by Craig S. Engebretson
Many times a season people will call and ask me about a particular lake or lakes that they were “just up” fishing or were planning to fish on their next vacation. Is there something more you should try to find out about where you’re fishing? For those on the way, they want to know if the lake is any good. Does the lake have big muskies? Are there a lot of muskies in the lake? Sometimes the story I will hear from those who have just returned is, “what happened to all the muskies we saw earlier this year or last summer and fall?” Other times I will hear how good they did on one of our baits or that they threw the one they always did good on and never received so much as a follow. Or they say, “our lake is getting really cloudy, a couple of years ago we could see the bottom by our pier,” what’s happening?
This is a very interesting group of questions and comments. Sometimes this can be very simple to answer other times it can be very complex. First of all you have to understand the lakes themselves, they all seem to have their own “personalities,” if you will. “Lake traits” as I call them. These are comprised from a combination of size, depth and bottom make-up. Water source(s), general watercolor, and vegetation types present can also further break them down into their own most productive seasons. When one lake is “hot” in an area, I know that a similar lake with similar characteristics may also be “hot”. This can turn driving time into fishing time. But, before I put all these together to understand a lake, I look at the lakes basic structures on a map and try to find out some of its past history over the last 30 years. This can be important information for understanding the growing capabilities of the muskies through genetics along with their available food sources.
Muskies prefer soft rayed fish as a food source, such as ciscos, smelt, trout, whitefish, suckers and bullheads which all fall into this category. The more the lake has the better. You maybe very surprised at how many lakes have them that are not considered too, and vise versa. You also may be surprised at how many used to have them but now have only remnant populations. Lakes don’t have to be 50 to 100 feet deep to harbor these baitfish. Can large muskies exist without these food fish? The answer is certainly! Muskies that don’t live on these soft rayed fish generally just don’t seem to fill out across the back and in the “body” where it really counts. Food sources high in protein with slow growth rates seem to build really big muskies. Muskies are sight feeding predators that will eat whatever is available when they become hungry, be it large or small. Big fish don’t always eat big things and small fish don’t always eat small things and vise versa. Though not a soft rayed fish, 3 to 6 inch long perch often make up the major part of a muskies diet through availability.
When most fish are spawning in early spring you can see and learn about the types and sizes of the other fish the muskies might use for food. Panfishing in spring is a viable method of checking out “bait.” A bright sunny calm day is also a good time to learn about the lakes bottom. Low water can also help, high water levels may often times cloud up the water especially if the lake has an incoming river or series of creeks or possibly some low land connected to one of its bays. Strong winds will also do this. In dark water you won’t be able to see into the lake. High or turbid water can give a lake a false color and you a bad impression. Overall in spring, you will find the water to be the most transparent then it will be all year.
In my opinion, there are three types of lakes to find giant muskies. One type would be a shallow fertile lake with huge expanses of weeds. Think of how much casting it takes to really thoroughly cover one large bay or shallow section (50 to 100 acres) on a lake. A lake with a 1,000 acres or more may have several of these bays or sections where the weeds grow to the top by mid to late June. Taking this into consideration (along with the water color) it may take several weeks after spawning for a big fish to get active. With a canopy of weeds our casting presentations can become slightly less effective. The heavy weeds sort of give the muskies protection from us. Baits with weeds on them don’t catch muskies. The 2nd type of lake would be a deep clear lake which can hold some of the biggest fish and it’s easy to see why. It’s hard to fool them in clear water especially if they can live deep. These lakes also generally lack cover, which eliminates the element of surprise. These fish get a lot of growing time. And lastly, large dark water flowages and man made reservoirs. Very “young” ones usually have a lot of natural wood cover and “older” ones have both wood and lots of weeds. Combine that with deep river channels (possibly from several rivers) and you’ve got plenty of places for them to go and ways to get there that seldom get fished. Again, more growing time! Time and abundant prey are the two items needed most to grow the size of muskies we want. I believe muskies will roam all water in search of comfort and food, sometimes too simply avoid the pressure we apply through fishing and other watersport activities. But, when the weather motivates them to “really feed” they seem to like to do it in the same basic areas if possible especially the larger fish, though I don’t consider them to be territorial other than for their immediate needs. Big muskies seem to gravitate towards similar areas.
Weed types and growth (along with watercolor and temperature) seem to have a lot to do with how well we as fishermen do on a particular lake or area of it. What I want to know is how and when the muskies will use what is available as far as vegetation. (Submergent or emergent). That, along with the lake’s size, depth and color all tell me when I should start showing up there to catch its “peak” along with what I should be throwing and how I should be working it. For example, in early June broadleaf cabbage weed in muck is usually up and thick. Most lure types work well on a slow to medium retrieve. In the lakes with less cover (no matter what the type), anything on or above the bottom can hold muskies. Some shallow water movement can be “held back” by water clarity or cooler temperatures from cold nights. I will usually find good “neutral” (catchable) fish down deep (8-16 feet) by using lighter line (12 or 15 lb. Berkley Trilene Big Game) with a very small snap swivel and relatively small lures with little or no buoyancy on a very slow retrieve. Getting down to these fish and making them eat is fairly easy. New cabbage and small coontail weeds only 1 to 2 feet tall in 8 to 12 feet of water well out into vast bays can be very good. What I’ve found early in the year is that when the muskies have retreated to slightly deeper water after spawning and we’ve had some good sunny days to make the weeds grow, the weeds will still grow the fastest in the shallows. But just because you have weeds there is no guarantee the gamefish will be there. This should explain why so many anglers have poor early seasons. Also, in many deep clear lakes, muskies (especially large ones) may come in from the deep to the shallows just to spawn and move right back out to deep water (25 feet or deeper) to recuperate in less than 24 hours. Everyone say’s to fish shallow, but shallow is still a relative term at this point no matter what the water temperature is. The gamefish push to the shallows will always follow the baitfish they feed on. This can accelerate with the rising water temperatures when accompanied by the loss of clarity in the water with algae bloom and/or a good warm “spring” rain. Strong winds and/or overcast about once every three days will also help. But remember; too much of a good thing (as this) can stymie the process.
