Musky Mind Games

By Steve Heiting, Managing Editor

Some of the most fun and successful musky fishing I experienced last year was also some of my most frustrating. Let me explain.

On a week-long trip to a water I’d never before fished, my buddy Kevin Schmidt and I found ourselves questioning almost every move and every lure selection, every day. And by week’s end we had moved only 25 muskies for six days of fishing.Those were some long days.

However, we boated 11 of those fish, with almost all of them measuring longer than 40 inches. None eclipsed 50 inches, but several were close. Amazingly, we had only 11 strikes for the week and landed every fish that struck.

Not one day was spectacular. Not one day yielded a pattern. But by week’s end, the results added up to something that was pretty good and we immediately made plans to return in the coming season.

The entire week proved to be a mind game. Were we fishing the right spots? Should we be fishing deeper or shallower? Should we speed up our presentations or slow down? What’s with this good-looking island complex that isn’t holding any fish? The first few days, the predominant question we asked ourselves was if we were wasting our time with this lake.

All of those questions, and more, were tossed back and forth as we tried desperately to determine a pattern. By week’s end, we’d come to the realization that the “pattern” was little more than going fishing, and sooner or later a musky would should itself with a 50-50 chance of eating. That’s not exactly what I would call being dialed-in, but that’s the way it was.

Normally I try to read how the muskies are reacting to my efforts to determine how I should fish for them. On this water, it simply wasn’t possible because there were so few fish.

Before we decided to visit this lake, all of my research pointed to a low population of muskies. That factor alone typically makes for slow action. This same research indicated the water was relatively unpressured, which meant that we stood a very good chance of catching the muskies we did see. Fortunately, a friend who had fished the water before told me what to expect: “You’ll cast all day at good stuff and not catch anything and then you’ll pull up on a spot that’s holding two muskies and you’ll catch them both.”

So, how do you cope when fishing low-numbers waters? Simply by having confidence in yourself. If you can read water elsewhere, apply the same skills to the low-numbers water and eventually you will find muskies. It just may take a frustrating length of time. Utilize faster presentations to cover water, but slow down and dissect the very best stuff, especially during prime times.

And that’s how we caught the biggest musky of the week — after casting to a rock point and thoroughly working every nook and cranny as the sun set, we eased the boat shallow and cast a Jackpot parallel to the complex structure. In spite of having seen maybe 20 casts already, the big musky engulfed the Jackpot just 20 feet from the boat as it splashed across the tip of a tiny rock finger.

Fishing low-numbers waters is just one of several mind games that often frustrate musky fishermen. Many before me have said the way to cope with mind games is to have a “Positive Musky Attitude,” but I don’t buy into the concept of blissfully casting away regardless of what happens next. I refuse to let my musky success hinge on the whims of luck, and I’ve got enough time on the water to know that some times, the next cast isn’t going to be “the one.” Besides fishing low-numbers waters, here are three more common mind games with ideas on how to turn the odds in your favor.

Loss of a Big Fish
I don’t think there’s anything worse for a musky fisherman than to lose a big fish. You plan, prepare and pattern, and all your hard work is rewarded by the strike of a large musky. Maybe you’ve been after that fish for days, a week, maybe even the season. And then it’s gone.

No matter who you are, you’re going to get only so many chances at a big musky each season. Losing one hurts, and there’s nothing good about it. Even having the understanding that you can’t catch them all doesn’t help.

The best thing to do in this situation is to get right back in the saddle and get back to fishing. Many times there was something that triggered the big fish that you lost to bite in the first place, and that window — be it a wind shift, moonrise or set, whatever — may be closing fast. And don’t forget that muskies often hunt in packs and more than one big fish may be using a structural element at any given time. Get your bait back in the water and try to get a second strike.

Last June while on Lake of the Woods, my son and I had fished past dark and were greeted by a blizzard of giant mayflies hatching all around us. Smallmouth bass were slurping the hexagenias off the surface as we worked our way to the end of an island complex. On what was to be our last cast of the night, Brant’s 10-inch Suick was eaten by a huge musky that thrashed a short ways from the boat and threw the lure. He sat down, dejectedly, ready to head back to the resort. Trying to pick my son up, I suggested we reset the boat on the structure and fish it again. “After all, we just had one big musky strike and there’s no reason why there isn’t another one on this structure,” I explained.

I used the big motor to slowly reposition the boat to the other end of the complex. Just two casts later Brant set the hook again. “I got another one,” he shouted as the musky announced its presence by somersaulting from the water. But this one wasn’t getting away, and soon I slipped the net under a heavily-built 49-incher.

Had we given into the disappointment of losing the first big musky and headed back to the resort for the night we never would have caught the second. The remedy for getting over a lost fish? Go hook another.

