By: Spence Petros
It was a long drive and longtime friend Jim Saric and I had a lot of catching up to do. Family, friends, where we had been fishing, future excursions, and new spots with big fish potential were all discussed as we headed north to Lake of the Woods for Musky Hunter’s Annual July school put on by Jim’s magazine. Somewhere in northern Minnesota one of us brought up the subject of some of the mistakes that we see musky anglers make, the small things that often spell the difference between an occasional fish or consistent results. Since us and the other instructors fish with different students every day, we are able to see how people prepare, think, execute and react to on the water changes. From our discussion and taking notes I’ve come up with 12 “Golden Rules” for musky fishing success. If you think your doing these things and you’re not catching fish, think again; you’re missing something. I’ve fished with a number of above average anglers that missed small keys that have cut their odds, especially where bigger fish were the target. Let’s see how you stack up.
Both Jim and I use no-stretch superline (SpiderWire Stealth) when casting and see little use for stretchy monofilament lines. Our spools have monofilament backing, and then Stealth is put on very tight under pressure. Quality leaders are a must with a ball-bearing swivel on one end, and a snap, or snap-swivel on the other. A direct tie is made to jig type lures. Leaders are usually about a foot long, except when trolling where a three foot leader is needed to protect the line from cutting on rocks, and to deal with a fish rolling up on the line. Don’t use a braided leader under 50-pound test if using a lure that you jerk or rip, since it can crystallize and pop. Fluorocarbon leaders have also become popular in recent years, and may be a plus in clearer waters or on pressured fish.
Tie a hook on the super line and pull on it hard with a pliers to make sure the knot doesn’t slip. Often favorite knots that work with mono slip with thin, slick superlines. The Bucher Power knot is a good one. I generally use a double Palomar (go through eye twice before putting over hook), or an improved clinch, but again going through the eye twice before twisting the hook around 5-6 times to for the rest of the knot.
Keep the drags tight so line can barely be pulled off the reel. A big musky will still be able to rip line out. And when not using reels loosen up the drags so the washers don’t stay compressed and ruin the drags smoothness.
Razor-sharp hooks are a must! Get a couple flat-sided files like Musky Hunter sells and sharpen the hooks to a scalpel-like edge. The bigger the fish the harder it is to hook, and hooks that seem to jump out to stick something are what you want. Don’t reach for a lure with sharp hooks when the boat is moving!
I don’t think I’ve ever fished with a good musky angler that’s mouth ran all day. What I like to hear from my partners are “get the net” or “they seem to be moving on this fire tiger pattern”. Concentration is a big key for achieving precise boat control, striving to be mechanically perfect, or plotting out your next moves. I’m not against some talking, but not when it interferes with what I’m trying to accomplish. I have several good friends that don’t shut up (salesmen, of course) that feel it’s their duty to keep me entertained all day. I can take them for a day or two, but not on extended trips.
Something as simple as the direction you cast from a moving boat can be a big factor. Very often I see anglers casting from a moving boat at a 90-degree right towards the structure or shore. For the last 1/3rd. to 1/4th of the cast the lure is coming in pretty much behind the boat, and at or right under the surface. This is the kiss of death if using a top water, bucktail, jig, or just about anything else except a deep-diving true running crankbait.
Cast at a 45 to 60-degree angle in front of the boat, so when the lure does make its swing, your still deep enough or at the right speed to trigger a strike. The high arching “rainbow casts” are another no-no. By the time the extra slack is picked up the lure is already out of position or has sunk into weeds. Fire two-handed line drive casts slightly ahead of the boat. If three anglers are casting, you might have to develop a rhythm where the last person doesn’t cast until the middle lure is half way in. Wind velocity and boat speed may cause small adjustments. If you’re casting ahead and the lure is always behind…slow down!
Strive to be Mechanically Perfect
Low accurate casts, good retrieves, smooth automatic figure 8’s, hook-sets to the side, and playing the fish with a low held rod and the right amount of pressure based on how well (or poorly) it’s hooked are part of being mechanically perfect. A big part of this comes with experience, because a less experienced angler may freeze when a giant is inches behind the lure, or strikes with 18-inches of line out. A good angler becomes almost robotic with his actions which are duplicated over and over.
The right equipment is essential in creating a fine-tuned fishing machine. Smooth oiled reels and longer rods are a plus, as it the right combination of boat and motor. A few years ago at the musky school, I lost two days of fishing because I got paired up with anglers having high-sided aluminum boats and under powered electric motors. The fish were on wind-blow structures and we couldn’t fish them because no head way could be made against the wind.
