Killer Late-Fall Musky Presentations and Considerations on Early IceBy Josh Lantz - October 28, 2021
In lakes and other waters where they exist, muskies are firmly on the feed, getting fat on whatever they can ambush - fish, muskrats, turtles, you name it. And amidst the drone of the distant leaf blowers, musky anglers are doing their best to capitalize, hoping to catch the biggest musky of their life before the waters freeze and they turn toward hard-water pursuits.
Late-Fall Musky Presentations
Like so many others employed at St. Croix Rod in Park Falls, Wisconsin, St. Croix Engineering Supervisor, Gavin Falk, is a passionate angler with a special penchant for Esox masquinongy. He says a one-two punch of casting and retrieving big rubber while offering live suckers near the boat is a dynamite combo for boating fat, fall muskies.
Falk says feeding suckers to muskies is a hoot. "You never know how fish are going to react to your setups. Sometimes it's a cat-and-mouse game with a series of calculated moves and other times it's like watching a full-on horror movie," he says. "I typically run a quick-strike set up under a big float out behind the boat with the bait suspended up higher in the water for boat-shy fish. Then I'll usually also run one or two down rods - depending on the fishing regulations - at different depths. Those rods just go into the rod holders and fish straight down under the boat."
Falk makes his own sucker rigs but says anglers can buy pre-made wire or fluorocarbon versions at just about any bait and tackle store in musky country. He fishes live suckers on a variety of St. Croix rods - including the company's extremely popular Mojo Musky Series models - but says the 8' heavy power, moderate action Premier Glass Musky Rod (PGM80HM) was made for this purpose. "Some days the higher sucker tends to get hammered and other days the fish want the deeper baits," he adds. "It's always surprising how some days the fish will come up five or even ten feet to hit a bait and other times you have to drop it right down to their face in order to get them to react, but all of this is what makes sucker fishing so much fun. Once they eat it, the Premier Glass rod has plenty of backbone to bury the hook and a moderate action that does a great job of minimizing stresses on the rod, line, terminal tackle, and the angler when a giant fish is going crazy so close to the boat."
As mentioned, Falk often prefers to cast big rubber baits during late fall, often while soaking live suckers. "The primary benefit to throwing large rubber baits in fall is having the ability to fish down to the fish," he says. "Once they move out of the weeds, muskies are often suspended near schools of bait in open water or relating to deep rock and wood along steep drop-offs. Large rubber baits can be counted down then fished slowly with a pull-pause technique to get deep muskies to strike."
Falk's favorite fall rubber baits are Pounder Bulldawgs, Lake X B52's, Magnum Swimmin' Dawgs, and 12" mid-depth Red October Tubes. "The Pounders I typically run deeper, especially when I'm marking fish around that 15' depth on the graph. B52's work best when the fish are running in 10' or less. I'll give them a couple seconds to hang between pulls; those baits suspend really well. I like Magnum Swimmin' Dawgs when conditions are fairly flat because they present a very natural-looking presentation. And when I really start seeing suckers swimming around like crazy with muskies chasing them, tubes present the slightly more erratic presentation the fish want under those circumstances."
Best-known, perhaps, for his work with Lindner Media, Jeremy Smith has worked in nearly every facet of the fishing industry. He agrees with Falk's assessment on the efficacy of live suckers and big rubber in the late fall.
"I always have big rubber baits in the boat late in the year... mostly Pounder Bulldawgs and Magnum Medusas," Smith says. "The key is getting them down to depth, and you need to slow them way down to do that." Smith says the fish do respond to a faster retrieve, but there's some tackle witchcraft that's required. "Chaos Tackle makes Deep Threat Weights; I can put another ounce of weight on these baits so I can fish them faster while keeping them at the proper depth." Smith says the Premier Musky Rubber Rod (PM90XHF) is the perfect tool for casting and retrieving these heavy baits. He pairs the rod with 100-pound braid on a Daiwa Prorex 8.1:1 reel. "Fast gearing pays off in order to get tight and hit the fish quickly. Also, these big rubber baits have an annoying tendency to foul, so don't try to snap cast; be smooth and lob them so the bait doesn't tumble, then slow them down with your thumb to turn them over before they land."
Early IceThe hard-water faithful never really stop thinking about ice fishing, but once the frost is on the pumpkins, they're kicking preparations into high gear. Smith is one of those anglers.
"I'm still enjoying the special open-water opportunities that late fall provides, but that's only going to last a few more weeks," Smith says. "Very soon I'll be venturing out on the ice, so I'm committing some time to assembling and attending to my gear."
Smith points to safety as the primary consideration for all anglers during the early-ice period. "There are all kinds of resources and guidelines out there to help anglers make good decisions and ultimately prevent tragedies," Smith says. "We're all excited, but follow the simple mantra, 'when in doubt, don't go out' and when you do, make sure you take every safety precaution. Don't go alone, wear your ice picks and a PFD or a float suit. Early ice provides some great bites, but they aren't worth risking your life over."
Smith says early-ice anglers can expect good fishing in shallow weed bays. "These areas usually have safe ice first, and those shallow weeds can be full of panfish, bass, and other species." Smith likes to fish such areas with Rippin' Raps and Slab Raps. "Big crappies and largemouths love these presentations, and big gills will hit them, too," he says. "If I'm exclusively fishing for bluegills, I'll also use tungsten jigs tipped with spikes (maggots) or a wax worm."
"As far as tactics go, my first priority during early ice is finding good, safe ice," he says. "I spud my way out and pack pretty light. I pull a small, flip-over shelter for extra gear and to spread the weight out. I'm generally out fishing on the first two to four inches of ice - whatever I feel comfortable walking on - looking for that green vegetation that's still producing oxygen. I catch fish in these spots every year."
Rud says the water is generally pretty clean and visibility is usually really good from inside a shelter. "I like the shelter to keep things dark so I can sight fish the crappies, bluegills, and perch. The 24" Mojo Ice ultra-light is a great tool for this kind of sight fishing. I didn't need a spring bobber or anything on it. It has a quick tip that translates bites well with a good backbone that delivers the power necessary for bigger panfish."