Fly-fishing for wiper in the fall is a bit different from in the spring. As always, finding wiper plays the largest role in catching them and it is no small feat to do so. And as usual, finding shad is key to finding wiper. Here I will shed a little light on the subject by discussing methods I use to produce fish in the late summer through late fall.
Equipment and Flies
As in the spring, I am using clouser-style streamers on 150-300 grain shooting-head sink tip lines with 15-pound fluorocarbon tippet. Wiper tend to be very selective in the size of the baitfish, so I always carry several sizes of each pattern. In the spring, I mostly use patterns in the 2 ½ to 3 inch range, while in the fall I’ve had my greatest success on smaller baits that better emulate the young-of-year shad, typically 1 ½ inch patterns. In the fall especially, I’ll fish two flies of different sizes tied in tandem, at least until I recognize a preference in size.
I tie a white/silver/gray version of the clouser using various synthetic and natural materials. The key in the fall is to tie something that has glitter and movement while it is dropping through a school. Elk-hair-only streamers are more applicable when you are stripping continuously, giving the fly a streamlined profile. Tie or purchase patterns with a bit of added flash to them to give them appeal on pauses and drops.
Match the shad hatch: Tie various sizes of shad-style patterns to meet the finicky demands of fall wiper.
Since you want your fly to descend through shad schools you obviously want your fly to sink. The fly should be weighted enough to drop but not so much that it is difficult to cast. A sink rate of 3-12 inches per second is perfect for the techniques described below. If it sinks too fast, you will be required to strip too quickly. If it sinks too slowly, you will not be able to effectively fish vertically. I aim for flies that sink at a rate of 6-9 inches per second.
Most of my fall wiper fishing takes place over deep water, so if you don’t have a boat you will need to be at the lake at the right time and in the right place to cast to wandering schools of shad that roam into the shallows. Those Indian summer days tend to be the best for shore fishing. When you fish from shore, you’ll likely be fishing much shallower water than what I describe below. Adjust your lines and flies accordingly, but be conscious of the strip/pause technique.
To begin your quest, look for areas in the lake with good concentrations of shad. If you are new to a lake this time of year, cast out a fly and troll while you cruise around looking for signs of shad on your fishfinder. Having a GPS unit helps immensely. I mark any large balls of shad that I find so that I can later refer to these spots and try to develop a pattern to their whereabouts. If action slows later on, I return to my GPS marks.
Small young-of-year shad.
If I find an area where my fishfinder screen shows school after school I may drop off a buoy to physically mark the spot. I will then work around the marker thoroughly - having this “landmark” gives a big advantage when you are out in the middle of the lake with no other reference to determine where your drift is taking you.
Shad in this time of year tend to congregate in open water, often related to deep structure. If the lake you fish is similar to those I fish, structure in deep water is scarce, making your search a little more difficult. Scouting is the only way to find them, so you will just need to cover water and look for any signs that might lead you to them. When you fish lakes with good structure like Pueblo Reservoir, it is easier to locate and stick to the shad. But in the vast bowls I typically fish like Union, Douglas, Jackson, and Lonetree Reservoirs, you need to mark them the best you can, as the schools seem to wander. Look for corners in the deep contours, meaning if the lake is mostly 20 feet deep look for areas where this depth forms a noticeable pocket, almost like a deep bay.
Gulls wreaking havoc on shad schools. Use the birds to direct your focus.
As in the spring, look to the birds for signs of shad. Grebes are active all season on shad schools, and are always a good resource. In my experience, seagulls tend to be more active on shad in the fall when schools are tight and easily seen from the air. When shad roam near the surface within diving reach, seagulls will bombard the school. When the gulls are squawking and diving you can bet that wiper are pushing up the school they are invading. Pelicans are another good indicator. When shad are in shallow water Pelicans will congregate in high concentration areas, either standing or floating, and engulf the prey passing by.
If you are lucky enough to have a calm day and can find surface activity in the form of ripples, plops, mushrooms, or nervous water, you should prioritize the search for these signs. Not every school of shad on your finder will have wiper zeroed in on them. When you see shad near the surface, there is a very good chance they are being pushed by wiper. When shad are attacked and pushed near the surface by wiper, they will often “mushroom” out of the lake. If you’re fast enough to cast into the middle of this mushroom, you’re golden.
There are three forms of shad schools worth noting as they appear on the fishfinder. First is the occasional small ball of shad that looks like a jellyfish on the screen. I don’t pay much attention to these. Second is a scattering of clusters on the screen that vary in size and depth. I believe these patterns designate shad schools currently being attacked and scattered. The third is the telltale “cloud” cluster that can vary in size, the bigger the better. I have seen these clouds from the bottom of my noise layer to the bottom of the lake, I have seen them spread over several yards filling my screen, but mostly they appear as big gray balls, light in the middle and dark on the edges. Sometimes you may see game fish marked around the school, but do not count on this as the determining factor whether you should fish it or not. When it comes to locating a good shad school, the bigger the better!
From L-R, T-B: Small clumps of shad; Big shad school near surface, good!; Big cluster of shad setting up at 5-10 ft below the surface; Nice size shad school being busted apart.
I move around often and troll the lake at a good pace, especially when I am not getting into big wiper that tend to stick together. When I notice a promising indicator of shad I will do an about-face, cut the motor, cast over the school, and start my presentation. If you’re stuck and feel you’re not in a “fishy” area, get moving and find something you’re sure of.
Wiper get ready for the winter slow-down gorging themselves on shad.
