Each November a phenomenon occurs in some our, deep, clear and colder Northern waters. If you don’t fish for muskies or any meaningful trophy fish this late in the season, you may think it involves winterizing the boat or preparing for first ice. However, if you understand the forage complexions and underwater ecosystems of these lakes, you may figure out that the annual cisco and whitefish spawns take place.
This year I’ve had the opportunity to fish deeper into the season than ever before. I’ve also been able to reach my ‘unplanned’ goal, and set the personal milestone of fishing for 100 days up north in 2013.
I always call it quits with the up north travels by mid October and get burned out with fishing entirely shortly after. But not this year, and likely never again. Thanks to my good friend and tournament partner Steve Peterson and his dad Bob (and Steve’s father in-law Ray), I’ve been able to join my musky pals for these long weekend trips which have been a blast. It only took me all 27 years of life to realize that no matter how cold the weather may be, how obsessed and crazy of anglers we are, and how almost frozen the lakes and their boat landings will be, November can be a magical month for muskies and more.
Hey Steve, remember that one weekend in mid November we broke ice in order to catch big fish?
Below the cold water’s surface, toothy predators such as musky, pike, and walleye feed voraciously as the urgency of winter looms closer. They target whatever forage concentrations are available. This time of year, it’s ciscoes on the deep oligotrophic and mesotrophic lakes, and sometimes schooling suckers. The larger the concentrations of these forage species, the larger the concentration of these apex predators can be. In mid to late November, the cisco spawn is certainly the largest and most predictable forage concentration around, and is easily the best trophy game in town.
Staging ciscos were registered on the HDS during the morning hours. As soon as darkness sets, these baitfish can be found spawning along gravel and sand shorelines as shallow as 2 feet deep.
Ciscoes inhabit natural lakes and reservoirs of moderate to low fertility. Historically, they only inhabited larger lakes, but naturally reproducing populations have been successfully established as an additional forage supply in lakes as small as 200 acres providing they have depth and adequate spawning habitat. High water clarity is not necessary for their survival. But for ciscoes to thrive and populate, high water quality is required. In Wisconsin, cisco grow no longer than 5 to 10 inches, and will spawn in 38 to 40 degree waters under the moon-lit darkness.
Throughout our weekend trips the best fishing often took place by working closely near the forage concentrations: Remaining deep weed edges, cisco spawning flats, steep shorelines and deep breaklines. Presentations that could be fished slowly and suspend in the water column often fared best. Gliders such as Softail Phantoms, crankbaits including Kraves, Cisco Kids, Depth Raiders and Magnum Rapalas, and the up north tradition of running multiple quick-strike sucker rigs at varying depths and perimeters around the boat produced all of our fish.
Besides following these presentations, time of day was certainly a factor as well. Playing the moon game, fishing the most productive spots in afternoons and evenings, and staying on the water well past sunset were all critical concepts leading to our success. Feeding windows were undoubtedly short, but the flurry of action that came within these windows were almost always comprised of multiple feeding fish. Following these patterns over the course of two long November weekends, twelve muskies and other big bonus species slimed the Frabill and provided us with ample amounts of late season fish porn to keep us satisfied throughout the upcoming winter months.
At this time, muskies, pike, and walleyes of all sizes feed on these schools and become as catchable as they ever will be. This does not mean the fishing is super easy, but it becomes substantially easier. The joy of fishing during the midst of the cisco spawn is that the same presentations usually work great for all three species.
For instance, never underestimate the the size of lure a huge cisco feeding walleye will strike. This big one, my largest ever from Wisconsin waters, took down a 9 inch Cisco Kid crankbait.
Fishing during the month of November isn’t for the frail, impatient, or intolerant of the cold. It’s a time for diehards and the possessed to feast on end of season opportunities and concluding feeding splurges of Esox Masquinonge. Fishing the cisco spawn similarly to how we did is simply a matter of timing and putting all the pieces together even if much of it came through the assistance of guides, friends and our independent research. The correct locations, water temperatures, and presentations are all a necessity for successful fishing to take place. Once these variables are put together in proper fashion, it usually doesn’t take long for good things to happen.
