I invite these young people on outdoor adventures, and open their eyes to things that took me a lifetime to learn. One question I'm repeatedly asked is, “How do you catch so many fish?” I think they're surprised when I give them the answer. They're always very concerned with lure selection, line size, rod and reel selection, and casting ability. Although those things are very important and can't be overlooked, there's something that trumps everything else - timing. An old friend who mentored me when I was a young man once gave me this piece of wisdom: "You can't catch 'em if you ain't where they're at." It sounds simplistic, but how can you refute that? He meant that for the particular lake that we were fishing that day, but over the years I took that little gem of wisdom to a whole new level. It's not only "Where they're at." A better question is when and where are they in such numbers and predictability that you can't possibly go wrong?
I spent many years in bass fishing clubs, competing in tournaments when and where somebody else decided it should be done. I enjoyed competitive fishing. There is no doubt that it shaped me and honed my skills in many ways. However, often times I would be fishing a tournament in one place when I knew that seasonally I should have been somewhere else. Eventually, the overall fishing experience became more important than proving I could out-fish somebody else. Time is so precious. If I had been when and where opportunity was overflowing, it would have greatly enhanced my fishing experience.
Most fishing trips require that I spend some of my hard-earned money, and often times my precious vacation days. That being the case, I want the expenditure of my resources to yield satisfying results. So where should I be geographically, in each season, so I can get the most enjoyment out of my fishing trips? Though I've never actually written it down, over the years I have put together a mental fishing and hunting calendar of when to be where in the Midwest area where I live. I'm convinced that is the single most important factor that influences my success, andtherefore satisfaction with my kayak fishing experience. It is indeed the answer to the question from my students, "How do you catch so many fish?"
My fishing calendar is unique to me and the area that I call home as your calendar will be unique to you. How did I arrive at this mental calendar? Let's use spring as the start of the calendar year. I'll get you started, and you can fill in the blanks on your own when/where fishing calendar. Consider these three sets of criteria as you build your calendar.
- Where do you live, what is your budget, and for what species of fish do you enjoy fishing? This will determine the size and scope of your fishing calendar. If you're like me and can't afford to travel the world, you'll have to scale things back a little. For me, that means my calendar is built inside the boundaries of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and southern Ontario.
- Read the fishing regulations for the states or provinces you will be fishing. Knowing the regulations is crucial, because it defines the framework that you must stay within to build your calendar. For instance, every bass fisherman enjoys the pre-spawn period. The fish are shallow, aggressive, and predictable. However, due to local regulations, fishing for bass is not permitted until the season opens.
- What are the seasonal influences on the types of fish you will target, and how can you capitalize on those influences within the framework of your budget and local regulations? In other words, don't concern yourself with what can be fished for any time. Focus on what is best fished for right now. Then you won't miss the best opportunities your region has to offer.
Early April: Iowa is the only state in reasonable driving distance that does not have a spring closure on bass fishing. Bonus! It also warms up well before anything in Minnesota. The big bass must move to the upper layer of the water column to warm and mature the eggs. That makes southern Iowa the first stop on my fishing calendar.
Late April:The next two stops on my calendar hinge on regulations as well. Game fish seasons on the border waters between Minnesota and Wisconsin do not close. This includes the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers. Between Red Wing, MN and La Crosse, WI there are many backwater areas that are perfect for kayaking. They're in southern Minnesota, they're shallow, and they warm quickly. That makes them stop number two on my calendar.
Early May: Wisconsin’s statewide game fish season opens the first weekend in May, one week before the Minnesota season, making it stop number three on my calendar. Although we can and do catch walleye in the first weekend of May they're usually in a bit of a post-spawn slump, and opportunities for catching them will be better in the coming weeks. On the other hand, the big pike are just coming out of their slump and are beginning to feed heavily. Grab your medium-heavy bait caster and hold on tight. Also, big bluegill are entering their pre-spawn phase, and are easily accessible in the shallows.
Here is another opportunistic example. The second weekend in May is the Minnesota season opener. I could fish for many different species on opening day - and some of them are very aggressive and easy to catch - but there's a game-changer. In the weeks leading up to the opener, the Minnesota DNR stocks thousands of rainbow and brown trout in designated and non-designated trout lakes. The water is still cold so the trout are in the uppermost part of the water column - perfect for kayakers without downriggers. Several weeks later, the water will warm and the trout will go deep for the rest of the season. It's now or never. This is the closest thing to fishing in a barrel that I'm aware of.
Late May: As the water warms locally, I migrate to the next calendar event: local river smallmouth bass. The rivers are seasonally slightly ahead of the local lakes. Next, local lake smallmouth bass.
End of May/Early June: Do you hear that? Opportunity is still knocking. Minnesota is a very tall state. That means I can fish two complete bass pre-spawn and spawn periods on the same fishing license. When bass fishing goes into post spawn locally, I drive to the northernmost lakes in the state and enjoy it all over again.
Late June through August: Heat will push the local bass and pike into very predictable places. I'll save the details of that for another article, but I will say this: experience has taught me to look forward to the hot summertime, while many fishermen I know are disappointed by it. Bass school by size on offshore structure. There's nothing better than getting onto a big school of big bass, and catching one after another without ever pulling up the anchor.
September: Anything goes in September. Bass, walleye, pike - they're all moving shallow and feeding up. There are no secrets here. Anything works. While other outdoorsman are preparing for hunting season, I can take advantage of under-pressured lakes and hungry fish.
October: I target river smallmouth in deep pools. They're stacked up and still feeding up for winter.
November through February: It’s time to chase river smallmouth, downstream from power plant warm-water discharges. This opportunity isn’t available in other months. This is by necessity the only kayak fishing opportunity in my region in this season; everything else is frozen. Still, I have some very good days.
Do you sometimes leave the lake thinking, “They just weren't biting today?” What if trial and error and a little research would make those days very few and far between? In this day and age, research material is everywhere. It's never been easier to put together your own fishing calendar. In regard to maximizing your fishing experience, when is intimately tied to where. If it's not, you're limiting your success. Don't let fishing just happen - orchestrate it to your advantage. Timing really is everything.