By Noel Vick
One would assume that ice-fishing entails the most disagreeable, core-chilling conditions in the entire sporting world. After all, it’s winter, with all that goes with it: sideways snowstorms, frozen five-gallon buckets called seats, and ice-covered reel spools and rod guides. But ice-fishing isn’t the worst “weather” you can fish in. Nope, it’s the wickedness of late fall, with days spent fighting damp northeasters and whitecaps. Bar none, that’s the coldest a man can be. Even winter’s harshest effort cannot outdo a frigid and saturated gale on the open water.
But those situations are just what muskies love, because that’s when they put on the feedbag for the upcoming winter.
“Late fall offers the opportunity to meet one of nature’s rarest beasts – big, big muskies,” said Chip Leer, a muskie hound. “Sure, huge muskies get caught in the summer, but nobody I know finds them with any consistency. That changes in late fall, though, when multiple numbers of big fish forage in the same places.”
And it’s this promise of steadiness that pushes guys like Leer to tolerate sleet, overcome numbness and get tossed around like foam below a dam.
Pat Smith braves parallel conditions. He bemoans the weather, but like Leer he welcomes late fall for its muskies. “This is your chance to catch a super fish, the kind that isn’t as catchable in the summertime.” Smith, who is an envoy for online muskie specialists Thorne Bros. (www.thornebros.com), accepts squally weather as part of the “job,” though. But long before eating the first cold spray off the first whitecap, Smith betters his odds by selecting a premium body of water.
For Smith, forage is the No. 1 factor on where to fish. He keys on lakes with profuse populations of ciscoes (tullibees) or whitefish – essentially greasy and fatty pelagic baitfish that migrate in the fall. “I look for baitfish that make major moves in the fall.”
Besides nutritional value, the primary feature of lake whitefish and ciscoes – which are in the whitefish family – is their fall spawning run. Sometime after Halloween and typically before Thanksgiving, whitefish hit offshore humps and rocky points to procreate. Opportunistic muskies suspended in ambush take full advantage of the situation.
A typical whitefish- and/or cisco-supplied lake is relatively clear, quite deep and conspicuously large. These are features Smith and Leer quest for when choosing a lake.
“Larger lakes,” Leer said, “simply hold more big muskies.” Clarity, according to Leer, is important for visual reasons. Muskies rely heavily on eyesight to feed. In the open water where silvery baitfish are naturally well-camouflaged, the ability to scan with a sharp eye is vital.
So on the big water, both Smith and Leer focus on deep and hard-bottomed structures that are recognized whitefish breeding grounds, or at a minimum encompass the right ingredients: steep, deep and rocky.
Leer centers his energies on offshore humps that culminate at 20 to 40 feet and are encircled by 60, 80 or even 100 feet of water. Traditionally, he locates greater numbers of muskies on strings of multiple humps but encounters the biggest beasts on sprawling and solitary structures.
Likewise, Smith motors to reefs initially, and then if need be attacks steep shoreline breaks. Regardless, he favors bottoms composed of “pea- to bowling-ball-sized rocks.”
However, before delving deeper, it’s fair to note that topflight fall fishing isn’t solely consigned to fjord-like and crystalline waters. Smith, in fact, plumbs several prairie-type lakes. His overlying notion of “finding fall forage movements” applies to more than whitefish. On more fertile lakes, it is bluegill and crappie migrations to outside weedlines that interest muskies most. Frontline predators like muskies and piggish pike will also stalk traveling walleyes, perch and bullheads.
Meanwhile back on a “postcard” lake, Leer spies a stretch of fast-breaking shoreline. And because the quick dip is part a point, he’s especially intrigued. Hard and pitched points are favorite muskie lairs, and the farther they probe into the lake the better. “I’ll work humps, shoreline breaks and points, but if it’s not rock, I’m not wasting my time,” Leer says.
Big fish inhabit big homes. So even if it’s established that a particular reef is studded with muskies, there might be acres and hundreds of casts between fish. With this “needle in the haystack” disadvantage in mind, both Smith and Leer go trolling, where legal. “Trolling covers more water effectively than casting,” says Smith.
