Musky Interrelationships

By Steve Heiting

Fear stalks the night. For some, it takes the form of anxiety or claustrophobia and haunts their dreams. My sleep is disturbed by nightmares of giant muskies lost and the specter of muskies I may not catch.

Last July, I was at a loss for sleep. A spot my friends and I call Split Ring Point is one of the very best of thousands of musky spots I’ve fished on hundreds of waters throughout the musky’s range. Split Ring seemingly always has a musky holding on it and often there will be several. I have no idea why it’s better than the dozens of other points just like it on this particular water … it just is.

I’ve fished Split Ring so many times and have seen and caught so many muskies from it that I can almost predict the relative size of the musky on each component of the structure. If there’s a larger musky present it’s usually holding in what I call a “garage” area that forms an eddy when wind or current is moving into Split Ring, or it will be holding on the main point. On the far side of the complex is a large boulder that never fails to have a musky on it, but of the dozens I’d seen and caught there before last year, none surpassed 38 inches. Although it would fall under the general description of a “secondary” spot, its tendency to hold smaller muskies causes me to rank it even lower. It’s worth a cast or two since you’re already there, but by itself it’s not much to get excited about.

There was the rub. As I finished working the many components of Split Ring, I cast a Shallow Invader at this rock and as it wobbled back to the boat a musky that I guessed at around 45 inches long made a pass but then turned off. That evening it measured 44 1/2 inches after my fishing partner, Kevin Schmidt, caught it. After that catch, no other muskies showed themselves on Split Ring even though we fished it two or three times each day.

Spots can get hot or cool off depending on baitfish movement, so not seeing other muskies on Split Ring, albeit unusual, wasn’t what made me toss and turn in the dark. Coupled with the fact that a pretty good musky had been caught from a less-than-secondary feature made me think there was something we were missing — like a giant.

I became obsessed. Split Ring wasn’t the first spot of the day we would fish, just the first one to hit when the muskies seemed to turn on each morning. We were there at moonrise, again at last light, and anytime else we happened to be passing by. Still, no muskies showed themselves.

Among the lore that is tightly interwoven into the sport of musky fishing is the idea that muskies are loners and highly territorial, and will assume a position that presents ample feeding opportunities while chasing away all others of their own species. As the story goes, when a musky is caught, another will eventually take its place.

Well, decades of catching multiple muskies off the same spot — sometimes even on back-to-back casts — have proven to me that this idea is more myth than fact. However, there is a little truth to this story when considering big muskies. Usually, the biggest musky currently residing on the spot gets the best feeding location.

I’m not the guy who originated the bigger-gets-the-best theory, but I’ve seen it work enough to believe it’s true. Often it’s the biggest, or most aggressive, buck or turkey that does the breeding, or bass that gets the best spawning site, so why shouldn’t muskies have a dominance hierarchy, too?

As days faded to memories and the prospect of ending our week’s trip without discovering what lived on Split Ring grew, the time we spent there increased … not necessarily the number of times each day that we’d visit, but the length of each visit. My boat control was decidedly deliberate and Kevin and I made every cast count as our lures probed every nook and cranny.

Our dissection of Split Ring ended with one cast of a Mepps Giant Killer into a tight pocket in the rocks just off the main point as the sun set on our next-to-last evening. I felt a musky hit and I set the hook hard, but the fish swam slowly toward the boat with minimal resistance.

“Net or trolling motor?” Kevin called from the back of the boat, asking what I wanted him to take care of first as he cranked his line as quickly as possible.
“Net,” I replied, thinking I’d hooked a smaller fish and the fight would end quickly.

That’s when the musky jumped, its mouth agape and gills flaring at my eye level with its tail almost reaching the surface. I remember thinking how small the bucktail looked and that I could see the red of its gills through its mouth. The view I had was likely the same that countless baitfish had as they swam their last, but I digress.

“Uh … trolling motor,” I grunted.

Around the boat, under the boat … those of you who have been there know the drill. Maybe a minute or so after the fight started, the big musky we believed we had been chasing was in the net. After photos, it paddled off as we celebrated with high-fives. Our perseverance had paid off with the biggest fish of the week.

The nagging doubt, however, is that this musky, while big, wasn’t where she should have been. She was close to the primary spot, but not quite there and — you guessed it — the result was more sleepless nights for me. I’ll never know for sure if our efforts failed to catch the biggest fish on Split Ring point that week.

The biggest-gets-the-best theory is one way that I believe muskies relate to each other. Telemetry studies have reported that transmitter-bearing fish often hold in close proximity to one another, so science has proven muskies are not territorial loners. Beyond that, musky interrelationships are nothing more than conjecture, but these ideas are the basis for many of my on-the-water strategies.

