In his posthumous anthology More Stories of the Old Duck Hunters, the legendary outdoor writer Gordon MacQuarrie tells the tale of a successful, late-season muskie foray on his favorite lake in northern Wisconsin circa 1940s. To his credit, on that particular day, MacQuarrie’s muskie anglers fished with a handmade wooden plug in the shape of a sucker. A“whittled gargoyle” is what he called it, and it fooled a fine, 25-pound November fish. The standard practice in his day, however, was to use a live or dead sucker rigged with a treble hook wire harness. And given a muskie’s love of suckers and other rough fish, it’s a lethal technique that’s accounted for many trophy muskies and more than a few dead ones. In fact, the ritual of muskie fishing with suckers remains an accepted practice on many muskie waters, though thankfully, modern anglers now use a “quick strike” rig to reduce muskie mortality.
Another constant from MacQuarrie’s day is the fact muskies, like many fish species, go on a feeding binge in the fall as they “lardin’ up” before winter. Why they do this is the subject of much speculation, but the truth is muskies continue to grow and feed aggressively in the late fall—often putting on several pounds of weight—right up until ice blankets the water. As noted by former Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager Scot Stewart, “Other than the enormous size of some of the fish, it’s hard to prove there is a fall bite, but it’s definitely there!”
Stewart suggests that more uniform, cool-water temperatures, combined with abundant forage in shallow water and reduced weed growth, create a perfect storm of opportunity for muskie fly fishers. It’s also why he helped establish an extended late season in southern Wisconsin so muskie anglers could take advantage of the late-season bite. Renowned muskie-fishing authority Larry Ramsell agrees with Stewart, but also thinks a few other factors may be at play.
“There’s no doubt muskies feed more frequently in the summer because of warmer water temperatures and higher metabolism rates. But they also sense the need to gorge heavily in the fall to build up fat reserves and egg mass for the winter, and many of their favorite forage species, like ciscoes, spawn in the fall and are easy prey for the muskie and muskie hunter.”
Some anglers have also gone so far as to suggest a muskie’s fall feeding binge is akin to hyperphagia—the increased appetite of certain species, including humans, in the fall—to intensify caloric intake before winter’s arrival. Bears, for instance, increase food consumption in the fall prior to hibernation by as much as 20,000 calories per day! Although hard evidence for fish hyperphagia is scarce, it remains enticing “food for thought” as we ponder why muskies feed so heavily late in the year.
With all this anecdotal evidence, and reams of data showing anglers consistently taking the largest fish by weight in the fall season, it’s obvious autumn is the prime time for big fish. But what’s been most interesting to me over the years is that despite the cold water temperatures and often inclement angling conditions, muskie fly fishing can still be extremely effective right up until ice forms.
I distinctly remember my first late-fall muskie forays in the Upper Midwest. Most anglers on the water at that time of year had never seen a guy casting a fly for muskies, much less on lakes and rivers where drowning suckers was the norm. But the fish I caught made it well worth enduring frozen fingers and guides. As legendary Canadian muskie guide Mike Lazarus notes, “Late-season muskies can definitely be more passive aggressive than summer fish, but what I’ve seen fishing the fly is absolutely shocking. My fish seem to lose their minds with certain patterns and retrieves when they won’t hit anything else. And, instead of the normal follows and boils, we get solid eats indicating the fly is exactly what they want at the time.”
Why this is happening remains a mystery to Lazarus and myself, but what is certain is that this pattern holds from Canada to the prime fisheries of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York. Moreover, this hyperaggressive behavior also holds true through the late fall and winter months in states like Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, and others where muskie season remains open all year long.
Winds of Change
A final yet critical factor that should play into your fall muskie–fly fishing strategy has to do with extreme seasonal- and water-temperature changes. Falling water temperatures are a key trigger that for whatever reason, makes fall muskies especially aggressive and hungry, in contrast to more temperamental game fish species. Moreover, it seems the faster water temperatures fall, the better the fishing. Ask any muskie angler, and he or she will tell you about a slow bite that instantly turned on, thanks to a major cold front, especially if it’s accompanied by a northeast wind. It’s a well-known phenomenon, but it seems to happen later and later each year.
Attribute it to what you will, the past decade has included some warmer-than-normal fall months that fostered warm water temperatures and later-than-normal frosts and freezes. In fact, according to the NOAA, the fall of 2016 was the warmest on record in the United States, especially in the Midwest. As a result, fall muskie fishing today is based much more on short- and long-range weather forecasts for a given body of water or region and much less on the calendar.
In practical terms, this means during some years the traditional, prime fall muskie-fishing months of September and October may extend until the snow falls in November and December (wherever the muskie-angling season remains open) to take full advantage of cold water and falling temperatures. Hence, keeping an eye on the forecast (and an open calendar) is now a key component of any fall muskie trip.
Late Season Muskie Flies
Just one look at a conventional muskie angler’s lure selection will tell you plenty about your best fly choices for late season muskies. Among hundreds on the market, two of the most popular today are the “Double Cowgirl,” in-line, spinner on steroids and the “Bull Dawg,” soft plastic, swimbait. Both are characterized by their enormous 10- to 12-inch lengths and uncanny ability to attract large muskies using a combination of noise, vibration, and tantalizing action.
While your late season muskie flies need not be quite this big (or hard to cast), what is important is you fish a fly with a large, forage imitating profile and color that moves in such a way as to trigger a fish to eat. Large, 5- to 8-inch long, synthetic streamers in color combinations of white, black, brown, orange, and chartreuse (imitating preferred fall forage like suckers, ciscoes, perch, and walleye) are normally your best bet. Fished on a sink-tip line for the best action and depth control, these streamer patterns are “relatively” easy to cast all day.
In addition, it’s also worth fishing large, articulated streamer patterns with water pushing wool or deer hair heads to create more strike-inducing, side-to-side action during the retrieve. Weighted eyes, cones, or heads are another variation that allows you to jig or jerk the fly in a manner that triggers fish when nothing else works. As with any species, it’s always best to vary your depth, speed and retrieve until you find what works for the ever moody, muskellunge.
The ritual of fall muskie fishing is as old as the sport itself. Like brilliant autumn colors, football games, and the World Series, it’s what many anglers instinctively think of with the approach of winter. While suckers and large lures have always been the preferred go-to baits, today’s dedicated muskie fly fishers know that (in the right hands) an artificial fly can also be highly effective, and may lead to the biggest fish of the season. Luck always plays a big role in muskie fishing, but there are definite natural occurrences that can increase your odds in an already challenging sport. You may not have the patience to wait for the next supermoon, but consider timing your fall muskie ventures with the appearance of normal full and new moons.
The phenomenon of the “hot fall bite” is not just another fish tale. Spend time on the water when autumn conditions are ideal, even when your rod guides are freezing. It’s well worth your time in this crazy sport, and you may just find the fish of a lifetime!
Robert Tomes is the author of Muskie on the Fly (Wild River Press, 2008), 25 Best Places: Fly Fishing for Pike and 25 Best Places: Fly Fishing for Muskie (Stonefly Press, 2015). When he’s not chasing muskies or teaching the next generation of fly fishers on Chicago’s historic North Pond Casting Pier (www.northpondcastingpier.com), his passion for fly fishing takes him around the globe in search of the next bite.