A Seasonal Guide to Baitfish with Expert Kevin Feenstra

Matching Baitfish with Kevin Feenstra
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A Seasonal Guide to Baitfish with Expert Kevin Feenstra

Most anglers understand that baitfish patterns are designed to imitate specific baitfish species. In fact, some of the best anglers will argue that understanding baitfish species and behaviour is the difference between the “goods and the greats” in the angling world. And like preparing for a big day out on the water, selecting the right baitfish for the season can make all the difference between a good catch and going home empty-handed. 

Luckily, we have insights from Kevin Feenstra, a fishing guru from West Michigan, to guide us. In this article, we’re diving deep into his seasoned advice, setting you up for success with the right baitfish for every season. Ready to enhance your fishing game? Let’s get started and make every catch count!

Fishing in the Fall

For many anglers, summer is synonymous with trout and smallmouth bass, giving the migratory fish a well-deserved break. But as summer winds down and the crisp fall air settles in, our focus begins to shift. Fall is all about transitioning to the migratory fish, understanding the changing ecosystems and the bait that thrives during this season.

The Great Lakes Influence: Alewives and Shiners

Migratory fish like steelhead, salmon, and lake-run brown trout predominantly feed on alewives in the Great Lakes during the summer. These herring-like, shiny fish play a significant role in the survival and success of our migratory fish. However, it’s also worth noting that migratory fish have a diverse diet that includes smelt, gobies, sculpins, and sticklebacks.

From Lakes to Rivers

As these fish move into the river systems in the late summer or early fall, their diet begins to change. With many of the river weed beds dying off, shiner minnows, resembling the alewives in the lakes, become a prominent baitfish. They typically congregate in water depths of three to six feet—a depth that’s ideal for swinging a fly or presenting a streamer pattern to migratory fish. This makes it a perfect scenario for anglers as the fish first venture into the rivers.

Luring the Early Arrivals

Initially, as the migratory fish move in, their numbers are relatively limited. However, they are hyper-active, driven by the warmer water temperatures. Our goal during this time is to catch their attention. 

Shiner fly patterns, known for their reflective sheen, can be visible to steelhead from a considerable distance. Incorporating a bright flash that mimics the belly of a shiner can be particularly effective. And while the shape might resemble many baitfish, don’t hesitate to experiment with varied colors. The main aim is to draw an aggressive strike, luring the fish from a distance.

However, as fall transitions to winter, the strategies evolve. The baitfish available undergo changes, and so must our techniques. We’ll delve into that next, focusing on the winter baitfish patterns and how to maximize your catches during the colder months.

Adjusting to Winter Waters

Every seasoned angler feels the heartbeat of the river shift as winter approaches. The cooling embrace of the season doesn’t just alter the landscape; it reshapes the very behavior of our aquatic targets. Thus, the reduced temperatures cause our fishy friends to slow their metabolism, requiring anglers to take a step back and rethink their strategies.

The Sculpin: A Freshwater Chameleon

Imagine a baitfish that can change its colors and effortlessly merge with its surroundings. Enter the sculpin. This bottom-dwelling creature, with its quick but short bursts of movement, becomes an irresistible temptation for predators like the steelhead. It’s like serving a delightful appetizer that no fish can resist. To capitalize on this, anglers need to mimic its unique shape and colors, primarily reflecting the hues of the river bed or the sculpin’s belly.

The Unexpected Twist: The Round Goby Invasion

Every river story has its twist, and in our Midwest narrative, it’s the round goby. These invaders from the distant Black and Caspian Seas have not only made the Great Lakes their home but have also become a tantalizing menu item for many native fish species. With their distinct shape and that unusual suction-cup fin, they’ve woven themselves into the fabric of the ecosystem. It’s almost like a surprise ingredient that adds a dash of zest to the angler’s strategy.

Darters: Nature’s Graceful Bait

Among the shimmering residents of our river, the darter gracefully stands out. These local celebrities, painted in shades from olive to tan, swim with serene elegance. Their sleek design and modest size make them a delightful treat for bigger fish. For those anglers wanting a simpler yet practical approach, darters might just be your ticket to success. Their pull-on resident trout only adds to their charm during the winter fishing months.

