I set down my rod, took a pop from my boat’s cooler, and plunked my butt on the gunnel to assess the situation. My videographer, Rick Mai, grabbed a bottle of water and set down the camera for a well-deserved break. Already Rick had filmed my battles with two nice fish and the trip was certainly a success, but I was frustrated because the musky I thought should be on this spot wasn’t there.
‘Rick, we’ve been to this spot three times and haven’t seen a musky yet. They’re moving everywhere but here. I’ve got a feeling there’s a big fish in the area, and she’s waiting for the right conditions to show herself.’
I checked my wristwatch and found moonset to be two hours off. ‘Let’s go elsewhere and leave this alone until moonset. If nothing shows itself then, let’s head out.’ Family obligations required each of us to be home well before dark.
Leaving this boulder-strewn point was not easy. Volkswagen-sized rocks accented the point, and weedbeds a cast length from the tip added another dimension. To top it off, a stiff southwest wind was piling into the point and both muskies I’d already caught had grabbed bucktails along wind-blown rock edges. But I feared that if I stayed I might overpressure the big fish I believed to be there, so moving on was the best option. I fired up the outboard and we fished elsewhere for the new couple of hours.
Moonset was just moments away as I eased my Ranger into position and lowered the trolling motor. My first cast produced nothing, but my second was rocked by a hard strike in the middle of a large boil. A large tail and gray back rose from the middle of the swirl as I buried the hooks into the musky’s mouth.
‘Oh … big fish!’ I shouted as the fish thrashed the surface and then charged the boat. It paused briefly next to the port side, then dove for the back of the boat and my line hung up momentarily on the skeg of my Mercury kicker. Leaping to the rear deck, I reached out with the rod and freed the line, and the musky responded by ripping line from my tight drag in a desperate run for deep water. Slowed by the drag, the musky paused again before charging for the bow up the starboard side.
‘I’ve lost power!’ shouted Rick. I glanced over my shoulder to see that he’d spun around the back of the boat as he kept the battle in the viewfinder, and the camera’s power cord had wrapped around the pedestal of his butt seat until it ran out of slack and the cord popped free. I couldn’t help because my hands were full of bucking rod, but in seconds I was relieved to hear Rick shout, ‘I’m back!’
After that excitement, getting the musky in the net was anticlimactic. The musky measured just a hair shy of four feet and was a huge exclamation mark to a successful day of filming. I felt like singing all the way home but chose to spare Rick instead.
Making the correct call of when to go where is one of the skills I see in all of the best musky hunters I know ‘ it’s a matter of putting yourself in the right place at the right time. I’m happy to say that this thought process is becoming second nature to me, and this article is the result. It’s an analysis of how I decide when to go where, and how I’ll fish once I arrive.
I’ve developed two approaches: one that applies to times when I have multiple waters to choose from (as in my home area in northeastern Wisconsin where about I know about 50 lakes of the 350 that contain muskies within an hour’s drive); and one that applies when I’m limited to just one water, as when I’m fishing in a tournament or in Canada.
My first consideration in the multiple lake scenario is what my day’s goal is. Do I want to have lots of action (usually when I’m fishing with my kids or with inexperienced fishermen) or do I want to fish for big fish? Of the 50 lakes I know well near my home, this will cut the list of which lake to fish essentially in half.
The second consideration is the weather conditions at the moment. If skies are clear, I’ll likely go to a lake that has dark water, whereas if they’re dark I may go to a clear water lake. Do not, however, discount dark water on dark days as this can be a tremendous situation in which to fish.
The weather at the moment may further cut my choices in half, but a forecasted weather change is the wild card. If I’ve been having follows from a big musky in a certain lake, I may alter my plans to try to catch this fish in a feeding mode ahead of the change, or I may decide to switch lakes ahead of the change to be in the area of the big girl precisely when the forecasted storm comes in.
Wind direction is the third criteria. I prefer to fish wind-blown structure, and some lakes are just better in certain winds. Why? Look at your lake maps. On some waters, most if not all of the prime structure will be buffeted by wind from a certain direction. For example, if most of the prime structure lies on the northern end of a lake, I’d usually fish that lake in a wind from the southern half of the compass. Now, if the wind is from the north, the prime structure would not receive much wind, so I’d avoid the lake that day unless, perhaps, the winds are predicted to swing around to a preferable direction ahead of a weather change.
For the sake of this example, let’s say my first consideration (day’s goal) cut the list of potential lakes from 50 to 25. The second (weather) reduced it from 25 to 10. The third (wind) knocked my choices down from 10 to 4. How do I choose which of the four to fish?
Hopefully, recent history will help, meaning that you or your friends have had success in these exact or similar conditions on one of the lakes in question. If that doesn’t completely narrow it down, consider ‘lake hopping,’ which means trying one lake but being ready to put your boat on the trailer and go to a water that fits all of the day’s criteria if the action on the first lake isn’t what you had hoped. I’ve fished as many as five different lakes in one day according to this scenario while trying to find a ‘hot’ water.
A single water choice will occur if trailering to another lake is impossible or impractical. Usually this occurs on a vacation to a large water, say in Minnesota or Canada, or if you’re renting a boat from a resort owner and going elsewhere is not an option.
