Dress Warm, Keep It Simple, And Fish Hard!
By Joe Bucher
It was 4:20 p.m. in mid November. The air temp was now a balmy 22 degrees and the water temp held steady at 41. The snow was coming down so hard that I could barely make out the shoreline as I eased the boat along yet another deep trolling pass. Dusk was quickly approaching and I realized that this would probably be the last opportunity before total darkness set in. I immediately put all my effort into making this approach as perfect as possible while watching my rod tip telegraph its signal back to me as to how the bait was working and whether I was making any bottom contact or not.
I’d been fishing this area now for over two weeks and had the spot pretty much wired. The head sized rocks that dominated this steep breaking shore were unique to this spot alone. For the most part, the rest of this lake was dominated by flatter sandy terrain and sparse weeds that grew in bands near the primary breakline. But this spot had no sand, no weeds, and no extended flats to speak of. Instead, it contained rocks, gravel, and subtle minor underwater points. These small underwater points of rock, gravel and scattered big boulders were deep, topping out no shallower than 12 feet, and were the real key holding spots of big muskies whenever they really became active. Hopefully, one more active musky would be on one of these points.
As the sonar unit’s signal intensified and began to rise, I immediately swung the boat into an outward angle away from the shoreline. The first underwater point was now just in front of me and I wanted to troll the DepthRaider off its outermost tip. In addition, the drastic boat turn would create a digging action on the lure as well as a drastic directional change. If any musky was following the bait, this maneuver might trigger a strike.
The rod tip immediately responded with a vigorous increased vibration as the increased boat speed created by the sudden turn drove the DepthRaider deeper. Moments later, the rhythmic vibration of the free running deep diver was suddenly interrupted by a bouncing motion at the rod tip signaling violent collisions with the hard rocky bottom. This is a critical time in any trolling pass since one has to both work the boat with precision while making sure the lure does not snag up on a rock crevice nor get bogged down with any debris on the diving lip. Essentially, a big part of you is devoted to precise boat control while the other is making sure the lure is working perfectly during this most critical time. Collectively, you are trying to make both the boat and the lure work in unison – something trollers appreciate and understand with a passion.
I intensely watched the rod tip transmit information. I’m bouncing bottom alright. The diving lip is now ticking gravel indicated by the short rhythmic taps at the rod tip. Without warning the rod suddenly dips down in a deep bend, and the drag starts slipping line. Sure enough, the diving lip has wedged in a big rock crevice and I’m snagged. Immediately, I point the rod towards the lure in order to create some slack allowing the buoyant floating deep diver a chance to back itself out of trouble. I quickly test checked my attempt by pulling forward on the rod tip to see if the lure freed itself. The immediate intense vibration at the rod tip told me “YES” I was successful.
Within seconds the lure had recontacted bottom creating that same reaction at the rod tip. Still ticking gravel with occasional rock. Ooh, now the crankbait was going over yet another deep boulder, as the rod tip bounced violently, only this time it wasn’t jammed up. Moments later the rod tip resumed its rhythmic vibe – the lure had cleared bottom and was now traveling over a breakline and a depth change. As a habit, I immediately ripped the rod forward hard in order to clear any possible debris that could be clinging to the bait’s diving lip. I also followed that up with a drop back in the rod in order to allow the lure to float up a few feet to further clear any clinging bottom garbage. In most cases, this cleans the lure perfectly and also creates a possible strike triggering action.
As soon as I realized the lure had reached the end of the point and deep open water, I immediately forced the outboard into a deep turn in the opposing direction back towards the shoreline. My strategy here was to walk that deep diver up and down these points , but also to follow the underwater contour changes indicated by both my sonar unit and the information I was getting from the lure collisions with bottom. So far, I was successfully traveling along my intended path.
Temporarily taking my eye off the lure, I glanced up to get a bearing on the shoreline and then I quickly referred to my sonar as I instinctively turned the boat accordingly. For a moment I was thinking of how pleased I was with my boat control efforts in spite of the strong wind and wave action pounding the boat inward, when my right arm holding the rod was suddenly jerked backwards. The rod bent double coupled with a slight slippage in the drag. Fish on!
