By Steve Heiting, Managing Editor
Among the benefits of teaching the University of Esox Musky Schools is the longterm friendships I’ve developed with a number of the students. And seeing the students take the information shared with them and then succeeding at musky fishing — either during the school or, sometimes, years later — is another thing I greatly enjoy.
Ken and Donna Jones have attended several of the annual Canadian Musky Adventure Schools held at Monument Bay Lodge on Lake of the Woods’ Northwest Angle. During the past two years they have each caught their largest musky during the July school, and I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a boat with them several times.
One constant, however, is we always seem to pick a day with difficult fishing conditions but we still seem to catch fish. Last year was no different. A cold front had passed the night before, and the forecast for the day called for no wind and bright, sunny skies. As we left the dock, however, low clouds still hung over the morning sky and I pushed my big Mercury just a little harder to try to eke out a few more minutes before the sky cleared.
The first spot I chose was a rocky point with immediate deep water nearby in a constricted current area. Walleye-flavored Shallow Invaders and silver-and-white bucktails seemed to be the lure du jour in the school, so I had Ken snap on the minnowbait while Donna attached a Mepps Giant Killer to her line.
Just as we reached the upcurrent side of the shallowest portion of the rock, Ken set the hook hard and his rod doubled with a good musky. After a short tussle, I slid the net under a fish that was just over 42 inches, one we dubbed “Snuffy” because of a birth defect — a downward-pointed upper jaw that gave the fish a shortened head and a goofy appearance. After photos, the fish swam strongly from Ken’s grasp.
As I repositioned the boat the clouds broke. Ken and Donna swapped baits, but the muskies weren’t much impressed with our efforts. I kept the boat in current areas and started fishing rock walls, the kind of stuff where a musky can snug up tight to structure but still remain in relatively deep water. While fishing a rock wall that formed a corner of the mouth of another channel, Ken set the hook hard again. In this instance, a fat 41-incher had rolled up from a boulder along the wall and snared the Giant Killer. It, too, made for a nice photo session before it was released.
Now, I’ve enjoyed many great days on the water, but this one was special in that we’d beaten a cold front with two nice musky catches. Knowing Ken, I think the only way the day could have been any better was if Donna had caught at least one of the fish.
A “cold front” typically means the aftermath of a zone of low pressure moving through the area. Low pressure often brings some kind of weather change, usually in the form of thunderstorms, and is preceded by warm weather. As the front passes, it will be followed by high pressure, which is typically marked by winds out of the northwest, a disappearance of humidity and clearing skies. The whole food chain seems to stop, from biting flies on your ankles on up. Just how this affects muskies is open to debate, but it’s generally agreed that it makes them less aggressive and much harder to catch.
Cold fronts are a fact of life for musky fishermen. Some anglers will attack a cold front, but many will take a defeatist attitude with them on the water when faced with post-frontal conditions. And that’s too bad, because muskies can be caught in cold fronts. Just ask Ken Jones.
In his book Time on the Water, Bill Gardner says about cold fronts: “A cold front will knock the fishing down for about two days, and it seems these fronts roll through about every third day.” Bill’s assessment is funny and partly true, but cold fronts don’t have to be that bad. Here are six ideas — many of which we used in this article’s introduction — that can help you counter a cold front’s effects.
1. Beat The Sun
Often, when a cold front passes overnight, the next morning will be marked by cloudy skies and — if it’s summer and the drop in air temperature was significant — fog. This is a great opportunity to catch a musky and well worth getting on the water early before the clouds and/or fog burn off. There seems to be a last ditch effort by the muskies that didn’t feed before the front passed to fill their stomachs before the sky clears.
On a pea soup-fog morning at the 2004 University of Esox Canada Musky Adventure, Brett Revling caught a nice musky with me on his first cast at the first spot of the morning. And about a mile away at about the same time, student Luke Eimerman boated a 52-inch monster.
