A wise man once said that it does little good to just find muskies … that the key is finding those that are feeding … the best way is to fish by the refrigerator door. Part of what makes muskies tough to catch is simple familiarity. When they are on the same haunts, they get “used” to their surroundings and the barrage of presentations – and angles they are presented. It’s speculative as to how and how much, but there is no doubt that muskies get “educated” by pressure.
The thing about the late fall season that really aids us as anglers, is that the period post turnover to ice-up involves near-constant forage movements, and on many waters a fall spawning of forage fish. Forage species tend to bunch-up more too, and for those spawning – they are a little less aware (as are critters and humanoids when spawning) of danger. Great feeding opportunities to fatten up fall muskies.
The refrigerator will likely be located deeper as we get to 50-degree and lower surface temps. Classic, larger shoreline/island-related structures are often key. Check those breaklines for forage with your electronics; now, possibly the deeper, secondary breaks are more important, but all should be fished on a prime structure. Quality electronics truly are a huge help at this time of year. I rely heavily on my Lowrance HDS units to find the forage that’s obvious – but also to easily distinguish the hard-to-soft bottom transitions and the bottom-hugging fish often associated. And features like DownScan and SideScan imaging also add an immeasurable advantage to finding forage and fish-holding structure. Then, with GPS trails, I can more effectively make shallower or deeper passes on big structures as I’m trying to (hopefully) pattern active fish location.
If new to a water or if haven’t fished it recently, trolling (where legal) is a great way to search for forage and still be fishing, often quite effectively. If you really don’t know where the forage is, it makes little sense to just start fishing with a casting approach. Fall fishing is much slower (done right) than the summer period. Especially on big water, a lot of time can be wasted too far from the ‘fridge door. Find forage, and fish around it. If it’s schooled really tight, fish that edge. It’s not real common, but it happens in more open water and also structure-related, where the fish are schooled tightly – such that there is almost an edge to them. The natural instinct for the angler is to barge right into the middle of it all, but the big predator probably isn’t in the middle. Treat forage like a piece of structure and fish the edge.
I don’t like to talk depth, since it’s completely relative to the system, but the edges are normally key. At times, generally on warming days, muskies will go quite shallow and will not be edge-related at all, so check shallow, but mainly think edges. When you’ve pinpointed a location that has forage, usually one pass on a structure will be sufficient, but on some larger, more complex pieces, a second pass may be necessary. The bigger and more complex the better, and if it’s full of forage, don’t just fish it once during the day.
By complex I mean that it has tons of features. I like a structure with some flat areas to it, some distinct shallow rises – hopefully too, a deeper saddle (narrow area) that’s a connection to another structure or island. And, I prefer sharper, more irregular breaks. If there are refrigerators around, I’ll keep coming back, as I know hungry predators are thinking the same.
Basically, in fall, the one big change that is normally necessary to be effective is slowing down in presentation, and therefore boat movement on a structure. And the reason slower seems to be the deal is that in the cold water the fish don’t want to move as far or as fast to eat. So, generally a little more in their face is necessary. Where casts spaced 15 feet apart is often effective in summer, in fall it may cost you an opportunity.
The best approach normally, is to work right on the edges, checking both shallower and deeper, keeping presentations tight to structure. This means multiple anglers are best, working as a team. One presentation is chosen to work shallow, one medium depth probing edges at different angles and one deeper (possibly vertical) to cover the bottom of the break. Generally, crank baits, jerk baits and soft plastics will be best and larger lures will be more effective than smaller on the big females we hope to entice.
Big crankbaits like the old reliable Believer are classic favorites. Glider style jerkbaits that offer a more neutral hang, and/or swimming action, like the Sebile Magic Swimmer, work well too. Accentuate on the pauses when using more erratic action. At times too, just a slower straight retrieve indicates the easy meal. Vertical presentations are very effective on the base of the breaks, and especially so on sharp inside turn areas where other presentation just won’t get there via casting or trolling. Big jigs and plastics, weighted live baits (quick-strike with immediate hookset only) and sonar lures can be very effective.
Many of our northern waters have ciscoes (also called Tulibees), which are tremendous forage items for muskies and they are fall-spawners – generally shallow on hard-bottom areas. I learn a little more about these fish every year and it’s interesting to note that there are different types. Get to know which lakes have them and all the info you can. They will generally spawn in the low 40’s (surface temp) range, and normally coinciding with the full moon. But one thing I’ve learned is that my assumptions from years back aren’t all true. There are different types, with different habits – and they don’t all spawn at the same time. However, in each particular body of water, they do have a time-frame to spawn that is fairly reliable to plan on. Find that time – and find out where.
Also consider that they do have different habits. For instance, what got me rethinking exactly “what” I knew stems from the fact I’d thought (based on experience from a cluster of Wisconsin waters where I’d had all my experience) they were only shallow, and actually spawning at night. I would target them deep, as they were staging during the day – then going shallower at night to intercept, hopefully, predators waiting for that shallow movement – a great plan where ciscoes do stay deep during the day and go shallow at night.
Further experience on other waters though, changed my mind. Some ciscoes do go shallow during the day. I recall the first time I noted this and it baffled me. Midday, right on top of a rock reef … ciscoes … so, learn too what you’re dealing with there. Some waters have ciscoes that will be hanging around edges, adjacent to edges and very shallow midday. Of course, this makes a huge difference in your locational plan for specific waters.
Know all you can know about the specifics of spawning habits on lakes that have ciscoes. The fall spawn definitely bunches predators up and narrows your concentration zone. Also, know the forage in general, and what they do. Are there lots of suckers, carp, catfish, panfish, perch or crawfish (stomach content studies on muskies show where present in good numbers – they eat lots of ‘em)? As much as possible, identify the refrigerator and its location.
Finally, much has been said about matching the hatch. It’s a factor to consider, but look at it two ways, rather than one. At times, matching abundant forage present, works well, but you have to consider the opposite too. Generally (and I always stress that, because anglers who accept advice as “rules” … catch fewer fish), when a predominant favorite forage is scattered about, matching works. Often though, standing out as something different does too, and usually when forage is bunched up. A couple seasons ago, on a very specific ciscoe-as-forage pattern, myself and great muskie angler Josh Borovsky, found reddish color patterns in lures mimicking the average size of ciscoes in the area – to be more effective than choosing lures colored like the ciscoes. Sometime it pays to be a little different when you’re looking to get your Next Bite.