Play the Wind or Current
Many of the bigger muskies I’ve caught have been on spots that wind or current was hitting. My favorite feature is a spot on the up-wind edge of a more complex structural condition. Points, ridges or rises on the up-wind edge are great, but don’t overlook the sides or corners of a structure where deep water swings in against some type of edge. Also watch for water moving through cuts or slots. I’ve fished many rock structures where you’d almost never see a fish unless a 12-15-mile an hour wind or stronger was hitting it. Then you could almost bet on stirring up a fish.
The brighter and calmer the conditions, the more important it is to find moving water. Moving water and/or darker water are two big pluses to help you neutralize bright, clear and calm. Sometimes it’s easy when brisk winds are pounding structures. Other times your search may take you to more wide open main lake areas, or neck downs that constrict water movement, which also increases the level of flow.
When analyzing water movement, remember there is a backwash to the sides of an above water structure. The down-current part of a structure may also have water movement around it, especially if the winds are brisk and the structure is narrow. If wider slots exist that water moves through, check them with a few casts for suspended muskies.
Don’t neglect your favorite “spot on a spot” if there is no water movement around it. Prime spots may still hold a fish, but your odds of connecting will be much greater under lower light conditions.
Hold Slightly off the Structures
If a structure breaks at eight feet, many anglers hold their boat right on the edge and cast to the shallower water. While this can be productive, remember that the bigger fish will usually be deeper on the edge, or off it. I’d much rather position the boat a little farther out over deeper water, so at least 25% of my cast length is from the edge to the boat. Sometimes the fish are up and cruising over weed tops or rock-studded flats. This will generally be under very good conditions with minimal light penetration caused by high winds, dawn, dusk, or heavy cloud cover.
Another tactic to consider if the edge can be seen (weed growth or water color change), is for one angler to cast parallel to the edge while the other checks over the top. Most of the time when I’m done casting a more lengthy stretch, a trolling run will be made as a final check for fish holder deeper, or off the edge. This has produced muskies dozens of times where casting didn’t even raise a fish.
Don’t Short Cut Points
A common mistake I’ve noted is anglers cutting across the tip of a point and not really hitting the actual tip. They might be casting to a water color change or visible weed growth and missing that small rock finger that runs out another 15-20-feet, or the lower growing fringe weeds extending farther out. You basically fish an edge to find a change in continuity that is more likely to hold a fish, and a point is a prime example. When you get to the edge of the point get your foot off the electric motor and start spraying casts at the point and out. Don’t be in a rush to turn the corner. Very often there is something deeper that is hard to find, or at least you are checking for suspended fish.
Some trollers are notorious for missing the absolute tip of a structure. Their trolling run is determined by what their sonar shows them. After they troll along the side of a point they hit the drop off and a few seconds later the boat is turned to go around the other side of the point. What most don’t realize is it may take 6 to 10-seconds or more for the lure to actually reach the end of the point after the sonar shows the drop into deeper water. And the actual tip is where you are most likely to contact a musky. It is far better to go a few seconds longer than to short cut the point.
Corners and Secondary Points
Another common mistake is to run up to a point and just start fishing around it. Many time the corners of a protruding structural element are better than the actual point. This is especially true if a deep water swing in occurs along a portion of the structure. Actually I may begin 75 to 100-yards away from the structure and work towards it. Many times I’ve found the local lunker using an adjacent small rock finger, mini flat or small patch of weeds. These spots alone would not have enough character to attract and hold a big musky, but if they are closely related to a major spot they need to be fished. Easy to recognize structures probably receive quite a bit of pressure, and it’s a good bet that a fish hanging in the area has been caught or at least hooked a few times. This may cause them to move off, but if it’s a good feeding area they won’t go far.
Look for Deeper Structural Elements
A rule of thumb that’s usually true is if you’re not seeing bigger fish you are probably not fishing deep enough. This goes hand in hand with another “rule” of mine; if you are fishing a great looking area and not moving muskies, you’re probably missing something.
Secondary, deeper features are very often the key to big fish success. The more pressure a body of water gets the more apt this is to be a golden rule. Let’s first take a look at a shallower, fertile body of water where most of the angling pressure occurs along the weed edges. Most anglers would have enough sense to play the wind, but to have consistent success, especially on larger fish; your thought process has to go deeper. On lakes like these small patches of weeds outside the major beds, or lower growing deeper grasses such as sandgrass are often the keys to the best action.
