Muskies are truly different critters as fish go. No doubt about it! Those of us who fish for them are different critters as well; willing to put forth seemingly endless expenditure on tools of the trade, and endless hours in anguished expectancy of the next strike… and yet, we continue. Those long in the chase of these fish know: just when you think you’ve got the system to “consistency” figured out, these miserable fish will throw you a curve. They seem to disappear, shattering your ego and keeping you up at night, pondering their disappearance.
It is hard enough to try and keep up with a fish with such a peculiar personality, and one that is present in low densities… and then add seasonal change. But these seasonal changes are a fact of life that are another twist to fish location. Cold weather muskies are especially fickle. Let’s take a look at what those of us afflicted enough to endure the chilling weather of the late fall for chances at a trophy muskie are dealt. What are some of the key points to fishing during the period between turnover and hard water?
A few weeks after the fall turnover process mixes the different layers of water that stratified over the course of the summer months, the fish community starts to settle down into more predictable patterns again. The period during the turnover is a time of confusion and a lot of movement. It takes some time, but signs of the true start of the late fall period include forage fish “bunching-up.” Groups of baitfish, packed tightly together can be noted on electronics, where a few weeks earlier fish were scattered.
The real keys to success in the late fall include location and location. The location of your boat over prime areas with feeding muskie present-is very important. Locating your presentation in muskies’ faces is even more important. This may seem a little too basic; however, these two very basic considerations should constantly be considered during the cold weather period; they should be the basis behind every move made and every chosen presentation.
While theories of rampant feeding by muskie preparing for a long, cold winter are common, the truth is, as the water cools it makes for less overall activity and shorter feeding windows. While female fish must fatten-up a bit for winter to support their burden of eggs, the cooler water slows metabolisms, and these fish generally aren’t as willing to “chase.” It is very important to get that offering close.
Thinking “deeper” is a good general rule in fall location. Try to break a lake, river or reservoir down into prime sections by simply looking for the deepest water and main basins. Deep is, of course, relative to the body of water, but start by looking at the deeper zones and the surrounding area. Generally, unless long stretches of warmth or unique forage movements occur, large areas of shallow water can be written off as low percentage, however areas directly adjacent to basin are a different story. As usual, structure can be key; be it deeper wood, weeds or rock. Sharp breaklines to deep water are always a prime consideration; deeper secondary breaklines, where present, can be a major factor in fish location.
The deepest hard-bottomed areas are a key item to look for and to concentrate on. The edge between hard and soft bottom is often a magnet. All of these structural elements mentioned often attract the ultimate “structure”-the most important factor in muskie location: forage. Remember that the muskie you want to find is a “feeding” muskie. That fish isn’t going to be where there is no food. And remember that these fish really only have one job in life: eat. Nature dictates that they be as efficient as possible in going about their chores. They’re no different than your ol’ pal Rover; he may wander around for a while when he’s not hungry, but he’ll always be back to the location of the food dish he knows is always full.
What prime structures in deep water offer is a likely place to find the concentrations of forage-which will eventually attract the hungry predator you seek. Get in tune with the structures present in the body of water you will be fishing, and with the different forage types. Learn what species are most prevalent and what their locational habits are. Don’t forget some of the not-so-commonly-mentioned items such as crawfish and bullhead; if they are present, they can be a big factor.
Because slower-moving, precise presentations are often necessary to trigger fish, it doesn’t pay to just start fishing until you know you are working an area with quantities of forage. Generally, you will be much better off to take the time out from actually fishing, to check for food sources with your electronics before starting in; try to pinpoint a few prime areas that look good.
In a lake with very little structure, or “bowl-shaped” waters, shoreline-related breaks may be the only game in town. Deep shorelines may have fallen trees, and in a situation such as this, they are a major structural element. It stands to reason that many of the fish are relating to nothing other than open water, since that is all that is available. Check open water areas to see if there is a pattern to the level of the majority of the baitfish… wind can be a major factor on such lakes; several days (it takes time) of wind from one direction may stack baitfish on the windward side.