Leer adds, “In late fall when fish might be 10 or 20 feet down, casting doesn’t keep your bait in the strike zone long enough.” Leer does, though, cast to shallower rock structures in early fall, before the turnover, when muskies are more likely to invade weeded reef tops.
Big-lipped divers are Smith’s preferred trolling tools. His box of oversized crankbaits contains Drifter Believers, Slammers, Best Tackle Swim Whizz’s, and Musky Mania’s 10-inch Jakes. Each wobbles seductively, emulates baitfish and has the means to run at 17 feet, which is Smith’s magic depth for late fall.
Smith leans on the throttle while trolling, too. His weaving “S”-shaped runs open at 2.7 mph and can attain speeds of 5 mph if nothing’s hitting at slower rates. Additionally, his “S” pattern inherently varies the rate of lure speed, as the bait accelerates on outside turns and decelerates on the inside. Upon a strike, Smith makes an immediate memo of boat speed, too, because, he contends, “rate of retrieval is the No. 1 fish trigger.”
Leer, conversely, is more of a turtle than a hare. He, too, experiments with speed, but generally settles somewhere between 1 mph and 2 mph. Leer theorizes that coldwater muskies look for “easy food, ready meals.”
To reach such cavernous depths and be primed for attacks, you must also brandish a serious rod, reel and line. Smith advocates fiberglass, an 8-foot Thorne Bros. F90M-BK (St. Croix blank) to be exact. He says it’s “a big-diameter pole with a good butt section, nice parabolic curve and won’t explode like graphite in cold weather.” To it, Smith affixes a Daiwa Sealine-LCA line-counting levelwinder. “Knowing exactly how much line is out when a fish hits is important. A line-counter reel lets you duplicate the presentation,” he says. Leer lives and dies by an Abu-Garcia 6500C3.
Line selection is equally import
ant. And with colossal fish, bulky baits and biting weather in consideration, there’s no room for sissy stuff. Smith trolls with a superline like 80-pound-test Tuf Line, 65-pound-test Tuf Line XP, or PowerPro. With line, Leer goes in one of two directions. When trolling with a pliable glass rod he uses a no-stretch 65-pound-test Berkley FireLine or 65-pound Spiderwire Stealth. Otherwise, he pulls a monofilament such as Trilene Big Game when trolling with a stouter, less forgiving graphite rod. The end results are similar: muscle to skirmish, with flex for the initial impact.
Fret not, though, if trolling isn’t for you. Trust me that both Leer and Smith seize any casting opportunity that arises. If Smith eyes bushels of baitfish on his electronics he’ll fix up larger gliding jerkbaits and others that “dive and rise.” From the realm of the glider, he commissions Phantoms and Musky Mania’s Magic Makers. His dive-and-rise jerkbaits are “heavily weighted” and go by names like Suick and Stidham Sensor.
When conditions call for casting, such as whitecaps washing across a rocky reef, Leer busts out a hairpin spinnerbait, namely a Northland Bionic Bucktail in black. And to make it roll even slower and generate juicier “thumps,” he upgrades blade sizes.
Brian Brosdahl is yet another Midwest muskie mastermind. His pattern for late-autumn muskies involves being a sucker for weeds – or more precisely put, combing for greens with suckers in them. In late autumn, suckers – as well as ciscoes, perch and panfish – burrow into the most verdant and deepest weeds available. However, by late October the majority of the weeds are gone. This fact is both a boon and bane. On the downside, it means you might have to search earnestly for surviving weeds. On the upside, once located, the weeds should be host to an aquatic food chain, with muskies at the top of the chain.
Brosdahl casts large weedbeds with “big baits that represent natural forage.” That translates into glide baits that dive fast and rise slowly – explicitly weighted Suicks in black, sucker or ciscoe patterns. Plan B involves soft plastics, such as jumbo tubes and lizards. And if all else fails, he’s not bashful about nose-hooking a live sucker on a No. 2/0 to 5/0 Mustad circle hook and soaking it beneath a pole float. Circle hooks prevent a deeply hooked muskie, and thus help ensure a safe and healthy release. Muskies are too valuable to be caught just once.
So big muskies are on the prowl and the weather is wicked. Dress accordingly, operate safely and fish smartly. Good luck!
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