|"The Bait Shop"|
... Each year, several articles are written about “fall trolling” (usually night trolling) and the countless success stories that follow this seemingly bullet-proof pattern. While it’s hard to argue the results that many anglers enjoy each fall, not every Bob, Tom and Rick leave the lake experiencing the “bite-of-a-lifetime.” In fact, many folks (even some here on Mille Lacs) struggle to snag “a few for the pan” – not because of the slot limits, rather from assuming some simple misconceptions about the approach... it’s not “every night, every lake, every bait, every time!”
A great start for your fall trip is to take a scouting run - in the time it takes to watch a typical NFL game on TV, you can map out several reefs in good detail. On Mille Lacs, the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Department has helped with much of your mission – they have placed around 200 hazard/reef markers on the southern 2/3rds of the lake. The intention of this is to alert boaters to the potential hazards below, BUT the savvy angler knows that many of these rocky areas are hot for fall trolling. They will begin removing these markers around the 1st of October each year. Pick a calm day and get these spots into your GPS – not just “east spots” or “west spots”, but an assortment in case the wind makes your “A” spots unfishable. Several of the newer GPS units accept MMC cards showing contour detail as accurate as 1 foot! Mille Lacs is one of the lakes that is privileged to this technology. Make a few notes about tips, turns, depths and transitions on each of your new spots, and you’ll have the first step taken care of. AND...since you’re already out on a calm day, be sure to run EACH of the baits you may be using for your night trolling. Many hard baits come out of the package needing some tuning – sometimes a subtle tweak, sometimes an overhaul, even on a brand new bait! If you’ve ever tried to tune a bait in the dark (assuming you could see well enough to notice it needed tuning), you can appreciate the convenience this will add. Some people run “snaps” (crankbait snaps – snap only... NO swivel) to connect their line to the bait; others tie a “Rapala” knot. Most shallow baits run best using one of these approaches. Using a “snap-swivel” will almost always have a negative effect on the action of your bait (try it so you can see, then put them away).
A little “boat prep” can be the difference between fun and frustration for the nighttime angler. Simple things like making sure your mooring lines and anchor lines are stored, trying your bow and stern lights AND your trailer lights before your trip. Do you have a spotlight that works? Maybe one of these headlamp or Cats Eye lights for your hat. A red lens over your flashlight will help inside the boat for re-tying baits. Consider a rubber net... the hooks seem to come out of a rubber net WAAAAAY better than a stranded net. Do you use a handheld GPS? Running the backlight feature at night will chew-up your batteries, so make sure you have a spare set or two. Line counters (portable or mounted) are handy to know how far back you’re running your bait. Some folks will take a clear pop bottle and put a light stick in it to use as a beacon – 15 feet of cord and a 3 ounce weight will hold it in place. Consider rigging multiple rods – if your rod fouls, it’s much easier to grab another one that’s already tied up than to try to re-rig in the dark. Be sure to store the “extra” rod(s) in your rod locker where they won’t get stepped on or tangled. Some people run planer boards – it gets your line away from the boat (less chance of “spooking” the fish). If you haven’t run boards before, DO NOT attempt to do it for the first time at night!
Wear your life jacket.
There are countless “best baits” that we can use for trolling – I’d hate to have to pick only one. Some nights a tighter “wobble” is the trigger, sometimes its a “rattle” – maybe a black/chrome one or even chartreuse. Choose the style bait (don’t be afraid to “up-size” it this time of year) that suits the depth of water you’re fishing – floating or suspending “sticks” are usually best for 6 feet or less, “shad – style” baits work better from 8-12 feet. Then there’s the tight wiggle, the wobble and the shimmer – go figure! Oh yes... don’t forget the rattle! All hype aside, different actions will trigger fish in different moods. Don’t be afraid to change baits and trolling speeds until you find one that suits THOSE fish THAT night. Then there’s color... I haven’t necessarily found a BAD color on Mille Lacs, but some of the top trips have always included baits in black, blue, and perch. BEWARE OF THE INTERNET (how ironic!)... There are manufacturer’s rep’s that will flood a chat room or a fishing forum about how “my neighbor just killed ‘em last night on a _________”, or “We boated 45 fish before midnight on a ______”. Take it for what it’s worth – if it sounds to good to be true...
One of the biggest events in fall trolling revolves around the full moons of September and October. We have folks who only night fish once each year – on the September full moon. Countless scientists and biologists have done studies on the affect of the moon phase and fish/animals/humans... we’re not going there, except to say that most agree that the moon (in it’s various phases) has an affect on the behavior of most, if not all living things (including our frog). Surely, you will see many hundred and perhaps over a thousand boats on Mille Lacs during the September and October full moon phases, ALL looking to cash in on the hot crankbait bite... and SOME certainly will. In 2004 for example, the surface temp during the September full moon (9-28) was 61 degrees. This year, the full moon is 9-18 (10 days earlier) and the surface temp will be around 66 degrees. In 04, the leech/slip bobber bite was actually better through this period than the crankbait bite. The October full moon was 10-28-04 and the surface temp had dropped down to 46 degrees! So what? Both periods were during a full moon, but there was a full 20 degree difference in the surface temp. The night bite had started to tail off somewhat by the October phase. Some folks won’t fish at night unless the moon is full. Period. So how about the time in between? Those who fished the period that the water temps were starting to slide enjoyed more than just the one or two goods nights – in fact, as the temps dropped into the 50’s we saw some of the best night fishing of the year. If the moon showed us anything, it made some folks realize that the moon phase can certainly be used as a valuable tool - just not the ONLY tool when night fishing. Look for the bite to improve as the lake temperature drops over the next several weeks.
Each year around this time we get lots of calls and email asking if the lake has "turned over" yet. Many of the "experts" (biologists, anglers, old-timers and Joe) agree that Mille Lacs doesn't have a pronounced thermocline and is not subject to the annual fall "turn-over". This lends itself to more consistent fishing during the cool-down. You may notice when the water temp reaches the mid 40's, the tullibee (what's left of them) will head for our favorite shallow reefs to spawn. This is not usually conducive to good reef fishing... it often lasts until the temps drop below 40 degrees.
The best way to become proficient at fall trolling (or any fishing technique) is to get out on the water and fish, fish, fish. Through trial and error (and of course through your successes) you’ll learn the “what’s”, “where’s” and “when’s”. Keep some notes, be patient, be persistent and most of all HAVE FUN WITH IT!
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