Our friend, the cisco

At this point of the season, sadly, open water fishing is nearing its end. After a nice month of October, we got hit with our first shot of winter last week and it’s not looking like we’re going to get any more significant warm-ups, but I’m staying optimistic. For the anglers that really enjoy the late fall fishing, especially the musky hunters, there is still time for a few more trips, but it won’t be long until we’re drilling holes in the ice.

Fall is the favourite part of the season for many anglers, for a number of reasons. As the water cools, fish know that another long winter is coming so they are eager to eat. Fishing is good. Our waterways see a lot less traffic in the fall, so it can be a little bit more peaceful out on the water than it is during the summer months. Finally, some anglers like fishing in the cooler weather more than they do during the hot summer months. Oh, and you have a shot at the biggest fish of the year of most species as they feed heavily.

Throughout the year, fish rely on many different forage options to survive and grow. Crayfish, invertebrates, frogs and a wide array of baitfish species provide forage opportunities for the fish that live in our lakes. One thing that I’ve learned is that most fish will eat just about anything that they can fit in their mouth, evident by some of the things that I’ve seen them spit up while fighting them. Some of the strangest ones have been mice and snakes. I know other anglers who have had bass spit up birds in their live wells.

In the fall, one species becomes the predominant forage option for most of the fish in our waters, the cisco, also known as lake herring. Cisco spend much of the open water season in deep water but they spawn late in the fall on shallow rocks and sand. This migration to shallow water puts them into contact with our most popular sport fish like walleye, bass, pike and musky, who all feed voraciously on them.

Knowing that these fish are focused on eating ciscos in the fall, which are often bigger than the bait that they eat during the rest of the year, we try to choose baits that imitate these silvery baitfish. Bass and walleye anglers use baitfish imitating soft plastics on a jig head, or jig with spoons or swimming jigs like a puppet minnow. Pike and musky anglers throw large, baitfish-coloured soft plastics or troll with cisco imitating crankbaits. The reason these baits work is because they emulate the bait the fish are looking for.

On some waters the ciscos will get bigger than they do on others. I’ve seen bass and walleye spit up ciscos between three and seven inches in length. I’ve caught larger ones over a pound, which are the size the big predators are looking to feast on. They are the dream piece of food for sportfish because they don’t have any sharp spines on them, they are a soft piece of protein, which I’m sure all fish appreciate.

The places where I see the most cisco action in the fall are along on windswept rocky points and shorelines, as well as areas with current, which are the places where you’ll often find pike and musky right up until the lakes freeze. Schools of ciscos are seen quite frequently on the sonar units in my boat in the 20-40 foot range and these schools are the focus of bass and walleye. Often, if anglers find the bait, they’ll find the fish this time of year.

If you can find a nice day to get out in the boat one or two more times, tie on a cisco imitating bait and have some fun. Remember that the lake is a lot more desolate now than earlier in the season, so don’t be afraid to wear a life jacket and always make sure somebody knows where you’re going.

A large cisco that was spit up by a Rainy Lake smallmouth bass recently. Notice it is much bigger than the five inch bait that I caught the fish on.