By: Ryan McMahon
As the date for our In Depth Outdoors musky shoot neared last November, I noticed that all of the local weather people seemed to agree on one thing; it was not going to be very warm on the days we were planning to fish. The local meteorologists hadn’t exactly been batting a thousand this year but they were all pretty sure that the high temperatures would not reach above freezing during the 2 day stretch we planned on hunting muskies. As most fishermen know, there is a big difference between 28 degrees and 36 degrees when you’re out in the boat. Neither temperature is very comfortable on your body, but when the mercury doesn’t rise above 32 degrees our equipment doesn’t always perform like it’s designed to. It’s a constant battle to keep iced up lines and reels doing what you want them to do, but keeping your extremities from freezing may be the biggest concern of all.
This time of year the short cold days and are not only hard on your body and equipment but also your spirits. Late fall is all about the clichéd “one bite”, which in theory would come from the biggest bulked-up fish in the lake that has been eluding you all year. The thought of one last giant triumph before the lakes lock up with ice is what fuels us to battle the frigid conditions and attempt to take advantage of the short musky feeding windows that will surely open up.
That all sounds really good as I write this from the comfort of my warm house but when you’ve fished all day in freezing conditions without a bite, it can be hard to push through the last chilly hours of the day. Often times this last “magic hour” of daylight may be the only active feeding window the day doles out. Sticking it out can be painful but rewarding. Here is the story of how James, Ben, and I endured some less than desirable conditions to put a couple of the season’s last muskies in the net.
The first morning of our two day shoot we were met with an overcast sky and a nasty, relentless north wind that I still haven’t found in my heart to forgive. Everything moves slower in the fall for me when it comes to fishing; boat control, bait presentation and now my body and fingers were following suite in the parking lot as I spooled a Shimano Tekota line counter with 100# braid. We hadn’t even got on the water yet and the wind was already blowing through my bones.
Prior to our outing I’d been practically living out of my boat as I had been guiding up north the week before. Although covered in musky blood and excrement, sucker scales, and various other clutter, my boat is actually a very well-oiled machine when it comes to sucker fishing for muskies in the fall. I have everything where I want it. Now, leading up to our trip I was a little worried that fishing out of a boat foreign to me would be an issue. This anxiety quickly escaped me once I started ambling around James’ spacious Skeeter MX2025.
Dragging suckers is the name of the game, and with the freezing temperatures, it’s all one would want to do. Casting becomes increasingly difficult especially when the temps are hovering right below freezing.
There are a few keys when sucker fishing, the rigging, and the hook set.
Rigging a sucker is pretty easy with the quick strike rigs available on the market today. Stealth tackle makes a great rig called the Hulcano Harness and it’s what I choose to use when dragging suckers. You’ll notice in the video, the rig has one offset hook and it’s crucial to the set up.
Taking the small single lead hook, you’ll stick the hook threw the top lip facing up and this will help to guide the sucker. Next, take one of the trebles and use the bent hook aka the Hulcano hook to scrape off a small patch of scales right behind the sucker’s head, just above the lateral line. You’ll want to just scrape enough scales off where you can sink the bent treble into the flesh so the barb is impaled, facing forwawrd. This will help the hook stay in the sucker and allow it to rip free easier when setting the hook.
The next treble you’ll do the same routine of scraping scales this time about 3 or 4 inches from the base of the tail, below the lateral line and stick the Hulcano hook facing forwards.
This hooking configuration will allow you to achieve the best hooking percentage no matter where the muskie hits the sucker.
When dragging suckers I will put rods in holders on the side gunnels near the back of the boat with the baitcaster reel left open and the clicker on. I will control the boat with the trolling motor from the back deck as I keep the oversized minnows out of the weeds and watch the electronics on the dash. I like to run the lines anywhere from 40 to 70 feet behind the boat depending on water clarity, weed species, wind, etc… When we have a bite, the rod comes out of the holder and the person that will hit the fish grabs it and runs to the front deck while I spin the boat around and run back up to the fish using the trolling motor. As we get closer to the fish we pick up line but never let the musky feel any tension. We are positioning the boat just right. Line angle and length are important. I like anywhere from 15 to 30 feet of line out when we set the hook. I like there to be an approximate angle of 45 degrees. However, the most important thing is that the fish is swimming away from the boat. If the musky is facing the boat it can be really easy to pull the hooks right out of her mouth.
