The coming of fall is like a giant reset button for the muskie-fishing season. Regardless of how well or poorly your muskie outings went earlier in the year, everything changes as water temperatures slide toward freeze-up.
Whether you troll for the giants of Lake of the Woods, drag live bait along a weed edge of Lake Miltona, lob giant soft plastics over the breaklines of a southern lake, or combine these tactics at some point in between, big muskies will be on the prowl. A full belly is their goal, and for this reason there are anglers who completely ignore muskie fishing until the waters cool.
As sure as photos of big muskies will fly around the Internet this fall, there is the certainty that some anglers will get into trouble. It may be as simple as needing a tow to get their rig out of an icy boat landing, or it may be as desperate as an angler trying to pull his numbing body back into his boat after an unexpected fall into the water. Fall muskie fishing requires a mindset of endurance and demands the forethought to prepare for an unfortunate circumstance.
No matter how good the fishing is, you won’t be able to enjoy it much if you’re cold. The rule of thumb for late-fall muskie fishermen has always been to dress as if you were going duck hunting or planning to sit in a deer stand. The problem with this is that anglers may overdress and thus become clumsy. Dressing in layers really helps, because not only will you be warmer, but you also can shed clothing if the afternoon sun does its job.
A quality rain suit is terrific for fall fishing because it will keep you dry, and it will block the wind. A couple of layers beneath may be all you need to stay warm. The newer, ultra-thin insulated suits will be even better in extreme cold.
I have yet to find a suitable glove or mitten that offers the dexterity to handle a baitcasting reel yet keeps my hands warm and dry. Spooling your reel with one of the newer Spectra-braided lines helps because the line brings back minimal water compared with the dacron lines of old. And, with near-zero stretch, these new lines yield a better hookset.
Still, your hands will get cold. It’s a good idea to bring a propane heater with you in the boat. Leave it running under a console and you can retreat to this warming station as necessary. If you don’t have a propane heater, get a pair of big chopper mitts and keep them handy, but dry. A chemical hand warmer placed in each mitten works wonders.
Because the DNR and lake associations pull docks in late fall, some anglers may recommend fishing larger lakes with better landings, but I hate to be denied a water I want to fish. To deal with this, I bring two pairs of boots. One is a set of knee-high rubber boots or hip boots to wear while launching my boat after docks are pulled. After I push the boat away from shore and have climbed aboard, I switch to ankle-high, waterproof, insulated boots with some kind of lugged bottom. They are less clumsy than conventional pac boots, and the aggressive sole helps prevent slippage on icy carpeting.
Another helpful tool is a spade, or at least a camp shovel, stowed in the truck. Water dripping off boats and trailers causes boat landings to ice up in late fall, and even four-wheel-drive trucks may not be enough to yank a heavy boat from the water. And, you never know when a lakefront property owner will rut the lakebed while trying to pull a giant pontoon boat out for the winter with a grocery-getter. The shovel allows you to spread sand over the ice or fill ruts as necessary.
A pair of ski goggles or one of the newer face shields can be a godsend when driving the boat in cold conditions. The first inclination is to duck under a windshield or turn your back to the wind, but remember there may be others on the water, too. Row-trollers are in their element in late fall, but they’re also in small boats that can be hard to see. Clear visibility makes late fall fishing safer for everyone.
It is advisable to wear a personal flotation device or one of the newer inflatable models because they’ll keep you on the surface should you fall in. They will not, however, help you reach the safety of the boat. Icy water will quickly waterlog your clothing and sap your strength, so climbing back into the boat may be nearly impossible, even with a buddy trying to help. Many newer boats are equipped with egress ladders, but the easiest way back in the boat is to stand on your outboard’s anti-cavitation plate and cling to the motor while you tilt it upward with the trim/tilt switch. You can literally ride the motor out of the water.
For some reason, a picture of an angler bundled against the cold – often with a drip hanging from his nose – while holding a slab of a fall muskie always gets my heart going. To be certain of good photos, always take your camera indoors at night to warm, even if it is stored in a waterproof case. Cold drains camera batteries. It also will seep into the camera lens, which may fog internally when it’s time to take a picture – and there’s nothing you can do about it except take the camera back indoors to warm it up. Each year I see photos of anglers holding giant fish that would be terrific if they hadn’t been ruined by a fogged lens.
If you’re ready for it, you may catch the muskie of a lifetime in the next few weeks, because fall fishing really is as good as everyone says.