I’m still bothered by the memory of perhaps the fattest musky I’ve ever contacted which struck just as a post-frontal fog was clearing over Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota. I’d raised it on a bucktail and, noticing the sun starting to peak through, I raced back to the rocky island for one last shot. The musky — which was built so wide and deep that it looked like a lake trout with teeth — grabbed a Super TopRaider and somersaulted out of the water toward the boat when I set the hook, tossing the big topwater back at me. I never saw that fish again and am hesitant to estimate its size because I’ve never seen once like it before or since.
You’ll need to dress warm for this kind of fishing and it’s wise to use a GPS for navigation if the fog is heavy. Even then, drive slow to avoid boating mishaps. But it’s worth it.
2. Get In Their Face
The sun is gaining altitude, the clouds and fog are gone, and if there is a wind it’s out of the northwest. These conditions are among the toughest in musky fishing. But you can still catch fish by going vertical.
Muskies that were up shallow and chasing yesterday won’t be doing much of that today. They won’t leave the cover or structure, but usually will hold deeper in the same general areas. Their strike zone is greatly reduced and they won’t come up for a bait, so it’s time to get the lure down to their level.
Here is where walking a Slammer or Jake down rocky points really shines. A fish that’s lying in deeper water that won’t rise up to eat a bucktail may grab a minnowbait or crankbait that bumps and shimmies off cover right in front of them. Cover/structure collisions can trigger a negative-minded fish to eat. Try ripping the lure hard two or three times after it has worked its way clear of the shallower rocks.
An Esox Cobra or Li’l Hustler jig with a shad or reaper tail fished through rocky structure or along a deep weed edge is another effective, in-their-face presentation. Over deep weeds or in pockets in the weeds, a heavily weighted dive-and-rise jerkbait like a Suick or Bobbie bumped into the cover and then allowed to slowly rise back to the surface can be deadly. Using a Fudally screw-in weight system, I like to add a half-ounce weight to the pre-weighted models to prolong the bait’s rise during a pause in the retrieve. When looking for post-frontal muskies in weeds, look for the thickest patch of the weedbed and that’s likely where the fish will have buried themselves.
For some reason I don’t understand, muskies like to lie tight to rock walls in post-frontal conditions. A few years ago, while fishing a gin-clear oligotrophic Ontario lake, I boated five muskies on one bright post-frontal day by casting a white DepthRaider as close to the rock wall as I could and then banging its diving lip against the rocks during the retrieve. Ken’s second fish in the opening anecdote was holding tight to the wall but grabbed a bucktail, which proves that not all muskies get the small-strike-zone memo.
If this doesn’t work, turn around and cast away from the shallow structure or cover, toward deeper water. Free-fall a BullDawg or Big Joe for a five- or ten-count and then work it back to the boat to catch deeper-holding fish. Be sure to watch your line for a telltale hop as the big plastic descends, which will indicate it was grabbed on the way down. Set the hook hard!
3. Moving Water
Okay, so you were on the water early before the clouds broke and moved some fish, but now your forearms are aching from bumping big minnowbaits and crankbaits through the structure, and the fish seem to have disappeared. Now what?
Moving water is less affected by cold fronts. Anglers who fish rivers have long known that muskies accustomed to turbulence just shrug off the effects of a cold front. I don’t fish rivers much but I do fish reservoirs and lakes, and moving water is often part of this equation.
Look to river or creek mouths where water enters the lake or reservoir you’re fishing. Often these will be carrying more water than normal due to the rain that often precedes a cold front, and this fresh influx of water will attract suckers and other current-loving baitfish. If the inflowing water is darker due to run-off, so much the better. Check any downed trees or weeds in these areas, as well as the tops and edges of sediment deposited by the creek or river in the mouth area. Often the bright sun of the post-frontal day will draw muskies right on top of a shallow sand flat to soak up the warmth.
These areas need to be fished thoroughly and methodically, with each nook and cranny in the cover probed with a slow-moving lure. Smaller minnowbaits, like a 6-inch Slammer or Grandma, or a small glider like a Reef Hawg, twitched through these areas can often trigger a fish. If you spot a musky on a flat downstream of a creek mouth, pitch an Esox Cobra Jig or Li’l Hustler jig and creature combo ahead and past the fish and slowly hop it back. If the jig combo seems to be scuffing along, kicking up sediment along the way, you’re fishing it right.
