Preparing for Cold Weather Musky!

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As the first frost of September signals the start of fall, some fishermen look to winterize their boat. Not musky anglers, we’ve waited all season for the ‘real’ musky season to start. While not for everyone, the fall season can be very rewarding. As the musky’s follow the spawning bait fish up into the shallows; they gorge themselves and put on the winter ‘feedbag’. To put it simply, this is the season of giants.  

 FIRST THINGS FIRST

Safety cannot be overstated this time of year. As water temps dip into the 50’s and ultimately down in the 40’s, nobody wants to fall in. A slip into the water off the deck in July might be embarrassing; in late October it can be deadly. Please wear a life jacket at all times. The self-inflate style are great, they are light and are comfortable to wear. 

 As the boat deck gets slippery with ice and snow be extra cautious with your footing. Bring extra clothes, a couple pairs of gloves and mitts, and ski goggles can help with cold boat rides. Hand and foot warmer pads can save a day as well. Most lakes will have very little—to no boat traffic and most cottage owners are long gone. We usually transition into our winter floater ice fishing suits by late October. That’s actually a good way to think of it; ice fishing from a boat.  Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.  

 GEARING UP

Fall weather can be unforgiving, so plan ahead. Most musky anglers have reels designed for fall trolling and live bait applications. Line counter reels, such as Okuma’s Cold Water series are ideal for the harsh weather of late autumn. They allow you to precisely let out the correct amount of line needed for either trolling or using live suckers. Generally, we spool up with 100lb+ super braid for fall. 36” (or longer) fluorocarbon trolling leaders are a must; to avoid having the fish roll up on the bait and cut the line with their teeth or gill plates. There are many styles of quick-set live bait rigs; I personally prefer the nose clip style; Fuzzy’s Clip and Go from Shumway Baits. 

Many companies make musky rods specifically for trolling, but for the average angler a 8’, or longer heavy power rod will suffice. Bringing an extra reel is always a good idea, once the air temp drops below freezing, your reel will freeze causing a whole host of issues.  Finally, high quality hook cutters are absolutely necessity this time of year, cold hands and sharp hooks don’t mix.  

 CAST, TROLL OR LIVE BAIT? 

Most musky anglers will cast until the water and air temps drop to the point that ice forms on the lines and reels. In northwestern Ontario, that can be mid to late October or earlier some years. Some will start to troll in September, and troll the whole fall season. This can certainly be a very productive technique. 

As water temps get into the 40’s the bait fish; whitefish and Cisco will start to stage for their spawn on clean gravel and rock. This is the time for the live sucker rig. For a lot of musky anglers this is the time of year they have been waiting for. Slow trolling, approximately at 1mph for a live 14-18” sucker around bait fish is a surefire way to get a musky to strike.  

 WHAT ARE WE LOOKING FOR?

With the onset of colder water comes the need for all fish species to feed prior to winter. Predatory fish increasingly follow schools of bait fish; primarily those that are rich in fat and protein such as Cisco, whitefish and suckers.  These schools of bait fish will be found around main lake points, gravel bars and shallows. The key is clean areas, with little vegetation.  

Casting these areas can be a viable option, however most musky will hold just off these areas in open water. Thus, trolling the adjacent area, over open water can really produce. Using side imaging on your electronics can really help locate musky off the sides of your boat. Using extra-large planer boards also will help spread your baits out away from the boat. In a lot of cases you’re looking to contact bottom with your bait this time of year, to trigger a reaction strike. Those that troll will target these types of spots right up until freeze up.  

SCHOOLING MUSKY

When the bait fish begin the actual spawn, it’s not uncommon to see the musky school up around them. On 2D sonar you can easily pick the large arcs out from the smaller bait fish. Pulling live suckers behind the boat, on bobbers or with some weight to get them down in the water column will get the musky’s to follow and grab them. With your reels bail open, and the line clickers on, you’ll hear the fish pull line out as it tries to swim away with your sucker. Generally speaking, with the quick-set sucker rig; once you know the direction the musky is swimming with your sucker, you can set the hook right in the opposite direction. The idea is the hook harness breaks free of the sucker and imbeds in the fish’s mouth.  

The live sucker bite usually lasts right up to freeze up, or when the weather is too cold to be able to rig suckers. I should also mention in my home area live suckers will cost $15-$20 each, so you have to understand what you’re getting into up front.  

TERMINAL TACKLE

New baits show up every season in the musky world, but no segment has grabbed attention like the crankbait market.  With all the major companies offering cool and unique colour schemes, to the boutique builders making bona fide works of art.  

There is something for everyone, from standards like the “Jake”, “Grandma” and “Believer” at $30 to $40 each to custom cranks from “BR Baits” and “Clarkie Custom Baits” that will set you back $125 or more; only to touch the surface. And as trends go, size matters. Baits that seemed large at 9” years ago now seem small compared to the 14” and 16” baits of today.  

Quick set sucker rigs come in three main styles. All have some type of attachment point, nose clip, rubber band through the nose or a small circle hook. They have one or two hook harnesses that you hook into each side of the sucker. Personal preference will vary greatly between anglers, personally I like the simplicity of the nose clip.  

HARDCORE

The real hardcore guys will break ice in front of the boat launch and troll the main lake for a shot at the last open water giant of the season.  I encourage everyone to try late season musky fishing. In most cases those not familiar with trolling large baits or live sucker rigs should reach out to musky angler friends or guides for help.  

Please keep safety a priority, especially this time of year.  

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About Author

Glenn & Kyla McDonald reside in Northwestern Ontario with their three beautiful daughters. Kyla manages the famous Bobby’s Sport Shop in Vermilion Bay, ON and together they operate Buck Tails Guide Service. They fish together and have a strong presence in the angling industry through pro-staff positions with many well known brands. They use their influence to promote conservation and are strong supporters of youth involvement in fishing. Their own children have already developed a passion for the open water.

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