With a bow mount trolling motor, the natural thing is to have the angler with the rod in the front of the boat. I’ll keep the front deck all cleared out and let my clients set the hook and fight the fish up there unless of course the musky runs them around the boat during the fight. So in my boat the front deck is always very clean while the back (my office) is not so much. With all the camera gear and Ben up on the front deck of the Skeeter, we had to conduct all of our business in the back of the boat. This was no problem in the MX2025. James had a back deck extension in the boat that provided even more deck space where we had plenty of room for two guys, a giant net, and one big hook-set.
The first day was dictated by the wind. It was blowing around 20mph for most of the day and was extremely uncomfortable. Initially we moved around a little bit to find fish as I hadn’t been out on the metro lakes for over a week. I was looking for spots with baitfish appearing on the sonar screen just off the weed lines. The baitfish had been hard to find throughout the fall and this day was no exception. I was extremely impressed with the ride of the MX2025 in the rough water and Ben was kind enough to sit between the two consoles with his camera equipment giving us the full windshield effect. After checking a few spots we decided to settle on an old haunt of mine that usually produces late in the year and just so happened to be somewhat out of the wind.
The plan was to work the intricate milfoil weed line as precise and thorough as possible. Ideally, I want to work the boat as close to the weed edge as possible at .6 to .8 mph. I find that if I’m going slower than this the suckers will often times wander side to side and up and down in the water. On the metro lakes I like an active 15” to 16” sucker but not a wanderer. Conversely, if they are dragged around too fast (over 1mph) they will tire out and not have the energy to look attractive enough to a musky. Despite the blustery wind, boat control was not an issue with the Skeeter and all 101 lbs of thrust that the Minnkota Terrova brought with her. I was able to keep the boat where I wanted it and I had my choice of fishing with or into the wind as the MX2025 was not going to be bullied around.
As the afternoon wore on, I think we had all become pretty comfortable with the process and technique we were offering to the muskies. Now we just needed a willing dance partner to lift our spirits and spark some adrenaline in our cold bodies. We had been on the water since about 9am and it took until 4pm to get our first bite. Bobber down! This happened on the straightaway of an outside weed line. I quickly turned the boat around as James cleared the other line out of the way. The bobber was low in the water and out of site but not moving much, it almost felt like the sucker may have been hung up in weeds until the musky made a short run to let me know it was game-on. Patience is a virtue when you have a pick-up like this. You want to gather as much information as you can about the fish that you have latched on to your expensive sucker minnow. It’s nice to get a look at how the musky has a hold of the sucker but this isn’t always possible. Even in clear water the muskies will often times swim down into weeds to find a nice private place to dine on their farm raised meal. I rely a lot on line angle and movement to figure out how deep and which direction the musky is trying to go. This is also where the line counter reel comes in very handy, it’s important to know how much line is out before you deliver your monster hook-set.
With this fish I wasn’t getting a lot of movement out of her. I had the boat right up on top of her but couldn’t get the fish to run away from the boat. I was starting get a little impatient… after all the cameras were rolling. Finally I got some movement away from the boat but there was what almost seemed like a head shake. Oh no! Did she feel some hardware from the Stealth Tackle quick-strike rig? I panicked and set the hook. This was followed by one of the worst feelings you can have in a musky boat; the swing and miss. There was nothing there as I reeled in my sucker-less quick-strike harness. Darn.
After we got another brave soul strapped on and under the bobber we continued down the weed line. I got a little excited as we approached a 90 degree inside corner in the weed edge that has been a big producer in the past. We were traveling south with the wind so as I hung a right hand turn with the boat and started heading to the west, I paused for a moment and let the bobbers get blown right into that 90 degree corner. Boom! Bobber down.
James was up and don’t quote me, but I think he may have admitted to being a little nervous as he told us he hadn’t tangled with a musky in quite some time. We did the same routine with the boat and as we neared the fish, James was letting us know how much line the reel had out 40ft, 35ft, 30ft… As we got right up to the fish we got to see a couple of strong and defined directional changes in the line. We decided to green-light a hook-set the next time she ran away from the boat. We didn’t have to wait long for this. The fish started moving away from the boat, I traded in the terrova foot pedal for the large Frabill net while James loaded up my 8’ Custom X fiberglass rod on what looked like a Peterbilt 18 wheeler.
