The water is falling! The water is falling! Yes, I’m paraphrasing Chicken Little and like the fable from which this famous outcry has passed into the English language as a common idiom indicating a mistaken belief that disaster is imminent, the moral to my story is to not be the chicken jumping to conclusions.
My paraphrase is most literal in that the water really is falling. We’ve reached that time of year when our reservoirs have begun to drain in exchange for making our corn and grass grow. Some lakes are more affected than others, but just about all western reservoirs will experience their annual drops in the coming weeks. Falling or low water levels change the fishing and have a way of sending anglers into the same kind of hysteria that Chicken Little experienced. Like most versions of the tale, the outcry is lost in the wind.
Fishing reservoirs that are low or losing water is different and can admittedly be tougher. I field all kinds of questions from anglers blaming poor fishing on falling water levels. But disaster, or at least fishing failure, is certainly not imminent. Anglers can still have great success on the big impoundments if they keep a few things in mind.
First and foremost; fish to your conditions. By that I mean make your angling decisions based on what you are looking at right then, not what success you had last week or month. Falling water moves fish, all kinds of fish, around within the lake. When it comes to dropping water levels, past performance of a spot in no way predicts future gains. Instead, try to fish spots that have similar water depths and structure or cover types as to the area you last had success on.
When you’re looking for new spots, consider fishing areas immediately adjacent to deep water. That deeper water may mean nothing more than a corridor out of the shallows; a submerged ditch for instance. Along the same lines, a high spot like a submerged roadbed or hump surrounded by deeper water can be golden. Also sample inlets, especially those with flowing water. If there is flowing water, fish all the way up to it. I’ve had a bunch of cases where the fish are nosed all the way into heavy flow this time of year. Rip rap or earthen dam faces can be key in late summer due to their rocky cover, deep water, and even slope which allows fish to easily maintain whatever depth makes them happy, with minimal horizontal movement. As a general rule, steeper banks will fish more consistently, while shallower, flatter areas are more of a timing thing; time it right and you can get happy in a hurry.
Speaking of timing, the adjustment is fishing early, late, or during low light conditions. Fish will make feeding forays into shallow water making them more catchable before they move out to deeper, safer water to rest. You can cover a lot of areas during these times, confident that your offering will be eaten if you get it in front of a fish. First or last light are great times to try new spots. Afternoon storm fronts can trigger a push shallow, as fish move into windblown areas for a feeding session, also making for a good time to try new areas. You may find that the bite turns on very quickly and then off just as quickly. In that case, I generally recommend a move to deeper fish since they’ll be less volatile. That brings me to the next falling or low water scenario.
Boating anglers may use sonar to locate suspended fish that are not really tight to any structure. Typically, its some form of pelagic baitfish (shad, smelt, alewives, etc.) that the fish are following. This usually becomes an exercise in depth control; the goal is to get your lure right at or slightly above the fish you mark on the graph. Trollers can do well here, as can vertical jiggers. I often vertically flutter a large chrome Johnson Sprite spoon this time of year for a wide range of species including bass, walleye, wipers/stripers/whites, and pike.
At this time of year, you can expect that the fish are feeding to some degree. If you’re not catching them, change something in your presentation. As a late summer fishing guide, I’ll go no more than about 15 minutes without a bite before I change lures, depths or locations, speed or some other variable. This is the peak feeding season for most fish in our reservoirs and the water is as warm as its going to get. It all adds up to active fish for anglers to exploit. The old adage of, “find the bait, find the fish” is true at this time of year for sure.
For the record, the same basic ideas hold up for late summer low water river fishing. Access to deep water, timing shallow bites and the expectation of feeding fish are all still relevant. Fish in deep holes will be consistent, riffle dwellers will be a timing thing.
The water is falling. Don’t be chicken and conclude that the fishing is poor. The lakes may look different, the ramps a little longer, but fish are still there. It’s only the anglers that don’t adjust with the water levels that end up crying like Chicken Little.