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Offbeat Fall Tactics

By Bob Turgeon

 

Fall fishing is … well, different. October through ice-up in the upper Midwest is the time for the real biggies. The food bag is on and the big females are starting to put on the weight required to foster egg growth over the winter months. There are a number of patterns that catch fish during the fall cool-down but here are a few non-traditional ones you should explore that can put fish in the boat when all else fails. These tactics are proven big fish producers — no experiments here — they work!

Pattern: High Speed Trolling

Lure: Double-13 in-line spinners
Timing: Mid-fall, orange leaves, deteriorating weed growth, post-turnover.

The story: A few years back I was lucky to get a handmade Musky Mayhem “Super Model” to test before they hit the open market. My results casting were eye-opening, but taking a lure that proved to be a big fish producer and pulling it at speeds that cannot be obtained by mere mortals while casting was even more impressive. As the weed growth started to deteriorate areas which were previously unfishable due to surface clutter become perfect to target muskies that were still using the weedy areas of the lake. Areas with fishable water over the weed tops in any depth are perfect for this high-speed presentation. Ease in covering miles of water is one of the most significant benefits to this tactic.

The equipment is your normal casting or trolling gear with a few adjustments. My most productive speeds are in the 4.5 to 5 mph range and that can put a heavy toll on tackle with the hard-pulling No. 13 blades. The most important item is a quality reel spooled with 100-pound test superline and a good drag. I use my normal casting reel but back the drag tension way off so that ripping the rod or a quick acceleration of the boat pulls out a bit of line. Something has to give when even a small musky slams a lure at 5 mph and that is why the drag setting is critical. The violent strike that often occurs usually hooks the fish on its own as momentum does the work, but too tight a drag will cause even the strongest superlines to break under the sudden shock — so in this case less is more.

Line twist can be a real headache so attaching a keel of sorts goes a long way to solving the problem. There are a number of options and most involve a bit of handiwork using bucktail or leader wire and egg sinkers. You can either add the leader-style keel in place of your existing leader or snap/split ring the free-hanging or keel style sinker to the rear ring of your swivel to eliminate twist. Even though the flaring blades make the lure surprisingly weedless the keel weights pick up and/or deflect some weeds that could foul the blades, giving you more fishing between lure cleanings. I use 1- to 1 1/2-ounce egg sinkers to build my keels and use anywhere from one to eight ounces to keep the lure at the depth I desire. Experiment with different weight and find what works for your own unique situation. Another option for precise depth control is to use Larry Dahlberg’s downrigger-style setup on a Power Pole. A release clip holds the main line and the Power Pole is dropped to the desired depth. A tiny keel to eliminate twist and you can put your lure exactly were you want it, especially on deeper edges and breaklines.

Usually I hold the rod while trolling over weeds so I can lift, drop, snap, or swing to either side, ridding the lure of weeds or simply manipulating the rod tip to get the lure around or above heavier weed growth. I prefer running the lure about a cast length or slightly longer behind the boat — not very “techie” by trolling definitions but it seems to be about right. Running the boat above submerged weeds I make a series of long S-turns at 4 to 5 1/2 mph over the weed tops trying to keep my lure out and away from the propwash. Keeping your lure high above the weeds will involve adding some throttle and/or lifting the rod tip when the lure is on the inside part of the turn. Often the sudden acceleration as you transition out of the turn will trigger a strike. Remember, you won’t see many follows trolling in this manner so speed changes and an occasional rip of the rod MUST be part of your technique to trigger unseen fish. Keep your thumb on the spool to get a little more tension for the strike and then let the drag do the work as the boat slows.

After you’ve hooked up, apply steady pressure with the rod tip and smoothly work in the fish in by turning the reel handle. This is the best process for keeping your trophy hooked up and getting it to the net. Of course you can also use this trolling system to work deeper weed edges, over rocks and open water. No matter how you apply it there is something about large blades at high speeds that muskies can’t seem to resist.

Pattern: Current
Areas/Neckdowns

Details:As water temperatures drop in the fall, fish of all sizes and species move from summer to winter locations; of course not all at once and not all at the same time. Commonly they pass through narrow areas where islands, points, river channels, even roadways and bridges define the boundaries of bays, main lake basins — places where bodies of water connect (see illustration, Page 35). When the winds kick in, considerable amounts of wind-generated current can be created in these neckdowns. As the fish migrate around the lake these high current areas can be virtual fish magnets for all species from the bottom of the food chain on up. Muskies will commonly hold in the general area and move into the neckdown to feed. Wind-generated current is loaded with oxygen, usually has reduced visibility and the current itself has edges and seams that our top-line predator can exploit.

Location: Not all neckdowns are created equal, the best ones have a number of common features. A larger body of water with some depth narrowing down rapidly will concentrate water flow at a greater rate than one with gentler transitions. The neckdown itself can be quite shallow as fish in current seem quite comfortable in the shallower depths. Reduced visibility comes into play and helps as well. Hard bottom is also a key — mucky bottom generally indicates poor current flow so look for areas with sand, gravel or rock bottom, the more varied the better. Deep water close by is a real plus; think of the neckdown as the dinner table and the nearby deep water as the living room. While a fish may eat a meal easily obtained in the living room it will usually go to the dining room to eat.

