Conventional wisdom advises sweet water anglers to look deep as water temperatures drop through the fall. In many waters, this makes perfect sense as chilly weather prompts both baitfish and predators including bass, pickerel, walleye, perch and panfish, to slide out from shore to depths that have relinquished less of their warmth.
But what about those dishpan lakes and ponds? You know the ones I'm talking about; those swampy, weedy basins often favored as bass, pickerel and panfish haunts during the summer months by anglers tossing nothing but weedless soft plastics. Some anglers believe that the fish in these skinny waters simply go dormant as water temperatures drop through the fall but I assure you this is not the case. Fact is, after all the weeds die back and shoreline vegetation drops its leaves, such waters may be easier to fish in the late fall than they were during the heat of summer.
One way to connect with predators in skinny water lakes and ponds long after the swimsuit season has come and gone is to slowly troll across the flats. It’s a technique that produces quality fish on a routine basis, fast action more often than not, and sometimes works throughout the day. The keys to success are quite simple: troll slowly, use ultralight tackle, and scale down the size of your shallow running plugs.
The idea of this initial surveying is to map out the hot spots by covering a lot of water, and then eliminate unproductive areas to maximize the time your lures will be passing through the strike zone. Mostly, I’ll troll along the sunny side of shadow lines or parallel contour breaks where the water drops off from one or two feet deep to four- or five-foot depths. I’ll also take a pass or two along any sharp phragmite or cattail wall that stands in two or three feet of water.
Some days, I’ll troll by kayak, being sure to keep my paddle strokes quiet, gentle and just fast enough to ease ahead. In my jon boat, I’ll put my tolling motor to the slowest setting that keeps me moving steadily into the wind and adjust the speed to slow down slightly should my path eventually find the wind at my back. Either way, it’s a good idea to wear a life vest this time of year if you head out in a small vessel - in some areas, it’s required.
LIGHT RODS AND SMALL LURES
Top choices for slow trolling include small floating or sinking Rapala, Rebel and Yo-Zuri plugs. Work these from an ultralight to light set-up sporting 4- to 8-pound-test line. Lure size should run 2.5 to 5 inches. Black and silver, gold, white, orange and sky blue have been my most productive late fall patterns. In waters where toothy pickerel are a possibility, or if I suspect that large walleye or lunker largemouths may be encountered, tying on a 30-inch leader of 10- to 12-pound-test mono adds a little protection. Connect the leader with a black barrel swivel and you may gain an extra few inches of depth for your lures.
Using this set-up, it is possible to troll floating/diving lures six inches to a foot below the surface at a gentle pace. On many shallow lakes and ponds, that’s just enough to glide above submerged weed beds. To work deeper, select a sinking plug and you should be able to get down three to four feet. If you want to change things up now and then, you might also try trolling a small spinnerbait or large in-line spinner. These work best, however, over stretches where weed tops fall 4 or 5 feet shy of the surface.
RECONNAISSANCE FOR NEXT YEAR
Slow trolling in skinny water works particularly well on the sunny side of a lake or pond, and in areas where you can get up close to the inflow from a stream or brook. It can also be quite productive when used to work those same weed-choked flats that are so difficult to penetrate in June, July and August. Be aware that this isn’t the kind of technique where you’ll hammer fish after fish, as you might if jigging tightly schooled bass and panfish in deeper lakes, but you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised at the size of some of the fish that attack your offerings, along with the steadiness of the action.
Keep in mind as you make your way around a favorite lake or pond, that an added benefit of slow-trolling during fall and winter is that the gin-clear water allows a thorough inspection of the bottom. Using a pair of polarized sunglasses, you’ll be able to spot submerged rocks, timber, wrecks, ridges, humps, slopes and ledges - all potential hot spots come next summer.