Make Lemonade From Lemons
Early last June I undertook the seemingly pleasant task of pre-fishing a multitude of lakes for the University of Esox Summer Musky Tactics School while at the same time keeping an eye open for filming opportunities. Jim Saric and I planned to film a segment of his television show, The Musky Hunter, the week following the school.

But a northeast wind blew for eight straight days and the fishing was downright dreadful. I fished morning, midday and evening from shallow water to deep and, quite honestly, had nothing going when Jim showed up the day before the school. All I had was a hunch.

As the week before the school progressed I noticed that ciscoes were bunching in the southern end of lake basins, probably following the plankton that was being concentrated there by the wind. And if the ciscoes were on the south end of the lake the muskies should have been in predictable areas.
On the first night of the school I took student Tom Miller of DePere, Wisconsin, to fish open water muskies, and we concentrated on the southern end of a basin, fan-casting over the concentration of ciscoes. The temperatures were plummeting and, in fact, there was frost on the rooftops the next morning, but the muskies didn’t care. While working a Storm Kickin’ Minnow, Tom missed a strike just before dark that at least buoyed my hopes. Then, exactly a minute before we had to quit for the evening and head back to Big St. Germain Lodge, Tom rocked the boat with a hookset that eventually resulted in a 43-inch musky — his largest fish — coming to net. Tom’s musky held up as the school’s largest fish.

The school’s schedule called for no more evening fishing, and I couldn’t wait to hit the water with Saric afterward. The northeast wind had continued and I saw no reason why we couldn’t take advantage of this for the television show.
The filming was a bonanza. Plankton was thick on the lake’s southern end, ciscoes were everywhere and so were the muskies. Jim and I ended up boating seven muskies up to 47 inches in length, and for the rest of the story you’ll just have to watch The Musky Hunter this winter.

The point is we used the unfavorable conditions to our advantage, instead of letting them beat us. While a northeast wind is hardly preferred, prolonged wind from any direction tends to concentrate baitfish. Muskies in early summer have to feed and it was only a matter of finding the baitfish and we found muskies … where have we heard that before?

He’s Catching All The Fish!
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of musky fishing is when one of the guys in the boat catches a high percentage of the fish during an outing — you’ve got the muskies’ location figured out and they’re biting, just not on your line!
Angler skill being equal, sometimes it’s a matter of active muskies jumping on the first lure cast to a spot. Sometimes, when they’re in a less aggressive mood, the second or third guy in the boat might get all the action — the first bait or two through the spot seemingly “wakes” the muskies up. Sometimes it’s a matter of one guy having a specific lure the musky’s want. All of these scenarios are often remedied simply by switching spots in the boat from time to time or alternating who gets to throw the “hot” lure … that is, if you really care about your boat partner catching fish, too. But remember, what goes around usually comes around and the day will come when you will be the one who wants to change up spots or lures because you’re not catching fish. If you weren’t sympathetic to your partner don’t expect any help from him.

If you’re already alternating spots and one guy is still catching a majority of the muskies, things get more complicated. Now, it’s probably a matter of presentation. Carefully observe everything the hot angler is doing, from casting precision to lure synchronization, speed of retrieve, angle of retrieve, depth of retrieve, and any other odd technique or modification that may be what’s triggering the muskies.

In 30-some years of chasing muskies, I’ve seen the fish want some strange things and a few not-so-strange. Here are a few:
• In clear water, an angler using a fluorocarbon or heavy monofilament leader will often outfish one who’s using a wire leader;
• During a torrid topwater bite, the hot angler was retrieving tail-spinning topwaters at a much greater speed than most would consider normal;
• A steady, deliberate retrieve was the answer following a cold front, when just the day before an erratic, in-their-face retrieve was the ticket;
• Bulging a giant bucktail just under the surface drew the strike from a giant musky for the third guy in the boat;
• Casting back behind the boat so the retrieve is parallel to the structure has resulted in several big muskies that didn’t show themselves to earlier shallow-to-deep water retrieves;
• In extremely cold conditions, counting down a glider to the bottom and then retrieving it ultra-slowly, with prolonged hangtime between twitches, will often draw muskies out;
• A favorite trick of mine back when I was guiding was to make my first cast after moving to a new spot back into my settling propwash. Muskies that had just had an outboard roar overhead were many times agitated into hitting the first thing that came through — my lure.

I could go on, but you get the picture. If everything’s equal and one fisherman is still getting all the action, it’s a subtle difference that you need to decipher. If you do, not only will you catch muskies but your boat’s total for the day will probably go up, too, because you’ll likely both be catching them.

The difference between success and failure in musky fishing is often razor thin, just one or two strikes per day. You need to be highly aware of what you and your partners are doing, and how the conditions are influencing the muskies’ mood, in order to be consistently successful. Considering this, it’s easy to play mind games while trying to figure out why you aren’t catching fish. The next time you’re faced with one of these scenarios, use these ideas to turn things around. After all, they work for me.

Steve Heiting is Managing Editor of Musky Hunter magazine.

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