By Steve Heiting
Just moments earlier, the huge musky stuck its head out from the swaying milfoil and ate the big bucktail as it rode a wave over its head. Now, the battle almost over, Charlie Buhler’s biggest musky of his life was just a net job away from having its picture taken.
On its side, suspended in a big swell, the musky paused for a moment and I made my move. As I scooped forward with the big Frabill net I dropped the net bag into the water and it billowed open as Charlie led the big fish in. I recall being surprised at how long it took to get the musky into the net, but then it was bigger than I had originally thought.
“That’s a big fish, Charlie,” I said, laying the net frame over the gunnel of the boat and reaching up to shake his hand. I didn’t want to mention the number 50 in case it wasn’t as big as I thought, but I remember thinking the fish was probably larger. I reached for my five-foot measure stick rather than the four-footer I reserve for smaller muskies, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Charlie’s musky stretched a full 52 inches before he eased it back into the lake. With a sweep of its broad tail, the giant disappeared into the depths.
A lot of things went right for Charlie to catch that musky, but the most important was his taking time off from a busy work schedule to fish with me during a prime time on a Minnesota lake. Had we scheduled the trip for July, August or even October we may have even done as well or better, but I’ve found that the mid-September, pre-turnover bite is a key period on many Minnesota waters. And Charlie could only make it for a day rather than the multiple-day trip I planned, but he came anyway. And what a day.
Then, once the fish was hooked and the moment of truth came, I could have botched the net job … wait a minute, no, that just wasn’t going to happen. But how often does it occur when the fish of a lifetime is lost at the net?
I’ve long said that muskies can be remarkably easy or impossibly difficult to catch, and there are lots of ways we help their cause. Here, in no particular order, are seven sins that any fisherman can commit to avoid catching muskies.
1. Fish During Non-Peak Times
Every water has its best time of the year for musky fishing, and every day has its peaks and valleys. Fishing during the off-times is one of the best ways to not catch a musky. The musky is going to decide when it wants to feed and I’ve learned that in spite of your best efforts to change that, forcing the issue usually doesn’t work in your favor.
I try to schedule any trip to musky water around a key time period. In May around the opener in Wisconsin, I try to fish rivers or shallow bays of lakes that have a concentration of post-spawn muskies. In June, there are few things better than casting to open water fish in northern Wisconsin before the thermocline is established. July finds me on Lake of the Woods targeting muskies that have usually just moved to mid-lake structures and can be suckers for a fast bucktail-topwater presentation. I could go on through the remainder of the season, but you get the picture. Every water seems to have hot times when muskies are vulnerable and/or concentrated in predictable areas. As demonstrated by Charlie’s fish, you can tell I like Minnesota in September.
Just as each water has its peak times, so does each day. Low-light periods of morning and evening, moonrise and moonset, add up to four key times when a musky may feed. A lack of boat traffic at certain times of the day is a positive factor for feeding, as is an approaching storm.
2. Blow A Net Job
How many times have you heard this story: “It was huge, bigger than anything I’ve ever caught. Then the hooks got caught in the net and it was over.” You can be fishing in the right place at the right time, get a good hookset, fight the fish properly, and still lose a fish in the final seconds of battle when the net becomes your enemy rather than an ally. Friendships and even marriages have suffered because somebody flat-out blew it.
Netting a musky is easier now than ever, considering the size of the nets available. It doesn’t really take practice, just a methodical, non-panicked approach, and anybody can net a big musky.
Try to net every musky from the bow of the boat. That way, if the fish dives under the boat, all you need do is swing the rod tip around the bow and you’re fighting the fish on the other side. Don’t try to net it when it’s wildly thrashing or still strongly swimming, because big nets have tremendous drag in the water and you’ll never catch a musky from behind. As you’re waiting to net the fish, contain the net bag with one hand so it doesn’t tangle on a boat cleat or rod tip. Wait until the musky is near the surface and either tired or pausing in its fight, and then in one swift, smooth motion, swing the net forward in a scooping motion while releasing the net bag from your hand into the water, and don’t stop swinging until the fish is contained in the net. For best results, net them head-first.
A good net job is not the sole responsibility of the netter as the fisherman needs to lead the musky into the net. If you rely on your netman to do all the work, don’t be surprised if the fish manages to stiffen and “bridge” the net and flop out. If the hooks managed to catch in the netting as it bridged, your trophy may be gone. As the netter scoops, keep pulling your fish toward the net until it’s contained within the net bag.
3. Lack of Total Commitment
Musky fishing is specialized and to be consistently successful, you need to make the commitment of both time and money. The sport requires that you be prepared for every contingency. Now, muskies are not impressed by your boat or equipment and you do not need top shelf stuff to catch them. However, owning serviceable equipment is a key factor.
A few years ago an individual signed up for the University of Esox musky school on Lake of the Woods, and before the event took place he went out of his way to impress upon the instructors that he was already an accomplished fisherman. Truth is, he was a pretty good fisherman and had a very good week, catching several nice muskies. However, he would have had an even better week if he didn’t insist on using discount store wire leaders, one of which broke on a big fish. For some reason, anglers who have it all often insist on skimping somewhere. In this angler’s case it was with leaders.
Another common mistake is not being prepared for an all-day outing. When it starts to rain some anglers reach into a storage area and pull out a ten-dollar rain poncho. Eventually they get wet and chilled and have to go in, despite the fact muskies often bite in the rain. Or, the fishermen owns a $300 rainsuit but water is funneling down his Gore-Tex covered legs into a pair of tennis shoes. He, too, will eventually get wet and chilled, and have to quit fishing for at least the time being. Waterproof boots would have saved the day here.
