The ribbon of Mississippi River rambling through central Minnesota is hardly wilderness water. Still, there are seldom any boats, especially now. We do see plenty of people in cars hustling across the various bridges. Hear 'em, too, as staccato shotgun volleys echoing in the distance tell us the "duckers" are still at it. But this afternoon, as during so many others this fall, the fish are ours.
My 10-year-old son, Nicky, his uncle Jeff (my brother-in-law) and I are following our fall muskie milk run, "poking 'skis" near the city of Brainerd. As I swing the boat into a current seam, piles of brown, dead leaves swirling downstream announce that the real cold weather isn't far off. In fact, a few small backwaters were glazed with skim ice this morning. Even now, the air temperature is barely 50 as the late afternoon sun nestles into the naked hardwoods lining the west bank.
Jeff, fishing the middle, pitches an 8-inch, brown Lindy Tiger Tube slightly upstream to the front face of a logjam extending well into the river. The approach is simple, yet deadly; let the tube settle to bottom, then begin a slow, lift-glide retrieve we call "sliding." Reel down, slowly pull the bait up a foot or two with the rodtip (the cooler the water, the slower the pull), pause so the tube glides downward, and repeat.
As when jig-fishing bass, most Tiger Tube strikes come on the drop and can be surprisingly subtle, considering you're dealing with a 40- or 50-inch predator capable of inflicting incredible carnage on hapless baitfish. On the fall, Jeff vigilantly eyes his semi-slack, 80-pound superline for twitches, pauses or anomalous sideways distractions.
Nicky is busy astern, dragging his tailgunner rig—an 8-inch, snout-hooked sucker impaled on an 8/0 Mustad Ultra Point Demon Circle fine wire hook. The wickedly sharp strand of spherical steel is tethered to a 3-foot steel leader and 80-pound line beneath a Thill Big Fish float. The latter serves as a strike indicator while keeping the bait off bottom.
On average, the float should ride no more than 30 feet behind the boat, to keep the angler in control, with the bait slightly more than halfway down in the water column. In eight feet, for example, set the float at five. There's no weight other than the hook and leader, and a free-rein sucker might roam its reach of the column. Be ready when it dimples the surface or tugs frantically to escape the jaws of a looming esocid.
The circle rig is merciless on late-autumn 'skis. I favor an 8-inch river-run chub or foot-long sucker over larger baitfish because muskies' metabolism and appetite decline in the cooling waters of October and Nov-ember. Plus, 'skis tend to take it in a gulp or two, quickly letting the circle hook do its job, without hurting the fish.
Owing to its simplicity and success, the rig has quickly become Nicky's pet presentation for muskies, and he hopes this evening to connect with another personal best. His last, landed two days ago, went 24 pounds. Tonight he's getting cocky and declares he doesn't want my help with his next lunker.
Working the trolling motor upstream, I fire a 51/2-inch firetiger Rapala Super Shad Rap at the tip of an island bordering a 15-foot-deep hole. Before the battle-scarred lure's bill can even gain purchase in the dark water, Nicky's bobber dances wildly, then disappears.
"I've got one!" he yells. Jeff, in mid-retrieve, rushes back to make sure Nicky's reel is in free spool with the clicker on. Honoring Nicky's wishes, we decide to let him handle the wrangle himself.
Fortunately, driving the hook home is the essence of simplicity. With our circle hook system, hard hooksets are not only unnecessary, but a definite no-no. All the little guy has to do is disengage free spool, point the rod at the fish, and start reeling—with no hookset. It's something most amateur anglers instinctively do, anyway.
As Nicky takes in slack, the line tightens. Somewhere in the swirling water below, the hook turns in the muskie's toothy maw, then slides and locks firmly into it's upper lip. As soon as the 'ski feels the pressure, it bolts and rolls on the surface in a bathtub-size boil. No question Nicky will beat his record—if he lands the fish.
Ultimately he does, earning a 34-pound merit badge after surviving a few searing runs and wild thrashes. More importantly, he garners bra-gging rights over Grandpa Ron Lindner for the year. Except for cradling the fish next to the boat, popping out the hook and lifting it for a few quick photos, Nicky handles the trophy by himself. This is definitely an "every person" system and demonstrates you don't need arms like Popeye or the stamina of a linebacker to fish muskies.
Incredible as it sounds, the fish was Number 22 for Nick, Jeff and myself in 11 consecutive outings—and marked my longest run ever witout a strikeout.
Most trips were about four hours long; generally lasting from about 1:30 to just after 5:15 p.m. Starting in mid-October, we got out a few times a week—usually after church on Sunday. If Nicky was off school or out early, and Jeff could get away, we fished weekdays, too.
Though we didn't weigh any of the fish, instead quickly throwing a tape on each and recording its length, years of catching 'skis have taught us to "eyeball" 'em pretty close. The smallest fish was around 15 pounds; the biggest a 51-inch brute that went about 38. (Jeff, who caught it, swears it was bigger.) Most of the fish were 25-plus.
More remarkable to us than the size of the fish, however, is what we discovered in terms of the methods we developed and the number of fish we found packed in certain locales. For one thing, Nicky fished live bait exclusively and never had a gut hook. Not once. The risk of harming fish is why bait-fishing muskies fell out of favor with the rank-and-file years ago. What we found, however, is that a circle hook, used correctly, can cause less damage than multiple trebles.
Beyond this revelation, Jeff's experiments with Tiger Tubes produced some interesting results. Their productivity on cold-water muskies was remarkable, comparable to using plastics during a tough bass bite.
For example, you could fish a point with hardbaits or spinners and might be lucky to just scratch out a follow or strike. Yet the same spot, same time, might yield multiple muskies to a tube. At times we tracked fish per hour, as opposed to fish per trip (or trips).
Location-wise, current speed was paramount—slack water drew more 'skis. Look for river muskies in areas where flow slows, such as at the head of a hole or around a rocky point, logjam or other piece of eddy-producing cover or structure. Pay special attention to seams between fast and still water.
I was most surprised by the number of muskies (mostly big ones) that piled up in really small holes. Some holes only 150 feet long, 75 feet wide and 15 feet deep held as many as six to eight fish. If you played your cards right, you could actually cover some of these sites from one boat position.
At the end of our last trip, Nicky was all smiles as we slid the boat against the dock in the gathering twilight. The 34 pounder had scripted a fitting finish for an amazing autumn. Twenty-two 'skis in
42 hours, to be exact.
Not a bad run. But considering we plan to continue our experiments and fine-tuning—and not to mention the fact Nicky has his entire fishing career ahead of him—I'd say it's only the beginning. The best days of muskie magic are surely yet to come.
FISH-BY-FISH BREAKDOWN OF A DREAM SEASON
Trip Hours Fish Landed Length
1 4 2 44, 47
2 5 2 48, 49
3 3 1 40
4 5 3 28, 45, 51
5 3 1 44
6 4 4 36, 45, 47, 48
7 3 1 42
8 4 3 38, 40, 47
9 4 1 40
10 4 3 36, 40, 47
11 4 1 49
11 consecutive trips Oct. 17 – Nov. 13
Totals 42 hours, 22 fish, 42.8-inch ave