By Steve Heiting, Contributing Writer
Fall is considered by musky fisherman as the time for trophy fish. Large female muskies putting on the feedbag to sustain their developing egg mass are on the prowl, hunting suckers, ciscoes and whitefish. If you hope to catch a musky that’s truly heavy for its length, fall is the time to do it.
However, fall musky fishing tends to be very specialized in technique, especially if you use quick-strike-rigged livebait. Couple that with notoriously short late season feeding windows, and the fall trophy period leaves many musky hunters frustrated.
Consider the beginning fisherman who buys quick-strike rigs and a livewell full of suckers, and heads out to what he’s heard is a “trophy” musky lake. These waters tend to be large but have relatively small musky populations in spite of extensive but confusing structure. If he does get a strike on his livebait rig, inexperience can cause him to miss the hookup.
By weekend’s end, our beginner is fed up and wondering if the term “fall trophy period” was dreamed up by the local chamber of commerce. But fall musky fishing doesn’t need to be frustrating for the first-timer.
Anyone learning to fish muskies in fall should gain experience and confidence before trying to tackle trophies. Then, when he’s ready for bigger fish, he’ll know where to look and how to catch them.
The perfect way to gain such experience is by fishing what are typically known as “action” musky lakes. These waters tend to be smaller, usually less than 500 acres and often much smaller, but have substantially more (but smaller) muskies per acre. These lakes are easy to find — just ask at the local baitshop.
Fall muskies are known to favor hard bottom areas and edges as they hunt food. An edge can be a weedline, the shoreline, a point, a drop-off, a deep water hump, or logs or manmade fish cribs. Muskies by nature are so tuned into hunting edges that during a Wisconsin DNR study in which muskies were held in featureless hatchery ponds, they herded their prey against the only edge they had — a plastic liner on the pond’s smooth bottom.
The findings of that study speak volumes. In many cases, small waters have limited hard bottom and only a handful of edges, so this greatly limits where most of the muskies will be found. Often, the only hard bottom small waters have is a zone outside the weed edge to the drop-off that leads to the basin. Some lakes may have a single hump or hard-bottomed point, but that’s it.
This reality greatly narrows down where the muskies will be. I recommend that you further target potential areas by fishing the windy side of the lake — wind has many benefits for the musky hunter, but explaining them would take a whole other article.
Factor in higher numbers of muskies in what amounts to a confined area and you have a recipe for musky action. By noting the details of where each musky you contact was found, you can dial into a pattern for even more activity.
Since muskies in high-numbers waters tend to run smaller, if you miss a hookup while learning a fall technique, big deal. It probably wasn’t big. Chances are good that you’ll have action from another just like it in due time. Learn from each mistake.
Even though it’s “fall trophy time,” resist the urge to buy oversized, 14- to 18-inch suckers. They may be the right stuff for a big fish hunt, but for gaining experience they’re just too large. A bunch of suckers 10 to 12 inches long are perfect for the “practice” fish you’re pursuing.
Buy quick-strike rigs only. Even if you find old-style single hook swallow rigs in your favorite baitshop, leave them to gather dust. If you use livebait properly, you’ll release every musky safely. Rigs that require you to wait for a musky to swallow the sucker first before setting the hook are fish killers, period. Don’t use them. Follow the illustration that comes with the quick-strike rig to attach it properly to the sucker.
I like to rig two livebait rods. I suspend one sucker about a foot off the bottom and the other at boatside, just deep enough that I can’t see the sucker. This boatside sucker will often catch muskies that follow an artificial but don’t strike, while the sucker near the bottom will catch fish actively hunting the hard bottom.
Position your boat over hard bottom on the windy side of the lake and drift or position-fish to keep your suckers in the strike zone. While your suckers are swimming, cast jerkbaits, minnowbaits, plastics and jigs to the weed edge to draw muskies out to your suckers.
Decide in advance who will get the opportunity to handle the first livebait strike and get the rod in that person’s hands immediately following a strike. If the musky is swimming away from the boat, reel down and set the hook hard as if you were trying to break the rod. You won’t, but sometimes it takes a big effort to break the quick-strike rig free of the sucker and hook the musky. If the musky isn’t swimming away, try easing it toward the boat until it moves off in the other direction. Then set the hook.
Don’t give the musky time to “get a better grip on the sucker,” even if you’ve missed a couple. This is terrible advice that is perpetuated by some would-be experts. A hungry musky can swallow a sucker in less than a minute, so getting the hook set quickly is a must. Don’t worry if you miss a fish or two — even the best livebait users catch about half of the muskies that grab their suckers.
There’s nothing like the feeling of a solid hookset on a nice musky. Learn what it’s like on “training” waters, and when you’re ready for a big fish hunt you’ll learn that a solid hookset on a trophy musky is even better. With the right practice, you’ll be ready when the opportunity presents itself.