Immediately, I reversed course, slamming the outboard back the other way forcing the boat away from the shoreline and out over open water. Instead of reeling, I simply kept the outboard in gear and let the long eight foot St. Croix combined with the boat momentum beat this bruiser through the initial part of the battle. The strong wind and wave action forced me to keep this part of the battle plan up longer than I would otherwise. Once I was safely away from the shoreline, I eased off on the throttle and began to pick up line, but the battle continued at a strong intense level. This fish was not coming up and not giving much ground.
It took a good five minutes before anything changed. Eventually, the fish began to give in and I was able to retrieve line and close the distance. But, just when I thought the rest of this fight was going to be easy, the big fish suddenly ripped line from the reel testing the drag one more time. Finally, I got the fish near the surface, slipped the net under it and could relish in a late fall victory on a big fish. This one pushed the measuring tape a shade past 49 inches and tipped the scales at 36 pounds. What a way to finish the season.
Admittedly, there something extra special about tagging a big fish like this one in real cold weather with snow on the ground in the late fall when the majority of other anglers have already hung it up. I can’t put a finger on why this is, but those of you who do venture out in to the frigid elements at this time of year know exactly what I am talking about. It can be so cold that you simply ache while you fish from the cold. Your body is buried in heavy winter wear and your feet are encased in thick heavy pack boots. You have to wear stocking caps and thinsulate gloves. Your hands are never warm. Your tackle is always freezing up. So is everything around the boat including the steering systems on your outboard. Most of the time it is just plain brutal. But the rewards can be worth all the physical sacrifices and that’s why some of us do it.
I spent the majority of this article telling a true story, and taking my time to detail how it all unfolded. This included the amount of time spent on a typical outing – this fish hit at the very end of a long fruitless day. The simplicity of the method used – trolling with deep diving crankbaits, and the areas that seem to be most productive – steep breaking banks with rocks. I also attempted to depict how to make these trolling passes most effective – precision passes, bouncing bottom with occasional turns. Finally, I also mentioned how one needs to dress and what to expect if you’re going to fish during the late fall – ice fishing apparel and winter like conditions.
I think it is important to end it all there. As tough and as brutal as late fall musky fishing can be most of the time, I sincerely feel that it is vitally important to simplify late fall musky hunting strategy as much as possible in order to be successful. This is not a time to be running all over the lake, running and gunning spots with bucktail while wearing a short sleeve shirt. If you fish were I do, it is doubtful that you’ll see many weather opportunities like this anyway by mid November. Air temps in the 20’s and 30’s are more the norm. Snow squalls and strong winds are standard. This all adds up to a tough day on the water. If you keep it simple and prepare for the worst, you’ll most often enjoy the day and have a successful trip. Once in a while, you’ll even bag multiple muskies.
While many Wisconsin and Pennsylvania anglers prefer to livebait fish during this time period, I am a troller at this juncture. Like many of our eastern U.S. musky comrades, I learned the value of deep crankbait trolling for cold water lunkers long ago and feel it is an equally productive method where allowed. And, it is allowed in the majority of states and provinces that we fish including Canada’s Ontario district.
The first and primary key to success with late fall muskies is to locate an area that holds ‘em at this time of year. The next step is to lock in the most productive depths they prefer on that given body of water as well as the individual spots they prefer to work when active. Once you’ve done that, it becomes a very simple exercise. Dress warm. Always take more clothing than you think you need. In fact, it’s a good idea to keep extra hats, gloves and other apparel on board just in case. Keep it simple. Choose one area and fish with one method that you are confident in. Once you have success with that method, tweak your approach and dial in the various idiosyncracies needed in order to bag fish time and time again. Finally, fish hard. While you might tag a fish or two with quick outings, you’re definitely going to up your odds if you spend as much time on the water as possible. While the majority of muskies seem to hit during mid day hours at that time of year, I have taken some of my biggest ones at the very end of the day, so you really never know. Dress warm, keep it simple and fish hard. No matter where you fish, these are the simple keys to success with late fall muskies.