Pack Feeding Habits
I have no doubt that muskies feed in close proximity to one another. Numerous times I’ve had two muskies following my bait at the same time, either side-by-side or one after another, including a 44-incher and a 54-incher that formed a “train” behind my bucktail one day last September. I’ve even had two muskies chasing a lure in a figure-8 at the same time. Do they consciously work together to feed? Divers have watched smallmouth bass pair up and swim on opposite sides of logs to flush food out to each other, so if they do it why not muskies?

We’ll probably never know for certain whether they work together, but the fact remains if there are schools of baitfish nearby multiple muskies will use a spot simultaneously. How you take advantage of this tendency can spell the difference between average and great catches.

First, you need to recognize a pack where one occurs. I watch my fishfinder closely for signs of baitfish as I approach a structure I intend to fish. The more baitfish I see, the more suspicious of multiple muskies I become, and the greater the likelihood that a pack is present. Then, it’s a matter of actually seeing the muskies in the form of strikes, follows or, on occasion, actually feeding on prey.

Sometimes this search follows the textbook and multiple muskies show up. Then it’s a matter of returning several times each day during periods of change, such as sky or wind, sunrise/set and moonrise/set, or even the same time the next day, until you discern when the muskies are feeding. Once you have that figured out it’s a matter of returning every time a similar condition change or time period occurs. The end result is catching numerous muskies off one spot in a short period of time — what I call “beating up” a pack.

The best I’ve ever been dialed into a pack occurred during a week-long fishing trip in 2007 when Kevin and I positioned my boat on a rock complex every evening at sunset. Remarkably, we never had fewer than two strikes on that spot in a half-hour window from 9:15 to 9:45 the entire week. Sunset was not be the only time the muskies were biting, however, as we caught them periodically through the day, too. During the week we boated 12 muskies from this complex — I have no idea how many muskies were using this complex, but I imagine the baitfish must have constantly been looking over their shoulders!

Catching lots of muskies off a spot may prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that if you spend an inordinate amount of time in one place you should catch a lot of fish there. The way I look at it, however, is why should I leave biting muskies to look for others?

When I find lots of baitfish near a structure or cover but don’t see any muskies the first time I fish there, I still return during the same instances as outlined earlier. Remember, muskies will seldom be far from any concentration of baitfish. It’s just a matter of finding what trips their trigger, and when.

Life with Pike
The introduction of northern pike into waters that previously held only muskies has often proven to be a disaster, usually severely limiting musky reproduction. Pike spawn in colder water temperatures, so their progeny is often the perfect size to prey on newly-hatched muskies. Without supplemental stocking, musky populations suffer.

However, in many larger waters, muskies and pike coexist with little problem. In fact, they evolved together. Muskies in these waters spawn deeper than pike, so newly-hatched muskies have a chance to grow before encountering young-of-the-year pike. How these two top predators relate to each other as adults, though, is an interesting study.

Since muskies and pike feed in the same manner and on the same prey, a big pike holding on a spot can be a tip-off that you’ve found a place where you can later catch a big musky. A predator is a predator, and this clue has resulted in many big musky catches for anglers on waters with populations of few, but larger, muskies. If you’ve never fished such a water, understand you may go for hours or days without even seeing a follow, and the measure of success for a week can be as slim as one big fish. Seeing or catching a big pike is a piece of these waters’ puzzle.

However, even though muskies and pike may use the same spots, they’ll seldom be there at the same time, especially if packs are present. Countless times I’ve fished a good spot and found a pack of muskies using it, but when I return a pack of pike will have taken their place, and vice versa. It’s an interesting dynamic and one I can’t explain. And I don’t know what causes one school of fish to move in and another to move out. It’s just something I’ve noticed.

I can recall only one instance of catching several muskies and pike from the same spot at the same time. A warm, southwest wind was buffeting a chunk-rock shoreline of Irregular Lake in Ontario as a full moon set, and three of us boated six nice muskies and ten big pike in an hour and a half. How many big predators were using this shoreline at that particular time is anybody’s guess, but in this instance both species were present and aggressive.

Curiously, the strike of a pike on a water where they’ve been introduced can also provide you with clues, but in a negative way. Many of the musky waters I fish in northern Wisconsin fit this description and have limited pike populations. While fishing during the passing of cold fronts, often the last strike or two of the day is from a pike, with no subsequent action from muskies. Again, I can’t explain it, but it’s something I’ve witnessed and noted.

Understanding how muskies relate to each other and other fish in their environment is a major step toward catching them consistently. Be observant, make note of the clues they give you, and with time a giant musky will be yours.

Steve Heiting is the managing editor of Musky Hunter magazine. For more about Steve, visit, 

Leave a reply