It has been written by many that experience is the best teacher, and I admit that I refer to past experiences quite often. No matter how much you glean from books, seminars and videos, nothing beats first-hand knowledge in any endeavor. When the subject is late fall muskies specifically, this simple aspect of practical experience can never be overstated.
Fall musky presentations and location patterns are particularly challenging in this regard since they are usually so much different than summer tactics. By mid fall, as water temps start slipping below 50 degrees, shallow presentations with “blades” and topwater are all but gone for another season. Instead of thinking “fast and shallow”, fall anglers must shift to a more “slow and deep” mindset in order to be successful day in and day out.
Crankbaits, jerkbaits, and swimbaits now take front and center in the tacklebox. All three of these lure categories will now take the majority of fall muskies. What makes one group better than another solely depends upon the situation you encounter. For example, musky hunters who prefer a casting presentation are likely to fish all three lure groups on any given day according to the layout of a specific spot, and/or the depth the fish prefer. However, fall musky trollers are much more likely to drag crankbaits exclusively although swimbait trolling is becoming more popular every season.
Musky location in the later fall can and usually does vary quite a bit from where they were during peak summertime. This is especially true in terms of depth. Yes, you might still tag a good ‘lunge on that same wave pounded rock point that produced fish in July, but it’s a good bet it will now be at least two to three times as deep. In addition, flat – more horizontal structure – is often preferred by warm water muskies, while steeper graded vertical banks, drop-offs and ledges are apt to hold more fall fish.
This same summer/horizontal vs. fall/vertical philosophy can often be said about fall suspended muskies, as well. Summer muskies often scatter across large open water flats in looser groups, while fall fish might stack in a tighter pack over smaller deep hole basins. This is not always the case, but I have seen this with some regularity. Generally, the colder the water gets, the more muskies seem to gravitate to vertical structure. This is particularly true of steep breaks that swing in tight to a shoreline bank. This kind of terrain rarely produces during warmer months, but is a musky magnet once the water cools.
Cold water pelagic species that trophy muskies relish as food also become much more available once the thermocline is dissolved. A warm summer, like the one we just experience, often sets up a distinct thermal edge under the water separating the warmer stratified upper layers from ice cold waters below. Silvery, oily soft-finned baitfish such as ciscoes, tullibee and whitefish, key pelagic species, will generally stay below the thermocline during peak summer months in their preferred coldwater zone. Cold weather and shortening daylight destroys this thermocline and allows pelagic baitfish to access all depths putting them in target range of a lot more gamefish including muskies. Other coldwater oligotrophic fish such as trout and burbot are underrated on the musky menu. Once a thermocline is gone, muskies eat a much higher amount of these fish, as well.
Ironically, weather and wind play an entirely different role at times in the fall. Summer musky hunters pray for warming trends and southerly winds. A summer cold front is apt to close the door on a productive trip. However, the opposite is often true in the later fall. Warm Indian Summer-like weather in October or November might actually shut down the bite, while a cold front turns ‘em on. My theory here is that cold fronts trigger an urgency to feed before winter. The more severe the front, the more intense the reaction from muskies.
A similar behavior exists in the animal world during this same time period. Warming trends seem to slow down everything from a busy nut gathering squirrel to a rutting whitetail buck. The woods turns into a ghost town when the weather warms in the later fall. As soon as there’s even a hint of an approaching cold front, the forest comes alive with urgent activity. Muskies behave the same way at this time of year. At times a warming trend seems to put fish into a funk in the fall. A cold snap shakes ‘em out of it. I love a southerly wind in the summer, but I’ll always take a brisk North wind in the fall. In fact, give me a full blown white-out snow storm and I can almost guarantee strong fall musky movement.
Many times I’ve advised that the best thing you can do for your fall musky score is to pick a productive local lake and really learn it well. In fact, I’d suggest you totally dedicate yourself to one local lake, river or reservoir until you know it well enough to drive around it in complete darkness. Granted, this may take years to learn it that well, but it is worth it. However, even if you already know this water well from a summer perspective, you will find there’s a re-learning process required for coldwater musky success. No doubt, a few of your favorite spots might still produce in colder water, but more than likely, you will find the majority of them void of fish.
Like I said earlier, you now need to think deep and vertical. Sometimes, all you have to do is move out a bit from where you were tagging muskies during the warmer months and begin exploring deeper hard bottom nearby. However, don’t be surprised to also find special late fall spots that are unique only to this time of year. Prevailing fall northerly winds also have a bearing on both baitfish and musky movements. While you might have concentrated a lot of your time on spots pounded by southerly winds on past summer trips, the north to NW side of islands, points, rock walls, flats and even open water holes should now be prime targets. Eventually, you will discover a whole new set of spots specific only to this time of year.
Today’s modern electronics have made it far easier to learn water quickly. The learning curve has been shortened a great deal. The advent of GPS has made a huge difference in the angler’s ability to precisely mark the exact location of the best fishing spots. If you haven’t made an investment in a sonar system with GPS, I’d suggest you do so. Also, load it with the very latest in after-market map card technology. This provides you with great contour map readouts right alongside your sonar display. When you raise a big fall musky, or simply find a really good looking spot, it can be quickly marked on your map with a simple push of the waypoint save button. You can then return to that exact spot time and time again.
I am totally sold on the effectiveness of this new technology including the side scan imaging. It is particularly efficient for the musky angler because we cover so much more water than most. The run & gun casting style of most musky maniacs is tailor-made for the use of high quality sonar and GPS. Purchase the best unit you can afford, and really learn how to use it. You won’t regret it. You will learn water at a whole new level.
Summarily, fall muskies require a distinctly different mindset and philosophy. The colder the water gets, the more muskies are apt to vacate shallow horizontal terrains in favor of deeper steeper contours. The colder the water gets, the less productive spinners and topwater lures are likely to be, and the more dynamic crankbaits, jerkbaits and swimbaits become. Warm fronts were sure to crank up musky feeding activity during the summertime, but they often weaken the fall bite. Cold fronts might be dreaded in July, but they are welcomed in October or November. Understanding this difference in philosophy is one of the keys to success with late fall cold water ‘skis!