Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and where there’s baitfish there’s big fish. Anglers often overlook the seasonal movements of minnows, shad, and even whitefish, but being able to key in on these migrations can mean getting trophies in the boat in record time.

Summer

The summer heat sends fish’s metabolisms into high gear, spurring an increase in feeding. After taking refuge in deep water during the day, droves of baitfish move to shallow water at night to gorge on aquatic bugs, plankton, and vegetation. Minnows and shad are found in their highest concentration at this time and are much more active than during the day, which sparks a feeding frenzy in predatory fish. Night fishing from shore during the summer usually means easy limits.

When fishing during daylight hours, skip over the schools of scattered baitfish cruising through open water if possible. Instead look for schools holding in depth or by structure, or better yet schools travelling through funnels. As baitfish move over humps or through channels, the group becomes tighter and much easier for sportfish to target. Bass tend to follow bait from above, striking as the school constricts, while other fish sneak in from below. Seeing these constricted schools is almost a guarantee of big predators close by. Keep in mind that most baitfish this time of year are of medium size and that the warm water calls for fast retrieves.

Fall

Wind becomes the most important factor this time of year as fish universally move to shallower water. Contrary to popular belief, wind doesn’t necessarily push baitfish; it pushes plankton. Baitfish will follow this food source, and gamefish follow the baitfish. Minnows and shad completely finish spawning in late summer, but whitefish get started around October. This means that whitefish will be piled up nearshore in areas with lots of gravel.

Baitfish imitation lures can be as big as you want now, seeing as the growing period is tapering off. As the water cools, slow your presentation to match the fish’s slowing metabolism.

Winter

Winter is an all or nothing deal for shad. They school up in groups bigger than your boat in depths of up to 60 feet. Before lakes are closed up with ice, shad associate with sharp vertical ridges that they can follow up towards the sun on warmer days. As winter progresses, they lock up in the deepest parts with smaller shad on top and larger adults scattered throughout. Whitefish are now cruising throughout the water column, and minnows are holding in deep rocky cover.

A slow, creeping approach near sharp drop offs is the best method for early winter in open water. By midwinter, though, it becomes more important to locate those tight baitfish groups. After finding these schools, drop a jig straight through the mass and work at the top. As the water temperature continues to decline, increase your jig and bait size and decrease your action, even to the point of deadsticking. This time of year, fish’s metabolisms are sluggish, and the most attractive meals are the ones that seem like the biggest reward for the least amount of effort.

Spring

As a general rule, bigger fish complete their spawn completely before baitfish even go into prespawn. That means that as walleye, bass, pike, and other predators amp up their feeding to recover from the rigors of reproduction, baitfish are at their most vulnerable. A recent Canadian study found that minnows migrate upstream in masses regardless of age. This means that even juveniles that can’t reproduce travel, too, increasing the concentration of baitfish in one particular area.

Although most baitfish spawn multiple times throughout the spring and summer, this first rush means a huge spike in feeding activity for big fish (and lines up well with most openers). Sportfish load up where smaller streams run into their home lakes or rivers, waiting for exhausted bait to funnel back in. Run smaller lures through these hotspots, and try using an erratic retrieve that simulates the behavior of a tired or injured minnow.

Or just use leeches all year.

Originally published in Outdoor News Minnesota.