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The mixed-bag tips we've collected here will keep you busy, and having fun, all Fall
1) Call in a Cool Cat
For many hunters, a bobcat mount over the mantel is as prized as a whitetail buck, and late November—when bobcat seasons typically open—is a prime time to call one in. Bobcats are notoriously reclusive, but compared with coyotes, they’re easier to call. The problem is antsy predator hunters often change sets before giving a bobcat time to respond.
Get Out: Bobcats prefer remote, rugged country, so set up on the fringes of the thick stuff. Dark hollows, dense clear-cuts, and brushy canyons far away from civilization hold the most cats. If you can scout ahead of time for tracks and scat, you’re ahead of the game.
Take Cover: When I’m hunting coyotes, I like a good field of view in an open area to catch them circling downwind. But cats rarely circle or charge straight into a calling setup, so you can sit tighter to cover. Usually, a bobcat will slink through the brush all the way to the call, and show itself at the last second, when it appears to pounce. A bobcat may take an hour to commit to a calling setup, so be patient. Attention Grabbers: Use small-prey distress sounds—rabbits and birds—and keep the electronic caller going constantly at medium volume to fix a cat’s attention. A turkey feather tied to a string and staked out over the caller, or a motorized predator decoy, is very effective.
Scale Down: Bobcats aren’t as tough as coyotes, and their hide is very soft. Frangible bullets from high-velocity varmint rifles can do more damage to the hide than a taxidermist can repair, so opt for a bullet with more controlled expansion. When hunting at close quarters, use a shotgun or downsize your rifle to a .22 Hornet or a .22 WMR. —W.B.
2) Take a Pup Rabbit Hunting
My buddy Ryan McCafferty keeps a pen full of beagles, and by the end of winter, he’ll have a freezer full of rabbits. McCafferty, a self-proclaimed meat hunter, takes a practical approach to his training. “I’m not into field trials and registered dogs,” he says. “In fact, I’ve only ever paid money for one beagle, and that was the biggest waste of $25 in my life. Papers have never put rabbits in the skillet for me.”
Still, he has a new pup or two in his pack at any given time, and he likes to get them into the field as soon as rabbit season opens in November. “At 6 months old,” he says, “a pup is big enough to keep up with the grown dogs and begin learning the ropes. At a year old, you’ll know they’ve either got it or they don’t.”
Before taking a puppy into the field, McCafferty wants her to understand basic commands and be comfortable around gunfire. “I want a puppy to be easy to handle and come to me without fail when I call,” he says. “I fire a .22 pistol a few times when I’m feeding them, and that breaks them of any gun shyness. After that, it’s simply a matter of dropping a puppy out with a pack of older dogs, and letting them get a nose full of rabbit.”
There’s not much you can really do to teach a beagle to trail a rabbit and bark, McCafferty says. It’s about instinct. “If you have a couple good older dogs, the pups will learn quickly by following their example,” he says. When you shoot a rabbit, give the pup plenty of time to smell it—and lots of praise. Usually, that’s all it takes. —W.B.
3) Gun November Mournings
You’re making a mistake if you store your dove gun on Labor Day. The overwhelming majority of dove hunting pressure occurs during the first two weeks in September, but dove seasons are frequently open throughout fall, and some of the best shooting happens from late November into the first week of December. Cold fronts move migrating doves, same as ducks, and this time of year they’re easy to find around cut corn and milo fields.
It can be tough talking enough buddies out of their treestands for a proper shoot on a large field, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still bag a mess of birds by yourself. Look for smaller cut fields with lots of leftover stubble and waste grain, and plenty of big trees around the edges. I seem to see the most late-season doves on high-pressure, bluebird days following a front—and when you flush a few birds while scouting, you usually flush a bunch. Tuck into nearby edge cover and wear full camouflage; far too many hunters underestimate a dove’s eyesight. Stake a couple of spinning-wing dove decoys 15 to 20 yards out in the field, and try to keep your gun loaded. These typically aren’t the all-day, high-volume shoots of September, but the action can be intense for an hour or two. If the birds quit flying before you fill your limit, pick up, scout another field, and do it all over again. —W.B.
4) Make Monster Pike Go Pop
Did you put your topwater bugs away months ago? Get them back out. Pike prefer cooler water, and the fall months have them moving from deep summer sanctuaries back to the shallows to feed. With winter near, they’re all about a big, easy meal, and a loud topwater fly will get destroyed. The trick is knowing when and how to present these patterns.
