The author releasing a muskie caught on a perch-colored Hughey glidebait.
Fall is trophy time for muskies. Hard-core anglers launch boats through ice, brave freezing wind chills and snowy conditions, and log dozens of hours searching for a once-in-a-lifetime fish. You don't have to go to this extreme, but autumn is the best time to hit the water if you're looking to catch the big one. This article discusses some fall fishing strategies that should help you on your quest for a trophy muskie.
Casting vs. Trolling
Many anglers switch from casting to trolling in the fall. Trolling is an effective way to target deep-water fish and ones feeding on baitfish schools in autumn.
Casting still has merit, though, especially during the early stages of fall. If you can endure ice-cold water on your fingers, casting lets you methodically work structures and see fish you'll miss when trolling. This is important because finding fish is half the battle when it comes to hunting muskies.
Regardless of the presentation, work baits slowly in the fall. Due to lower water temperatures a muskie's metabolism is slower compared to summer months. That's not to say a fish won't aggressively hit a big crankbait, but you can't rip baits by fish as fast as you did during the peak summer period.
Good Autumn Casting Lures
Popular fall-casting baits include jerkbaits, like Suicks or Burts. The key to a good fall jerkbait is that it suspends in the water (i.e., is neutrally buoyant) or has an extremely slow rise. This slow hanging action often triggers following muskies. Quickly rising baits don't seem to coax lazy fish into hitting like a suspending jerkbait does come fall.
Some baits will suspend out of the box, but odds are you'll need to add weight to many lures. Do this by sticking two-way tape to the underside of the bait and adding egg sinkers or other weights to the tape. Next, put the bait in a tank of water. Experiment with sinker placement and the amount of weight until the bait suspends straight in the water. Next drill holes in the bait body, insert weights and epoxy over the holes. It's possible you might ruin a bait or two the first time you try weighting them, but it's worth it. When you get it right, a properly suspending jerkbait will quickly become your best friend for fall casting.
Other popular casting baits include big plastic lures, such as Bull Dawgs. Count-down these baits to specific depths, and then retrieve them on a straight swimming or jerk-and-pause retrieve. Large minnowbaits or crankbaits, like Believers, Jakes and Cisco Kids, are other good casting baits. Throw these around the edges of structures. Make sure to make plenty of pauses during the retrieve to trigger lethargic followers.
A good assortment of fall baits (from top to bottom): Bobbie Bait jerkbait, Hughes River Hughey, Muskie Mania Jake, Joe Bucher Jointed Depthraider and a Musky Innovations Bull Dawg.
Trolling in the fall consists almost exclusively of using large crankbaits and minnowbaits. Ernies and Believers are good baits. Spinnerbaits that can be slow-trolled around weeds or edges will work, but for me, cranks are king come autumn.
Bait Size and Color
Although there are not hard-and-fast rules when it comes to fall fishing muskies, for the most part, bigger baits are best. You want a lure to put out a big profile. This helps get the attention of muskie feeding on large-sized forage as they beef up to endure the hardships of the winter months.
When it comes to color, carry a selection of natural patterns mimicking walleye, shiners, perch and catfish. Also stock your box with hot colored baits consisting of yellows, oranges, pinks, chartreuse and other bright color patterns.
Fall Strategy #1: Find Remaining Healthy Weeds
Different regions experience summer weed die-off at different times. However, one fact remains constant; finding the last few healthy weedbeds on a lake or river is important to catching muskies early in the fall.
As weeds die off and decompose they use oxygen. Fish leave these areas in search of oxygen-rich spots, often moving to healthy weeds in deeper water. Find healthy weeds and you'll find muskies feeding in them at some point.
Common autumn weed areas include points, reefs and islands. The deeper the weeds, the longer they tend to survive, especially if there's current in the area.
Mark these spots on a GPS unit. Muskie will move on and off of these areas at different times, so fish them a few times throughout a day in an effort to intercept feeding fish.
When you encounter a new weedbed, it pays to cast it to learn its characteristics. This allows you to look for the best structure in the area, or "the spot on the spot". If too cold to cast, slowly troll over the area. While doing this, use a GPS to mark prime structure areas and the weededge. You can use this data later to properly position baits on trolling runs.
Fishing Strategy #2: Work Rock Areas
Remember to work baits slowly in the fall. Lower water temperatures slow a muskie's metabolism, so you can't rip baits as fast as you did during the peak summer period.
Whether casting or trolling, rocky areas can be dynamite in the fall. This particularly holds true when the rocks are shallow enough to be reached by the sun's rays. On sunny, autumn days rocks trap heat. This can raise the surrounding water by a degree or two and is enough to attract baitfish, panfish and predators alike. Reefs, points, boulder piles and man-made rock cribs are all prime areas come fall.
Again, if new to fishing rocky areas learn them first by working them with casts or slowly trolling them. As you comb the area, mark hazards on a GPS, or use marker buoys, so you can return and troll the structure with precision.
Bang crankbaits on bottom when fishing rock areas. Baits bouncing and deflecting off the structure resemble a fish trying to elude a predator. Reaction strikes are common from muskie when a bait is banged off of rocks. Keep a loose drag so that you won't loose the bait or break a rod when you encounter a snag. When caught on bottom, most times a crankbait will float up and out of the snag on slack line. If it doesn't dislodge itself, a plug-knocker like the E-Z Lure Retriever will usually do the trick.
Fishing Strategy #3: Work Baitfish Schools
Baitfish schools become extremely pronounced come autumn. When trolling with a quality sonar it's common to see massive pods of bait. Odds are if you stay long enough, you'll see large hooks on the periphery of the bait. These icons are predators, and a few are likely muskies.
Once you find them, troll around baitfish schools. Many call this approach open water trolling. Troll deep-diving crankbaits and minnowbaits around the periphery of the bait. If you're marking large hooks on your graph, run your bait above these marks. Muskie often swim up or from the side to ambush prey. Trolling for muskie demands durable rod holders, such as those made by Down East. Rod holders need to be strong enough to withstand the constant pulling of a trolled crankbait and endure the powerful surge of a muskie hit.
Fishing Strategy #4: Structure Trolling
Trolling is an effective way to target deep-water fish and muskie feeding on baitfish schools.
Unlike open water trolling, structure trolling, as its name implies, is about working specific areas. The breakline next to the lake basin or the main river channel is a prime muskie holding area. This break often concentrates many species that have left shallow water. Pay attention to areas along the breakline intersecting other types of structures, like points or turns.
Deep holes are good spots to find on rivers. These areas often provide current relief for muskies. Troll deep diving crankbaits over these holes.
Rocky reefs, islands, and points surrounded by deep water are all prime areas to troll. Areas created by human engineering can also be dynamite fall spots if near deep water, especially if they create current breaks. Bridge supports, boat launches, break walls and other structures made from rock and rubble are good spots to include on a fall trolling run.
If trolling a long structure, work up and down it using slow S-turns. Frequently change baits, using ones with different actions and colors. When you're fishing smaller areas, like sunken islands, troll them several times. Switch up baits and the angle of your approach. Sometimes it takes a certain style or color of bait to be presented at a specific angle to trigger a muskie to hit.
Fall fishing is physically and mentally demanding. Most anglers who've spent dozens of hours in cold weather without catching a fish will eventually wonder why they're not sitting on their coach instead. All it takes is one fish to dispel any doubts and keep you searching for another big, fall muskie. I hope these fishing strategies help you reach that goal and keep you off the couch.