The larger the lake or reservoir, the better the chance it has inflowing water. If the river and creek mouths aren’t paying off, look to necked-down areas where current flowing through the system will be exaggerated. Start on the upcurrent side and probe each spot thoroughly as it may take several casts to a spot to find the precise strike zone of the resident muskies. A few years back as I probed the current edge of a shallow reef with a DepthRaider, I bounced the lure off a rock and paused in my retrieve, letting the bait swing for a moment with the current. The hit felt like just a soft “tick” on my line, but the resulting hookset locked me up solidly with a cold front-crushing 50-incher.
4. Presentation Tricks
One of the surest tricks I know for difficult muskies is to downsize your offering. Many lure companies offer multiple sizes of a particular lure style, and it’s wise to carry smaller lures but of the same color pattern as your favorite “normal-sized” baits for this situation. For example, I’ve caught well over a hundred muskies on DepthRaiders over the years, and the Baby DepthRaider has proven just as deadly when fished in the right situations. On a beautiful summer day (for everything but musky fishing, that is) a few years ago I caught my personal-best tiger musky by downsizing to a Baby DepthRaider and bumping it through the limbs of a fallen tree near the mouth of a slow-moving creek.
Another trick is to limit the aggressiveness of your presentation. Maybe it’s because of too much caffeine, but I like to impart twitches, rips, pauses, direction changes and speed changes to just about any lure I throw. While this may be great for aggressive muskies, a neutral to negative-mood fish may want a steady, methodical retrieve. Casting to open water muskies the evening following a cold front some years back, my friend Chuck Nelson drove this point home to me about as solidly as his hookset when he stuck the only fish we were to boat that the evening. A former Lake Michigan charter captain, Chuck said he learned that slow, steady retrieves were best in post-frontal conditions for salmon, too.
5. Go Shallow
Since a post-frontal day usually has a bright sun shining through mostly cloudless skies, learn to check shallow, protected areas in the afternoon of such days as the sun will warm the shallows and muskies will slide in to take advantage of it. Casting away from shore toward an inside weedline (see “Muskies On the Edge,” Musky Hunter, February/March 2006) is a deadly pattern. Keep your back to the shoreline and cast toward the sun, and your bait will move through the shaded zone of the inside weed edge where the muskies commonly lie.
Another thing I look for in extremely shallow water is what I call “reverse structure,” which is a depression holding slightly deeper water in a shallow flat. Often this pocket or hole has been created by wave action washing around a log or stump, which makes the spot that much better. But don’t overlook the deeper water in front of boat docks, boat houses, beaver houses and, if the boat landing has not been used for a while, the blow hole where you launched your boat earlier in the day. A conventional bait landing in the water might spook a shallow-holding musky, so try a lighter-weight Esox Cobra Jig/creature combo or twitch a Kilr Eel through these areas.
Since both Spence Petros and Brian Long have discussed fishing skinny water quite thoroughly in this issue, I won’t dwell on it here. Just keep in mind that a shallow musky is usually there for one reason, and that’s to eat.
6. Last Light
The final, most surefire way of catching a musky on a post-frontal day is to fish during the last half hour or so of daylight, to just after dark. A setting sun is always a great trigger, and after a day of bright skies and tough fishing this may yield the best action of the day. A topwater is usually my first choice to cover shallow water quickly looking for a musky that’s ready to strike.
Joe Bucher expertly explored this topic in his recent article, “Last Light Lunkers,” (Musky Hunter, February/March 2006), so again I won’t go in depth. However, this article would be remiss if I didn’t mention the best post-frontal period of all.
Once the sky has grown dark it’s usually going to get cold and the fishing will be next to impossible, so you can usually leave with a clear conscience about an hour after dark. By this time, though, you should have cracked the cold front jinx.
Back to my day on Lake of the Woods with Ken and Donna — that evening, I fished with two other students and as the sun set I drove the hooks of a Jackpot into the jaw of a 39-incher. They weren’t giants, but three 40-inch muskies on the day following a cold front? I’ll take that any time.
Steve Heiting is Managing Editor of Musky Hunter magazine.