Occasionally, sublime early fall days pass with nary another boat in sight. The end to family vacations and reconvening school reduces the frequency of flogged lures. By late September, some of the Minnesota home waters of the In-Fisherman crew have returned to a state of relative peace — and at least some muskies go about their business without being so intensely pressured.
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange says an overlooked peak fishing period can develop at this time, typically unfolding about the end of September and spanning through early October — sometimes lasting until mid October. "It's all about the weather, water temperature, and fishing pressure," he says.
"The water's still warm enough to be able to fish a bucktail quickly. Most anglers get stuck in slow gear too early and it hurts their fishing success. Speed is one of the critical factors in the presentation process. The key is to be fishing just as fast and efficiently as possible, not slowing down just yet. The surface water temperature is in the mid- to upper-50°F range. The period ends with a spate of miserable weather that pushes water temperatures quickly into the upper-40°F range. At that point we're talking the Cold Water Period and drastically different fishing conditions."
Stange times his fishing based on developing weather. No surprise, the best days are dark and dreary, but still mild. "A steady breeze also helps," he says. "These are conditions when fish push up shallow, often right along rocky shorelines or the shallow edges of structural elements like rockbars or sandbars. Or fish get right up on the edges of sandbars; or they hold over remaining weeds. Or they hold along the weededge, but suspend up high.
"Some of these fish probably have been in these areas much of the summer, but it also seems new fish are moving in, probably from open water. Occasionally, you see a fish with a marked lip from being caught, but most of the fish are clean — no hook-up marks. Fresh fish — another reason the fishing can be so good.
"I go back to fishing the way I almost always begin the season, usually with a small tandem bucktail like the Blue Fox Musky Buck — but the Fluted Buck with the #6 fluted blade, instead of the smaller Musky Buck with the #5 Indiana blade. Just keep it simple — a black body with a silver blade, a black body with a hot orange blade, a firetiger option, and yellow body with a silver blade. Those are my standard options — two great colors for clear water and two for reduced light conditions and dirtier water.
"The Bucks fish well on medium-heavy bass flippin' sticks — 7.5 to 8 feet long. Any low-profile wide-spool reel's fine. I've been using Pflueger Presidents and Abu Garcia Revo Toro 50s. Sixty-five-pound braid's perfect; you still need to be able to muscle fish. Sufix 832 probably is the smoothest casting option out there. No need for a fluoro leader; straight wire works at the terminal end. Tie direct to the swivel on the leader and use the heavy-duty snap at the other end of the leader to make quick lure changes."
Perfect timing would be developing dark, dreary weather mid to late week. "There's always going to be fishing pressure on weekends, but the fish get a chance to settle back down by later in the week," he says. "Get on the water early and stay late, especially if conditions aren't perfect. On dark days, though, some of the best fishing often is during midday. Also, when fish move shallow on dark days with mild conditions, they often don't move deeper at night — and perhaps some fish actually push up shallow then. They're often snapping right at first light. I always start early when conditions are prime. Beat any competition for the best spots.
"Baits besides the bucktail produce better on some waters. I also like smaller topwaters like the Rapala X-Rap Walk. And I change things up with a jerkbait like the Rapala X-Rap Subwalk, too. Both lures are walk-the-dog baits, one working the top, the other working just subsurface. They cast a mile and can be worked quickly, with the rod tip pointed up when the lure's a long way out there, dropping the rod tip down, as the lure gets closer to the boat. But my go-to bait most of the time is the little thumper bucktail. Keep it simple during prime time."
Muskies on some lakes also use open water during this period. Anglers troll lures like 10-inch Jakes or Storm Kickin' Minnows. Besides probing open water over basins, look for preyfish schools stacked along semi-sharp breaks into deepwater — not necessarily the deepest, sharpest breaks into the main basin, but less-prominent breaks in 30 to 50 feet of water. Look for preyfish with your electronics. Fish above low-riding bait schools and just below high-riding schools.
On big water, ciscoes become accessible to muskies as cooling temperatures draw them back to the upper reaches of the water column. In fisheries like Lake of the Woods, Mille Lacs, Leech Lake, Cass Lake, and Bemidji; and on Great Lakes bays such as Georgian Bay, ciscoes figure prominently into early fall muskie diets. On smaller cisco-rich lakes — even deep ones — predator and prey won't interact until turnover, when the entire water column is again infused with oxygen.
One of my favorite patterns develops when muskies move into pockets in the face of beds of hardstem bulrushes. The best days are dark and without too much wind, with water temperatures typically in the low-60°F range. It's a pattern that plays from central Minnesota, across portions of Wisconsin and Michigan.