In this scenario, I consider wind first and foremost. Musky fishing is a percentage game, and staying in wind-blown areas will help me contact the most active fish in the shortest amount of time. Don’t get me wrong ‘ you can catch lots of muskies on certain days from the lee (non-wind) side of structure. But in the long run, if you fish the wind you’ll catch more fish.
I start by checking my lake map and looking for areas that will receive the most direct wind. Sometimes the wind can be too strong to comfortably fish, but most days should be fishable. This may reduce the number of potential fishing spots by half, and looking for the areas with the stiffest wind will further dial you into the best spots.
If there’s no wind, I’ll check current areas. Typically large waters have some form of current and the larger the lake is the more current you’ll find. Look on your map for neckdown areas and long channels, and then treat the structure you find as if you were fishing in the wind ‘ fish the up-current side. Muskies will use current as an aid in feeding much the same as they’ll use wind.
Always keep on the lookout for baitfish, whether you can see them beneath the surface with polarized sunglasses, on the screen of your electronics, or by observing what other boats are catching. Muskies are never far from baitfish, and their presence may dictate which are the hottest structures while you’re on the water.
To further dial in on single waters, watch for varying water colors. Larger lakes that are not landlocked tend to get darker the farther ‘downstream’ you go in them, and where you fish can be decided based on the weather. On clear days, head for the darker water, on dark days go to the clearer water.
An algae bloom is another component to water color. Fishing in bloom conditions can be a miserable experience but you can succeed if you watch for areas that have been cleared somewhat of the bloom, either by wind or current. Algae is pushed ‘downstream’ by wind and current, and in larger waters it’s possible to stay ahead of the bloom as it spreads.
Recent history will also dictate where I fish. Regardless of the wind, current or weather, if I have a big fish moving someplace or I’ve found a pack of fish it’s difficult to ignore these hotspots. Try to make at least one quick check or two during the course of the day regardless of the conditions.
Finally, if I’ve tried the wind-blown structure on the dark side of a lake on a clear day where I’ve moved fish the previous couple of days and I still can’t find fish, it’s time to fish either deeper or shallower. Moving off the breakline is one alternative, particularly in post-frontal conditions, but fishing as shallow as you can may be the best overall choice. You may not contact many fish and it’s a mind game to continue to muck through the shallows, but shallow muskies tend to be very active and the one or two fish you see may be on the end of your line.
You’ve chosen your lake, or the section of the lake, you intend to fish. Now what do you do?
Usually, I start by selecting lures that will allow me to fish fastest considering the current weather, water temperature and time of year. For example, a bucktail on my rod and a topwater on a partner’s may allow us to cover water quickly during the summer under prime conditions, but probably would be a poor choice following a cold front or in the cooler water temperatures of fall. In those cases, I may cast a crankbait while my partner fast-hops a glider jerkbait or rips a big minnowbait.
If previous experience has shown that a certain color or lure is hot on the particular water being fished, somebody in my boat will always start with that color or lure. Lakes tend to have idiosyncrasies, and who am I to argue with success?
Next, I let the fish tell me what they want. I like to say that follows make for thin soup, and if the muskies are merely following and not eating, a change is in order. Semi-active to active follows usually dictate that I should stay with the type of lure I’m fishing, but a change in size, color, or style will be the trigger. While changeups in size and color are self-explanatory, a ‘style’ change needs definition. This may mean switching from a Colorado-bladed bucktail to a bucktail with a different blade style, because each blade variation will throw a different flash and vibration. On a crankbait, the correct style change may be going from a jointed model to a straight model. On a tail-spinning topwater, it may mean going to one with a double tail.
I probably fish slow, lazy following muskies much differently than most people. I prefer to speed up my presentations to trigger reaction strikes, even though I may see fewer fish by day’s end. I want the muskies to have to make the decision to either eat the bait or get the heck out of the way, and this has paid off countless times on numerous waters. During a University of Esox Musky School a few years back, my order to switch from jerkbaits to ‘burned’ bucktails was met with skepticism by the students fishing with me because we’d had lazy five follows in the first half hour on the water. However, when the first bucktail was eaten less than five minutes later, and by day’s end we’d boated five more muskies, I’d made two converts.
Regardless of what the pattern is, once you’ve figured it out take every advantage of it. This is often the deciding factor between a 1- or 2-fish day and a day of legend, one that you’ll tell your grandkids about. For example, if you’ve caught a musky and seen a couple of hot fish from a wind-blown shoreline that contains downed trees, don’t go fish a nearby weedbed just because you’ve caught muskies there or somebody marked it on your map. Try to find as many wind-blown shorelines with downed trees as you can and pinball between those that are producing fish. Beat ’em up until the pattern changes and you’re forced to move on to something else.
Finally, be keenly aware of the environment around you. Following muskies can turn into eaters ahead of an approaching front, during a wind shift, during light changes, before moonrise or moonset. If you notice that a change is about to occur, immediately return to where you’ve raised the biggest musky you’ve seen or the most active musky you’ve seen, or the best-looking spot you’re aware of.
Who knows ‘ that may be the final factor in catching a big musky. It was for me at the outset of this article, and will be for you if you’re willing to use such knowledge to your advantage. Constantly analyze your musky fishing from start to day’s end, and you’ll see rewards as your rod gets bent more as your film processing costs escalate!