As the leaves turn crimson and gold and the evenings get cooler, muskies begin the final feeding frenzy of the year. The fall weather starts a chain of natural events both above and below the water’s surface that signal the changing of the seasons.
Cooling water temperatures, fewer forage fish and the need to fatten up for the lean months ahead combine to bring out the big toothy predators for one last feeding spree. Snow won’t be flying for several weeks, but most muskie anglers have already stowed their gear, just when the fishing is starting to get good.
Muskies are predictable, to a degree. Though theories abound as to why they’ll hit a bait one day and ignore it the next, we do know that certain characteristics in the muskie’s watery world point to better opportunities for the muskie hunter.
Competition for the available forage intensifies. At the beginning of summer, there were many more fish than there are now, and if a muskie wants to eat, he’ll have to pick up the pace and be a little less choosy. Coupled with the fact that females are beginning to form eggs for next spring’s spawn and need a lot more protein, muskies start to put on the feedbag in earnest. Though there’s probably less pressure on muskie waters in the fall, the fishing can be dynamite clear up into October and November.
Along with the diminished availability of food, the annual fall turnover has begun on some lakes and plays into muskie behavior. As the shallow, oxygen-rich water mixes with the deeper, oxygen-depleted depths, the instability makes muskies tougher to find as they search for the best combination of dissolved oxygen and warmer temperatures. Eventually, the water stabilizes and the fish will move back into the shallow weedbeds, humps and rocks that they frequented earlier in the year, right where anglers can reach them. Big muskies are going to be in water only 4 or 5 feet deep during this transition time into colder weather, and the same structure that was hot in the spring is going to be on fire again. When water temperatures start dipping into the low 50s, muskies gorge themselves on anything foolish enough to venture within range.
Shallow areas with wave action become important late-season locations for anglers to key in on. Perch, ciscoes, shad and suckers become disoriented in the shifting water in these areas, and predators move in to take advantage of the confusion. Look for big muskies to cash in on an easy meal between islands, steep shorelines, islands and up along vertical banks. Sunken timber, rocks, weedbeds, grass, stumps and lily pads are all fair game. Fish, frogs, snakes, small waterfowl and mammals round out the fall muskie fare. Hungry muskies are opportunistic and will eat something up to a third of their own size, including each other.
Schooling shad are just the ticket in the late summer and early fall. Muskies loosely cooperate to push shad up through open water to the surface where a slashing charge will send the shad scurrying across the surface to avoid the carnage below. Shad can also be trapped along vertical banks and riprap by marauding muskies. A small Rapala Shad Rap, noisy topwater like an Arbogast Muskie Jitterbug or a silver Dardevle tossed through the fray can be deadly. These muskies aren’t messing around, and if you toss something that looks like a shad, it’ll probably be hit. There’s also a good chance you’ll be on more than one active muskie in a very small area.
A park ranger at my favorite fishing hole related how he’d watched a handful of anglers catch dozens of muskies during one fall feeding frenzy. Duck hunters had more or less herded the fishermen up into shallow water near the boat ramp. Much to their surprise, muskies had followed the shad up into the same shallow water and were falling for every bait those muskie hunters were tossing.
Most anglers use bulked-up crankbaits, jerkbaits, bucktails and jigs in the fall, but this isn’t always the best approach. On heavily fished waters muskies have learned to avoid, at least for the duration of the season, the baits that fooled them once before.
At times, fall muskies aren’t particular. According to muskie guide and lure manufacturer Dick Moore of Moore’s Lures in Wisconsin, muskies will often take something as innocuous as a bucktail body and blade without a tail. There isn’t much in the water that this bit of hardware is imitating. Its only quality is that it’s moving and that’s good enough.
Then again, at times, fall muskies can be extremely fussy. Finesse baits like big plastic creatures, lizards and shad bodies are ideal when the muskies are tight-lipped. Plastics can be fished right under the surface, in the mid-depths or right down on the bottom structure. A 4- or 5-inch plastic lizard in cold water looks like a tempting tidbit, while a 12-inch shad body can look too good to pass up. Rigged weedless, you can go right into the tangle. Rig a bait on a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce jighead and you’re ready to go.
Hybrid baits that combine the best features of soft plastics and hard-bodied lures have become popular as late-season lures. Bull Dawgs, Bucher’s Fluttertails and Castaic’s swimbaits project undulating action and large profiles.
Few muskie hunters have caught as many fish as Don Weaver, the retired president of the Ohio Huskie Muskie Club. Weaver has boated more than 600 fish and it’s nearly impossible to keep up with his latest accomplishments.
Weaver caught more than 70 percent of his muskies on No. 41 Sissons. His favorites colors have been Tennessee Shad, Firetiger and the Blue Shad. Weaver field tested the Sisson Woody and caught muskies on that one as well. What makes this such an unusual muskie bait is that it’s only 3 and 4 inches long.
When the muskies are in the mood for an in-line spinner, Weaver’s choice is the Mepps Giant Killer with either a white or a black tail and a red feather. Trolling close to the boat on about 30 feet of line works well for Weaver.
But in the fall, traditional wisdom sometimes prevails.
Research conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point analyzed the prey consumed by muskies over the course of the open-water season in northern Wisconsin. More than 1,000 muskies were sampled and 98 percent of the stomach contents were fish. The predators weren’t fussy and researchers found more than 30 species, but the most common were suckers and yellow perch.
Other creatures that ran afoul of the muskies were insects, tadpoles, adult frogs, mudpuppies and a mouse.
The study provides some hints on selecting lures of the right size, according to fisheries biologist Travis Hartman.
The research indicated that muskies of all sizes will hit baits that are 6 inches in length. Lures in the 10-inch range are hit more frequently by larger muskies, and when baits in the 12- to 15-inch range are used, this virtually guarantees that you’ll narrow the playing field to the trophy-class fish that are available in the fall. Smaller fish may try their luck with a big lure but not as a general rule. The study confirmed that muskies will readily hit prey that is nearly a quarter of their own length. Muskies have been known to tackle fish up to half their own size.
Therefore, it never hurts to use a tried-and-true muskie bait big enough to choke a horse. When big fall baits are ringing the dinner bell, 6- to 10-inch Bobbie Baits, Reef Hawgs, Grandmas, Suicks and Burts can be the ticket. Inviting a muskie to dinner just takes the right invitation when they’re being fussy. Hartman cautions muskie hunters to remember that bulk is an important consideration. A 9-inch bucktail doesn’t represent the easy meal that a fat-bodied 9-inch crankbait offers.
Quality equipment is important during any season. The weakest link can mean the difference between a trophy catch and a breakoff.
Leaders like the Bucher 7-strand, Smity’s Fluorocarbon or Windel’s solid wire leaders are worth their weight in gold. Being miserly on the leader is where many muskie fishermen lose fish.
Rod choices have improved greatly over the last decade. St. Croix and G-Loomis both offer quality rods that not only look great but also perform well under stress. Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s have adopted their own line of muskie rods that offer excellent quality without the hefty price tag.
A quality reel with a heavy, easy-to-use drag is crucial. Shimano, St. Croix, Daiwa and Abu Garcia offer excellent tools of the trade. Spool on some 20-pound Spectron, hard monofilament, low-stretch Dacron or other super line.
Pick up the rod and reel and leave the shotgun at home. If you’re looking for cooperative muskies that are in the mood to rumble, now’s the time to find them.