Drawdown Muskies

By Tony Grant
“Lakes with severe water level changes, such as those experiencing a drawdown, present problems for the muskie angler. Here’s a few ways to cope with water level fluctuations anytime of the year.”



Whether intended for flood control, electrical generation, or both, sharp, sudden changes in water levels are common occurrences at many reservoirs. Naturally, most fish instantly notice any change taking place and relocate. Certainly you are not apt to visit your favorite muskie pond the day following even the most abrupt drop and see muskies with their backs exposed from falling water. The real question is where do they go? The obvious answer is simple, deeper water. This is actually making things overly simple. Other factors have to be considered, especially the speed of the draw down.

A slow prolonged drop has less dramatic effect on both water level and fish activity than one that resembles your live well when the plugs removed. With that in mind, lets take a closer look at both scenarios.

Slow Prolonged Drop: On most reservoirs this happens more often in the early fall, this is generally when a slow lowering of water levels help prepare against winter and spring flooding. This type of draw down least affects a muskies territorial nature. Muskies seem to hold tight to their home range and feed on schooling baitfish by forcing them close to shore in shallow water, coves, fingers and creek arms should become your main target of attack. I recall pre-fishing last year’s PMTT Ranger Boats Championship on Lake Shelbyville in Illinois, when muskies were in a great abundance attacking shad within a few feet of shore. Water levels had been falling over a six-week period. In fact, I watched anglers taking muskies so tight to shore that they were making underhand tosses to keep their lures in the strike zone longer. At home on Cave Run no sooner than the levels start to drop, do the muskies show up gorging on shad in the backs of coves in very shallow water against the shore or hanging on creek channels, this pattern can even last longer if rain slows the pull of the draw down. During these periods I find blade baits most effective. Tandem spinners like the Grim Reaper 1and 2 ounce models with a Willow-Colorado blade combo and in-lines like the Ghosttail, Deucetails and Big Daddy from Figure Eight Lures start pulsating quickly as they enter the water, taunting the shore dwelling muskies. Don’t overlook topwaters at this point. Buzzbait type surface runners seem to work best, the Wildcat by Grim Reaper, T-N-T Triklops and a 1 oz Lunker Lure each have proven to be big fish producers.

Trolling spinnerbaits has long been a technique of a handful of old timers on southern waters. But in recent years this technique has spread rapidly over the hills of the bluegrass. Here again, 1 oz spinnerbaits seem to be your best selection, single hook models move through weeds easily and pick up far less off the surface, even with a single hook trailer. My choice is the rubber-skirted models by Grim Reaper, the rubber skirt seems to breathe more as it is trolled slowly and the added trailers offer more flash. From late summer through early fall as our weed tops move closer to the surface under falling water conditions, an awesome pattern can be established, we call it “Slow-Troll’in”.

Moving your boat just fast enough to keep your lure tipping the weed tops, yet letting your bait move through freely is a sure fire winner on Midwest and southern reservoirs. However, fall may be the best time for this slow, high water column presentation. As weed growth halts just at the surface, the cooling nights seem to bury muskies deep into the weeds. Pulling your spinnerbaits as near as possible and over when able draws out the semi-active muskies for a meal from their thick cover. This method helped my touring partner Don Pfeiffer and I take 5th place in the first ever Professional Musky Tournament Trail event on the CAVE in October 1999, as a slow draw seemed to help the home lake muskies elude our offerings. In the last hour of a very non-productive tournament for us we managed to have action from four fish, while boating two to come in the money, using this slow-troll’in technique. Long weed lines, which blanket the Caves main lake shorelines, make this method so attractive. Trolling patterns are easily established and continuous passes are plentiful. Study the contour of the weed lines; boat control is essential in keeping your lure tight to the cover. Following the weeds outline in and out of every cut and bar will attract more strikes. Long trolling lines seem to keep the bait in good view as you pass just outside the weed edges, the on looking muskie can react to the spinnerbaits slow moving blades. The double willow leaf models will ride higher in the water column and run more freely, but if weeds appear lower than normal try models with a Willow and Colorado blade combination

Now we come to those frustrating areas of a lake with extreme gradual tapers. A 3-4 foot drop here can virtually empty what was once a sizable cove, causing fish of all species to move out to find suitable habitat. In most cases, this may also pull them out of anything that looks like traditional muskie location. Forget the brush, weeds and stumps on the edge of the flat that look so tempting during other water levels, concentrate on the creek channel even in the shallowest of water. Slow moving spinnerbaits and Bulldawgs will produce here or try casting a deep diver up shallow and digging it back into the channels drop-off. Muskies seem to find somewhat a safe haven near these old creek and river channels, knowing the water level rarely falls low enough to affect their comfort zone. These are some of the ways I have learned to deal with sluggish falls in water levels. Now lets talk about the other extreme that has a tendency to be the toughest challenge of all for the reservoir angler, rapid drawdown.

Rapid Substantial Drop: Swift falls in water levels can tend to make muskies disappear. Determining whether to troll or cast can become your biggest decision at this point; both of these methods have become consistent producers for me under falling water conditions. Last year “Wiley Style” speed trolling helped my clients boat 51 muskies during one of the quickest drawdowns that I can remember on the Cave. Presenting your lures on a short line makes it much easier to stay on the timbers edge without hang-ups. With only a few minor scratches to my Ranger, I was able to keep my lures exceptionally tight to flooded trees and land quality fish as our water levels briskly fell. As water levels continue to fall another popular casting method becomes deadly in southern reservoirs, I’ll explain.

