The pursuit of muskellunge in the late fall is not for everyone. Sometimes, it’s not for me. Yet it’s one of the very best times to catch a giant fish. And the later it gets in open water, the higher the odds of hooking a tank.
My first fall muskie fishing experiences took place many years ago, on Lake of the Woods. Back then I’d travelled from my home in Thunder Bay to fish with my friend Bill Friday, of Kenora. Initially our fall trips were done in late September when the weather was cool, but not really cold.
To catch the fish we primarily trolled a lure called a Believer. They came in both jointed and solid models, sporting patterns like skunk, clown, and bumblebee. The thing looked like miniature platypus and thumped in the water like nobody’s business. The lake temperatures were still relatively warm in late September and that meant every once in a while we’d set the hook on a muskie and have it leap clear out of the water behind us. Seeing a 48 inch fish trying to swing a Believer out of its yap in mid air is not a sight you soon forget.
At some point, however, we started fishing later in the season. Late October, to be precise. I’m not exactly sure why this happened, but doing the trip a month later had a big impact on the conditions we were fishing in. The leaves were gone, as were any fair-weather fisherman. It was also much colder just being on the water and that meant wearing survival suits, winter boots and wool caps. Yet the fishing was good, and the muskie seemed fatter and cleaner than the fish caught just a month earlier.
Trolling remained the main tactic, and that meant a lot of sitting and holding on to a large, mildly vibrating muskie rod as you worked current breaks, islands, and main lake points. A thermos of coffee became a must.
The largest downside of fishing later into the fall became quite clear one memorable morning in late October, 1996. The meteorologist had been calling for “winter weather” on the evening news and he was not wrong. When Friday and I stepped out the door the following morning, Christmas had arrived.
The whole area had been blanketed with 6 inches of snow. To make matters even worse, the temperature had dropped about 15 degrees Celsius and everything had frozen up. When we got to the boat, it was half filled with snow. We literally shoveled out the boat, revealing our muskie rods with reels almost completely frozen up.
When we did get on the water, it was frigid. A howling north wind turned the lake into an angry cauldron. Amazingly, despite all this, we fished most of the day and actually boated a nice muskie in the afternoon. It was a day I won’t forget.
More recently, I’ve been fishing Rainy Lake and area with my buddy from Fort Frances, Jeff Steinke. Our trip usually falls in or around Halloween and it has been a successful teaming for both of us. We are always dressed for bad weather and I’m not sure there is a single muskie hero shot of me without a toque on my head. Our latest trip actually featured weather that was a bit warmer than normal. When I say warmer I mean 5°C as opposed to 0°C.
Our first day of fishing this trip was the most exciting. I hooked a fish within the first ten minutes of the troll and played it right to the boat. Just as Steinke was getting the oversized net out, the muskie made a small jump and threw the hook. Heartbreak! It was a lovely fish of about 40 inches.
We continued trolling and both of us missed screamer strikes that tore line off our reels. How a muskie can bite a lure with three super sharp trebles and not get hooked is beyond me. Then as it approached noon Steinke had a hard hit on his deep diving Ernie bait and set the hook. “I think I’ve got a good one here,” he said. After a few initial head shakes, the fish came to the surface about 75 feet away. “Big muskie!” I said, scrambling for the net.
For whatever reason, once on the surface, this muskie chose not to fight. Steinke basically reeled the fish right into the waiting mesh. Only then did it decide to start carrying on but it was too late. This muskellunge was a brute, a giant. It was long and incredibly thick. The tape read just under 54 inches.
“That’s why we troll the fall,” said Steinke. I took off my glove and gave him a fist bump.
It’s that kind of magic – despite some adversity – that will keep me coming back for more late fall muskie fishing.