If the weeds stop growing at 9-feet and a slow taper exists outside the weed edge, it very common to have high spots that come up to 9-feet or less that can harbor a patch of weeds. Also lower growing vegetation can pop up in mid to later summer when the sun is high and the water is warmest. Foot or two high sandgrass that coats the bottom is a musky magnet and it rarely gets fished. A deeper diving jerkbait such as a weighted Suick or Bobbie Bait slow trolled over this deep algae can produce the biggest muskies the lake has to offer.
Deeper structural elements would differ in a deeper lake. Fringe weeds can still be a factor, but rocks would be more of a key. Many large rock-based structures have secondary rock formations related to the main targeted area. Smaller humps off the main structure that top off in the 8 to 20-range are prime big fish spots. Also watch for ridges or spines that may or may not be connected to the major structure. When you’re done fishing, zigzag around the area up to 100-yards or so off the major spot and look for these smaller features. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to toss a crankbait behind the boat while doing this.
Don’t Over Fish Following Fish
It’s a big mistake to keep running back to a big musky that followed in a lure. Do this and the fish will stop showing up or will move off the spot. I had several instances where I saw a big fish on a spot where I thought it would stay, and didn’t go back for a day or two until conditions were right. Then I caught it!
If I see a big one I try to determine how hot it is. If the fish is charging fast with “fire in its eyes” then turns off, quickly toss out the same lure it followed. If the fish looks fairly active but doesn’t seem suicidal, I’ll usually toss back a soft plastic tube or Shallow Invader. If the fish is low, slow and deep I may not even make another cast. In any event, after a few casts I’m out of there. If it’s a giant fish I’ll probably leave it alone and re-fish the spot the last half hour of the day with a surface lure.
Don’t stay on a big fish too long, and don’t re-fish a spot if it’s calm or sunny. Wait for lower light conditions or reduced light penetration. Early, late, or when winds or cloud cover increases are the times to go back!
Strategy for “Community Spots”
Just about every lake has these spots. Those are obvious structures that pop out on a map that spell muskies. And while these easy to recognize gems still produce a big musky from time to time, they are pretty much a waste of time to fish during less than perfect conditions due to extensive fishing pressure. I’ve have often seen anglers who know a lake better than me hit these community spots over and over during off times and never catch a fish. Half their day is wasted as they have very little chance to boat a fish. Fish the harder to find and secondary spots most of the time, and save the well know structures for prime conditions.
Think Outside the Box
This is my biggest strong point, coming up with a new wrinkle, a presentation that’s a little different, or a technique with a twist. I was fortunate to be on the ground floor of jig fishing for muskies when I was exposed to this new technique in 1973 by Tony Portincaso, who had already been jigging for a few years. We saw the bait of choice go from 5 to 8-inch Reapers, to “creatures”, to a wide variety of jig-type lures. About 10-years ago, Bill Siemantel, a California big bass specialist showed me some giant tubes at a show in Nevada. I immediately thought of using them as a toss back lure for muskies. He gave me a couple and they became my “secret weapons” for a few years, until several tackle companies began to make them.
Many musky anglers have seen “the shoot out at Deer Lake” TV show and video put out by the Lindners about a trip to Deer Lake Wisconsin in September 1973. Al and Ron Lindner, Gary Roach and me boated 22 muskies 10 to 22-pounds in one evening and the following day. While Al and I started trolling big double-bladed spinnerbaits over the weeds, Roach and Ron were also doing something different; trolling jerkbaits. None of us had ever done these tactics before, but fish were hot, moving over the weeds, and the more territory covered the more fish caught. Two techniques were born due to conditions.
Many tactics have been developed to cope with conditions. On a sunny day when muskies were holding tight to cabbage weed edges, we began to hook weeds along inside turns with a jig and silver Reaper. We’d jiggle it a bit to get the fishes attention, and then rip the flashing silver lure free to trigger a strike.
If jigging an edge on a stained water lake we began fishing big spinnerbaits, trimming them down so they sink better, cutting off a blade, and ripping them. Same effect except now we have more flash and vibration to better cope with the stained water.
I rarely go on two trips in a row with out some “outside the box” technique or tactic paying off. The key is to be versatile and don’t be afraid to try something new. It’s extra rewarding when you put your twist on a musky-catching tactic!