by John Peterson with Noel Vick
Boats crisscrossed it all summer long; personal watercraft here, tuber there. Weeds uprooted and shredded, fouling the surface like bees in a beverage. These disorderly but auspicious shoreline flats are playgrounds for people, and consequently vacated by gamefish.
Labor Day changes everything, though. Tourists leave. Cabins close like books. Pleasure boats and pontoons fall victim to winterization. Jetskis, well they’re stored in moth balls. That buffer zone from where the docks end and the first serious break begins is returned to its rightful owners, northern pike and muskies.
It’s not just a flat but a “feeding” flat, a 5 to 12-foot deep expanse that offers modest features, such as varied weeds – cabbage and coontail – a few hard spots, and maybe sandgrass. They appear innocent enough on hydrological maps too, oftentimes the dullest waterscape in print. But beneath the monotonous exterior lies a plenteous but treacherous place. A kingdom unfit for travel unless you’re 40, better yet 50-inches long complete with chops of fangs and incisors.
Brawny and iron-jawed fish hang on such flats, more so on the bigger pieces. A 25-yard flat does some good, but certainly pales in comparison to a hundred yard or mile long flat – more food, more real estate, more fish, and heftier specimens to boot.
Better flats flirt with deep water, and the hottest spot on a given flat usually grazes the sharpest break. This theory is proven time and time again. In the fall, both pike and muskies will suspend off and away from feeding-flats, usually transferring back and forth from the sheerest verge. Fish, like humans, find and utilize the shortest distance between to locations.
A flat that functions as part of a greater point or bar is extra intriguing due to the added structure. Immense shoreline points and shallow bars commonly present wide and horizontal crests, which double as feeding-flats.
Shoreline flats are commonplace, easy, decidedly more so than rock reefs, weed islands, inside turns and all the other complexities we tirelessly search for. In comparison, early fall is child’s play, so far as it pertains to finding hotspots anyway.
Northland Tackle Pro Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, a distinguished multi-species guide, also hounds flats in the fall. He focuses on swatches of surviving green cabbage, windswept rocks atop flats, and the perimeter of deeper hardstem bulrushes. He views wind and waves as crucial in the quest for monsters, as the elements combine to draw together forage.
The dilemma then is not locating probable haunts, because they’re massive and obvious, but rather how to effectively blanket something so large. There are, though, means to shrink the water, and fortunately, there’s a dynamic already working to your benefit.
In autumn, foraging pike and muskies put it in cruise control. Vigorously, they fin back and forth across prime flats, prowling, snacking. But a key position, like a weededge or unmapped rubble pile can maintain these marauders and draw newcomers in with regularity. Hook a fish or two from an area and it’s wise to settle in and cast for a spell.
With that said, effectively scouring a flat requires elbow grease. You can whip baits, and where legal, troll, but regardless, there’s no getting around the reality that time consuming and extensive coverage will be in your future. And nothing spans the globe like a spinnerbait.
The chief contender in early autumn, spinnerbaits are both easy to operate and burn water faster than an oil rig disaster. Select an oversized, magnum spinnerbait. Northland’s Bionic Bucktail Spinnerbait is a grand choice, it’s a proven big fish lure, having nipped two 50-pound muskies in recent years.
Make long casts across the flat with your boat positioned off the break and over deeper water. Work the spinnerbait over, around, and through the vegetation and associated structure. Burn it below the surface, sometimes “bulging” but not breaking the seal. Bulging is especially effective in the morning, evening, and under cloud cover. You’ll need to experiment with retrieval rates too, but historically, there’s a need for speed during this time of year.
If the flat seems to be gator infested but nothing’s chomping, back away and make casts beyond the break, off the flat. Let the spinnerbait dive 5 maybe 10-feet down and then commence reeling, albeit slower than you wound line on top of the flat. Cold fronts and midday slowdowns might necessitate even deeper falls, reduced retrieves, as pike and muskies will loiter near the bottom. Watch for peekers and prepare to bust into a figure-8 as well (rod tip in the water, drawing eights with roughly 2-feet of line out), because semi-interested fish often follow.
Another tool for plucking Esox from weedlines is an upsized jig bedecked with either a sucker minnow or large grub. Pitch it and pull her through the outer weeds and down along the break. Pretend like you’re fishing for walleyes but with a steroid-swollen jig. The haired and haughty Northland Bionic Bucktail Jig – ½ to 2-ounce sizes – is responsible for yanking countless trophy pike and ‘skis, making it a fine selection.
Muskies and pike aren’t the only flat-going species when surface temps cool and lollygaggers leave the lake. Titanic largemouth bass and walleyes often share residency and will likewise inhale an outsized spinnerbait or beefy jig and minnow.
Fan-casting while slowly motoring along performs brilliantly for searching a flat, but even the finest casters and boat-controllers can’t compete with trolling. Depths are somewhat stable and cover constant, yielding straightforward trolling conditions. Running bow forward, hit the throttle, pitch the spinnerbait back, give it a little slack – 40 to 60-feet total – and prepare for a shoulder dislocation; rod holders are recommended of course. Like retrieval speed, the boat’s pace also must be tested, but normally a 1.5 to 2.5 mph tempo suffices. And make wide S-shaped trolling patterns, sliding on and off the weededge. The winding path will sample more waterscape and keeps the line off the fish.
Jousting with torpedo-sized muskies and pike calls for serious lumber. A 6 to 7-foot heavy baitcasting rod and reel will endure violent strikes and prolonged battles. Fill the reel with feisty monofilament too, like 25 to 40-pound Berkley Big Game or a superline such as FireLine. By and large, mono outdoes a superline on the troll because it surrenders some stretch, not ripping lips. But for casting, superlines bury the hooks with greater authority.
Now that the Griswalds have departed – National Lampoon’s Vacation reference – and the hoodlums down the lake removed their slalom course, that fat, shallow, and weeded piece is yours. But you’ll have to share it, though, because a collection of predators waited patiently for it too.