Written by: Kip Vieth, Wildwood Float Trips
Excerpted from the new book The Orvis Guide to Muskies on the Fly, by Kip Vieth.
The days begin to get shorter and shorter. Weeds begin to die off. Water temperatures begin to fall, and the sun is lower in the horizon. These are all contributing factors that trigger a muskie into its fall transition. If you keep a fishing diary, this is a great time to reference what the muskies have done in past years. If you don’t keep one, this is a great reason to start. Gathering that data will help during these transition times. Looking at your past experiences on the water can help you stay in the game during these transitions time.
You might ask, How will I know when muskies are starting their transition? The answer: The water you fished last week and moved three fish is now empty. It is really that simple. They have moved, and it is now that the game begins. It’s really kind of like hide-and-seek. You know they can’t be too far. It’s just a matter of finding their new haunt. There is only one thing that really makes muskies move and that is the food supply. The cooler water has also made them more comfortable. They are in a much better mood than they were when the water temperatures were very warm. I like to use this analogy: How hungry are you when it 90 degrees outside? There is a reason Thanksgiving is in November, and it’s not to celebrate the harvest. It’s because people just didn’t want to eat that much food any other time of the year.
If we get a strong cold snap in late summer, it is often a trigger that will charge the muskies up. It’s like someone turned the AC on and they get some well deserved relief from the heat. This can happen well before the fall transition some years. I have been out smallmouth fishing when a cold snap hits. It’s often in late August, well before one would be looking for transitional fish. The muskies seem to be smashing bait all over. The smallmouth fishing stinks, but the muskie bite can be very good. It’s as if they have all this pent-up energy from those long warm days. As soon as it cools, all that energy is released and they begin to go on a frenzy. Keep an eye on the weather forecast this time of year. It can pay off in a big way.
As the bait starts to migrate, the muskies will not be too far behind. Many of the shallow weed beds start to die off as the water temperatures fall. The baitfish have to find a more hospitable area to call home. Baitfish that called the weed beds home in summer, like bluegills and perch, will head to deeper weed lines as the shallow ones die off. They are looking for any cover that they can find. They don’t want to become Mr. Muskie’s next meal. Mr. Muskie knows this and will be waiting for an unsuspecting victim. In the fall, all we are trying to do is intercept the bait as they make their transitions. Muskie are following schools of bait. If we can beat them to the punch, we stack the odds a bit more in our favor. Watching for the signs and knowing your body of water is paramount when it comes to putting together a pattern, no matter what time of year. A good source if you have questions about the baitfish that live in your home water is your local DNR biologist. He or she can help you with a lot of answers to seasonal movements and possible spawning areas for the different baitfish in your body of water.
One of the best places to look for fish in the fall are pinch points. Another great area to look at are dams. This type of water concentrates both fish and bait and can be very productive. They are easy to find, and for a beginner fly angler these are great spots to begin to look for fish. There is in most cases deeper holding water near these areas that a muskie can winter in and remain fat and happy. There is also usually some kind of current involved in these areas. The current can help the angler locate the fish a little easier. The fish will set up on these current seams and wait for baitfish to come by for an easy meal.
Some baitfish spawn in the fall and begin to concentrate and move to their spawning areas. On the bigger waters here in Minnesota, this is one of the best times to be on the water. If you find the baitfish’s spawning area, you can bet there are several large muskies in the area. Northern ciscoes—or as we call them in Minnesota, tullibees—spawn in the fall in rocky reefs in shallower water. They’re a larger baitfish that have a high fat content and make a perfect meal for a muskie that is stocking up for the long winter. Regular ciscoes spawn in shallow gravelly bays. This spawning activity happens later in the fall, but it is a great example of following the food source. In the fall, that is the name of the game. Muskies are eating at a rapid clip and there has to be food nearby.
A river is really not that much different from a lake in the fall. We are still playing the game of follow the bait. The main bait in my area are suckers. As the water temperature drops, they have to move also. The riffles that the suckers called home in the summer have changed. They were an amazing food source all summer, but the cooler water has slowed the food supply and is forcing the suckers to abandon these once-fruitful riffles for slower and deeper water. Simply put, they are moving to their wintering holes. This also causes baitfish to concentrate, just like on a lake.
The cooler water temperatures have also negated the need for the springs with their higher oxygen content. They’re no longer needed to ensure the muskie’s survival. The deep holes and flats adjacent to them are home to most of the bait during the winter. As the baitfish migrate to these holes, the muskies follow. The deeper water protects all the fish from the brutal winter that will soon arrive. The muskies like to set up on the current seams and deep wood that are near these wintering holes. Muskies want to preserve as much energy as they can. The slower water and protected ambush spots are the places to begin looking.
The image on the right above is a good example. The current comes into the bank, making a deep run. You can see the rock bar that comes off of the bank pushing the current back out to the middle of the river. This makes a dead spot with a current seam next to it. Nothing says muskie in the fall more than a spot like this. There is an ample amount of food close by and a deep, slow water trough. This is a spot that a muskie can call home all fall and winter long. To imagine a smaller version of this, just replace the rock bar with a tree or some kind of logjam and you have the same effect. Deepwater ambush spots near seams are where the majority of our fish come from in the fall and early winter here in the Upper Midwest.