by Ryan McMahon
Fall is a time of transition in lakes and rivers of the north. Water temps are falling and both predator and prey are on the move and may be found in places that they haven’t been all year long. In the past when I’ve talked about the fall transition period, people will often question which period of the season, since it is an ever-changing time of the year. One way to put it is that it’s the connective tissue that holds early fall and late fall together which usually ends up being the end of September and beginning of October here in Minnesota. Rather than get scientific with statistics and water temperatures, I have simply started referring to early fall as bucktail time and late fall as big rubber time. Early fall is no time to get cute with the muskies; once the water temps start cooling down from the chilly night air, I bring it to the fish with an aggressive bucktail presentation that involves high speeds. Many fish are in shallow, hard bottom areas like sand flats or rock piles. Their metabolism is still high and therefore they are willing to chase down baits that are moving at high speeds. Speed is a great trigger to get muskies to bite in shallow water. They don’t have as much time to inspect the bait or notice your boat; they get locked in on this fleeting meal and they must react quickly before it’s gone.
Conversely, late fall is a time for large slow moving baits that can be paused and dropped right into the muskies’ strike zone. After the lakes “turn over” and water temps continue to plunge, the fish’s metabolism slows down and it starts looking for areas with large baitfish concentrated in dense schools. These meals have more “bang for the buck” and muskies don’t have to expend as much energy to feed. Typically, I am keying in on spots that have deep weeds or rocks near main parts of the lake. These areas offer good cover or ambush spots for muskies. Large rubber baits like Bulldawgs can be worked slowly and vertically to stay in the strike zone of the predator for a longer period of time.
These two patterns or time periods can offer some great fishing opportunities both for trophies and numbers. However, it’s the in-between or transition period I would like to talk about. This is a time that coincidentally seems to occur during warm stretches of weather before the “turn over” period. Often times these warm stretches of weather yield some of the most beautiful days of the entire year. The thing is warm, calm weather in late September/early October can lead to algae blooms, warming water temps, confused fish, and frustrated anglers.
One of the hardest times to catch muskies, no matter what time of year, is right after you reap the benefits of a “hot” bite. There is nothing better than having the fish figured out and hitting the water for a few days or even weeks at a time with the confidence that you’ll be putting several of them in the net. This is how late August and early September often are for my boat; fun, predictable fishing where the muskies are shallow and eager to tussle. However, this all seems to come to an end at a certain point. Whether it’s the dropping water temperatures hitting a plateau or too many bucktails buzzing by their noses, the muskies seem to quit eating the fast in-line spinners that were so effective just days before. This doesn’t mean that muskies have abandoned the shallows; many times they are still hanging in the same haunts. This is when you must change up and slow down your presentation and give the fish a more erratic look that will entice them to eat.
During the daylight hours of these tough days I find a lot of success in glide baits. Typically, I have the glide baits put away for much of July and August after giving them a good workout in June. With fish in shallow sand and rocks, I like to make long casts and work glide baits far away from the boat. Without good weeds around, the fish don’t have much cover and sometimes seem self-conscious about hunting your bait in the open. Putting distance between your boat and your bait is essential. This isn’t always easy with glide baits. Many glide baits on the market today are very tough to control at long distances from the boat. If your line isn’t coming perfectly straight off the rod, they often times run untrue. If even a slight breeze blows the line to one direction, some of these baits will track to one side every time you “tap” the rod down. I have also had many clients tell me that they don’t like to work glide baits because they can’t get them to swim correctly unless they can see them in the water. I don’t like to hear this because it means that the bait isn’t doing what it needs to be and/or the client doesn’t have confidence in what they are doing. Confidence is somewhat of a necessity in a sport that can be stingy with its rewards.
The Hellhound is one glide bait that I’ve gained ultimate confidence in over the years. It’s a glider that runs very “true.” A simple tap-tap rhythmic motion will have this bait moving perfectly from side to side with very little effort. Of all the glide baits I’ve thrown, it has to be the easiest to work. There is consistency with every one of these plastic baits right out of the box, which is not always the case with other materials. These gliders can be worked at very long distances from the boat which is a big key in getting these shallow water fall transition fish to bite. I know that there are times where a really erratic glider can trigger finicky fish into biting. That really isn’t a problem when it comes to working the Hellhound; just because it runs true doesn’t mean you can’t alter your cadence when you’re retrieving it. Rather than working a bait that is borderline uncontrollable, I’d much rather work one where I can add the erratic twitches manually. I’ve had clients, who admittedly are not that great at working gliders, tell me that the Hellhound is by far the easiest they’ve ever worked. Confidence in your presentation is easy to have when you’re working a Hellhound. Try throwing one next fall when your bucktails only manage lazy follows trailing long behind your bait. Keep a slow moving Hellhound in front of a musky and it’s sure to produce some great fall transition fish.
Another bait to consider throwing in low light or dark conditions during the fall transition period is the Pacemaker. This topwater prop bait is a favorite among some of the best musky fishermen in the world. The unique clacking sound and slow moving crawl on the water’s surface can be just what the muskies are looking for once the sun is down. One of the reasons I like to throw Pacemakers during the fall transition is that the clacking sound of the prop hitting the middle hook can really call in the fish in these shallow, hard bottom areas. I think the sound reverberates more off the rock, gravel, or sand than it would over muck or weeds. Couple this with the fact that this time of year there is plenty of water fowl migrating through the waters of Minnesota and Wisconsin and you’ve got a perfect scenario for the Pacemaker. There is a lot of activity on the surface for which muskies take notice. The slow moving linear retrieve of the Pacemaker can look and sound just like a coot struggling across the surface of the water in the moonlight. This is a perfect meal for a musky that’s been nothing but a lethargic follower during the daylight hours. Don’t be afraid to stick it out a few hours after dark, or even launch your boat before the sun comes up and try to sneak up on a shallow monster with a noisy Pacemaker.
Any time you transition from one pattern to the next it can be tough. This time period in fall can be among the toughest. The Hellhound and Pacemaker have been great tools for me and my clients at this point in the season. I highly recommend giving them a toss next fall!