Fall Down South….. A look at Southern Reservoirs from Shore to Shore

By Gregg Thomas and Tony Grant 
The leaves are changing and the air is starting to cool. The days of jet skiers and sunbathers are coming to an end with the shorter days bringing the cooler water temperatures. This is the official end of summer and the beginning of fall musky fishing. This is the time of year that many musky fishermen live for. To most the fall is a sign of cooler weather and chance at a super fat cold water monster. For northern anglers the fall means that it is only a short time before the fish begin attacking the schools of ciscos and tulibee that will make their fall spawning run which usually brings some of the biggest fish of the season up into traditionally catchable areas. Similar to the northern fish the muskies in southern reservoirs also make a migration. Having survived the high water temperatures of the summer, the fish make a shallow water migration using the acres of weeds and flooded timber chasing shad on these scenic reservoirs. Both of these migrations have religiously produced some of the biggest fish of the season in both areas, but in this article we are going to outline how to attack the southern end of the musky range. 


Both Tony Grant and I have fished in the south for over 15 years. We have seen a lot and are experienced at fall fishing in the southern reservoirs. We have decided to team up and write an article on southern fishing in the fall. Inviting people to come down and fish these great southern waters. Starting out Tony is going to detail some successful casting presentations and I will follow up on some deadly trolling techniques, both have proven to be great producers. So enjoy and take note, because here is the way the south could be won! (IN THE FALL)

Southern reservoir fishing in the fall can be as good as anywhere in the country, cooling water temps and the massive movement of shad can make muskies easy to locate while the trophy potential is at its highest. Reservoirs like Kentucky’s Cave Run and Green River, Missouri’s Pomme De Terre, or Illinois’ Kincaid and Shelbyville are all similar offering terrific fall muskie action. Unlike on northern waters this fall period is the longest of the year starting from early to mid September all the way into December’s normal 45 to 50 degree water temps, an amazing 100 plus days of fall muskie season. This is an extremely thirst quenching time of the year for musky enthusiast like my clients and I so let me explain how we’ve found our musky pleasure on a variety of southern reservoirs during the fall season.

Casting by far is my preferred presentation whether it’s working deep standing timber or pounding the weed edges on southern reservoirs during the cooling down period in the fall. While shad movement shifts toward the shallows as water temps drop my first location to look for early fall muskies begin in main lake creek arms. Here spotty weed beds and/or wood structure become an excellent target. Keeping an eye on smaller schools of shad darting in and out of these areas and concentrating on the locations that show the most visible bait, I begin casting a small variety of lures. I usually start on the surface with the Grim Reaper Wildcat buzzbait; I’ve found that the smaller (bass style) buzzbaits produce better than conventional muskie topwaters at this time keeping in mind that 4 to 6 inch gizzard and threadfin shad are the southern range muskies main diet at this time of year.

This is more or less a low light presentation I do mostly early and late in the day. As the day progresses I change my presentation to blade baits and rubber. Cowgirls, Showgirls, Llungen Tails, Tri-Glides and Duecetails are my choices for in-lines and 1 & 11/2 oz Grim Reapers and CJ’s for my spinner baits, all have been very productive throughout the entire fall season on most all southern reservoirs. Inside weed and timber edges can not be overlooked, at times these areas may be your best shot at a trophy. On Illinois’ Shelbyville Lake I’ve found the same patterns as my home waters during this early fall period, in both cases presenting your bait as close to shore as possible is essential in standing or submerged timber. As for rubber I have always found great success with Bulldawgs and over the past year or two with Real Fish, Red October tubes as well as Delong’s Kil R Eels and Flying Witches have taken many muskies while the fall colors change. The simple known fact rubber scores in big ways as fall southern waters cool down. Muskies at this time are very opportunistic, heavy pressured areas eventually produce so repetitive cast in the same area is standard processor and quick returns to the same spots often pay off.

