Five Lessons From The 2021 Musky Season

By Steve Heiting

Late afternoon on the final day of our first trip to Lake of the Woods in two years because of the Covid border closure, the sun cracked the clouds and almost immediately we could feel the humidity lessen. A major storm front that brought heavy wind and rain the day before was passing, and we feared it would signal an unofficial end to what had been a good week of fishing. It was just about time for dinner, and before we beached the boat on a sandy shore to start the cook stove we decided to make a few casts at a small cabbage bed where we had raised a few muskies during the week.

The cabbage in this corner of the lake had become less vital with each successive day, and overall we were encountering fewer muskies in the weeds as is typical of the beginning of September. Knowing any musky we would catch would probably be less aggressive because of the passing front, I picked up a rod rigged with an eight-inch Slammer and flipped the minnowbait to a crease in the cabbage tops that protruded above the surface. Though I couldn’t see the lure because of algae bloom, I worked it with an exaggerated slack line twitch to extend its flutter time and minimize its forward movement. I hoped the lure’s prolonged wiggle near the weeds would draw a musky out. 

Steve with the big minnowbait fish he caught in bloom conditions from shallow weeds.

After four or five twitches it was time to reel up the slack line. As I did so I felt weight, which could have been from a musky that grabbed the bait or from weeds, so I snapped the rod tip sharply. The result was a sudden bulge in the water as the fish reacted to the hooks piercing its jaw, and the line sliced the green murk as the musky headed for deeper water. We couldn’t see the fish but could tell it was a pretty good one given the fight, and as my buddy Kevin Schmidt eased the net beneath it we realized it was one of the best muskies we had caught all week.

Once again, a minnowbait had come through in difficult conditions. That big fish was another moment in a season’s worth of examples that reaffirmed some of my beliefs or opened my eyes a little after more than 40 years at the musky fishing game. In this article I will discuss five things that I learned, or in which my belief grew stronger, during 2021.

1. Crankbaits: King Of The Cold Front

What I call a “minnowbait” is nothing more than a flat-sided crankbait — after all, it has a diving lip and will wiggle with a straight retrieve. In post-frontal conditions, it is rivaled in effectiveness only by a subtle soft plastic. The musky whose capture is discussed above was caught while following this pattern last year, but another fish was arguably more important. In late June, I joined Jim Saric, host of “The Musky Hunter” TV show, and northwoods guide Kevin Schmidt to film an episode of Jim’s show in northern Wisconsin. Going into the final evening, Jim said he felt we needed one more nice musky to round out the episode. Kevin and I agreed, but knew that the cool, post-frontal conditions called for every trick we knew to get it done.

Since we planned to target suspended, open water muskies, I told Jim I would use a small, jointed crankbait and fish it with a plain vanilla retrieve. I prefer to use twitches and rips when fishing crankbaits, but under post-frontal conditions I have found a small crankbait reeled in with a straight retrieve to be very effective for open water fish. As darkness settled and we were three or four casts from when I expected Jim to call an end to the evening, my crankbait was slammed by what proved to be the best musky of the shoot. When the fish hit the net, Jim’s show was complete and again my belief in crankbaits in cold fronts was confirmed.

2. Scuzzy Is Relative

I’ve said it many times before that the pre-turnover musky pattern is my favorite of the year. Annually I schedule a couple trips to destination waters during that time, and when not on a trip I fish my home waters in northern Wisconsin as much as possible. One thing to monitor daily is the vitality of the weeds as they are affected by both a lowering sun angle and, often, algae bloom. This decline in the weeds is even more pronounced in stained water lakes. Cabbage especially becomes slimy and darker in color, and for lack of a better term, “scuzzy” is an appropriate description.

As weeds degenerate, they produce less oxygen. You’ll often see fewer fish using them with each passing day and, in some cases, the muskies’ departure from weed spots can happen almost overnight. When this happens, they usually move to the nearest boulder or rock point. But during the pre-turnover period of 2021, the muskies seemed to be using weeds that had declined beyond what I would normally fish. Typically I continue to beat up patterns as long as they exist, and I found weeds produced well past the point I expected them to in the dark water lakes I fished.

3. How Long Do They Remember?

Over the years I have fished some very unpressured waters, most notably Lake Vermilion in the late 1990s as the initial musky stockings were taking hold. We literally watched Vermilion’s muskies grow up as top end fish seemed to be about two inches longer each year. Muskies being muskies, it was never easy but the action was still outstanding.

When the masses learned of the lake in the early 2000s, it seemed the fish quickly wised up and became more difficult to catch. On the other hand, occasionally you hear of muskies being caught several times in the same season. We once reported in Musky Hunter of a fish that was caught twice within 30 minutes in a tournament. The musky’s ability to remember will spark debate every time someone brings up the subject.

When Covid caused the closure of the Canadian border from early 2020 until August 9, 2021, many anglers including me expected easy musky fishing when we returned. While Canadian fishermen could still fish their lakes, the sheer numbers of American anglers suggests the heaviest pressure comes from them. I’ve talked with a lot of U.S. anglers who fished Canadian waters in the weeks after the border opened, and their beliefs were the same as mine — the muskies were not easy, and we often experienced the same frustratrations as we had when we last visited in 2019.

So I have to ask — how long do muskies remember previous experiences with anglers, or is conditioning a figment of our imagination? Were the fish we encountered in 2021 challenging because they still remembered the lures and techniques they last saw in 2019? Or is that just the way muskies are?

4. The Song Remains The Same

One thing I vowed when I inherited Tom Gelb’s Ranger 680C in 2021 was to fish smaller waters with difficult boat landings, for which the rig was tailor-made. Some of the lakes were my favorites during my formative years of musky fishing, and I hadn’t visited one of them for at least 30 years. Amazingly, the lakes hadn’t changed. My friends and I caught muskies from them with the same patterns and presentations I used years ago.

As much as this sport has changed in the past quarter-century, it was refreshing to see that some things have not changed at all. Great patterns then can still be productive today, and waters from your past can still be great places to fish — provided the musky fishery is sustained through natural reproduction. In lakes where the fishery is maintained by man, reduced stocking can cause a fishery to almost disappear as the fish age and die.

5. Previous Patterns Don’t Always Work

I have maintained meticulous records of every musky I have caught or netted for people fishing with me for nearly three decades. There is no question the patterns revealed by my records make me more efficient on the water. Often when I encounter conditions similar to what I’ve seen previously, the patterns that worked for me in the past will work for me now.

But sometimes this works against me when I insist on fishing according to what the records say, even though I know I should be do something different. During 2021, I kept pounding at the open water/suspended musky pattern for about two weeks longer than I should have. My own fishing experiences, as well as discussions with others, indicated the muskies had largely transitioned to weeds in early August. Instead, I bullheadedly continued fishing open water looking for the couple big fish that I always seem to catch that month, but it didn’t happen. In this case, my faith in my records worked against me.

If I haven’t figured muskies out after more than 40 years, I probably never will. And that’s okay, because it keeps the sport fun. 

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