As I keep getting older, I see more and more how the month of November is some of the best fishing of the year. In 2014 I may need to put less emphasis on my annual October trip and focus more on November up north, no matter how cold it gets!
During this time of year, prior to first ice and the dreaded freeze, all you can do is cast your Hail Marys because the big bite is bound to happen. And when time runs out like it did for us, all good things must come to an end.
Editors Note:: During the closing moments of our last day of fishing for the year, a four foot, 30 pound monster hammered one of the three quick-strike rigged suckers I was operating in the boat’s rear. When fish ran away from the boat I set the hook and I was in for a battle. The stiff, 7 foot graphite rod quickly became an adult version snoopy rod and I really had no chance of winning this battle. As the fish quickly drew near boatside, Bob reached for it with the net and as fish was turned head-first, she shook the hooks before making contact with the bag and back at me flew my unscathed sucker rig. Due to the frail rod we had on deck apparently I never drove home the hooks with my gargantuan hook-set. The entire fish was observed; head was huge, jaws could fit an entire 20 inch sucker, torso was immense, and length was greater than the 46 inch replica that was hanging on Bob’s wall. Was it the fabled 50 incher? I don’t think so, but it was big, had weight, and made the above mid forty look like a minnow. I hadn’t lost a single big fish of any species in 2013 until that moment. Better later than never I guess. On the bright side, I’m not sure this fish could have been handled any better than we did, and to do all of that with a more cursed and crappier rod was quite an achievement. As it was in this case, musky fishing became a game of inches and as mentioned above, we ran out of time. If only I had two more seconds to dance with that fish while she was in the water, she would have been in the net. I only wanted to get my photograph. But the memory was caught, and that’s all she ever will be.
Some of you are friends with me on Facebook while most of you probably aren’t. This catch hasn’t been made public anywhere on the internet than through my Facebook page photos. For all the right reasons, I am reluctant on sharing much information about the subject, my location, all the wheres and hows and whys, and how to best approach something of benefit to the local fisheries.
On Sunday, October 27th, I fished my backyard of Salt Creek. I’ve fished this small flow for the last ten years and it still remains a productive and surprising fishery from time to time. I’m located on the border of Cook and DuPage Counties near the town of Oak Brook.
The previous week the walleye fishing was hot and on fire; by far the best numbers we’ve ever encountered. But no big ones. On the Sunday night’s wade of October 27th, I returned to one of my secret walleye holes to catch no walleyes, but rather two muskies. A pair of 32 and 36 inchers were caught from the same spot, both on 4 inch minnowbaits, two hours apart from each other; 6pm and 8:15pm.
Both fish freaked me out!
To catch a fish like this from a former ‘dead river’, let alone from a waterway that has never held any muskellunge population in its history, and within 15 miles from downtown Chicago is unheard of. Amazing.
I’m located nowhere near the likely source of these fish (that one lake). I’m also nowhere near the larger river this small river flows into. I think I know where these two fish came from, but I remain skeptical that they could possibly survive swimming through 90 degree boiling hot summertime water temperatures, past twelve water treatment plants and sewage outflows, and other adverse conditions. But what do I know? I’m a fisherman and not a scientist.
Busse Lake in Elk Grove Village, IL has been stocked with large muskellunge fingerlings since 2007-2008. The length of these fish is about average with the typical musky growth rates. Also, from time to time, accidental muskies like this also somehow end up in the nearby Des Plaines River, but to catch one from there or originating from there is even more rare.
I’m still waiting word from our state’s biologists so I can better understand how muskies could have possibly ended up in my backyard and survived the trek to get there. Almost two weeks have gone by and still no answers.
My mother said it best….. “Are you sure you didn’t bring these fish back from Wisconsin!?!”
We await for the verdict. And I will probably go another 1,500 wades here in the next several years without ever seeing or catching one ever again.
