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For a devoted handful of people "deer season" is the time to go fishing for trophies, because, as winter approaches, the muskellunge lurking in Buffalo Harbor and the upper Niagara are at their fattest.

Moreover, they will bite, because they have to put on fat to hold them through the metabolism-slowing ice time just around the corner.

"Twenty years ago, nobody fished in November," said Tony Scime, a stalwart member of the Niagara Musky Association.

"Mark Maghran and I figured if the season stayed open until Nov. 30, we ought to try it."

They did, and, very slowly, a few more anglers began to join them. Today, you might see a half-dozen boats out there, "guys from Canada, from Buffalo, I don't know all of them," Scime said. "But we really are onto something."

Maghran, particularly, has become a November troller. He takes vacation time during deer season to seek relative solitude and lunker muskellunge which, like most anglers here today, he releases.

Last Saturday, he bagged his largest fish ever, 53 inches long with a 27-inch girth. According to the formula developed by fisheries biologists, this puts the fish near the magical 50-pound mark.

Muskies nearing 50 inches are becoming more common thanks to the one-time Buffalo chapter of Muskies Inc. and later, the Musky Association. The size limit has been raised in New York waters to 44 inches.

"Canadians still allow 37-inchers to be kept," Maghran said, "but they keep promising to match our minimum size in the Niagara as soon as they complete their studies."

Conservation efforts have put our city's musky fishery -- which always was a decent (but pretty much secret) affair -- into the limelight as one of the top trophy-producing waters in the U.S.

That happened largely because anglers now release almost all the muskellunge they catch -- even the legal ones, like the one featured here.

"If done right, there seems to be little post-release mortality," Scime said. "The key is to not handle it much, and keep it out of the water for no more than a few seconds." Most anglers simply gauge the size of the "smaller" 40-45 inch fish alongside and release them in the water.

This has resulted in not only larger fish, but more of them as well, suggests a creel census conducted by DEC biologist Mike Wilkinson and the Niagara Musky Association:

"Ninety-nine muskies were caught in 1994 with an average size of 40 inches," Scime said, "in 1997, 145 fish averaging 39.9 inches were caught. More important, the catch rate has gone up.

"In 1995, the first year we charted this, 0.09 fish were caught per angler-hour. Last year, 0.14 fish were caught per angler-hour. That translates to two fish per boat per day.

"So-called trophy waters don't do as well as that," Scime added. "It's an old wives' tale that you have to troll for 1,000 hours to catch a musky. But Georgian Bay averages one big fish per 100 hours, and I think Lake-o-the-Woods requires 30 hours to see a fish like you'd catch here in a morning."

Maghran concurs. I've only fished with Mark four times in the last eight years and we have always had some big fish on. On two notable occasions I've even had my photo snapped with trophies. But despite his success, Maghran had never had one this big.

"I thought seriously of keeping it for a mount," he said, "because I say I'll kill one if it weighs more than 50 pounds. But this was close, and I did not want to put it on a scale and stress it, maybe kill it, if it was going to be a 48-pounder."

If you haven't winterized the boat yet and want to try for a trophy 48 inches and up, the Musky Association has an interesting analysis that might help:

First, most fish are caught after 10 a.m. with the 2-6 p.m. time period the most productive for fall fishing. The wind ought to be below 9 mph and the sky is best cloudy (17 fish) though seven were caught under clear skies. Rain, besides causing angler hypothermia, is not a productive weather pattern.

Most recorded November trophies are caught in Buffalo Harbor (12) with the upper Niagara (10) close behind. The lower river is also starting to produce 48-inchers and could repay serious angler effort, since little musky fishing is done below the falls, the club newsletter says.

Trolling big plugs on stout rods is best, and most fish are caught in water depths of 18-36 feet.

"I caught this one on an 8-inch-long Depth Raider," Maghran said. "It was caught somewhere in the harbor in more than 20 feet of water at 1 p.m. on an overcast day. But it was not calm. Heck, the wind was blowing 25 mph when it was hooked."

Oh yes, Maghran fishes in heavily-insulated clothing and wears felt-lined Sorels instead of boat shoes on his fall forays. He does not use gloves, and has been seen to patch up a deep cut inflicted by muskellunge gill covers with a surgical stapler he keeps aboard.

That's why shaking hands with him to congratulate his catch can be a tactile adventure.

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