The Warm-up: Wait for the warmest part of the day, often between 2 and 4 p.m., before you tie on a topwater. All it takes is an uptick in water temperature of a degree or two to get forage moving in the shallows. Focus on logjams and rockpiles with weeds close by, as the hard structure absorbs heat and makes the surrounding area warm even faster.
The Slow Grind: Keep your distance from a likely hotspot and make a 30- or 40-foot cast. The more you can draw out a retrieve, the more likely you are to get smoked. Let your fly sit still for 30 seconds after it splats down. Sometimes just the noise of a topwater hitting the surface will draw a strike. If it doesn’t, work the fly back slowly. Pop it once or twice and let it sit. Try one aggressive pop followed by a subtler gurgle. You can even try slowly but steadily stripping the line back just fast enough to make the fly wake. And always work the fly almost all the way back to the rod tip. —J.C.
5) Feed (and Fight) Super Steelhead
Egg patterns and nymphs are staple flies for Great Lakes steelhead. While there is no hard-and-fast rule as to when to fish nymphs vs. eggs, different stages of the fall run can help you pinpoint which will work better.
Put an Egg on It: In early fall, steelhead eat gobs of lake-run brown trout and salmon eggs daily. Eggs will remain productive as long as there are spawning salmon and brown trout in the river, or as long as fresh steelhead are still running in. Even if there are few eggs left for munching, fresh fish running up from the lake are instinctually looking for them, so a late runner will swipe some Estaz or yarn.
Nymph Like a Natural: Big black stoneflies or girdle bugs shine as fall turns to winter and there are no more fresh steelhead shooting upstream. Now that the fish are posted up on holes (many of which have been pounded with eggs), they can become more discerning. The egg feast is over, which forces the steelhead to feed on other river forage like nymphs. If you’re hesitant to give up those trusty eggs, try a stonefly with a pink, orange, or blue belly. It gives you the best of both worlds. —J.C.
6) Hit the Beach
Want a true cow striper from the surf? The beaches of western Long Island and New Jersey are the places this month. With menhaden schools just offshore (see “Feeding the Cows,” p. 22), the big girls have plenty to eat, and the presence of these meaty baitfish means you can score with everything from chunks to large topwaters like a pencil popper. The trick is finding the troughs on the beach. To do this, watch a wave break offshore. As it rolls to the beach, keep a sharp eye on its behavior. If it remains a roiling line of whitewater all the way in, it’s likely that the wave is rolling over a shallow or even bottom, which is usually not as “fishy.” If it breaks and then flattens before it reaches your feet, that means it rolled over a deeper trough and lost its momentum. The spot where it flattened out is where you want to soak a chunk or pop a pencil. Cows use these troughs to get close to feed, so make sure they’ve got something to eat when they cruise through. —J.C.
7) Find Roosters on the Run
While you were up in a tree waiting on Mr. Big, pheasant season started. Opening-weekend birds learned a hard lesson fast: run or die. Now that you’re ready to hunt, the game is definitely afoot. From now until cold weather slows them down, pheasants run—and you have to put the brakes on them.
The traditional gang approach is to beat pheasants with numbers: Blockers sneak into position at the edge of the field, and walkers start at the other end and move toward them. Put the younger hunters on the wings, as they’ll walk a little faster, making the line into a wide, shallow U, which helps cut off birds that flush out the sides. When drivers meet standers, birds fill the air. Identify your target and be sure you can see sky below its belly to avoid unsafe low shots.
If you prefer to hunt with a small group or a partner, you can still corral running pheasants. Look for strips of cover—waterways, standing food plots, shelterbelts—where you can post a blocker. Blockers should post at the upwind end so pheasant scent carries to dogs accompanying the walkers. Be ready as you near the blocker, and stay ready after you reach the end of the strip. Some birds will run as far as they can under cover, then sit tight. Give them a few minutes to get nervous and flush before you move on.
Hunting alone? Plan to push birds into corners or against field edges where they have to fly or sit. Pick up the pace as you get within 80 yards or so of the end of the cover and be ready to shoot. As always, be patient when you reach the corner. Anytime a dog—flusher or pointer—gets birdy, stay close behind. Purists disagree, but I think there’s no dog work more thrilling than watching a dog creep after moving pheasants. Half of those birds will bust wild but in range, some will sit for an instant then go, and a very few will hold tight. All of them will be birds you earn. —P.B.
