Muskies on the edge of winter

Fall muskie fishermen never argue with Mother Nature during
those years when the ice arrives later than normal. Fishing rivers
for late fall muskies is one way to extend the season even a bit
further.

River fishing for muskies late in the fall is a matter of
needing only a stout rod or two and a couple of suckers. There is
plenty of debate on what size a sucker should be, but experience
has shown that medium and even smaller suckers do catch big river
muskies.

Throwing lures in late fall can have its drawbacks. One problem
is ice in the guides. Another is keeping your hands warm. A heater
helps, wool helps and space-age clothing helps, but still it is
cold. Sometimes, there is never enough coffee or clothing. A third
reason is the simple fact that baitfish are of more interest to the
feeding muskies.

The only essential rig one needs is a quick-set rig. There are
different versions, but most include a single nose hook and some
system of one or two treble hooks that can be rigged in the dorsal
fin, side or tail of the sucker. Seven-strand wire typically
connects the entire rig.

Quick-strike rigs offer the fish a better chance of survival
upon release because the hooks and sucker are not swallowed, as is
the case with the single sucker hook. Nor does the angler have to
wait 20 to 40 minutes to set the hook. Remember, it’s cold.

Some years ago, winter was coming hard the last week of muskie
fishing and once again a small tongue of dark water stayed open up
from the river landing below Clam Lake on the West Fork of the
Chippewa. The rain fell harder and started to freeze. By the time
the landing came into view, the snow began to fall. By this time,
most people go home. Yet upriver a one bend where several fish had
avoided my lures all summer stood as still and quiet as a numb
statue. It looked like fish.

The better part of valor they say is courage, so after pulling
on neoprene waders and several layers of coats, the suckers boarded
the canoe and the day began. It was going to be a tough, but
short,-trip.

Several strokes into the dark waters of the Chippewa began the
towing a small sucker set to swim behind the canoe with a little
slack in the line. The reel was set on free-spool, just in case.
This time of year, it helps to fish familiar spots, even those that
rejected you earlier in the season. Over one such spot, the line
slowly spooled off the reel. A muskie had come for a meal.

Some fish will turn the sucker and begin to feed. Others take
their time and sometimes seem to wander with the bait. One way to
tell the difference is to see how the fish is taking line from the
reel. If the fish is pulling line, it has not yet settled down to
feed. If the fish is tight on the line, it is beginning to turn the
sucker so give it a few minutes. This muskie ran and began to feed
as the line stopped its downstream travel and became tight. It was
time. With a good heave, the hooks grabbed hold of the muskie. The
fight was to be short one. The muskie measured 38 inches and
displayed the deep olive colors muskies have at this time of
year.

With the fish released and a new sucker harnessed, it was back
up the river. The worst weather one could have expected came like a
runaway freight train. A strong, low, howling and arguing wind
descended from the trees and asked the river to finally give up her
last uncovered water. The canoe rocked. When the snow suddenly
stopped, the reel recoiled as a steady stream of line raced
upstream and under the ice. It was a big fish.

For 20 minutes, the fish ran and stopped, not showing any sign
of turning the sucker or feeling the hook. It went deeper under the
ice. Finally, the line tightened a bit. For the first time, a
battle with a muskie was being defined by ice and weather. A
sharply set hook began the struggle. Attempting to break a path
through the ice and hold the fish, the canoe rammed ahead with a
one-handed stroke of the paddle as the other hand kept a tight
line. The ice cracked and halted the canoe. It was too thick.

The muskie pulled and pulled again. With no other choice, our
contest became a tug of war as the drag pulled against the fish,
while the canoe paddle stroked back into the open the water, with
the rod haphazardly held in one elbow and against a frozen aluminum
cross-member.

Whether it was dumb luck or fate, the muskie found one small
opening and rocketed through a small skim of ice as it leaped into
the cold wind, falling back into the shattered-glass surface. It
relented its tactical position, playing out into open water to
finish our duel. There we faced each other. Quietly, it came into
the side of the canoe with only one slap of water directed into a
numb and unsmiling face, showing its disgust for hooks and lines.
It was a fraction more than 40 inches.

The landing could not have come fast enough as images of a hot
running engine and a roaring heater followed each paddle stroke.
With the canoe loaded and a Thermos bottle cracked open, a glance
at the river revealed only a small of open water. In a few minutes,
that would also be gone. The season was over. The stars twinkled
above a blaze red and orange horizon as the highway met the gravel
road. Another season was finished. It was time to go home.

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