After identifying an area with potential, consider wind direction, duration and strength when deciding to fish the area. Take a lake map with your areas of high potential marked and place a pen or similar on the map in the direction of the wind to help you decide what areas to fish on a given day. The wind must be of sufficient velocity to move water. You are looking for a large basin of water being pushed downwind into a small gap that has the right contour features as described above.

Presentations are pretty straight forward. Muskies using these areas are there to eat and my preferred 1-2-3 punch is usually a Super Model, a Bull Dawg or other large plastic, or a rapidly-worked glider like the Phantom or Hellhound. At times the fish may show a preference for a lure style — especially on pressured waters — but usually timing is the key. Be there first when the fish moves in to eat and your lure will get bit.

The smaller-but-no-less-important details: Give the wind enough time to begin moving the water, creating current. On calmer days or before large amounts of current are generated work the adjacent areas — fish the living room not the dinning room. Identify seams or speed changes in the current itself, as aggressive fish will usually be in the highest current area or just out of it in the slack water created by bottom or shoreline contours. Make sure you concentrate on these areas. If you are seeing fish in and around the area without being able to trigger a strike consider an evening outing. After dark, current is less of a consideration. The muskies in the area may simply be using the cover of darkness to feed or the preferred forage may become active after the sun sets, setting up the dinner table. After dark it is especially critical to follow up every cast with a quality figure-8 and be ready at all times for the strike.

Pattern: Cisco Spawn

For hardy musky anglers, the cisco spawn is awaited with anticipation and hopes for the largest fish of the season. Large numbers of the open water bruisers that suspend all summer, feeding on the high-fat, girth-enhancing ciscoes, move into predicable areas along with those baitfish as they go through their spawning ritual. Of course, structure-dwelling muskies join in for the feast as well.

The dominant patterns (for artificial lures) during the cisco-spawning period usually involve either trolling or casting large minnow-style lures or slow rolling and/or ripping large soft plastic lures like the Bull Dawg, Medussa and their relatives on or just off of the deep edges adjacent to spawning areas. Ciscoes tend to stage just off the edges of the areas they use for spawning — these will usually have adjacent deep water and reefs that top out shallower than 10 feet with hard bottom content that is usually gravel or rock.

Fellow Minnesota guide Travis Frank waits all year to exploit the spawning ciscoes’ process of moving up on top of the structure under the cover of darkness. When Travis is fishing during the spawn he commonly positions his boat so his casts will land on top of the reef and then he does what most do not in the fall — he burns rubber. “I’m not afraid to get right up on top at any time of day or stage of the spawn. Muskies will stage on the structure in anticipation of baitfish movement, will be there during the actual spawn and some will linger after the ciscoes have completed spawning and moved off.” Travis’ reasoning for going shallow is simple: “The fish on top of the structure tend to be more aggressive and the shallower the structure tops out the better,” noting significant catches in less than two feet of water in 40 degree water. The fish may not be shallow all the time but when they move up they tend to be the most aggressive fish in the packs that patrol the area.

Schools of ciscoes can be incredibly dense and one of the challenges of fishing the spawn is to make your lure stand out from the pack. Hot colors, rips and speed changes are all used by anglers to differentiate what they are presenting from potentially thousands of easy meals. Travis figured a musky can catch any small fish that swims, so why not show them something different — throw speed into the mix and get that extra trigger, even in sub-40-degree water. Hot colors stand out and seem to be the most successful. The lures he considers the most successful are swimbaits that can handle high speeds like the Shadzilla; big plastics, his favorite being the Pounder Bull Dawg; jointed shallow crankbaits and an occasional cast with a Double Cowgirl. Big speed, big profile and hot colors are the preferred recipe. If you are not finding the action off the edge, make a move up shallow.Power-Ripping Super LuresThe story: I was out fishing on a day off with PMTT competitor, guide and all-around musky addict John Hoyer. From the back of the boat I hear a grunt and a splash like he fell in and a series of grunts. The pattern repeats itself broken only by the words “here comes one.” After the third follow and noting that the fish have been ignoring my considerably-smaller Pounder-sized offering I start to agree with John — these fish want a REALLY big lure. I snap on a 14-inch Jake and start the process of ripping in the large lure. At the end of our late afternoon outing we had released 46- and 51-inch muskies and were mourning an even bigger one that slashed at but missed the hooks on the Mammoth Curly Sue that John was throwing from start to finish.

Snap on a supersized lure like the 14-inch Jake, Giant Suzy, two-pound Bull Dawg, etc. Choose a hot color and retrieve with a violent series of rips from splashdown all the way in and finish with at least a couple turns of the figure-8 or oval at the boat. Casting these lures is not for everyone so slow trolling them and employing the same violent rips is a great way to employ a tactic sure to get the biggest fish’s attention with less effort on the anglers’ part. No lightweights allowed regarding gear. The rod should be in the 8-foot-6 range or, better yet, 9-foot and longer, XH or XXH in power. Anything less will not transmit the rapid acceleration to rip the lure and trigger the response you are looking for. Reels that can hold up are critical so mine tend to be of the light saltwater variety, Shimano 700TE and 16 series Trinidad models work well for me. Light-duty reels will not hold up. As Hoyer says: “It’s like setting the hook 20 times on every cast.” This is not a play for everyone but at times it seems to be THE tactic that will actually trigger fall giants that have ignored standard offerings. Cast or troll with big rips, use the biggest lures available and you may see the biggest fish of your life … hopefully with the lure  T-boned in its jaws.

For more about Minnesota guide Bob Turgeon, visit www.fishwithbob.com.

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