As water temps drop into the low 70’s and into the upper sixties on waters with weeds muskie are heavily concentrated on the weed edges. This is when what I call finesse baitcasting is crucial, in short accurate precise cast that keep your lure as close to the edges as possible. Keeping in contact with your bait and knowing where your lure is at all times is essential. At this time rubber out produces most all other baits by far on any of the southern most musky range, presenting rubber here will be your most productive under low light and post frontal conditions if you can keep it close to the weed growth without hanging up in the weeds. A key ingredient in finesse baitcasting is picking up the slack in your line so you can stay in contact with your lure, I like to change my Okuma’s 400 ID’s standard handle with a power handle this simple modification that will make that task much easier. Under the same conditions top waters can also produce well, I’ve found that misty cloudy days have been the best for me and clients. One very important piece of advice I can give is once you have action on top waters during these “perfect days” stay with it, I’ve had many great multiple fish days by recognizing this pattern. Side to side baits like the Jackpot and Phatboy at times can out produce my normal go to topwater baits: Pacemakers, Stompers and Top Raiders have taken many southern fall trophies for many late season anglers. However under high skies a crankbait presentation may just be your best bet, here my favorites are Big Game crankbaits, Deep Invaders and Depth Raiders. While working wood Big Game’s twitched through shoreline lay down timber has proven to be a dynamic fall tactic on all southern reservoir waters. Depth Raiders and Deep Invaders presented through standing timber and off deep weed edges have shown to produce many of the falls giant fish.

In reservoirs timber and creek channels should be a major area you target frequently. During the first PMTT Championship on Kincaid in 1999 my partner Don Phieffer and I put ourselves in a great position to win the event by spending most all of our time working standing timber that lined the old creek channels in a main lake feeder creek. Unfortunately we didn’t win but Gregg Thomas and Dave Grochowski did take the World Championship while we finished third with big fish honors just a few points behind them, however my point being all the top three places where taken on crankbaits from weeds or timber identical to the same patterns Gregg and I have learned on our home waters Kentucky’s reservoirs Cave Run and Green River. Another great example of similarities in most all southern reservoirs weeds or not is a the 2005 IMMT Fall Classic event at Shelbyville, my partner Karen DiPietro and I had shots at 5 fish concentrating on the same bays creek channel in 4 to 5 feet of water. Showgirls and Grim Reaper spinnerbaits enticed all our action which landed us 4th place. Same as Cave Run and Green River these shallow channels that may only be 8 inches or so deeper than the rest of the bay hold multiple fish in a small area when shad are present. As the fall season gets into its later stages in mid to late November into early December lay down timber may just out produce any other technique. Once again larger Big Game crankbaits and Shallow Invaders worked thru and over extending branches attract muskies on most any main lake shoreline. However my favorite spots just might be timber that has fallen just off main lake points and near old river channels that are adjacent to deep water.

A couple of pointers that I will share with you are simple but productive. First in my search for lay down timber it’s just not what you see protruding out of the water, some of my best spots are those that you don’t see. As you do your searching keep a close eye on the first 50 feet of dry shoreline, look for trees without their tops. If you don’t see the treetops visibly either on shore or not look up close to shore and many times you’ll find it submerged underwater. These laydowns many times are overlooked and under fished by most anglers and can produce year after year so make sure you waypoint your GPS here as on your return surroundings could look completely different many times of the year.

As Tony has explained most southern lakes do have a presence of weed growth. Lakes like Cave Run and Kinkaid are great examples of southern lakes that have tremendous weed growth. Other lakes like Green River and Milton Hill are barren of weeds and are primarily timber based lakes. As for me I have spent more time on the weed based lakes in the fall and prefer to fish them. Now lets move on to a completely different presentation that just like casting takes many fall beast on southern waters.

Trolling is something that I know most people are not a big fan of, but regardless of opinion credit has to be given, because it does produce in a lot of situations. The main reason that a lot of people don’t like trolling is because they are doing it wrong. I have always said that you should be just as tired trolling at the end of the day, as if you were casting.Trolling preformed properly is a physical and mental workout that requires commitment by everyone on the boat. The set up is also key especially if multiply rods are permitted. Finally, the control aspect is important knowing where the baits are and where the boat is in relation to the weeds is also vital to success.

