There are few things more picturesque than the backdrop of autumn brilliance – vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows exemplify the landscape of the upper Midwest, a stark contrast to the dull and drab palette of the impending winter.
It is during this time that unique opportunities present themselves to outdoorsmen - hunters invade the woods in search of bow and gun hunting opportunities for deer, water fowlers stalk the marshes and wetlands for ducks and geese, and on the open water musky anglers take advantage of cooler water temperatures to utilize suckers as a live bait option for cashing in on late season muskies.
The allure of using suckers as bait for muskies is simple – simply put, big muskies are susceptible to live bait during the fall as they feed heavily leading up to winter. As water temperatures descend below 60 degrees, especially the 50 degree mark, sucker fishing for muskies becomes incredibly effective. Being cold-blooded organisms, colder temperatures find muskies less willing to chase down food offerings. With the fish less aggressive, suckers become the perfect presentation as they can be worked ultra-slow, all the while maintaining a natural and seductive appeal to a top of the line predator such as the musky.
Areas to “work” suckers share a commonality, despite variances in lake/river topography. Spots to begin your search include locations where you have caught or seen big fish previously, inside turns that funnel baitfish, points jutting into the deepest water in the lake, deep edges including those with weeds, and hard bottomed mid-lake humps. The key to effectiveness with this method is in maintaining a near-vertical presentation and keeping the sucker rig right above the bottom instead of merely “dragging” bait behind the boat.
Equipment for sucker fishing consists of a long heavy-action rod such as various models produced by Wisconsin’s own St. Croix Rod. The rigidity and added length allow for long sweeping hook-sets perfect for tearing hooks from the bait itself and into the tough bony jaws of a big musky. Line counter reels such as the Abu Garcia Alphamar LC are indispensable for this style of fishing as not only does the over-sized spool allow for adequate line capacity with larger diameter fishing lines, but the line counter itself is a vital tool for ensuring your bait is consistently presented in the strike zone.
While in the past monofilament was the preferred line of choice, technology has advanced to where superbraid lines, such as Sufix 832, are now the best option. Not only do superbraid lines allow for greater sensitivity and hook sets, the tighter weave patterns of today hold less water in the oft freezing conditions of late autumn resulting in less freeze-up on the reel itself.
When it comes to the actual “business end” of things, quick-strike rigs are without a doubt not only the most effective but environmentally responsible option. My personal favorite is the Clip N Go sucker harness produced by Hayward-area fishing guide Bill “Fuzzy” Shumway. The Clip N Go is not only incredibly easy to use, but according to my records the highest hooking percentage rig I have used to date in my boat.
Now that rod, reel, and tackle has been selected it’s time for the bait itself. I typically use suckers ranging from 11 inches to 14 inches although I have caught muskies on specimens up to 20 inches. The greatest limiting factor, especially as the season progresses, is the availability of bait. At the end of the day, the best advice I can give is to use the largest liveliest bait you can find – the emphasis being on liveliest; simply put, a healthy active 12-inch sucker will far outperform a sluggish 18-inch piece of meat regardless of the body of water you’re fishing.
Keeping suckers lively begins with transporting and storing them in an environment with adequate space and oxygen. Large aerated live-wells will keep bait fresh even for multiple days with minimal maintenance as long as the water is kept cool and clean. For anglers lacking an aerated live-well, portable aerators like the Frabill Aqua-Life can turn any spacious water proof container into an efficient and effective “sucker tank”. When coupled with water enhancement products such as Aqua-Life oxygen tablets, bait may be keep for days on end, adding not only convenience but savings in the ol’ pocketbook.
No article about musky fishing would be complete without the mention of tools necessary for the safe unhooking and release of these superlative specimens. My Frabill Big Kahuna may be a monster of a net, but it is a tool that I wouldn’t be caught without on the water. The treated bag is gentle on fins and slime coats, while its over-sized hoop can easily and comfortably accommodate fish in the 50 inch class. A calm musky means less thrashing in the net, even in the cold water of autumn, resulting in fewer injuries to both you and the fish.
Enjoy the beauty and bounty of autumn here in musky country – I’ll see you on the water.
Joel DeBoer is owner of Wisconsin Angling Adventures Guide Service. He can be contacted through his website at www.wisconsinangling adventures.com.