The Fall Migration


There was a blustery and cold northwest wind. Every time we turned the boat into the wind the spray from a wave crashing into the side got someone wet, and ice crystals were beginning to form on the boat floor. It was a perfect November muskie day. We had been trolling for hours with no results, but with conditions near perfect and bait stacked up along the breakline, we knew it was just a matter of time. After a few more hours, the silence was interrupted with the screaming of the drag from the reel.

Turning around, it seemed like forever before we all realized which rod was pounding from the thunderous muskie strike. Fortunately, it was my turn and I grabbed the rod. After sitting and driving the boat in the cold for several hours, my muscles were now slow to respond to the change in motion, and the battle was now magnified—initially, you always feel handicapped until your body catches up and adrenaline takes over.

The fish stayed deep and the big waves amplified every headshake and kept my Shimano rod doubled over. After a few minutes, the beast then approached and my boat partner netted the giant. We took a few photographs, and within a couple minutes the 52-inch beast was swimming away to fight again another day. Hi-fives were plentiful in the boat after that as another great fall memory on the water was created.

That is fall muskie fishing at its finest—where the water temperatures drop and the freeze approaches and muskies make a migration toward spawning areas and stage adjacent to them. Once located, these areas can be magnets for this species and each day can bring more into the area. It seems as the water temperatures drop more fish tend to load into the spot. It should be pretty easy to locate and catch these concentrated groups of muskies, but that’s not always the case.

First, you need to locate the aforementioned potential spawning areas. You can look in large, shallow bays, areas adjacent to deep water or large incoming creeks or rivers with flats in front of them. This is when checking with your local DNR can help, as they are usually willing to point you in the direction where muskies have been known to spawn. One thing to remember is that they don’t know all the spawning areas, so don’t ignore locations that appear to be a “natural” spawning area, even if it’s not mentioned as one.

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Once you have located these waters, you need to troll the adjacent breakline or drop-off, learning the various ins and outs of these potential holding areas. Pay close attention to deeper projections toward deeper water or the inverse, which is an area where the deeper water swings tighter to the spawning area.

The next step is trying to get the muskies to bite and establishing the right depth. With the water temperatures in the mid-40s or colder in November, the muskies aren’t doing a lot of moving, as they are finally near their wintering area adjacent to the spawning grounds. If there is significant bait in the area, they may stay there for a prolonged period. Their movements become more “vertical” in the water column when feeding, especially during shorter feeding windows, rather than wandering everywhere to eat. Therefore, getting them to bite can be difficult, and this is why trolling is so effective at this time. You simply always have a lure in the water, and trolling accomplishes that. Keep fishing slowly in multiple depths and make multiple passes in the staging areas.

Once you catch a muskie, you have not only found the key depth, but may have located a precise spot where you can catch multiple fish. I have several lakes I fish in fall that have steep breaklines adjacent to a large flat that’s the size of a football field, and the majority of muskies are caught from the same three or four specific spots every year. And remember, GPS waypoints are gold in late fall.

My top trolling lures at this time are straight-model DepthRaiders and 9-inch ShallowRaiders. Trolling speeds are slower at 1.8 to 3 mph. And as a general rule in stained water, target depths of 12 to 18 feet, and in clear water focus on depths of 15 to 28. Keep trolling back and forth along the breakline and try to make contact with deeper projections. Also, if there is baitfish concentrated in a particular area, spend more time there.

In November and into next month you really can’t cover a lot of water with the shorter days and the shorter feeding window for this species. Fortunately, you don’t have to search far if you know where the spawning areas are located. Keep your baits in the water, keep experimenting and you’ll strike late-fall gold.