I use speedy little bucktails like the Lilly Tail, the Schwartz Little Darla, or Blue Fox Vibrax Musky Buck. Or I use small topwaters like the Suick Nite Walker and Rapala X-Rap Walk to work into pockets or down the front face of weedbeds. When fish get right into the weeds, baits like the ERC Pearson Grinder and Musky Mania Lilly Tail work best. Downsized baits land quietly and can be manipulated within close confines. These options work from Wisconsin flowages to sprawling lakes in Ontario, not just along weed faces, but also anywhere fish push shallow.
Meanwhile, on structures with remnant deeper pondweed stands, I like to cast and flutter giant jig-plastic options like the Bait Rigs Esox Cobra Magnum dressed with a soft flapping tail like 6-inch Upton's Customs Reaper. To begin, swim the jig along — just slow roll it, with the rod tip at 10 o'clock. Stop reeling and flutter the jig down slopes, into pockets, or as a triggering move at any time during the retrieve.
I also do short rod-tip forward sweeps to make the jig scoot forward and dance. Moves like that trigger following fish, during the retrieve and in the figure eight. Fish rush and engulf the bait from behind and quickly turn and do the big head throb. Hook sets usually stick in the corner or roof of the jaw. A quick pop of the pliers gets the fish back into the water.
On the Shield
I spend many late September and October days with Don Schwartz on Lake of the Woods, where he boats about 80 fish each season, fishing the deeper, clearer portions in the north and east portions of the big lake. He says catch rates fall off in September and early October, but it's a great time for giant fish.
One clue to where big fish are holding is foretold by the large pike showing up on traditional shallow muskie spots. This suggests that muskies have moved to nearby deeper areas.
"As soon as I catch big pike from a shallow point or rock hump," he says, "I look with sonar over slightly deeper water — usually the first 15-plus-foot break off the shallow shelf. These aren't the big structural complexes or major points adjacent to the sprawling basin. Most of these spots are on structures once or twice removed from access to massive open water, say a secondary rockpile two casts into a bay."
Schwartz is a jerkbait tactician, using weighted Bobbie Baits or a hybrid he calls Bobbie Sue, which has more of a scooped head than the Bobbie. Lure maker Bob Vander Veldon apparently kept this lure a secret during his lifetime. It dives deeper than the Bobbie and also gives a cool nose-down kickback action between jerks.
Schwartz: "With all the new lures on the market, anglers aren't fishing jerkbaits as much as they used to. Anglers need to get back to fishing some of the old classics — the Suick, the Bobbie. Fish aren't seeing these baits and they're proven fish catchers." Schwartz uses pronounced, evenly spaced downward rod-tip pulls to get the bait down, then lengthens the pauses when the lure's in position.
While Schwartz is throwing something named after the girl next door, I'm using one of several swimbaits. My go-to lures in this category are the Tru-Tungsten Trout, the Mattlures Smallmouth Hardbass, or soft Castaic Catch-22. These are durable 8- to 10-inch lures that cast easily and land softly. They also swim fluidly without spinning out and with minimal resistance. They can be slow-rolled, twitched, or burned at warp speed.
I replace factory hooks with Lazer Sharp 4/0 or 5/0 L774 trebles, a sharp 4X-strong hook. Then I tie directly to a nose split ring with a thin, knottable wire — 65- or 75-pound Knot2Kinky. This titanium wire resists kinks. New leaders take little time to construct.
At times, swimbaits get muskies to show themselves better than any other type of lure. Retrieved fast with frequent jerks and glides, lures like the Tru-Life come alive. One good move for a following fish is to hit the lure with a snap of the rod tip, followed by a pause. This turns the lure 90 degrees, showing the muskie a meaty flank. The bait often gets crushed right then.
Yes, it's time for those magical fall excursions. Winter's waiting, but late summer isn't ready to relent. Look for one of those brisk gray days when the sky spits rain and "sensible" anglers take shore leave. It was just such a day several years ago when Doug Stange, In-Fisherman Digital Editor Jeff Simpson, and a cameraman were on the water.
Stange: "It was a Thursday in early October, after two days of warm rainy weather. The day dawned partly cloudy and flat calm. Still, although fish weren't biting well at that point, they were so settled into holding in shallow water that we could actually move through areas with the boat and see how many and what size fish were present.
"A bit later in the day, it got darker and the wind started to blow as a front approached. The fish didn't go crazy, but we put the crunch on them steadily, as we returned to areas with the best fish. Brought three good fish to the boat that day, including one right at 50 inches. Made for some good TV. Just casting those simple bucktails. Right place, right time, sometimes you just keep it simple during prime time."
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt appears with the In-Fisherman staff on In-Fisherman's Ice Fishing Guide television show, starting in early October.