Sep 10, 2018

Finding the perfect fall musky

A few guidelines for selecting the best lakes and the techniques to help land your trophy musky

By Andy Mack

After casting for what seemed like hours, I take a little break and begin to daydream. The brisk fall air combined with an early morning wake-up to go duck hunting is catching up to me.

Colorful leaves dot the waters surface.  A silent loon, now in her winter colors, slowly floats by. I’m just about to doze off when I hear “click, click, click.” The clicks become more frequent and I snap back to reality to see my sucker rod bending slightly in the holder.

Carefully, I pick up the rod and reel the line so the rod tip is almost touching the water and I rear back and set the hook. The rod doubles over and the battle is on. The musky comes to the surface and thrashes its head causing the sucker to go flying, but the hooks stay true.

After a short battle, I coax the fish into the net and immediately experience an adrenaline dump. My hands are shaking and I’m trying to catch my breath.

This is what fall musky fishing in the Northwoods of Wisconsin is all about. Musky fishing addicts love pursuing their quarry anytime they can, but there’s something special about fall time. While I do not consider myself a musky expert, I have found success with certain techniques and equipment.


Determining which lake to fish

When it comes to being a successful fisherman, rule No. 1 is fish where the fish are. It sounds simple, but it’s very important. A lot of lakes in northern Wisconsin contain musky. But you want to do some research to determine which lakes have a fishable population.

There is a lot of information on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website. You’ll find stocking data as well as survey data. The survey data is the most important in my opinion. It includes numbers of fish, as well as size structure of fish in a given lake.

There are couple pieces of this puzzle to consider, though. Identify a lake that seems to have a good population of decent-sized muskies. Then examine the survey numbers for what type of fish the muskies might be eating. Are there shad, cisco, suckers or other types of fish muskies will be gorging themselves on in the fall?

Evaluating this data will help you determine a couple things, including type of lures to use and where to look for actively feeding musky once you arrive at the lake. I will discuss both later.

Another way to find good lakes is word of mouth. There are perpetual musky powerhouse lakes in the Northwoods that are no secret. Stop in a local tackle shop and ask questions. Most will be more than happy to point you in the right direction. You may even get information from an annoyed crappie fisherman who is complaining about muskies grabbing the crappies on the end of his line.

A final consideration is to avoid the most popular musky lakes. Those fish are most likely heavily pressured and may not be willing to cooperate. Use all of these resources and clues to narrow down your search for a good lake.


Selecting your spot on the water

Location, location, location. Once you’ve picked a lake to fish, it is time to narrow down where to begin fishing.

One of the enjoyable aspects of fall fishing is that you’re not likely to deal with many recreational boaters or jet skis. This is a huge advantage because every part of the lake is fishable and you do not have to get out so early in the morning just to avoid the traffic. However, pay attention to the moon phases. “Moon over head” or “moon under foot” are key times and are worth paying attention.

When breaking down locations on a lake, I begin by looking for points. No matter the species of fish, I examine lake maps closely and begin by looking at points coming off the shore or islands. Often, there will be a drop off or a gradual slope with a sand or rock bar.

These structures will hold fish on all three sides. Fish the windblown sides of these structures first. But make sure to work all three sides.

The next areas I look for are submergent weed beds. I like to fish the edges of these weed beds, especially if the edges are adjacent to deeper water. Work these edges thoroughly because musky will either lay in wait to ambush prey or cruise theses edges actively looking for prey.

I also look for mid-lake humps. Depending on time of day, wind direction and speed, active musky will either be on top of these humps or along the sides.

Another key location is what I call “pinch points.” These are places on a lake where the navigable water narrows because of either shoreline contour or a combination of islands and shorelines. This creates a natural funnel, or “fish highway.” You will find these areas most often on flowages or chains of lakes.

At the same time, look for creeks or rivers that are connected to the lake. Especially those that feed into the lake. I mention both pinch points and feeder creeks together because these are great places to check out if the lake you’re fishing has cisco or whitefish. In the fall, cisco and whitefish will congregate in these areas in order to spawn. You’ll often find musky hanging out nearby.


The right tackle

A musky fisherman can never have too much tackle. However, having the right rods, reels, lures and terminal tackle will make your day of fishing more successful and enjoyable.

In the fall, I’m a firm believer that no lure is too large. Big Bulldogs, Suicks, Depth Raiders, Rapala Super Shads and various large bucktails are all good fall lures. However, slinging these big lures for hours on end can be exhausting. So having a good rod and reel can make the job easier.

For those larger lures I like a longer rod. An 8-foot, 6-inch or 9-foot medium-heavy casting rod works well for me. Using the rod’s length to cast those large lures is a huge advantage.

Reels are just as important. Just like rods, there are a lot options when it comes to reels. Pay close attention to the gear ratio and feet of line retrieved per turn when considering a reel. Also consider the drag. A powerful drag will have a maximum of about 25 pounds. That’s more than enough to battle a hefty musky.

Reels will also come with multiple style handles. Find one most comfortable for you. I personally like an 8.1:1 gear ratio with 43 inches of line retrieved per turn. I also prefer a reel with a clicker so I can use it for sucker fishing or trolling.

Make sure the reel will hold a sufficient amount of line. This depends on what type of line you use. Monofilament or braid are both good choices. I prefer braid because I’m able to use a heavier pound test due to its lower diameter size compared to monofilament. I’ve also found that braid is more durable.

The next important piece of equipment is your leader or swivel. When using monofilament, I always use some sort of leader. Whether steel or similar material, I believe they’re necessary to combat the sharp teeth of a feisty musky. Use a high-quality swivel or leader. This is no place to go cheap.

I previously mentioned several brands and types of lures I use. There are many more I didn’t mention. Use a lure you are confident with. While casting I am usually dragging a sucker or two. I usually just suspend them straight off the side of the boat without a float.

In Wisconsin, the law states if you use a minnow 8 inches in length or greater, you must use a quick-set style rig or a non-offset circle hook. The law also states that when using a quick-set rig, you must attempt to set the hook immediately upon detecting a strike. These rules are intended to prevent fatal injuries to the fish while using live bait.

Fall in the Northwoods of Wisconsin is arguably the best time of year. There are so many opportunities for the outdoorsman. Beautiful weather and scenery abound. No matter what your quarry is, make time to get out and enjoy the Northwoods!


Andy Mack is a USGC Charter Captain and licensed Wisconsin fishing guide with more than 35 years of experience. Mack specializes in walleye, salmon, trout and panfish throughout Wisconsin, including the Great Lakes and Winnebago system. Contact him at 262.510.1452, by email at or online at