Dog days. The muggy, humid transition from late to early fall. Jet skis, runabouts, and houseboats abound. Areas that had held muskies just weeks or days earlier have been abandoned, leaving anglers scrambling to find productive patterns. Early fall muskies, spurred by discomfort and driven by instinct, relocate to better suited to their biological demands. Seeking cooler, oxygen rich water, muskies make the annual trek up countless feeder creeks and streams feeding the reservoirs that have replaced traditional musky streams.
Reservoirs are all different but the fundamentals of late summer and early fall musky migration are basically the same. Fish location at this time of year is not a mystery, but rather predictable and consistent year in and year out. Anglers often contact some of the biggest fish in the systems during early fall as muskies are forced into the confines of narrow creek channels and cold spring areas, seeking refuge from the heat. Finding and fishing these areas can provide hot early fall action for anglers willing to search them out, while posing little risk to the fish, provided care is taken to properly handle and release them.
Moving water draws from its sources oxygen and nutrients, constantly renewed along its length by feeder creeks and streams running in from hollows and springs, plentiful in the hills of Kentucky and surrounding states. Having evolved in moving water, stream fish are tuned to specific oxygen and temperature demands. With the coming of dams came changes, profound changes, especially during summer and fall. Forced to live in warmer, less oxygenated reservoirs, muskies instinctively seek conditions similar to those in which they evolved.
When main lake conditions reach uncomfortable levels in summer, muskies relocate, seeking more comfortable areas. More sensitive to rising temperatures, big muskies are likely to move into feeder creeks earlier than smaller fish. Cooler, oxygenated inflow from streams provide thermal sanctuaries for muskies, often untouched by anglers still searching their favorite flats and weedbeds for fish that are not there. While some fish using classic main lake structure earlier in the year will move to river channel areas and suspend near the thermocline, remaining in the main lake basin, conditions in most lakes make movement into feeder creeks a better option.
These migrations are not unique to muskies. Most notably among others making moues this time of year are stripers, another apex predator susceptible to oxygen depletion and heat stress. Fish holding in the warmer main lake basin are limited, forced to choose between cool temperatures near the thermocline (if it exists) or adequate oxygen levels, unable to find both. Again, big fish with more body mass stress much more easily than younger, smaller fish. These fish, when caught, will almost certainly die, often from delayed mortality. Responsible anglers seek other options, leaning stressed main lake fish alone, until conditions improve before targeting them. Safety for the fish absolutely takes priority.
When main lake conditions reach uncomfortable levels in smer, muskies relocate, seeking more comfortable areas. More sensitive to rising temperatures, big muskies are likely to move into feeder creeks earlier than smaller fish. Cooler, oxygenated inflow from streams provide thermal sanctuaries for muskies, often untouched by anglers still searching their favorite flats and weedbeds for fish that aren't there.
What other options are available? Most reservoirs will have cool water inflow, holding fish populations that can be safely caught and released, provided anglers use common sense, objectively measure water temperatures and oxygen levels, and handle fish correctly. Feeder creeks and streams can provide hot early fall action for anglers without endangering muskies.
Having recognized that musky migration is impending or under way, intercepting them at their destination becomes the challenge. Seldom are migrations abrupt and obvious. Periods of inactivity are inevitable and can be misinterpreted. If main lake conditions remain relatively comfortable and forage abundant, the fish have no reason to move. Muskies are not brain surgeons. They are driven by instinct and environmental conditions, period. Water temperature, quality, and dissolved oxygen levels dictate whether fish move or stay put. Length of daylight certainly plays a major role as well. Primitive animals are heavily influenced by sunlight. Generally, the more primitive the animal, the more profound the influence.
As days grow shorter, muskies instinctively make changes programmed by eons of evolution. The pineal body, sometimes referred to as a "third eye," senses light quality, quantity, and duration of exposure. Though not obvious in most animals, especially more advanced forms including mammals, the central nervous system capability to analyze light exists in all of us. Muskies use age-old seasonal changes we take for granted as signals, changing location and behavior patterns in accordance with conditions. Significant numbers of fish, particularly big fish, move into extremely small areas and sometimes stay there for days or weeks, providing an excellent angling opportunity Relative to the general musky population, a high percentage of fish using feeder creeks in early fall will be the older, heavier fish. More sensitive to stress, big fish are first to seek sanctuary in the cool water inflow of feeder creeks.
Finding comfortable temperature and oxygen levels by moving deeper may not be an option for late summer muskies in many lakes. At depths that have comfortable temperatures, oxygen levels are often dangerously depleted by rotting organic matter and absence of current. Exceptions occur in deeper, clear lakes like Dale Hollow, but most southern lakes do not have suitable deep water conditions for muskies. Instead, these fish seek the fresh water influx present in the feeder creeks and springs.