Here’s What to Know

The thing to know is that winter fishing in the Midwest is not about seeking out the chaotic; it’s about embracing stability. Our familiar baitfish—sculpins, gobies, and darters—find comfort beneath the protective rocks. However, nature has its way of signaling a change. As temperatures hint at a thaw, the stoneflies begin their dance, stirring the waters below. This sets off a beautiful domino effect—baitfish awaken, larger predators take notice, and the river is alive with possibilities once again.

Salmon Eggs

As stoneflies dance through the currents, another wonder graces the Midwest waters. Salmon eggs, especially those of the king, coho, and occasionally pink salmon, which were planted the previous October, hatch. This newly hatched fry, initially frail, either seek solace in gravel pockets or let the current carry them to safer nooks like fallen trees or branches. Their mantra? Grow, and grow fast. 

In a matter of weeks, these fry grow to be about an inch long and remain that size for a while. The keen-eyed angler takes this as a sign. Many anglers arm themselves with flies that resemble these fry and twitch them enticingly near river edges in the hopes of attracting trout or a stray steelhead.

One such fly, aptly named “Better than Spawn,” has a delightful origin story. After an impressive catch, an ecstatic angler declared it to be more effective than actual spawn. The name, like the legend, stuck.

The Allure of Salmon Fry

Did you know that salmon fry, which play an essential role in the ecosystem, are the inspiration for many fly patterns? When you see these fry in action, you can see their tails dancing in the current. Fly patterns imitate this, either by design or through the angler’s skillful movements, making them twitch like the real thing. 

So, even when anglers use attractor flies as the water warms in the spring, many instinctively go with a smaller fly instead of a larger one. Why? Because the presence of these salmon fry casts a spell, making them, and anything that resembles them, utterly irresistible to the river’s residents.

The Dance of the Salmon Fry

As spring unfurls, the rivers are alive with the unmistakable presence of salmon fry. Contrary to the notion of diversifying with larger flies, many anglers actually pare down. Why? These rivers brim with these tender fry, irresistible to many predators. 

But as the chapters of April give way to May and June, the waters unveil another character – the baby steelhead. In rivers that favor steelhead births, these newcomers add a splash of diversity. While they share a resemblance with baby salmon, a closer look reveals a chubbier physique in contrast to the more linear form of king salmon fry. These nuances, seemingly minor, guide the angler’s playbook, influencing their choice of fly.

The Sucker Fry Saga

Yet, spring’s narrative also features a shift in the diet of migratory fish. Though their voracious appetite for eggs endures, it’s not salmon or steelhead eggs that beckon but those of the migratory suckers. With a medley of subtypes, suckers, though not always eye-catching, command a crucial role in the food web. Their eggs, especially, find favor with the discerning palate of steelhead. 

Emerging sucker fry, with their signature lavender tinge, stand apart from their salmon and steelhead counterparts. Anglers, ever observant, often send lavender-hued flies dancing along river edges. And adding to spring’s vibrant tapestry is the emergence of the isonychia mayfly. Their swimming nymphs, mimicking the movements of small minnows, grant anglers the luxury of using a single design to replicate both the sucker fry and these nymphs, thereby amplifying their chances of a prized catch.

The Hex Nymph’s Intrigue

As the Midwest spring blossoms, the angler’s toolkit broadens. While the “Better Than Spawn” fly is a notable inclusion, there’s another star: the Hex or hex wiggle nymph. This alluring fly mirrors the major mayfly found in numerous rivers, though not uniformly. 

In waters like the Muskegon River, where the Hex is less common, its pull on fish remains unwavering. The Hex’s design closely aligns with the features of fry patterns, a revelation for seasoned anglers. This overlap in design allows the crafting of lures, like the Darter and salmon fry replicas, which can mimic a variety of prey. It’s a blend, an art of capturing various aquatic species’ attributes into single, potent lures. By doing so, anglers not only increase their catch probability but streamline their fly-tying process, crafting baits that resonate with multiple prey profiles.

Concluding Thoughts

So, there you have it; we’ve talked about bait, seasons, and the strategies in between. Think there’s more to learn? You bet. Kevin Feenstra has a class that dives even deeper. Join in, soak up his tips, and boost your fishing game. Until then, keep those lines tight and aim for the big ones! Here’s to more great days out on the water.

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Anchored Outdoors

Anchored Outdoors is an ever-growing network of fly fishing experts who’ve been brought together by podcaster and fellow outdoorswoman, April Vokey.

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