Success trolling spinnerbaits across weed tops has spread from Canada to Kentucky over the past decade. However, a little practiced tactic called “Slow-Roll’in” maybe the most effective method of all. This technique is a consistent producer in all types of situations, especially under tough quick falling water conditions. Whether fishing the rapid drawdown of flooded southern reservoirs or vigorous drop in midwest water levels, this tactic will produce fish, big fish.

Slow-Roll’in is nothing more than allowing your spinnerbait to move very slowly across structure or bottom contour. The only trick to this method is keeping your bait in the most productive areas on each cast for the longest amount of time. Blades only fluttering rather than spinning is one of the key ingredients to enticing the most finicky muskie. The gentle movement and sounds made while using this method will create more follows than any other lure in your boat. Like I stated before creek channels are magnets to feeding muskies at this time, whether your dealing with a slow or rapid drawdown; slow-roll’in spinnerbaits in and around these areas will become quite productive especially under the tough conditions of a rapid drawdown. Work your bait slowly, following the bottom contour and then as the lure approaches the boat and into your figure 8 we like to give it a “rip” just before it enters the first turn, this speratic rip or movement of the bait near the boat accounts for a big percentage of our strikes. Larger spinnerbaits work best; on the CAVE it’s Grim Reaper’s 900 or 950 Tandems, these lures accounts for dozens of trophies each year.

This method can also be deadly worked around weedbeds for stubborn muskies. On high sky days slow-roll’in 2oz rubber skirted spinnerbaits while casting parallel to the weed lines, can be what it takes under less than favorable conditions. Another proven lure here would be the slow presentation of a Bulldawg, they can be tougher to keep from hang-ups at the leisurely pace needed to catch the muskies attention. Line selection becomes a very important factor here; choose a small diameter with plenty of strength. Power Pro’s eighty pound test works best for me, its small diameter allows me to feel nearly everything my lure comes in contact with yet still has the toughness I need to pull one out of the timber. Combine these presentations with a slow up and down rod tip motion, barely pulling the lure back to the boat and you’ll see why reservoir anglers are caught in “this act” quite frequently. Again, getting the maximum sensitivity from your equipment is essential, a long fast tipped rod like the Lamiglas 8′ Inshore Classic allows me to do deeper figure 8’s and most importantly feel even the slightest strikes that come under these tough conditions. Taking this method to the timbered points can be awesome with a crossing wind; the chop tends to add to the baits effectiveness here. Vertical movement of your spinnerbait or Bulldawgs along standing timber can produce a strike from muskies awaiting passing baitfish schools.

Under high water conditions, which all southern anglers know far to well is when these lures earn their keep. Muddy water associated with these water level fluctuations make it very difficult for muskies to find their prey. The clacking, clinging and vibrations of a spinnerbait or the vigorous tail movement of the Bulldawg ring the dinner bell for the non-active muskie. Other than jigs, spinnerbaits and Bulldawgs are some of the easiest baits to work across the bottom, finally putting it in ones face. These slow-roll’in tactics work well under all conditions, but most importantly make sure you include them under extremely tough conditions when experiencing a drawdown.

Channel edges, even the most minor ones, are holding areas during a substantial drawdown, especially those that butt up next to shore. Try following your spinnerbait efforts with the slow glide of a jerkbait; good choices include Burts, Sledges, Reef Hawgs and Jerkos. Follow up speed and motion with some finesse to tempt the less active fish. This presentation rewarded me with a 40-pound class fish on Kentucky’s Green River Lake as its swollen banks were rapidly falling.

The greatest misconception that most anglers have when approaching falling water levels is that going deep means a huge location change but remember that even areas not far apart in the lake can differ, some having sharp drop-offs and others a more gradual taper. Where contours are abrupt, the move to deeper water may call for a change of location that is only a few yards, perhaps even just a few feet, in terms of horizontal movement. Next time you are up against fluctuating water levels put some of these presentations to work and you’ll find that these seemingly tough conditions can pay big dividends.

A Sledge jerkbait worked out of lay-downs in deep water close to shore on a creek channels edge was enough to entice this early spring giant. This 50 1/2″ took Big Fish award at the 2002 Cabin Fever Challenge on Green River for the author as water levels dropped very quickly. 

Mountain Muskie Guide Scott Salchli holds his clients 49 1/2″ taken on a Grim Reaper Spinnerbait during an early fall drawdown

Even more evidence that a slow presentation can be very effective during drawdown; this 47 1/2″ was taken on a Bulldawg. 

Tony Grant has been chasing muskies for nearly 20 years. As his career started on Kentucky’s Cave Run Lake he has now expanded his guiding to the waters of Wisconsin and Minnesota during the southern muskies dangerously hot summer water temps. In 2005 Tony teamed up with Gregg Thomas to form Musky Road Rules, a series of “Cabin Fever Clinics” and Schools with “On the Water Workshops” across the mid west muskie range. Visit Tony’s sites www.kymuskie.com www.muskiesupnorth.com
www.tonygrantoutdoors.com and www.muskyroadrules.com 

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