First let’s talk set up. Without going into great deal and making things confusing, The setup is easy, I like to use no stretch super braids my personal favorite is Cortland Spectron or Master Braid it has little stretch gives me a good feel as to what the lure is doing. As for reels and good line counter will work, I use Diawa Sea Line LC 27 and LC 47 they are smooth and have a loud clicker. When it comes to rods I like normal graphite casting rods over fiberglass. My reasoning is simple the graphite doesn’t absorb the vibration of the lure like fiberglass so I can see what my lure is doing by looking at the rod tip. I personally like St. Croix Premiers in the 7 to 8 foot range and I am even using the St. Croix Surf Casting rods that measure 10’6″! These are great rods for getting the baits away from the boat, and still having enough hook setting power. A word of caution is to cut the handle on the rod. The standard handle is 28″ which when having two sticking out of the rod holders across from each other almost requires a limbo champion to get around them. I cut the handles to 13″ and they are much more manageable. They are great rods. I would stress to us medium heavy rods instead of heavy action because of the shock absorption from the fish when it strikes, nobody likes fighting a fish on half a rod. This is the basic set that I like. The next thing is finding the fish.

Location can be key, as the water cools in the fall and the shad will begin to migrate from the deeper water into shallow bays and main lake flats. The bays (or hollers’ as they are called in the south) will hold fish first in the fall. All these areas have feeder streams running into them, causing the water temperatures to drop a little faster. These areas can be tough to troll simply because of their size. If it is a big bay that has room for turning then is will be no problem trolling. If the bay has a lot of wood and is small turning can be an issue. Another, area the muskies use is any main lake flat or point. Any piece of structure that jets out into the lake will hold fish and often as it gets later in the year these areas will hold a majority of fish, including a number of good sized ones. All of these areas are areas that have some type of weed growth. Be it deep or shallow if weeds (which in most cases is Milfoil) are present muskies will use them.

Milfoil is the predominant weed in the south, although we are getting some different species to show up 98% of the weeds are Milfoil. Knowing the characteristics of Milfoil is important, like I have written before knowing that it is a “Barrier Weed” causing fish to swim over and/or around is key, especially when trolling. When trolling these southern weeds it becomes pretty obvious that muskies will generally relate to the edges, due to the amount of “matted” weeds. The main goal is to find out how close the fish relate to the edge of the weeds. This position is usually decided by the local weather conditions. A good rule of thumb is pre frontal fish are moving and traveling and not holding tight to the edge, post frontal fish usually are neutral; holding extremely tight moving only on peaks (change of light, moonrise, moonset, increase in wind…). Knowing this helps in trolling, because moving fish allow room for mistakes. They will be moving and more apt to chase a bait. Post frontal fish are holding tight so staying close to the weeds is important.

After establishing that Milfoil is a barrier weed and the fish are relating to the edge then it is important to have some type of GPS in the boat. Personally, I use the Lowrance X-110 this has the 10.5″ screen which offers great split screen viewing of both GPS and sonar. I could write a book on how much I like these units and how to set them up, I even teach a class on how to use a GPS/Sonar at mine and Tony’s “Musky Road Rules” Classes (www.muskyroadrules.com), but all I will say here is that knowing how to use a GPS is extremely handy.Without putting a line in the water go through the area and mark the edges with icons and waypoints. The reason is muskies will relate to any type of turn or dip in the weed edge. These areas are ambush areas. If they are not active and feeding they will often hold in turns, and marking these turns can be the key to catching fish. The best type edge is one that is fairly straight with a lot of big turns that the boat can turn into and still keep the baits where they need to be. Knowing that the turn will be to sharp will help in not fouling all the lures.This is where the preset icons and waypoints come in handy. By following the plotted path the only concern will be the depth at which the lure is running.

How deep the lures are running on a given length of line is a huge part of trolling.Any time a multi rod set is being used knowing where the lures are is important.The mess can be mind blowing especially if running over four lines.This is something that needs to be addressed because every state is different.In Illinois it is three lines per person and in Kentucky it is unlimited so many times I am running six to eight lines! With this many lines knowing where the lures are is extremely important.Depth is critical because the ideal situation is to have the lure running over the weeds or along the edge, it is important to know that with 20′ of line out the lure is running 5′ down.This is good information to know if the weeds come within 6′ of the surface.There is one of two ways to determine lure depth. One is trial and error, meaning take note at what length of line a lure is hitting weeds and keep shorting the line until the lure becomes free, or there is a trolling book out called “Musky Mikes Trolling Secrets” which has the line out to lure depth ratio already finished.It seems to be pretty accurate.