Determining fish location in feeder creek areas depends on measuring temperature at the bottom of the channel area or deepest water near the backs of the creeks. In late summer and early fall, surface temperature is not a reliable indicator of bottom conditions in an area and should not be relied upon as a search tool for muskies. Temperature at maximum depth with adequate dissolved oxygen at this time of year will not correlate with the temperature on the surface. In many reservoirs, the thermocline does not develop at levels with adequate oxygen, or fails to form due to high flow-through events, shallow water predomination, or other factors. As a general rule, fertile systems with slow flowthrough rates and heavy algae blooms fail to form a well defined thermocline. The deepest water available with sufficient dissolved oxygen may be too warm, leaving no comfortable zone in the main lake area for the fish, forcing them to seek a more suitable area. Simply put, once the deepest water the muskies can use gets hotter than the incoming water in feeder creeks, the move is on.
Muskies move into the creeks en masse in late summer, most often in mid to late August. Not all feeder streams hold fish. Creeks with deeper channels, narrow flats, and higher volume cool water flow are magnets. Cold water is funneled into the channel, working its way out of the creek until intermixing and heat dissipation warm it. Flat, shallow creeks disperse and warm quickly and provide little refuge.
Here again, exceptions exist. On Buckhorn Lake in eastern Kentucky, one of the best fall creeks has almost no summer or fall water inflow most years, but cold springs in two areas dump enough cool water into the channel to pull fish year after year. Cold water sinks. The cool water running into the creek or seeping in via springs will accumulate in the channel, especially in deep holes or narrow channel areas near the heads of the creeks.
Muskies aren't the only ones using the cool water in creek channels. Gizzard shad and suckers move into the creeks in huge numbers, pulling predators with them. The creeks provide comfortable temperature and oxygen levels along with a readily available forage base. Instinctively, muskies seek out these areas year after year, using them until drawdown forces them out or conditions become preferable elsewhere.
Feeder creeks can be massive, an ecosystem within themselves, each different from the others. All have unique characteristics, areas that hold fish at certain times, and barren areas that fish seldom use. When surface temperatures peak on the main lake, I start checking the temperature of the incoming water above the first shoal in a feeder creek before the running water reaches the still lake water. I tie up on the bank and walk up the creek with my thermometer, checking the temperature. If the incoming water is 5 or more degrees cooler than main lake surface temperatures, there will be some muskies present in the creek channel.
<-- Note the fallen leaves common in late summer, and running water at the head of this creek.
I have an AquaVue camera with a temperature gauge which does double duty, allowing me to check water clarity and temperature at various points up a creek arm from my boat. I usually start checking bottom temperatures when the main channel depth reaches about 10 feet, checking right on up to the head of the creek. Seldom will these muskies on the move need to use very deep water. Since cool water sinks very rapidly upon entering the creek and contacting the warm water, the temperature at the bottom of a 5-foot creek channel may be 75 degrees, while the surface temperature is still 85. Hence, surface temperature should not be your guide to musky location this time of year. The cool bottom of these creeks will chill your feet when standing in the channel up to your neck, even on hot days, while the surface water feels like bath water. As this cooler water moves farther down the creek, it eventually warms due to mixing and transference of heat from the surface water, limiting muskies to the upper areas with suitable temperatures. Fish outside this cool water area are vulnerable to stress, and should be left alone. Muskies instinctively seek out these unique areas. Just that few degrees of drop in temperature can provide a much more comfortable environment, especially for big fish, which are much more sensitive to high temperatures and stress than the little guys.
Boat control and lure choice can be challenging in the confines of a feeder creek, especially for anglers used to open water. Often the creeks have tree lines or hills on each side, funneling wind up and down the creek, making boat control a nightmare. The fish are shallow and spooky. They will not always show themselves even when present in numbers, leaving anglers confused. Rule number one: Know where the creek channel is at all times. Rule number two is always remember rule number one. The fish will relate primarily to the cool water at the bottom of the channel regardless of its depth, and keeping the boat off the muskies is a must. They will not sit there with a trolling motor prop a foot over their heads, and once they're spooked, you may as well leave and come back later. I usually try to keep my boat over an area that I don't expect to hold fish, casting into channel areas.
Keeping the boat organized and clutter-free helps reduce noise. Big muskies don't get to be big muskies by being careless, so keeping noise to a minimum is a must. Lure choices depend on channel depth, absence or presence of weeds, and angler experience and confidence in particular lures. Confidence in a lure will cause you to make more casts to an area, be more attentive, and increase your chances. Cool water will be in the deepest area present, the channel, concentrating fish there, so position the boat in such a way to allow multiple angle casts into the channel as you work your way up.
Another factor is time of day. I ONLY fish early in the morning for a couple hours, and an equivalent period before and just after dark on cool days. I have never seen these fish bite consistently in the middle of the day, although there are days when they occasionally do so. Even so, rising surface temperatures on hot days increase risk for the fish, and should be avoided at all cost. Cool nights cool the surface, with dawn being ideal. Night air will be cooler than the water at this time of year, and fog can be heavy at daybreak, so know the area you will be fishing well before setting out in zero visibility.