Fish on! James gave her some drag and fought the fish for a minute or two until I could safely get the net under her. She turned out to be a very healthy fish in the 44” to 45” range. Finally some pay off in the waning minutes on a brutally cold and windy day! It wasn’t a monster but a solid fish that meant business. Two bites in a half hour! This is not uncommon for this time of year. At times it can feel like the muskies have packed up and left the lake altogether and then suddenly they start eating like they haven’t had a meal in a month. These feeding windows usually don’t last very long this time of year so it pays to have confidence in a spot when the do turn on.
Day two started off even colder than day one temperature wise but was more comfortable because the wind finally calmed down and the sun decided to make an appearance. This must have happened sometime over night because the channel at the boat ramp was iced up. The Skeeter was put to work early as it had 1”+ of ice to break through before we could reach open water.
Once we hit open water I was feeling good. The sun was like an old friend I hadn’t seen in while beating down on us. I had a mixture of fresh suckers and old ones that I’d been keeping alive in coolers at my house for about a week. It must have been like a kid going to the water park on a hot day for these suckers when they got dumped into the roomy live well with the oxygenator in the MX2025. They seemed happy in there and I was happy to have remembered my little trout net that I use to scoop them out. That may have been the best 12$ I’ve ever spent.
We started out the morning exploring new spots that we hadn’t fished the day before without any luck. At the tail end of the noon hour with the sun at its apex we decided to head over to the side of the lake where we had our action the previous day. It actually didn’t take long at all before we had a bobber down in another one of those 90 degree corners in the weed line. We did our routine with the boat and I ended up hooking and losing what appeared to be about a 38” musky. The fish was hooked for a while and ended up coming free when it didn’t have much energy left. I wasn’t super excited about that happening but this wasn’t the fish we were after, we had bigger things in mind.
Fast forward about a half hour and 2 inside corners later and you’d find us with our next bobber down. This strike didn’t leave us wondering at all. The bobber went down like jaws ate it and the clicker was screaming. James ended up performing a repeat of the day prior by putting another mid 40” fish in the net. This fish didn’t quite have the belly that the other one had but it made up for it with a bad attitude!
Things were looking good at this point. We had just boated this fish right at the moonrise in a spot identical to our last 2 bites. To me, it seemed like a plan coming together. Now we just needed to get another bite or two in the last magic hour of daylight and all the cold hands and icy lines would be forgotten.
The plan for the rest of the day was to stick to the side of the lake where we’d contacted fish. We only had a few hours left and we felt this gave us the best odds. The weed edges have a lot of ins and outs in this area and we felt if we worked them precisely a sundown bite was almost a sure thing.
This is where sucker fishing can make me a little antsy. There is a lot of sitting waiting and not much you can do to really engage or coax a strike. Time was running short and I was pressing for a bite. I was getting the boat closer and closer to the weeds and every now and then we’d hear the clicker sing to us. This was only the false alarm sound of the sucker getting hung up in the weeds. We’d then have to bring the minnow in and clean it off only to send the icy line right back out. This means we have to hand feed the stiff line back out through the rod while it’s constantly getting hung up on the icy eyes or the reel itself. Tasks like this keep us just busy enough to distract our minds from the cold and enough to keep us from realizing just how beautiful the sunset on an empty metro lake can be in mid-November.
We fished some of my favorite water and did it well in the last moments of the day. I felt pretty good about the water we covered. We just couldn’t get another bite. It’s been a tough year and getting 2 bites a day when the water temps are in the upper 30’s isn’t uncommon even on a good year. You’ve got to take advantage of the bites you get. We batted .500 over the two days and if we were baseball players we would have been first ballot Hall of Famers. Or another way to look at it is that James batted a thousand and I probably would have been sent down to triple A ball after missing that first fish.
However you look at our outing, I think it’s a pretty realistic representation of what late season musky fishing can be like. It’s not all about home runs and state record fish. It’s about working hard and plugging away in bitter weather and being prepared to take advantage of your opportunities. Maybe you’ll get that “one bite” or maybe you’ll get 2 decent fish and spend the day trading fishing stories and enjoying the outdoors like we did.