Early fall is a good news/bad news time of year for muskie anglers. A time of year that can be loaded with both promise and frustration.
The good news is, fish are moving. Changes in water temperature, changes in weed growth as summer weedbeds die back, and the biological who knows what that tells fish fall’s coming all combine to put fish on the move to new areas, and, usually, to ratchet up the activity level besides.
The bad news is, fish are moving. Once-lush shallow weedbeds lie flat on the bottom – a cooked spinach looking wasteland. Or, worse yet, they’re stringy, brittle, and nearly impossible to fish through. Sure thing spots are suddenly devoid of fish. Baitfish are making fall moves of their own, changing the predator-prey relationships. Well-established summer patterns fall apart, and fish can seem to simply disappear.
The painful truth is, early fall can often be a challenge less because of what fish are doing, than what anglers aren’t doing. After a summer of at least mostly predictable patterns and techniques (with an emphasis on mostly – we are still talking muskies here…) re-establishing contact with the fish population on something other than a random basis can be difficult.. All too often, anglers aren’t adapting to changes in fish location and activity, and are content to stick with summer patterns despite diminishing results, and simply bide their time till late fall when things stabilize once again.
Finding Transition Fish
Most often, fish aren’t far away from summer habitat. The transition from summer to fall habitat isn’t an over night event, and as the transition progresses, a variety of intermediate areas can hold fish for a time. Seeking out the nearest alternative in terms of structure is a good place to start. Hear are a few typical areas to check out:
Fishing early fall muskies in the rushes was a fairly well kept secret on many Minnesota lakes for many years. Though muskies can be found using rush beds off and on all season, early fall is the most consistent rush bite. Seek out ’clean’ rush beds – with sand or gravel bottoms rather than lots of junk weeds. Rush beds adjacent to summer habitat such as weed flats, or in fish travel areas along the main lake basin are key. Points, thick patches and holes in the middle of beds are prime holding spots.
If you fish the rushes, please, do so responsibly. The fall rush bite has become very popular on some lakes each fall, and the rushes, particularly on Leech and Cass Lakes, have suffered for it. When rushes are snagged with lures or caught in trolling motor or outboard props, and break off below the surface, they simply don’t grow back. Many of the more popular rush beds on Leech and Cass are a fraction of their former size and density, and while other factors may play a role, anglers, and muskie anglers in particular, are largely to blame. Spinnerbaits and surface buzzers fish through rushes extremely well, and definitely catch fish. There’s no reason (and no justification) for fishing through rush beds with lures with treble hooks, or for plowing through rush beds with an outboard. No muskie is worth doing damage to habitat that can take decades to recover. If you can’t fish the rushes without constantly snagging up, don’t fish them.
Main lake rock reefs are popular summer spots, and do often remain good right through fall, but in early fall, extremely shallow, smaller rock areas can be dynamite producers, especially when they are near summer weed habitat. Isolated rock piles in 3 to 5 feet of water, gravel seams running inside weedbeds between the inside weedline and shore, and rocky shorelines can all draw early fall muskies, particularly when they‘re being pounded by a stiff wind. Rocky shorelines, especially those receiving the prevailing wind, are an overlooked option on many lakes. Many such shorelines develop a ‘lip‘ in 2-3 feet of water a few yards from shore due to the constant wave action. It may be a drop of only 8 to 10 inches, but muskies will park along that break and ambush passing forage. Search rocky shorelines with a spinnerbait or bucktail. Muskies can appear at any point on stretches of rock shoreline, but over time, certain stretches will stand out as holding more fish, even though they appear identical to other adjacent areas. Who knows why.
Esox Angler columnist, Muskies on the Shield author and muskie legend Dick Pearson coined the phrase ‘holding pen’ to describe areas along fish travel routes than can hold traveling fish for a brief period of time. The description’s perfectly apt. As muskies move out of shallow, weedy summer habitat and travel to main lake areas, isolated points, inside turns, rock piles, patches of weeds along an otherwise clean breakline, or narrows and neck-downs along travel routes to the main lake basin can all hold muskies for a time as they move from place to place. For both fish and angler, they serve a similar purpose, serving as a point to focus on along an otherwise featureless travel route. Identifying these areas can take some effort, but it’s often well worth it.
Remaining Green Weeds
While many weed beds go through a significant die-off in early fall, not all weeds fall flat. Often, while the ’junk weeds’ (the stringy, miserable to fish through stuff I can’t identify by name but don’t like at all) die off, coontail, and some cabbage (particularly red or tobacco cabbage) will remain healthy. Deeper inside turns along a weedline will often hold green weeds long after weeds up on the flat have died back, and patches of green cabbage will may remain on the flats themselves. Shallow stands of tobacco cabbage, often in as little as 3 to 4 feet of water, can be unbelievably productive in early fall, and are usually overlooked by anglers marching down the deep weedline. Seek them out on calm days, and come back at low light or when the wind is blowing. I suspect you‘ll be happy with the results.
There are certainly other types of areas that can hold early fall muskies, but the above examples are enough to get one started on figuring out the fall transition. Early fall spots blow hot and cold, as fish on the move travel in and out of them, so if you find a likely looking area but come up empty, don’t give up on it. Come back later and try again. Many early fall spots such as rock shorelines and rush beds hold fish year after year, so investing time confirming whether or not fish are using an area pays off in the long run. In the short term, keep searching and exploring different areas. If the fish are on the move, you better be moving too.