8) Deke Territorial Turkeys
By the time the leaves have mostly fallen, fall turkeys—hens and toms—will be locked into a tight feeding pattern, and they don’t take kindly to any bird that cuts in line at their chosen buffet. This willingness to defend their dinner is a weakness all fall turkey hunters can exploit. Here’s how:
Observe: Whether you’re sitting in a treestand simply watching, or need to get in the truck and glass some picked cornfields, take note of where you see turkey flocks. If a group of birds is scratching their way through a field in search of waste grain today, they’ll be there tomorrow, likely at the same time.
Hide and Deke: For a bowhunt, carry in a hub-style blind and brush it in. If a 12-gauge is your thing, put an oversize oak at your back and make a natural blind on the field edge. Remember that you’ll have multiple sets of eyes to beat, so pay close attention to your hide. Either way, a single feeding-hen decoy is the ticket. Place it 15 yards out and clearly visible to any birds entering the field.
Talk Smack: The soft, subtle calling that many advise for fall doesn’t work here. Instead, you want to shout at nearby birds and let them know how much you’re enjoying their groceries. Loud, aggressive yelping and cutting with a diaphragm call or a box call is a good way to get their attention. Add in some leaf scratching to fully sell the ruse. When the head honcho in a group of toms sees this, he’ll lead the whole flock in. Ditto for the matriarch of a gang of hens and poults. —T.J.P.
9) Take Your Best Shot
When anglers hear drop shot, they most likely think of bass fishing. The simple finesse rig has rightfully earned its reputation catching largemouths and smallies, but its utility doesn’t end there. Drop-shotting works for catfish, panfish, and trout and even excels for fall walleyes.
To rig a drop shot for walleyes, start with a medium-action, 7-foot rod. Match an appropriately sized reel and spool it with 6-pound, low-visibility monofilament. Tie on a No. 1 Octopus or drop-shot hook with a Palomar knot, leaving 12 to 16 inches of tag end. Next, with the hook point facing up, bring the tag end down through the hook eye; this causes the hook to stick out perpendicular to the line. Finish by fixing a small drop shot, or a 1⁄2- to 1-ounce bank sinker, on the tag end. The weight should be as light as possible, just enough to hold bottom.
You can use a wide variety of artificial and live bait. Any favorite soft plastic, curlytail, minnow, nightcrawler, or leech will work. This rig is effective in shallow water, but its prowess lies in targeting deep structure. Position your boat either directly on top of or a few yards off rockpiles, ledges, and humps in depths of 20 feet or deeper, then cast to the structure. When you feel the weight hit bottom, take in the slack. Proceed to move or twitch the rod tip slowly. This will keep the weight in place and make your baited hook dance for attention. Periodically move the weight and continue to work the bait, casting repeatedly to the same area. This will allow you to cover water efficiently. —M.M.
10) Open Wide for ’Skies
Virtually every school of fishing will pound the word structure into your head. Fish love structure. This is thought to be especially true for the muskellunge. Any muskie angler knows that the fish love to hunt in the cabbage. But one of the most overlooked, and highly effective, patterns for catching fall muskies is targeting them in open water. Some muskies will spend their entire lives in the basin, never venturing into the shallows, and these fish tend to be true giants. The key factor is, of course, food. Where a wide variety of baitfish including herring, shad, crappies, perch, ciscoes, and whitefish are schooled up in open water almost any time of the year, you’ll find muskies by finding the bait.
Going after open-water muskies is best done with baits that can penetrate deeper into the water column. It’s hard to beat a large hunk of rubber like a Musky Innovations Pounder Bulldawg or Chaos Tackle Medussa. These heavy lures are meant to be thrown on 80- to 100-pound braided line and XXH rods. You’ll also want to use a quality, 135-pound fluoro muskie leader.
Finding bait schools shouldn’t be difficult with quality electronics. (A side scanner can go a long way but isn’t entirely necessary.) Focus on areas that have lower water temps in the warmer months and higher water temps in the cooler months. A sustained steady breeze can also push food particles and bait to the downwind side of the lake. Proceed to cast over and through these bait schools. Be persistent and be patient. This is, after all, muskie fishing. —M.M.