Pictured above: To increase the odds of a successful outing, choose bodies of water with good populations of fish that are active in cold water.
In September, I dedicated quite a bit of time to chasing false albacore. I chased after recent fishing reports, chased tides that gave up fish the day before, and chased the fish themselves, making countless attempts to close the distance between my kayak and a surface-feed before the fish sounded. Mostly, I chased the rush of hooking an albie from a kayak—the reason so many fishermen talk about “albie addiction.”
It was almost a relief when an October cold front churned our waters and caused the fish to scoot. As much as I love it, albie fishing is anything but relaxing, especially when fishing in a crowd of center consoles piloted by fishermen with funny-fish fever, all ready to run-and-gun at the drop of a bird.
In November, kayak fishing is all about peace and quiet. I avoid the open waters and cold winds along our coast and instead head for local ponds and lakes. The powerboats dragging water-skiers are all gone, replaced by rafts of mergansers and mallards. There’s no music coming from the docks of lakeside homes, no sound of children playing in the water. Sometimes, it’s so quiet that the rustle of a squirrel moving through fallen oak leaves carries across the water.
We usually get at least a few comfortable days post-Halloween when there’s no mention of wind chill in the weather forecast and the sun warms the air temperature over 50 degrees. These are the days to take advantage of, and give thanks for, because we all know what lies ahead.
I approach freshwater kayak fishing in late fall the same way I approach first-ice fishing. I like to focus on vertical presentations, which usually means anchoring up and jigging. Like ice fishing, I don’t target a single species, but rather look for action from a mixed-bag of whatever’s biting. Also, I always bring bait. Sometimes, bait is necessary to get fish to bite in cold water, and these last days of open water are too precious to waste by getting skunked.
To increase the odds of a successful outing, I choose bodies of water with good populations of fish that are active in cold water, such as yellow perch, bass, and trout. I start by heading for areas that are in the sun and out of the wind—purely for my own comfort, although perhaps the fish enjoy the warmth as well—and then look for locations similar to those that will hold fish when first-ice arrives. Those areas could include deep edges of weed beds, mid-lake humps, rocky points, or drop-offs, depending on the specific body of water. A fishfinder is a big advantage, not necessarily to indicate the presence of fish, but to determine depths and locate structure.
Being able to remain stationary over a particular piece of structure can help you stay on the fish. An anchor-trolley system that places the anchor at the bow of the kayak is best, but on days without much wind, a folding claw anchor cleated off to the side of the kayak will work. Just be careful to set the anchor on the up-wind side of the boat, and use an anchor cord that has some stretch to it for shock absorption.
Fishing in a stationary position is also productive because you can attract a school of fish into the area and keep them underneath you. Jigging a small Kastmaster or blade bait on the bottom can draw in a school, and even the activity of catching fish and bringing them to the surface seems to attract more action. For this reason, among others, it can be good to anchor up with one or two other kayak-fishing buddies in close proximity, where the action of your lures or the scent of your baits will bring the fish to you.
Live shiners make excellent baits in late fall just as they do through the ice, but my favorite bait is grass shrimp. You can net your own around coastal marinas and estuaries using a fine-mesh net and keep them alive in just a small amount of damp seaweed and water. A grass shrimp is only about an inch long, but I’ve caught everything from yellow perch to good-sized smallmouth bass and brown trout by skewering two or three on a size-4 baitholder. The significant advantage of grass shrimp is that you can chum with them, throwing a small handful into the water every now and then to attract (and keep around) a school of actively feeding fish.
Safety is paramount when it comes to kayaking on cold water. When possible, don’t go alone, and always wear a PFD with a safety whistle attached. Dress as if you expect to go in the water; dry pants are a great investment, although a pair of stockingfoot waders, as long as they are cinched tight with an elastic wading belt and paired with a PFD, will suffice.