There’s a certain prestige that comes with being a muskie angler. The title carries a lofty and somewhat dark mystique bestowed by other anglers. It’s hard to define, but if there was some sort of raucous saloon out there where all the types of fisherman of the world gathered, the muskie anglers would be the easiest to spot. They’d be the haggard group sitting together at a dark table in the corner comparing their scars, rubbing Tiger Balm on their casting arms, and throwing 1,000-yard stares past the trout and bass guys. Die-hard muskie folks are intimidating, and that often deters other potential muskie hunters from taking up the sport. Many people question whether they have the mental fortitude to spend entire days casting lures and flies the size of 2-liter bottles on heavy gear in search of a fish that they may not find. The fish of 10,000 casts. Yet, there is a saving grace for muskie-curious anglers wishing to have an easier time landing their first muskellunge—fishing deep into the fall until the rivers and lakes freeze over.
Fall Muskie Behavior Like many other species of gamefish in the late fall to early winter, muskies sense the approach of the lean times ahead. So, as water temperatures begin to drop, the normally-reclusive predators that only feed once or twice a day become more opportunistic. While in the spring or summer a mature muskie may be satisfied with one three-pound bass or mallard duckling in a day’s work, right now they’re trying to put on weight. Behaving more like their smaller Esox cousins—northern pike and the pickerel—late-season muskies will begin to feed with reckless abandon, devouring any tasty morsel that crosses their path, no matter its size. This comportment provides both veteran anglers with the last opportunity to land a slab without having to drill a hole in the ice and rookie muskie chasers a better chance of catching a fish without having to invest a ton of time into fishing or a ton of money into heavy muskie gear.
The Best Gear for Fall Muskies While fishing for muskie in the summer requires gear that wouldn’t seem out of place for pursuing tarpon or king salmon, you can chase and catch fall muskie with the same stuff you’d use for catching bass. This is because despite muskie being a large, hard-fighting fish, the real reason muskie anglers use super heavy gear is for the leverage it provides. That leverage is needed to cast and retrieve the giant lures and flies required to tempt lethargic, big-meal muskie during the warmer months. Yet during the fall when muskies are in search of smaller, slower-moving meals, anglers should present smaller offerings with a bit more finesse. This makes lighter gear very useful.
For conventional anglers, a medium to medium-heavy action spinning or baitcasting rod and reel combo strung with 25- to 30-pound braided line and a 12- to 18-inch heavy steel leader is all that’s required. If you’re a fly fisherman, a tip-flex 7- or 8-weight rod and a reel with a solid drag will do the job, and you’ll have more fun casting than you would with a muskie-standard 12-weight. Rig your reel with a shooting head streamer line such as a Rio InTouch, and top it off with a 20-pound leader tipped with at least 12 inches of 20-pound bite wire to prevent losing your bug to the muskie’s slashing teeth.
When it comes to lures and flies for fall musky fishing, you can leave behind the giant, flashy spinnerbaits, one-pound swimbaits, and foot-long streamers adorned with more flash than the Times Square Christmas Tree. Instead, you’ll want to bring an assortment of smaller lures you’d associate with catching smallmouth bass or walleye or that box of medium-sized streamers you tied up in hopes of catching a few big trout.
The key to catching fall muskie is using flies and lures that “hang” in the strike zone. Presentations that suspend mid-water and can be fished slowly with a lot of quick twitches and long slow pauses have always been the ticket for me. My favorite fall muskie lures include natural-colored Husky Jerks, Rapala X-Raps, and Yo-Zuri 3DB in the 4- to 6-inch range. I’ll also fish soft-plastic baitfish imitations like the Lunker City Slug-Go and Zoom Super Fluke rigged with a single 1/0 or 2/0 circle octopus hook through the head.
The flies I bring on a fall muskie trip are suspending streamers that I can fish with as much or as little action as the muskie require. Articulated trout streamers like the Double Deceiver, the Zoo Cougar, the Drunk and Disorderly, and Chad Johnson’s Sluggo have never failed me in getting some fall muskie attention. I’ve also caught quite a few big fall fish stripping more classic patterns such as the Clouser Minnow and the Bunny Leech.
