Autumn pulls most anglers to shore.
Yet some repel this magnet and continue to be drawn to open water through October, November and even December when possible.
“Autumn fishing is like last call,” said Josh Stevenson, a Twin Cities-based muskie fishing guide. “You fill up because you know the end is near.”
Stevenson, owner of Blue Ribbon Bait and Tackle in Oakdale, will pull his boat to the St. Croix River and metro lakes until ice locks up the landings. He does so because “late autumn is pretty much the best time of year,” he said, and a favorite memory time, too.
“I’ll never forget one late season muskie trip. It was 34 degrees. I was dressed like I was ice fishing. I tried something contrary to all wisdom, which was to put on a surface lure and fish the shallows. No one would expect a muskie to be in 3 feet of water that time of year let alone slam a Top Raider, yet that’s exactly what a 49-incher did. It was supercool.”
Stevenson’s late-season fishing obsession afflicts others, too. Among them is Bob Maas, who lives in Morgan Park, a storied steel industry neighborhood on the edge of Duluth. Mass fishes the St. Louis River virtually every day. Doctors’ orders can hardly anchor him to shore.
“I fish until I can’t break the ice anymore,” said the jovial 73-year-old. “That’s when I finally put the boat away.”
Mass is looking forward to more fall fishing, in part, because a new pacemaker has added zip to his life. “People often wish me luck when I go fishing but luck has little to do with it,” Maas said. “There’s a knack to catching fish, and it comes from practice, practice, practice.”
In 2016, Maas practiced all the way until Dec. 6.
“The St. Louis usually freezes-up around Thanksgiving, but we got unexpected boating days that year,” he said. “It was great.”
Far to the north, up on Rainy Lake, noted angler and guide Billy Dougherty will fish until the firearms deer season opens in November. Dougherty likes October fishing “because it is so peaceful. ... You hardly see another boat.” He also likes October because large northern pike are apt to snap.
“Rainy [Lake] probably has more huge pike than any other lake in Minnesota,” he said. “There’s tremendous size up here. My personal best is a 46-pounder. It was 53¾-inches long with a 28-inch girth. That was an October fish.”
West of Rainy Lake, over in Baudette, Burt Larson is among those who will fish to the bitter end. A retired teacher, Larson lives on the Rainy River and regularly plies a 3-mile stretch near his home. One of his favorite late autumn fishing memories involves a friend and his friend’s sixth-grade daughter.
“It was special because they don’t fish much and we all caught nice limits of walleye,” said Larson, 69. “My buddy even caught an unusual one-eyed bullhead. And to top it off, a distant hunter had sailed a Canada goose that splashed upstream. We kept an on eye it. When it floated past we boated that too. Talk about a mixed bag.”
Among younger avid anglers is Andrew Slette, a 22-year-old who wrestled a 57-inch muskie from Otter Tail County’s Pelican Lake in 2016. That fish topped the muskie division of the state’s catch-and-release record fish program.
“I never stop fishing,” said Slette, an electrician who lives in Hawley. “By the time the big lakes in Otter Tail County freeze, the small lakes are hard enough to walk on. I just switch from fishing in a boat to fishing on ice.”
Slette likes late-autumn fishing, in part, because of its aura. No pleasure boaters. No tubers. No pesky schools of anglers darting here and holding tight there.“It’s sort of a pride thing,” he said. “Only the best fishermen are out late in the year. You don’t want to miss this scene, even if it is 45 degrees and rainy.”
Ray Gildow, a Nisswa fishing guide, offered a similar sentiment. “To me, late-season fishing is spiritual because that’s when I finally fish alone or with close friends. During these trips I reconnect with nature, myself and others in ways I can’t or don’t earlier in the year.”
Gildow added that during some Leech Lake outings, when not a single other boat can be seen or heard, “you can almost imagine what it was like 150 years ago.”
In the weeks ahead, hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans will wade through tawny fields of grass in search of pheasant, slog through swamp edges to get at grouse or sit silently in stands or blinds in hopes that a deer will appear. A few, however, will still be in boats, their fingers coiled around the cork of a rod. These ultra-avids will pay out a length of line, swing their arms back, wait for the lure to load the rod and then whip it forward like there’s no tomorrow. Yet, tomorrow will come. That they know. And ice with it. So better make one last cast ... and maybe, just maybe, another after that.
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.