and back again, as the fish tend to relocate up and down drop-offs and channel runs depending on bait movement.
Best Lures/Bait: Leeches, nightcrawlers, minnows and everything from crankbaits to spinners will find favor with hungry fall walleyes. Top picks include: Rapala’s Shad Rap, Berkley’s Flicker Shad, Mepps’ Black Fury, Rapala’s Husky Jerk and Northland Fishing Tackle’s Forage Minnow Jigging Spoon.
About the Author: Colin Moore is an avid bass fisherman who has had the opportunity to fish some of the best bass fisheries in North America, with some of the best bass anglers. Formerly, Moore was executive editor of Bassmaster magazine, the bass fishing columnist at Outdoor Life and editor in chief of FLW Bass Fishing magazine. Now editor emeritus of the latter, he continues to write about all things bass fishing.