Where to Find Fall Muskies During the spring and summer, you can find a big muskie anywhere and everywhere—from shallow, weed-choked creek mouths and bays to sharp drop-offs along rock walls, to right beside your neighbor’s boat dock. These fish are frequently roving and rarely feeding, frustrating fair-weather muskie anglers beyond belief. While these places will also hold occasional fish during the fall, to really get on top of them you should narrow your focus to one type of water: flats.
Flats are long sections of consistently shallow water that extend out from shore and often end in a sharp drop-off. These can include long sandbars off islands or at the head of bays, wide expanses of submerged rock in the center of the lake, or even stretches of shallow water right off a public beach. Look for large sections of these flats that are roughly 4 to 6 feet deep, paying special attention to any that hold any dead or emerging vegetation. These spots of new or old growth will often become gathering points for schools of autumn baitfish such as shad, as well as panfish like perch and bluegill. If you find areas in the flat where those fish are gathered, the muskies won’t be far behind.
How to Fish for Fall Muskies Once you’ve found a few good flats, there are two ways to start fishing them: sight fishing and blind casting. Both are simple techniques and can be equally effective in bringing a few big fall muskie to the net. Sight fishing is essentially spotting and stalking a big muskie in shallow water and usually works better on bright, sunny days when the fish are more visible. Using a trolling motor, a paddle, or a push-pole, slowly work your way around the flat while standing in the highest point of the boat and look for the long, black shadow of a cruising muskie.
Once you spot a fish, cast your lure or fly out in front of it, taking special care to not splash down directly on its head. Start to retrieve while paying close attention to the fish’s body language. Sight fishing is great because it allows you to see how the muskie reacts to your presentation. Sometimes they charge forward and absolutely smoke it as soon as it hits the water. Other times they’ll be more finicky and slowly follow along behind the bait until you jerk it, pause it, or let it sink in a certain way that triggers the fish to attack. Much of the time during the summer months, you’d automatically start a figure-eight motion with your rig at the side of the boat after each cast, especially if a muskie followed. However, while this still works on occasion in the fall, oftentimes figure-eighting in cold water will spook the fish so I try to keep it to a minimum.
Blind casting is a bit less fun than sight casting, simply because you’re denied the thrill of watching a muskie chase your lure and unsure whether there’s a fish anywhere around you. However, blind casting is a great way to cover water on cloudy and windy days, probe murky water, or when spooky fish are quick to flee at your approach. Blind casting is about being methodical and covering as much water as humanly possible. Start at one end of the flat and begin making long casts from the front of the boat. Hit every angle you can by fan-casting across one side of the boat to the other, ensuring that your presentation has passed through every part of the likely water you can reach. Then move the boat forward and repeat the action. When blind casting, retrieve your lure or fly with a lot of long pulls and pauses with the rod tip. Let your presentation hang completely immobile for periods of three to five seconds after each twitch or tug before taking in any more line. Often, a fat fall muskie will inhale your offering on the pause without you even knowing it until you pull to jerk the lure forward again and feel the pissed-off weight on the other end.
The Muskie Bug Muskie fishing in the fall is one of the last and best chances you’ll have to land a fish before the hardwater sets in. Plus, it’s a great way for rookies to see what all the fuss is about because they stand a better-than-normal chance of actually landing a muskie or two. They’ll quickly learn that holding one of these giant super-predators in your hands touches something primal, deep in the recesses of your angling soul. It’s a feeling akin to having conquered some great undertaking and, if you’re not careful, can create a serious addiction. Be cautious, because once you’ve caught a few fall muskies you may one day find yourself in a bar, fingering the scars on your hands, and apologizing to a group of bass anglers who were intimidated by your war stories and 1,000-yard stare.
Feature image via Bill Linder.