I’m back in Chicago. Besides for a few long weekend trips I’ve got scheduled in November I’m finished with the north. I’ve fished very little since my return, but have gotten opportunities to fish this past week at one of my local little rivers. On this particular small flow, I only fish it after dark.
This time of year, I focus almost entirely on our underutilized walleye fisheries. Nearly every river system in the Northern Illinois region contains small fishable populations of them; Fox, Kankakee, DesPlaines, and some of their tributaries primarily. The reason I fish for walleyes after dark is because I see nobody else is doing it. I’ve learned that certain rivers and small flows are obviously better than others. As the year winds down I feel fished out, but walleyes around Chicagoland offer me with the ideal challenge to keep on fishing and make for a very unique experience. I have zero intentions or interest in fishing the DesPlaines this fall, or any other river, but I have been fishing its tributaries.
This week I got out six times. We’ve been fishing after dark, usually during the hours of 6 to 9 pm. I still work a day job, ya know. I’ve gone on solo outings and fished with fellow small river pal, Tim Bixter.
Because I was gone for much of the year and hadn’t fished the flow since early spring before our epic floods, I had to quickly relearn all of my old spots from years back and find new holes and fish holding areas. During previous autumn seasons I often revisited old, proven spots that would kick out the occasional big walleye once or twice a week but weren’t as consistent. This fall, by accident, I stumbled upon a few areas that have actually been more consistent in kicking out fish, and containing them on a near-nightly basis for us.
I found this one spot by accident in late March, early April. On a random wade for bass I ended up finding a newly formed gravel bar that featured a low gradient current chute, hard bottom, a cluster of deep holes, and a very deep rock shoreline across the bank (thank you spring 2013 epic flood!). On that outing, I caught a pair of random 17 to 19 inch walleyes that had finished spawning. During the eight previous years I’ve fished this place, I never caught a single walleye anywhere near this spot. I thought to myself, “Okay, lets see what this it kicks out in the fall.” This new spot has been revisited all week and the rest is history. We’ve caught a number of walleyes and had multiple fish nights.
I’ve named it THE GLORY HOLE.
What makes a good hole? It’s got to be comprised of everything which includes current, depth, hard bottom, forage, transitions, and ambush points. This glory hole has it all.
Casting an assortment of rattling suspending 3 to 6 inch minnowbaits (Rapalas, Rebels, Matzuos) and Shallow Shad Raps, we’ve been catching nice 17 to 21 inch fish; all males. I believe these are remnants from the large 2007-2008 year class that was stocked and eventually migrated their way into this small flow. During the nighttime hours color makes no difference. But what’s been helping is that our baits are suspending in the low gradient current, big in profile, and are able to be retrieved in ways that the strike zones are maximized. Some nights we’ve been ripping them through the holes and pools and receiving aggressive strikes while other nights we’ve had to entice strikes and weightless pickups with slow retrieves and impatient pauses. We have yet to catch a single fish on plastics but as water temperatures keep cooling down they will eventually be in play.
The most aggressive fish have been coming from the heads of each pool, while the larger less aggressive strikes are coming from the tails of each pool. I theorize that if a big fish shows herself, she’s coming from one of the pool’s tails.
Here are a few catches from this week:
We’ve never caught walleyes like this in number from the small stream before, which could be a positive sign for the future of the fishery. All are healthy, fat, feeding, and getting returned to the flow unharmed. Due to the presence of sewage treatment plants and its urban stench everything we catch is let go to grow. Our goal is not to ruin populations that AREN’T SELF SUSTAINING.
As we now enter the fall prime, I’m confident that big female walleyes will eventually grace us with their presence. It’s been about 6 years since I caught my last big one from anywhere. Where there’s little ones, there’s got to be big ones.
Due to plans and events I have scheduled this week, as well as this weekend’s return to the north, I’ve got to take the remainder of this week off, but will be back at it sometime again next week. It’s fun to get a quick fix each night and not have to drive too far.