Once you’ve scoped out an area littered with shad, try to set yourself upwind so you can cast down to it and drift over it. In a perfect world, you will set yourself up to be slightly offline of the shad downwind so you do not drift directly over the school. In the real world though, these schools move so you never know exactly where they will end up by the time you drift to their initial location. I ignore conventional wisdom and put myself within casting range upwind of the school as quickly as I can so I can get a few casts in while I am sure of their location.
Place a cast into the thick of the school, immediately make three short quick twitches, and let the fly sit. If you have landed in an active, high-suspending school, you’ll likely get hit on the initial drop. I will let it sink for at least 5 seconds, and then take three to six sharp twitches about 3-12 inches apiece. Again, I will let it sit for a few seconds, and continue doing this until I feel my flies are out of range. However, be aware that shad schools move continuously, especially if wiper are hounding them, so even if you think you are out of the school it’s best to continue your retrieve. I have had takes while fumbling with something on the boat thinking I was done with a school, letting the fly drop to the bottom of the lake. This goes to show that even when you think you are no longer in the hot zone, chances are you still are.
The concept is simply this: show yourself with the twitches then bait them with the pause. Move your flies into new zones to attract attention, then entice the bite on the drop.
If fishing through a big school of shad, I will retrieve through four pauses and then let the fly free-fall for 10-20 seconds. Do not let your fly drag as you drift, always try to cast downwind so you are getting a truer free-fall on the pause. Keep in touch with your fly but try to let it drop without imparting motion.
Work the school both vertically and horizontally. If the shad school suspends high enough for you to see surface disturbance, the initial cast may draw immediate attention and the sinking fly could get blasted by wiper that are busting the school into pieces, looking for injured or disoriented fish. If the school is set up deeper, you will want to lengthen your initial pause times to let your flies get down to them. By working in a twitch and drop pattern (with an emphasis on the drop), I am presenting at various depths on the same cast. It is much like spooning, only with flies. In fact, I will sometimes put a cast right into the middle of a school and do nothing but let it drop right through to the bottom.
With a 300-grain sink tip line and clouser-style streamer both sinking at a rate of about 6-9 inches per second, you can quite effectively work your way down and through a shad school. On each strip I figure I am lifting the fly 3-6 inches. On the pause, I count down at least the same number of strips in seconds, letting the fly work progressively deeper. If I am fishing shallower water, say under 10 feet deep, I will break out my 150-grain and flies with a lesser sink rate. Doing so allows me to work the pauses without being in a rush to save myself from hooking the bottom of the lake.
Nervous water caused by shad pushing to surface.
If you locate wiper smashing shad on the surface, which is mostly unmistakable, do not stray from the same presentation techniques. Put a cast into the fish, draw some attention to your fly, let it sit, and continue. I have had only marginal success quick-stripping through wiper boils in the fall. Surface-busting wiper in the fall tend to move faster than in the spring, so get your cast in quickly.
When wiper hit using this technique, it is most often not the exhilarating explosion experienced when fishing faster in the spring. Bites will come in the form of slight taps so you need to stay in contact with your fly as it drops, being careful to let it drop freely. If you feel the slightest bump, lean on the rod as you strip-set the hook. You cannot be too aggressive on the hookset using this technique. What happens is the fish take the fly in a manner that creates some slack or curve in your line. By using the strip-lean hookset you will take out the slack and bury the hook. It looks like you might be hooking into a tarpon, but trust me I’ve lost fish when I haven’t gone full-boar on the hookset.
Wiper tooth patch - an easy way to determine wiper from white bass is the double tooth patch shown on the tongue.
I encourage the use of barbless hooks and releasing wiper. Barbless hooks allow for a better hookset because of the smaller diameter that needs to penetrate the mouth. They are also much easier to remove from the fish and from your skin when you inevitably stick yourself. As long as you play the fish as you should, imparting pressure on the fish at all times, maintaining a good bend in your rod, and bringing it to the boat as quickly as possible you will not lose a fish for lack of barb. I believe thoroughly that you will lose more fish due to poor hookset caused by barbs than losing fish by not having a barbed hook.
As you already probably know, since you are reading this article, the wiper fight is tremendous. Landing them on a fly rod is ridiculously fun and provides a benefit. The long flexible nature of fly rods gives you extra cushion to absorb their powerful runs. When you hook a fish in the 6 pound and under range on 15-pound test tippet, you can usually turn the head of the fish by leaning on the rod and not give much line on their runs. When the fish seems to have a mind of its own and you can do nothing about its bullish runs, give it line when it wants to run and make up ground when you are able to turn its head. Take every chance it gives you to bring in line and pull it closer, but on the bigger fish do not tempt fate by denying it room to run. I never put a wiper on the reel unless the wiper puts itself on the reel.
Once within reach, I like to grab the fly head with my fingers and try to twist it out with the fish still in the water. If I am going to take a picture of the fish, I thumb the mouth carefully, use my other hand to support its belly, and lift the fish out of the water for a shot and then release it as quickly as possible.
Surely, this is not the fast and exciting game played in the spring, but it works, and the same fight you came to love in the early season will be your reward. You have to have confidence in the area you are fishing so place a big emphasis on finding good populations of shad. Keep your eyes open for any visual clues on the water and on your fishfinder. Use your GPS religiously, have patience, and lastly enjoy the crisp fall air, the changing landscape, and the spectacular adrenaline rush wiper have to offer! There is nothing like a big wiper to warm you up on a cool fall day!