Late Summer and Early Fall in The Northwoods

Written on 05/28/2022
Kevin Cochran

Cole Parmely is shown holding a 52.5-inch fish he caught on a small heavy-weighted bucktail while fishing with the author during a picture-perfect shallow water late summer day.

      In the northwoods of Minnesota, late August usually marks the beginning of a unique movement that is made by muskies, which I refer to as the shallow water slide. Muskies utilize shallow water once the water temperatures fall below sixty degrees with nights dropping into the forties. We usually see muskies sliding shallow in late August every year with frequent visitations until turnover. Throughout this article I will concentrate on exposing key locations and tactics, which will result in contact with more fish during this incredible transition.


            Understanding muskies’ location during this time is the most important aspect and is the reason I am leading off with it. The shallow water sand bite can be a location overrun with wolf packs of muskies providing all the shallow water slide boxes are checked. On large natural lakes such as Mille Lacs, Leech, and Cass the endless miles of sand flats can seem overwhelming to the weekend warrior angler. However, finding those subtle traits that make a sandflat a muskie magnet is essential in duplicating success while fishing the flats. I key in on depth changes on top of the flat not breakline associated. For example, when I find a flat that is consistently four feet deep and locate an area on top that drops to five and a half to six feet there is a great chance that it will hold muskies. These drops act as current breaks, which provide an excellent ambush point during periods of heavy wind. These breaks on top of the sand also accumulate sediment, which sometimes promotes growth of aquatic vegetation. When pondweed growth is established on sand flats a pack will establish residency. This is always a goldmine for multiple fish encounters.

            In my opinion, you cannot fish a large northern Minnesota lake during the late summer/early fall without exploring rocks. I concentrate much of my effort casting and trolling the high points of the rock bars. I also fish rocks near breaks that muskies can easily reach the safety of deep water. In addition, locations that are home to some of the largest boulders also attract some of the lake’s largest muskies. Areas with a dense concentration of gravel also fall under this category.

            On the other side of the coin of mid lake shallow water locations is shoreline structure, which doesn’t get enough discussion. Shorelines that have proven to be successful for me have specific characteristics that set them apart from the seemingly endless miles that surround them. I am looking for feeder creeks, aquatic growth, large rocks, and sharp (yet shallow), depth transitions near the shoreline. The majority of these spots are hard bottom locations except for shallow coontail.

            The last shallow water tactic that I will discuss is also the most visually rewarding. Reed fishing is a fast pace tactic that is the definition of covering water. In fact, I hate to admit that I rarely figure-eight due to the majority of the strikes occurring in or near the structure. Side imaging and Livescope technologies are useless in such shallow water as the images of submerged reeds camouflage any silhouette of a muskie. For most reed fishing applications I place the boat within thirty to forty-five feet of the reeds. All reed beds are created differently and the depth your boat is in will vary. Spacing of reeds dictates lure choice. Throughout the years reed beds are not as thick as they once were due to human actions.  Muskie anglers that only throw spinnerbaits or baits with single hooks are not fishing the reeds effectively. Many times, you can throw lures with treble hooks. One tactic that I love is slowly creeping treble hooked topwater baits through reeds. Lake X topwaters usually get snapped on the end of our leaders for this. Small-bladed heavy-weighted bucktails work exceptionally well for short casts. For this type of fishing I am hitting pockets, bombing down “alleys”, and running parallel to the reed beds. I prefer to fish reeds that are windblown but this does narrow my lure options. When reeds are folded over, I use heavy-headed spinnerbaits exclusively. You want a bait that slides down the reed shaft quickly without turning. When a bait turns the hook(s) no longer ride straight up resulting in a snagged reed and wasted cast. I had success fishing reeds during cold fronts as well. Although there sometimes there is not a rhyme or reason to their presence in the reeds as I have caught fish in them with bright sun and no wind. The equipment for fishing reeds takes me back to my early days of guiding with short rods. I love to use eight-foot rods for short precise casting. A short rod with a fast gear ratio reel and a heavy bait is a deadly combination. My tools for reed fishing are Elliott Rods and Shimano Tranx 400hg’s.

            During unseasonal hot weather conditions muskies that slid shallow will quickly move out. Breaklines close to specific shallow water locations are the first stop on their departure. I attack these breaklines much like I would in the heat of July. Plastics are consistent producers for me during this time. Pushing that warm weather envelope a little further will result in more transient open water behaviors. Open water fishing has been the single most exploited tactic in the last ten years in Minnesota. I never realized in my early days of fishing that muskies spent a considerable amount of time chasing pelagic baitfish around over the deep water. The abyss is home to muskies regardless of the time of year. On September 5, 2020 we experienced hot weather without a breath of wind. Despite the odd algae bloom and less than ideal conditions we began fishing open water and immediately boated three fish with just as many that shook hooks.

            An additional point worth noting is the clearer does create fish that are more apprehensive to commit to a shallow water slide. All of the northern Minnesota large lakes that I fish now have invasive species that collectively improve water clarity. Nonetheless, I witnessed days this past season where the conditions were perfect that led to contact with half a dozen or more fish in a short time. Throughout this article I covered very specific details regarding fishing during the late summer and early fall periods on northern Minnesota lakes. There are many specific location characteristics to look for as well as tactics to put into play. Hopefully you can use this as a reference during your northwoods muskie trip.