4. Sloppy Mechanics
Just by watching his clients handle a rod, a good musky guide can usually tell within minutes whether he is going to catch fish or if he’s in for “one of those days.” That same good guide will take the time to demonstrate to his customers how they should cast, where they should cast, how they should work a lure, or how to properly make a figure-8, but often within a short time the clients will have gone back to doing what they were doing in the first place.
As with anything that requires coordination, few are born with the innate ability to fish. “Naturals” are extremely rare in any sport. The best golfers and tennis players take lessons and then play as often as possible to be good, and the same should hold true for fishermen. A guide or an experienced friend can teach you what you need to know, but if you don’t strive to do things right it will cost you.
Good musky fishermen cast all day with few or no backlashes. If you can’t, practice in your backyard until you can. If you can’t make a certain lure dance seductively in the water, have someone show you how, but don’t watch the lure in the water — watch the guide’s or your friend’s hands and arms to see what motion is required, and then fish with the bait until you can do it, too. If you need to improve your figure-8 technique, consciously and methodically draw a large “8” in the water after every cast until it becomes second nature.
In my book, if you are constantly picking backlashes, can’t manipulate your baits properly, and aren’t ending every cast with the kind of figure-8 that catches fish, you’re wasting your time.
5. Be A Know-It-All
Many times I’ve heard fishermen lament that “there’s nothing new in musky fishing.” According to their reasoning, new lures are nothing more than knock-offs of others already on the market, all the waters have been explored, and patterns are the same. If you think you know it all, then you must be content catching what you catch each year, or less.
The sport itself is changing. More anglers fishing muskies cause the fish to change their habits. Muskies that responded to a technique for the last five years may not this year after being conditioned to that steady diet. I tend to take a dim view of knock-off lures, but if a new bait improves on an old design or truly is innovative, I can’t wait to see what it can do for me. For finding untapped waters, the Internet is constantly evolving into a better tool to do off-season research. And patterns are called patterns because they can be replicated, but there are many new techniques for fishing muskies that were unheard of or scoffed at just a decade ago.
Personally, I’m grateful for the times when I can exchange ideas or theories with an accomplished fisherman. And nobody (including me) knows how many new things I’ve learned by watching other fishermen. Always remember that knowledge is power and being a sponge when it comes to new ideas is a great way to become a better fisherman.
6. Leave Biting Fish
Last summer, a good friend and I were casting to open water muskies as dark settled on the Wisconsin lake. We’d already boated a musky, and suddenly, by the yelling off in the distance, it became apparent that another boat patrolling this particular lake basin had hooked a fish.
Eventually, a flash popped a couple times and the successful anglers released their musky. “I’m so glad we came!” one of the fishermen shouted to his partner. To our surprise, they sat down, fired up their outboard, and roared off to parts unknown.
“They just caught one. Where are they going?” I asked my partner.
“Probably can’t wait to tell somebody about it,” was his reply.
To make a long story short, as it grew darker that evening my partner and I boated three more muskies. The other boat? They never came back, thus committing one of the cardinal sins of fishing — they left biting fish.
I’ll be the first to admit that the urge to tell someone about a significant catch is huge — that’s why we take photos. And prior commitments often need to be met so we can’t stay longer. But think of it this way … how many hours and casts have you expended trying to figure out how to catch muskies that day and, once you’ve finally figured it out, you want to leave?
Maybe you’re not leaving the water, but you’ve just caught a fish and it tore things up quite a bit, so there couldn’t possibly be another on this spot … right? Wrong. Several times I’ve caught muskies on back-to-back casts and many times I’ve caught one and lost the second fish on the next cast. Muskies often hunt in packs and not fishing out a spot simply because you just caught one is a huge mistake.
And, be conscious of what might make muskies bite in the immediate future — don’t quit for the day right before sunset, or just before the moon rises or sets, or the sky changes from cloudy to clear or vice versa. All of these instances, and many more, can be the trigger that turns your day into a successful one.
7. Chase Rainbows
Chasing rainbows amounts to nothing more than wasting your musky fishing time in the hope of finding something better. It’s easy to do. Of these seven sins it’s the one that I’m most guilty of.
In the late 1990s, Lake Vermilion was the best musky bite in the Midwest. No question. I watched the fish grow up from the stockings of the late 1980s and lots of them were dumb and easy to catch because they were unpressured. The lake has changed considerably in the last five to six years. The muskies are bigger, but they have become conditioned to many formerly-hot presentations, and the fish must be shared with more fishermen. As the masses have discovered the lake, I’ve spent considerable time and money looking for “the next Vermilion” while spending almost no time on Vermilion itself. In the meantime, others who weren’t spoiled like me have discovered the lake and caught giants.
What would I have caught had I not started chasing rainbows? I don’t even want to think about it.
The same applies to your big trip of the year, be it to Canada, Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, or wherever. A friend marked a bunch of hotspots on your map and when you arrive you find there’s lots of water between spots. If you just fish your buddy’s spots, rather than exploring other nearby good-looking structure, you’ll waste lots of time and gas chasing rainbows. I’d rather spend the majority of my time fishing than boating to the next spot.
Musky fishing need not be as hard as some of us try to make it. A lot of musky fishing success boils down to just fishing smart. As you plan your coming season, avoid these seven sins and watch your catches improve.
Steve Heiting is Musky Hunter’s managing editor.