Some very overlooked structural elements that can be a big factor late in the season include: long, inside turns (or troughs) of deeper water. These are often magnets for forage in the fall. Distinct, deep holes can also be dynamite, especially if prime shallower feeding shelves are adjacent. Neck-down areas with deep water on both sides will always have great potential. Probably the most overlooked is the long stretch of “steep” shoreline, most of which have nothing that really stands out to the naked eye (no points or turns). Sharp-breaking shorelines are natural “underwater highways” for fish. Even if nothing stands out they are worth checking; in many cases there are slight points and turns where the break starts to level out to the deep basin. Usually this can only be noted by checking via electronics; there may also be a brushpile or an extension of hard bottom out to deeper water in a certain section. Little changes like these on a steep shoreline often “stop” forage and predator fish in their travels. Nothing like finding a hot spot on a visually ugly stretch of shore.
Muskie are a temperamental lot. You must have the confidence to locate contact areas (forage for certain and usually structure too) and fish them hard. Don’t give up on them if the one pass produces nothing; if an area is really stacked with forage give it another run later. Prime areas may be used by many feeding muskie; often several at the same time during a prime feeding window. If a spot scores once for you, it will score again.
Also consider changing your lure-type “fairly” often to check out the effectiveness of a different lure action (but changing too often wastes time). Preferences in lure speed and action are common; one day a tight-wobble crankbait is hot, and the next they may want a wide, lazy wobble. Because you are working these areas fairly slowly, there is time to show them a variety of lures. The good news is if you find something that is working, usually that will be a pattern; similar presentations will probably be effective the rest of the day and possibly several days if weather remains consistent.
Once a prime area is located with a good forage base present, it’s time to comb it. Work it over good. If quantities of food are present, chances are very good that muskie will be feeding there; at least at some point during the day. The key is in covering all levels, concentrating in and around the majority of the forage. One of the best ways to accomplish this is through a combination of boat control, vertical presentations and casting presentations. Remembering the second “location-factor” of getting close to that fish. Simply figure out a way to cover all levels as you work your way through. Where legal, using multiple lines with a combination of live and artificial bait is very effective.
Live bait run on quick-strike rigs can be used as a prime vertical presentation. As is for all predator fish, live bait is very effective on muskie, especially in cooler water. Using whatever weighting system you find necessary for the depth you will be fishing, try to work a bait near the bottom and a bait suspended. To add a jigging action to baits, move in bursts, allowing baits to settle in a vertical position before moving again. This is generally much more effective than steady movement which results in steady depth and a very relaxed bait. You want your live bait to be visible-and struggling-fighting the ups and downs. If the bottom is relatively clean, don’t be afraid to run the live baits into the bottom or breaklines; contact will arouse baits and any hungry muskies.
In addition to, or instead of live baits, a variety of artificials can be effective. Consider the depth you want to target as the main determining factor in lure choice for casting. Baits such as jerks and cranks can be very effective in the late season, but generally have their limits on effective running depth. Know these limits and fit the lure to target depth. Jigs or sinking lures are effective and can be worked very slow; they are perfect for “following” the break when working sharp edges.
A prime edge with forage should be worked parallel to the edge as well as perpendicular. Work the shallow and deep side. Consider that predators are most likely located on the edge of the forage bulk. (If they were right in the middle and actively feeding … the “bulk” wouldn’t be there.) Generally jerks and cranks are much more effective for casting out into open water than jigs. They simply cover water faster; the idea here is to search for fish suspended nearby; precise lure control is not as big a factor. Whatever the lure type, contacting bottom on edges and tops of bars can be a great trigger on neutral fish; many a muskie has been taken on crankbaits “ground” across rocks; choose a diving crank with a quality, rounded, plastic lip that will handle these collisions. The Ernie and Believer are classic examples. The great thing about all of these presentations when being used in addition to live bait is that even if a muskie is not intrigued enough to strike… they have that notorious propensity to follow. Often fish that are lead to the boat via “artificial” are unable to resist the “real thing” thing when they are brought right to it.
The other prime addition for ultimate deep-water control in artificials is vertical jigs and spoons. The ultimate lure control is vertical; you know where your presentation is at all times. Large sonar lures, weighted spoons and jig/live bait or jig/rubber combos work well. I am a great believer in those flashy lures like spoons and big blade baits like the Fuzzy Duzzit and Zip lure. I’ve plucked them from many a muskie’s face. Work these lures over the side of the boat, covering different depth ranges with lure and with the boat, remembering to maintain occasional bottom contact.