In summer when things can get tough with warm temperatures and long days, one of the things I’ve found to help is fishing very heavy weed cover. Broadleaf cabbage can give you this. What it gives the muskie’s is the opportunity to travel in a shaded atmosphere, provided other undesirable weed types have not grown too thick underneath it and ruined their paths of travel for feeding by blocking their vision. When the undesirable weed types get too thick, the bigger predator fish generally move out. This includes muskies and most of the other game fish and applies very strongly to areas containing both fringes and large areas of both reeds and lily pads. Deep water should be readily accessible if you hope to get a decent fish in these places. The best days now are when the weather is just right. (Please see above paragraph). Another alternative depending on the type of lake (or lakes) you’re fishing is night fishing. It can work well on all water by just adjusting the type of lures you are throwing. If the water is pretty green or brown with only about a foot or so of visibility, your percentages will lie with very loud and very slow moving surface baits. I’ve read where throwing bigger baits will help (it makes sense) but I haven’t found it works any better for me. Warm stable weather accentuates this pattern. On medium colored lakes I have found just about all lures to work, though floating bucktails and slow swimming crankbaits are preferred. On clear water I suspect it would be the same (as I rarely fish it), except that extra speed can really help trigger strikes. Saltwater fishing in the shallows has taught me the positive affects of blinding speed. I might add though, I’ve seen some huge fish on dead calm clear lakes in late July and August especially on lures worked (slowly but erratically) right on the surface. I think the lure you’re using should be the one “baitfish” that is different from the rest.
Applying what you have read to your fishing for some people is definitely the hardest part of the equation. Few people do it. Everybody reads this stuff but probably only about 20% of those reading it will actually apply it. The ones that do though are usually the success stories that come back to us when talking with people at some of our popular Midwest sport shows in winter. Old habits on lure selection and “placement” indeed seem very hard to break. One of my favorite “big fish baits” for the late summer time is a jerk bait twitched deep with a slow rise. Mid-day through early evening has been a good time for me; it’s found me a lot of big muskies for fall. Strike percentages still have to go with bucktails and crankbaits, at least on most of the lakes I guide in the greater St. Germain area of northern Wisconsin. Erratic retrieves and seldom-used colors on lures seem to help a bit at times. If you do use erratic retrieves though, just make sure that they are not so erratic that the fish miss them. At least once per retrieve and before your lure gets to the boat, slow up or “straighten out” whatever it is you are doing to give the muskies somewhat of a chance to hit it. Make a good “steady and wide” figure eight at the boat on every cast and make sure you have personally sharpened each and every hook point on every lure before you attach it to your line. This is another item everyone reads about but few actually do. What a waste of time. It’s really too bad, but that’s just the way it is. Something else I might add that I do on all of my own lures is remove the tail hook. No lure that I own has more than two hooks on it. It’s safer for the muskies and safer for you when releasing fish. The ball is now in your court so to speak, and I just told you how to score, so go do it!
As the bad weeds choking out the good ones start to die off and the water-cools in August and September, the action gets better. The muskies will move back into their early season areas. Small lakes and flowages will be your best bets. This will be a big fish peak for the year in these lakes, try not to miss it. There are no magic lakes or lures. Just try to pick a good one for when you’re up and apply what you’ve read and use your lures properly for when and where they’re designed for. For weeds, (depending on the lake) the shallow water cabbage in dark water and bushy coontails in clearer water are my first stops. Now as in the other “weed peaks” I do exceptionally well with the bucktail I designed especially for these times. Your success will be even more pronounced in the medium to dark water lakes on big fish with these lures all the way through mid to late October. In fact, if these weeds stay green and are located close to the deeper or deepest water of the lake you’re fishing, large trophy muskies will be near by all the way to freeze-up. Please note though; this combination works best when rocks or sand and gravel are present, as these will attract spawning fall baitfish. Keep in mind that muskies and the baitfish they follow will move around some.
Lastly, I’d like to comment on something many people I guide ask me about and that is “feeding” fish at the surface. In my opinion, rarely are these fish feeding. From my experience and careful observation of all fish including all sizes of muskies. These fish are often “gulping air” to help them digest after eating. Ever see a muskie just lying at the top? Bet you have. Think how many times you’ve casted to these fish and have gotten a zero response. I believe they are resting after eating. In fact when I can “time” something like this happening to let’s say; 2 or 3 p.m. The chances are that those particular fish were feeding at; 12 to 1 p.m. Fishing in and around areas I’ve seen muskies of this nature in, (possibly the day before) has “set me up” for the catch by fishing the area a couple of hours earlier no matter what time it is. Besides just casting to a fish lying at the top contains very little of the element of surprise. That is something that occurs when a nice muskie “fires up” out of some thick weeds or other cover to grab your presentation. Fast retrieves really bare this point out. You are simply trying to make the fish react positively and “eat your bait,” no big secret. If he wants it, he has to react now or chance losing it. There is no time to think about it!
I hope this has answered a few of the questions I am often asked. But most of all please try to apply what you’ve read here (and elsewhere) to what you’re doing and to the time your doing it. That is how you too can put yourself in the right place at the right time. Don’t wait for it to happen; make it happen!
Editors Note: Craig has been guiding muskie for many, many years and is an expert on fishing many lakes in northern Wisconsin. He also has designed a fine line of muskie catching lures. Feel feel to visit his web site athttp://www.muskiecatchers.com.