Late Fall Muskies in Southern
Author: gary.engberg | Date: 12.1.2016
Late October, the month of November and now December are my favorite months of the year to muskie fish. I can remember growing up and fishing for muskies every fall with my grandfather in Wisconsin’s Vilas County. In those days, we always traveled to northern Wisconsin and concentrated our fishing efforts on Vilas and Oneida Counties after the drive from northern Illinois. Those memories are from decades ago. But now, especially with the stocking of muskies and the higher cost of about everything else one buys, has forced me to check out and fish the numerous lakes in southern Wisconsin that have good populations of quality muskies that weren’t prevalent in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Here, in the Upper Midwest, and particularly in Wisconsin, fall means two things. Well, maybe three things and they are fishing, hunting, and the Green Bay Packers. The leaves have fallen, the nights are finally getting colder, and the lakes are beginning to turnover or have turned depending upon their size and how far up in Wisconsin you are. For serious anglers, fall means one thing and that is muskie fishing and the quest for the biggest fish of the year.
Fall is the time when muskies realize that winter is approaching and their metabolism is gradually slowing down as the water gets colder. By natural instinct, muskies know that it is now the time of the year to feed heavily and bulk up for the hard water months which is in the very near future.
Due to the stocking of the Wisconsin DNR and the practice of catch and release, muskies are now prevalent and thriving in many lakes and a few rivers in southern and south-central Wisconsin. No longer do you have to drive hundreds of miles to northern Wisconsin or Minnesota to find muskies. Now, you have a good chance of catching a trophy in many lakes even in the southern part of the state. Now, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources regularly stocks numerous lakes in the southern part of the state with muskie fingerlings from the Thompson State Fish Hatchery in Spooner. The last decade has also seen the stocking of muskie fingerlings from the Minnesota strain of Leech Lake muskies in the Madison Chain of Lakes in an effort to find the most economical and best fish strain for the state. The stocking has been going on for well over a decade. But, it will take a few more years before a decision can be made on the best muskie strain for stocking in Wisconsin’s waters. Most of the fish that are now stocked are PIT (passive-integrated-transponders) tagged which means that they are injected with a 12 to 14-millimeter inductor encapsulated in silicon glass. Each tag gives a reading when a “wand” is passed over the fish and from the readings, a technician can write down the number of the muskie, its measurables, and the age of the fish captured during the spring netting. The PIT tags will allow muskies to be tracked for years to come and comparing the different strains. This method has been used successfully in sturgeon research in the state too. The Leech Lake muskie strain is known for having rapid growth and producing a larger fish than the Thompson strain of muskies. Only time will tell what is the better strain for Wisconsin’s waters?
The Leech Lake strain muskies stocked have been paid for by private groups like Muskies Inc., while the Thompson strain comes from our own hatchery in the state. Recently, Wisconsin muskies were stocked in the Madison lakes and soon another batch of Leech Lake muskies were stocked in the Madison Chain in the early fall. Fall is the best time for stocking, since it gives the 12 to 15 inch fingerlings a better chance of survival. All fish stocked this fall have been checked for VHS or viral hemorrhagic septicemia at the Spooner Hatchery before being transferred to any Wisconsin waters.
Now that December is here, this is the last time of the year to fish for muskies. If you check statistics, you can see that this is also the BEST time of the year for a trophy fish. By now, most lakes in the southern part of Wisconsin have turned over and this means that you can find fish at about any depth and find fish. Don’t be afraid of fishing shallow water because if baitfish and forage are shallow, the muskies will be close behind them. If you can find any GREEN weeds, fish them hard because they are a magnet for muskies and all game fish in the fall.
Another method for finding fall muskies is to slowly motor around the lake that you’re fishing and look on your electronics for balls of baitfish with big hooks or marks close to the baitfish. These large marks should be muskies! Also, try scoping and fishing any deep water structure that is close to any adjoining shallow water.
If you fail to find shallow water muskies, start looking at deep water structure like humps, islands, and rock bars for fish in the lakes main basin. At times, some of the largest muskies may move deeper especially if they can find ANY green vegetation. Often, you can find sand grass in water that is a little deeper. Big muskies will also suspend over deeper water when chasing schools of baitfish. As an example, big female muskies may be down only 10 to 15 feet in water that is 25 or 30 feet deep. This is why it is necessary and of utmost importance to have quality electronics like those made by Lowrance and Humminbird. The electronics allow you to see the baitfish schools and also the BIG hooks or marks that the muskie makes.
Some of the southern Wisconsin lakes that I’m familiar with and have good-size muskies and muskie fishing are; Lake Monona, Lake Wabesa, Lake Wisconsin, Twin Valley Lake, Lake Redstone, Swan Lake, Okauchee Lake, Pewaukee Lake, and the Wisconsin River. Another body of water that is huge in size and holds big muskies is the Petenwell Flowage which is formed by the damming of the Wisconsin River. You can find maps for all of these waters and I recommend those made by Mapping Specialists of Madison. They make a top-notch map with depth, contours, lake structure, and tips clearly and accurately marked. You also can get a chip for Wisconsin waters from LakeMaster which is the way to go, if your electronics will take the chip.
There are many purists who refuse to use any live bait even in the fall. But, there are times when a muskie wants live bait. The last thing a muskie angler wants to do is kill a muskie, no matter what the size of the fish. If you want to use a sucker or have one close to the boat for follows, then you must use a quick set rig (Bait Rigs and Smity Baits make good ones), so that you can drive the hook home into the muskie’s mouth and not the stomach or deep in the throat. The “old days” of lighting a cigar or cigarette and smoking it before you set the hook are long gone and for good reasons. Today, muskie hunters show great respect for the resource by teaching catch and release. If you want a big fish mounted, then see a taxidermist and get a graphite reproduction. The cost may be higher, but the thrill of releasing a big muskie is well worth it!
If I’m using suckers, and I do at times, I try to choose a black and dark sucker about 14 to 16 inches long. If I’m after big fish, I want a big sucker. It is nothing for a muskie to grab a 2 or 3 pound walleye, so use big bait for big fish come fall. Now, all of the fish of the year have grown and with the approaching winter big muskies want big suckers and big baits. Have a couple of suckers rigged on quick set rigs near the boat at different depths for follow-ups. Adding a rubber-core sinker will get your suckers a little deeper for muskies that you don’t see.
By now, as I said earlier, most lakes in Wisconsin have turned-over with the water temperature the same from top to bottom. You should be casting shallow running crankbaits over and outside any green weeds that you can find. It’s possible to catch muskies on about anything that you have in your tackle box. Famous northern Wisconsin Hall of Fame guide, Russ Smith (715)-356-5565), says to try everything that you have be it; bucktails, crankbaits, jerkbaits, spoons, spinners, and big muskie jigs with 6 to 8 inch plastic tails. Always have a good color assortment and vary your retrieves till you find one the works and that muskies like. Keep experimenting and trying different lures and colors till you find active fish.
I’ve given you the things to look for, some lakes to fish, and the tactics to use. Now it’s up to you to do a little research on the DNR websites and others for added information. Muskies are thriving in southern Wisconsin and this means that anglers can stay closer to home, save some money, and also have a chance of catching a big muskie. Good luck!
Guides; Wally Banfi, (608)-644-9823, Ron Barefield, (608)-838-8756, and Gary Engberg, (608)-795-4208.
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