Lures in general are kind of a personal preference. I like a lure that can handle high speeds and track true. Personally, I like all the sizes of Wiley Lures, Leo’s, Lil’ Ernie’s, Tough Shads and Slammer Shads. All of these lures are great at high speeds and can be used at any speed. Even in the fall I like to run in the 4.5 to 5 mph range until the water gets into the lower 50’s. Other lures that work, but at a little slower speed are Baby Depthraiders and Big Game Minnow baits. The Big Game baits can be great but they have to be altered. By heating the end of the bill with a standard lighter, and taking a regular pair of pliers and bending the last quarter of the bill up at a 45 degree angle the lure will not only run deeper it will also track truer. These techniques have been some of my most productive for my clients and I over the years, now I’ll let Tony explain his most productive trolling pattern with a little different approach.

As I mentioned before I prefer to cast but there are many times when that method just won’t but fish in my Frabill, whether it be angler fatigue or just plain stubborn muskies I use trolling as just another tool to contact fish. Under certain circumstances I dig into my spinnerbait box. With a long line approach I present my spinnerbaits just inches under the surface over and along the weed growth depending on lake conditions, I’ll explain. Some year’s southern reservoirs encounter rising water conditions, at these times the once matted surface weeds become submerged a foot or 2, that’s when this over the top spinnerbait approach can become deadly. Whether it is high water or a year where the weeds just don’t make the surface the key is to have enough room for your lure to pass just above or barley tipping the weed tops. With about 90 feet of line out I select 1 or 1 1/2 ounce spinnerbaits, my favorites are Grim Reapers and CJ’s. It seems some days they prefer hair over rubber and Vic versa which seem to only be determined by trying both in the attempt to establish a pattern.

I think rod selection here is a very important, a faster tipped long rod flat out works best, my choice is the 8’6″ Lamiglas model LGM86XH but Gregg’s 8ft Med/Hvy Premier St Croix’s are also a great selection remember that rod length and tip are significant. The longer fast tipped rods allows easy weed clearing from your spinnerbait with just short tight jerks, these style rods also allow your lure to generate much more vibration than heavier shorter rods. While concentrating on weed gaps muskies at this time can be found cruising anywhere over the submerged weeds. This method can also be very productive during years where the weeds stay matted on the surface. Under those conditions I use the same approach only presenting my spinnerbaits just off the weed edge, here unlike the above presentation boat control is crucial keeping your bait as close to the weed edge as possible. Speed under both conditions is very important, I run as slow as possible between 2.5 and 3.4 mph to keep my lure out of the weeds and just under the surface. Look for weeded areas near main lake points and flats in 4 to 8 feet of water. This method nearly gave Gregg & Grocho their third fish at that PMTT Kincaid Championship I mentioned earlier only to loose it boatside. Regardless of the fall conditions long line spinnerbait trolling can be one of your most productive fall southern reservoir techniques when you encounter water temperatures in the low seventies into the mid sixties.

So in recap, when trolling weeds on southern lakes in the fall look for any large bays, flats and/or points that have some type of weed growth. The best type of areas are those that have a nice taper to the weed edge so that the boat can be over the weeds and still keep close to the edge. It is also important to have an edge that is fairly straight without a lot of sharp turns. These edges are easier to troll and offer less problems of putting the bait in the weeds. My ideal situation is to keep the boat positioned where the weeds are just under the boat and still be fairly close to the edge.

Even though this article is based on southern fishing the techniques can be applied anywhere having fished all over most of what we have learned can be used on many different lakes. The trolling is universal with the addition of a few small minor details that might have to change to make things work on the different areas.

Whether trolling or casting southern waters many of the patterns are universal to all. In these shad based waters we have found that the baitfish move in identical ways according to water temperatures. Our findings have also brought us to the conclusion that lures, presentation and location are common. With this long fall period on southern reservoirs in allows many muskie anglers to extend their seasons not only in the spring but well into the years end.


Tony Grant has been chasing muskies for nearly 20 years. As his career started on Kentucky’s Cave Run Lake he has now expanded his guiding to the waters of Wisconsin and Minnesota during the southern muskies dangerously hot summer water temps. In 2005 Tony teamed up with Gregg Thomas to form Musky Road Rules, a series of “Cabin Fever Clinics” and Schools with “On the Water Workshops” across the mid west muskie range. Visit Tony’s sites www.kymuskie.com www.muskiesupnorth.com
www.tonygrantoutdoors.com and www.muskyroadrules.com 

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