By Joe Bucher
As summer transitions to fall, cold fronts begin to occur more frequently. Also, the subtly changing photoperiod (shortening of daylight) begins to change leaf color on trees and forest plants. These signs indicate a transition that is sure to trigger a good muskie bite. The key is to know where these fish are hanging out and what is most apt to excite them.
Some of my favorite spots to search for late-summer and early fall muskies are off-shore reefs, large, shallow flats, and long bars. While a variety of lures are likely to work when conditions are promising, my best tactic is usually a “bump-a-grind” technique with an appropriate crankbait. This has been exceptionally good for me when other lures fail. When I say the appropriate crankbait, I mean to select a diver that attains a certain depth relative to the crest or tops of the structure where you’re casting or trolling.
For example, some bars and reefs that top out in the 1- to 4- foot range attract muskies come fall. Obviously, you’ll need a shallow-running crankbait. Any structure deeper than that will call for a lure that reaches the tops and sides of structure.
The bump-and-grind trick essentially involves trying to make contact with the lake bottom or vegetation tops while running the lure close to cover-tight fish. This is something I learned many years ago as a young bass angler, and it’s every bit as deadly on muskies as it is for big walleyes and pike. Long casts are a good idea when trying to work over large flats and big reef systems, but sometimes a shortened cast works best in real snaggy spots where a lot of debris or weeds exist.
I successfully demonstrated this modified short cast bump-and-grind on a fall TV episode with Chas Martin while casting to a steep-breaking shoreline with sunken brush and fallen trees. Long casts would have increased my chances of getting hung up a lot. Instead, short casts enabled me to thoroughly fish all the sections of branch structure around the submerged wood without fouling.
Martin was casting jerkbaits with no takers, yet a trusty old jointed crankbait triggered strikes from muskies buried inside the submerged trees. The effectiveness of this technique is a real eye-opener when muskies bury themselves inside cover and won’t swim out to chase down other lures.
Another revealing trick that is part of this overall tactic is to take a pair of pliers and bend all of your treble hook points inward slightly. In fact, I would suggest replacing your favorite crankbait hooks with specialized short-shanked, wide-beaked trebles that have an exaggerated inward bend to the hook points for even more efficient travel through wood.
More on this specialized tactic for cranking submerged wood: Focus your attention on the vibration of the lure as it travels through the water and be prepared to stop as soon as the bait collides with anything. This allows it to rise up a count or two, and that will enable you to maneuver the bait dangerously close to snags, and of course this is where cover-tight muskies are most apt to be positioned.
That bump, grind, rise, and resume action creates an unpredictability that improves strike chances. It takes a while to master a tactic like this and works much better with customized trebles, but the results can be multiple muskie scores while other presentations draw a complete blank.
During really windy, bluebird, post-frontal conditions, I’ve experienced some incredible catches doing the bump-and-grind with shallow-running jointed crankbaits over high-rising rock reefs normally fished with in-line spinners, topwater baits, and floating, diving jerkbaits. Frankly, this technique has been a killer for me and has accounted for some outstanding trophies.
Boat control is always a challenge in big waves near hazardous rocks. Even after you hook a fish, you have to be careful so you don’t end up crashing into the rocks. Spot-Lock GPS positioning on trolling motors can really come in handy in this situation. Engage this feature as soon as you hook a lunker in big waves to keep you off the rocks.
Finally, don’t leave no matter how bad the bite has been previously. A fishless day can be changed as light wanes.
Surprisingly, really big muskies seem to show up on tough-bite days during the last hour of daylight, as well as the first hour of darkness. I’m certain this is the only time lunkers feed during tough conditions.
Even on the worst of days, a single muskie opportunity is bound to present itself between sunset and total darkness. Before you put the boat on the trailer or pull up to the dock, always hit a high-confidence spot on your way home at twilight.