Spinnerbaits may catch more fish in feeder creek areas than all other lures combined. They allow the angler to vary speed, change vibration patterns by changing blade types, and work heavier cover without hanging up. Frequent hang-ups will absolutely spook fish in shallow water situations. Single-hook spinnerbaits are better in cover, but I prefer treble hooks in clean water. The bottom of the channels will be covered with sticks and leaf litter, and treble hooks dragging over the bottom stay fouled. Using spinnerbaits that run just off the bottom without contact seems to work best. Slow rolling a big spinnerbait down a channel and speeding up when the bait starts up toward the boat has accounted for many a big fish. My favorites include L & C's Spinnerbaits, Grim Reapers, and Funky Chickens, among others. L & C makes a lure called a Musky Copter, with a free blade arm not attached to the shaft. It has a unique sound and profile, and produced a ton of big fish last year at Buckhorn and Green River in Kentucky. Versatility makes spinner baits a good choice, and there are several excellent models available. Wire thickness determines vibration patterns, along with blade size and shape. Changing sound profiles often pays off. Double Colorado blade combinations often work, but double willowleaf spinnerbaits are hard to beat day in and day out.
At certain times, especially if weeds are present, bucktails can be deadly. For some reason, these fish seem to prefer smaller models. Hair verses rubber could be debated ad nauseum, but both seem to work well. Lillytails, Mepps #5's, and several others produce as long as they can be fished cleanly in the shallow water. Any color is good as long as it is black. As years have gone by, I have seen black out produce other colors by a wide margin. Blade color may not be as important as size and shape.
Crankbaits and twitch baits have their times in creek arms. Shallow depth and debris often limit choices, but as the channel deepens farther down the creek, Lil' Ernies, Jakes, and Believers, especially the Super Believer, can pay off big. Patience and attention to detail make all the difference when cranking these areas. Sometimes just a little speed adjustment changes lure depth and action, prevents it from picking up leaves and sticks, and draws strikes. Fall is big fish time, and big lures work. Big Jakes are one of my favorites twitched or cranked in the channel. Big Believers and Cranes work well also.
Often the deeper channels will have brush or stumps, so choose crankbaits that come through cover well for these areas. Hang-ups can kill you in small areas like these. Avoid heavy contact with cover or the bottom. Too much commotion is counterproductive in confined areas with muskies. Muskies using the extreme back ends of creeks are there for one reason, to eat. They usually do not need a lot of enticing. When cooler water is present in the deeper channel areas farther down the creeks, I have had success cranking trashy areas with crankbaits that come through the cover well, crawling the bait over limbs and stumps carefully. Two crankbaits that excel in cranking trash are the Bill Norman DR3, a long minnow bait with a heart shaped lip that deflects the hooks from cover, and a shadbodied crankbait made by Gene Richardson of Gene's Lures, with a square lip design, that will come through almost anything. Cranking heavy cover takes patience, experience, and the right tackle, but that is another story.
Jerkbaits take a lot of big fish in creeks in the early fall. I fish them all the way to the backs of the creeks, using high-riding unweighted Burts and Suicks in the shallowest water. Squirrley Burts work well, and shallow Bulldogs account for some big fish as well.
Magic Makers, Wide Glides, and other gliders also produce at times. I seem to raise most of my biggest fish of the year at this time on jerkbaits, though spinnerbaits appear better for numbers. I prefer to fish jerkbaits. Big fish love jerkbaits. Inexperienced anglers often have trouble, however, fishing these lures in the shallow water and maneuvering them down shallow channel edges.
Topwaters can produce monsters in the creeks at times. Just before daylight or just after dark are best. For some reason, topwater action is not as predictable in southern reservoirs as I have seen in northern lakes. I have no explanation for this. Lac Seul Turbos, Top Raiders, Stompers, and Lunker Lure buzzbaits can work, but buzzing a big spinnerbait seems to always work as well with better hookup percentages.
Can we safely catch these fish and release them without high delayed mortality rates? While the creeks are cooler than the main lake, this time of year can still be hot and muggy. Do not stress these fish with photo shoots and undue handling. Keep fish in the water at all times, even while being photographed, and release them quickly into the channel where ideal conditions exist. Killing fish is inexcusable. They are a precious resource, and if we are going to fish for them at this time of year, special care needs to be taken to protect them. Muskies in this particular pattern are not deep. The water they are using is 75 degrees or cooler. When released, they are placed back into a comfortable water zone without having to move back down through hot water. They are using unique areas, shallow, cool, and oxygen rich compared to main lake areas where temperatures are higher and dissolved oxygen depleted.
Hot water fish will suffer a high mortality rate and should be left alone at all costs, even if they are catchable. Unless the incoming stream is 75 degrees or cooler, channel bottom temps remain at 75 degrees or below down the creek until the channel reaches 8 feet or year, special care needs to be taken to protect them. Muskies in this particular pattern are not deep. The water they are using is 75 degrees or cooler. When released, they are placed back into a comfortable water zone without having to move back down through hot water. They are using unique areas, shallow, cool, and oxygen rich compared to main lake areas where temperatures are higher and dissolved oxygen depleted.
Try this pattern when your main lake fish come up missing in early fall. Be patient, work these areas carefully, learning them as you go. Wait until conditions are safe for the fish, and release them carefully. You may be surprised at who's moved into the creek!