Fall Fishing: Understanding Fish Feeding in the Midwest

By Michael Stridde

Castaic Pro Staff share their inside tips, tricks, and advice.

Michael Stridde

One of the biggest questions fishermen ask every time they hit the water is, “What are the fish doing today and why?”

This becomes more of an issue as you consider the seasons when fishing and try to understand fish movements and patterns as the seasons change. 

Fall fishing can be one of the best times of year to fish, especially in the Midwest. As the fish start to bulk up for the winter months they generally go on a feeding frenzy because once the surface turns to ice, they only feed when they need to because the water is so cold. 

Considerations for Fall Fishing

It’s important to understand the body of water you’re fishing any time of the year. 

Let’s look at some of the key aspects of fall fishing—which are very similar to pre-spawn patterns.

  • What is the forage in the lakes, rivers, or streams that you’re fishing?
    • Is it shad, crayfish, gobies, bluegills, and perch?
  • What kind of cover does the body of water have?
    • Weeds, rock, wood, coves, points, secondary points, docks, ledges, rock piles, reefs, flats, etc.
  • What is the fishing pressure like on the body of water?
    • This plays into how you fish, size of baits used, and fish activity in general.
  • Water color, temperature and current:
    • Is the water crystal clear, swampy/coffee color yet clear, or dingy/dirty?
    • Is the lake, river, or stream fed by a spring, swamp, or creek?
    • Is there current from a creek or stream coming in, or is the only water movement from wind?

We’ll focus on inland lakes (not the Great Lakes) and rivers like the Illinois, Ohio, Mississippi, which are major fisheries in the Midwest. 

Fishing Techniques for Inland Lakes

Here are some key techniques that have worked in almost every lake I’ve fished in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and southern Michigan. 

Some of these techniques work well on the Tennessee River chain of lakes near Knoxville in late fall/early winter, but they’re not as consistent down south. 

Nine years ago I was invited to fish a weekend tournament that a friend of mine and his family have put on for about the last 25 years in south central Wisconsin, just north of Madison.

The lake was typical for Wisconsin, with lots of weeds: coontail, cabbage, and small patches of lily pads. The bottom was very sandy, with rock mixed in. The water was a coffee color but clear, and you could see down three to four feet. 

The first two years I participated in the tournament, I fished the lake just like I would fish the Mississippi in the fall, throwing spinnerbaits, topwater, and a mix of shallow crankbait. If those didn’t work, I’d pull out a beaver-style bait and flip until I couldn’t flip anymore. 

My buddy and I would catch fish all the time, but the lake looked too good for what we were catching. If the weather wasn’t great or a cold front would come through, we’d still catch fish but would have to work hard for them. 

Regardless, the first two years I fished the tournament I won. The third year, I won again, but out of the 10 boats fishing that year, only I and two other guys caught fish. I still caught the most, but the fishing was hard, and catching only four fish in an entire day wasn’t a lot of fun. The other two guys only caught a fish each. 

Twenty guys catching six fish: I know that happens, but on my way home it really made me wonder what I needed to do differently. I only fish that lake once a year, so I really had to think about what I was doing compared to what I should be doing. 

Bluegill Colors

Here’s what I figured out from that year and the following.

I always saw an abundance of bluegills and signs of crayfish in the water—not much shad though. I’d been trying to imitate a shad all the time, and yes, I caught fish, but I knew there were more. 

I’d seen Mark Zona’s awesome fishing show with Greg Hackney, who was fishing swim jigs that matched the forage in the lake, giving the fish something slightly different than what they normally see. 

I had a few bluegill-colored swim jigs in my tackle, so I tied one on and put a bluegill-colored grub on for a tail and decided to give it a try. Mind you, I hadn’t thrown swim jigs much at this point so really didn’t have a great feel for them.

I learned quickly: The fish just hammered these jigs—not only largemouth and smallmouth bass, but northern pike, too. 

On Friday when I went to practice prior to the event on Saturday, my buddy and I had fished all morning, with only four fish to our names in as many hours. Then I made this change to the swim jig, and in one hour we had increased our total by over 20 fish. 

The tournament the next day was unusually hot for mid-September, with a ton of boats on the water. Everyone seemed to catch fish in the morning, but my buddy and I caught fish all day long. 

By the end of the big bass tournament, we had caught well over 50 fish, with my biggest being 2 lbs., winning the event for the fourth straight year. 

That one day solidified the pattern that I’ve carried through three other states and has worked every time.  

The forage in most of these Midwestern lakes with lots of weeds is chock full of bluegills and crayfish. Bluegills and crayfish both change color some throughout the year. Mimicking either or both in the various color changes during the season always works, but in the fall both seem to have the most color and are very similar in color at times.

The Jigs and How to Use Them

Chunky shad jig

The first picture is a Lifted Jigs SL Swim Jig in Gillish color, now known as the SLX Swim Jig with a Reaction Strike Chunky Shad in Bluegill color. 

Chunky shad jig

The second picture is a Lifted Jigs Iball Jig with the same Reaction Strike Blue Gill colored Chunky Shad

I throw the swim jig around weed edges, over the tops of weeds, and through lilypad fields that are starting to die off. 

Bass slam the bait hard, with the Iball jig going over the top of deeper weeds and rock humps.

You can use a Castaic Screw Lock weedless swim bait hook too. Both baits imitate a bluegill very well, and the swim jig especially imitates a bluegill and a crayfish. 

I’ve used this pattern in Illinois, northwestern Indiana (where I live now), and southern Michigan, all in lakes that have similar types of cover and forage. It works. 

Add in a bluegill-colored crankbait (squarebill) like the Castaic Squarebill around rocks and docks with no weeds, and you will continue to catch fish. 

Match the Colors of the Forage

The key is matching the forage and knowing the forage.

With fall water temps in the high 50’s to mid 60’s, it’s even more important because the bass are gorging themselves to get ready for the winter months. 

These color combos work in similar fashion early in the year, having more red/red craw colors, versus bluegill, which works better in the early spring.  This pattern works all throughout the fall in the Midwestern lakes. 

Throwing a vibrating jib in a similar color is also a great tradeoff to a spinnerbait. 

Since I’ve adopted this pattern in the fall with these colors not only have I won that weekend tournament six more times, but every lake I go to the fish just smash the bait and feel like they are ripping the rod out of my hand. Catching 20 to 30 fish a day is the norm. 

This has worked well for me for 10 years, and I continue to make tweaks to the baits and presentation to change it up slightly. You can too. 

I hope this sheds light on a fall pattern that will work throughout the Midwest, helping you catch more fish in one of the best times of year to fish. 

Carry similarities throughout the year and you’ll find a change in how many fish you catch and the size. 

This is what we as fishermen live for; I hope you can take some points away from this and improve your fishing in the fall too!