By Joe Shead
Fall is arguably the best time of year to catch muskies. The fish feed heavily before ice-up, and perhaps the most irresistible bait for fall muskies is live suckers.
Although jerkbaits, crankbaits, swimbaits, and other lures can be potent fall muskie medicine, muskies come unglued for suckers, and there are days when multiple fish will take down suckers while lures go untouched. Maybe it’s because fish see a lot of lures. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing like live bait. Whatever the reason, fall muskies are suckers for suckers.
I cut my muskie-fishing teeth in Wisconsin, where anglers can fish three lines apiece. My go-to fall presentation was casting jerkbaits such as Suicks while dragging a sucker under a bobber behind the boat. Some days, the suckers were so effective that we stopped casting, giving our arms a rest and just letting the suckers do the work.
With only one line allowed per person, Minnesota anglers don’t have that luxury. Sitting all day while watching a bobber is boring, unless you have a good book or a movie downloaded on your iPad. But there are ways to fish suckers without getting bored.
You and a partner can alternate casting and bobber watching, keeping one sucker in the water at all times while one person casts artificials. Or you could work over each point, hump, weed edge, or other structure thoroughly with lures, then drift back through with suckers to pick up any fish that were unwilling to hit wood, plastic, or rubber.
Some days, after pitching heavy lures for hours, I’m just plain ready for a break, so drifting a sucker while resting isn’t a bad alternative.
Suckers come into their own when water temperatures drop and lakes turn over. At this time, I often find active muskies that are using shallow weeds, rocky points, or other classic shallow structure. A sucker set 3 to 5 feet below a baseball-sized bobber is often all it takes to get a bite. If muskies are slightly deeper, you may need to use a slip-bobber setup.
I generally like to get the sucker away from the boat, but it’s not necessary. Sometimes a fish following a lure to the boat will see the real deal and veer off for the live bait. Often, muskies that are in a biting mood will bite no matter what. I’ve had them nearly crash into my boat to grab a lure being pulled from the water or take down a sucker that had drifted right up against the motor.
Let’s talk about rigging. Fifty years ago, guys waited 45 minutes after a muskie hit a live sucker to let it swallow the bait. They weren’t planning to release those fish! That doesn’t fly today, when there’s a 54-inch size limit and most anglers practice catch and release anyway.
You’ll want to employ a quick-strike rig that allows you to set the hook immediately, before the muskie can swallow the sucker. There are many varieties commercially available, or you can make your own. Some styles have a single hook that goes into the sucker and two treble hooks that go in the back. Other styles have a safety-pin clip that goes through the sucker’s nostrils, which prolongs the sucker’s life. Both styles are effective.
Sometimes, a single hook of the treble hook is bent backwards. You impale the sucker with this hook, which allows the sucker to break away when you set the hook for better hooksets.
When I’m fishing in shallow water, I usually set the bobber about 3 feet above the sucker. I incorporate a pair of heavy egg sinkers to keep the bait down, especially when I’m drifting on windy days. Then I rig the sucker on the harness, set the rod in a holder, open the bail, and leave the clicker on to notify me of a bite.
Alternatively, some anglers troll with suckers, incorporating quick-strike rigs with safety-pin harnesses. Add some weight to keep the bait down, prop the rod in a holder, and work the boat along fishy structure.
One tip: Make sure you get a sucker harness that fits the sucker. Most bait shops in muskie country carry “decoy” suckers that measure 10 to 12 inches. In some areas, you can find suckers up to 24 inches. They aren’t cheap, and they’re hard to find, but if you’re looking to catch a real trophy, they might be just the ticket.
Propping a rod in a holder and just watching a bobber can be boring or relaxing, depending on your mood. But there’s no doubt that when the clicker on your reel starts screaming like a scene from Jaws, sucker fishing goes from boring to thrilling in a heartbeat!
If the fishing is slow this fall or your arms are weary from pitching heavy baits with stout rods, give yourself a break and soak a sucker. You’ll be glad you did.