Over looked Musky Hide-outs

By: Spence Petros

Several slow days of action had our group of musky anglers pretty discouraged. Sure it was a late spring and weed growth was way behind, but it was mid June, warm and sunny, and those Canadian muskies had to be active somewhere. Besides, they hadn’t seen a lure in at least 7 months, which is generally a big plus.

We had fished all the key areas that had produced in the past, concentrating on the shallower bays and arms that branched out from the deeper main basins. The back ends of a couple of darker water bays that were a little warmer had clumpy, short weed growth and we fished hard. Points and shallower-topping humps (under 8-10 feet on top) got checked, as did the extreme shallows in the back ends of bays. Sections of chunk rock bank were worked, especially if they were being warmed by the rays of the sun. We even trolled the drop-offs from the mouths of the shallower bays out to where they met with the deeper, more open water. About the only other thing I would have tried then, after now having three more decades of musky-fishing experience under my belt, would be to zigzag troll with shallower-running crankbaits across the open waters in the warming bays, trying to intercept suspended muskies holding in the warmer surface waters.

Just about the time frustration was at its heaviest, I noted several large, fallen hardwood trees that had fallen into the water. A water color change could be seen about 10-feet from shore, and both trees extended well past the depth change that caused the water color to turn a darker blue.

It was my boat partners “home lake”, one he loved and fished many times, and he had pulled some big fish from her depths. His knowledge of the lake’s layout was far better than mine, so I asked if he’d ever tried fishing the wood for muskies. He never had and didn’t know of anyone else that had probed the trees.

I put the electric motor on high and quickly moved to within casting distance of the first tree. Two casts later my first “tree musky” was landed, a 40-incher that weighed about 17 pounds. The second tree also harbored a musky that struck, but got off…suddenly fallen became a top priority! During the remainder of our trip, fallen trees that bordered a depth change, even just an edge of a few feet or so, produced an extra 1 to 3 muskies per day. If we had had more trees, we probably would have caught more muskies, but wood was at a premium on this lake. Since this incident that occurred in the late 1970’s, wood has been a key holder of muskies for me, and a type of cover that is often ignored.

When to Fish Wood

I use to think wood was most productive when weed growth has not yet started to grow, or when the vegetation was sparse or short. But that’s really not the case. We constantly catch muskies out of the wood all year. During the schools I help teach at that are held by Musky Hunter Magazine on Lake of the Woods in July, trees were rarely fished by the attendees. I generally talk a little about how to recognize a tree with potential and how to properly fish it. Every year “bonus” muskies are enticed out of the wood to add to our catch list. I have one particular tree that I have pulled 3 mid-40-inchers out of. Numerous other trees I’ve fished have also held muskies.

I use to think that in order for a tree to hold a musky during summer, the wood had to be related to deeper water, be in a funnel area, or have an underwater edge near it. These are still great factors that can make a tree productive, but we have also pulled big muskies out of the back ends of shallow bays that were holding skinny “nothing” trees that provided little cover. The key to one of these bays being productive is to fish it when the muskies are seeking a little warmer water. Sunny warm afternoons, especially after a cool night or morning, or a cold front, are prime time to check these shallow bays and any wood that’s in them.

The best tree action generally occurs when the sun is shining. This is when the muskies tuck into the shaded blanket of limbs, waiting for a meal to pass by. During sunny warm conditions, vast schools of minnows or perch fry can frequently be seen hanging around the trees, pecking at the moss-covered branches. It’s also common to see perch, suckers or other panfish in the area, no doubt adding to the overall potential of a good shade-producing tree. Note: trees that have been in the water a year or more are more apt to be more productive, as their branches tend to be more moss-covered.

Bank-related trees that are laying in the water usually aren’t as productive during early morning, late afternoon or under darker skies as they are during brighter conditions. There is no doubt in my mind that the muskies are just not in the trees under these lower light conditions, which are better suited for them to go out and hunt down prey instead of waiting in ambush for something to swim past. Basically, I’d fish wood just about any time I see it, if it meets the criteria for existing conditions

What Wood is Best

Other than wood found in the back of warming bays, the best wood to fish usually has two major ingredients-it provides adequate cover (even if it has to be in conjunction with something else), and it’s related to the better tapers, drop-offs or edges in the immediate area. An edge or breakline near the edge of a fallen tree is a big plus. Let’s say we have two similar-looking fallen trees that both have 10-foot depths occurring about 30 yards from shore. If one of the trees just had a slow taper leading up to it, it’s potential wouldn’t be very good unless there was little wood cover in the lake. If the other tree had an edge within or just outside its wood (even a drop of a foot or two) it would offer much more potential, especially for larger fish. Edges like this are very important in shallower waters, as they generally can make any type of structure or cover situation better for game fish and panfish.

One of my favorite wood-fishing situations for muskies is when good wood cover occurs in a necked down transitional area between early-to-warm bays, and the deeper waters of the main lake basin. The necked down factor creates “the funnel effect,” something I love for muskies. I view the muskies holding in funnel areas like toll booth collectors. Forage has to come through there on a regular basis, and when it does, a price has to be paid.
When looking at numerous trees along a long necked-down stretch, the biggest musky will generally be holding on the thickest cover near the deepest water. And a sloppy cast usually won’t get that fish, but more on that later.

Stump flats are usually on flatter, shallower terrain and offer little horizontal cover. I’ve not found them to be very productive under the same conditions that are best for horizontal wood. Stump flats are usually found in tea-colored water. From what I’ve seen, and I certainly haven’t seen it all, muskies move up on them under lower light conditions (included night) when they are on the prowl, searching for food. These are not mid-day holding areas when the sun is out.

The two short bays at 5A and 5B show another lesson in how cover’s relationship to deeper water or a lip generally holds the key to its success. There is an excellent “looking” fallen tree in the back end of 5A, but since it only extends out to a few feet of water, it’s worthless. However, the tree at the mouth of 5A has excellent potential. Not only does it reach deeper water and is in a funneled transition area between a spawning bay and deep, main lake water, it sits at the mouth of the bay and where the chunk rock bank ends and the taper lessens a bit. A perfect ambush spot!
Skinny, near limbless trees, or those with most of their limbs rotted away, don’t provide much cover, and I’ve never found these trees to be productive UNLESS they are laying along a sharper-dropping chunk rock bank, two or more of them are close to each other, or they are in a shallow warming bays.

Trees along a bluff bank can be a real fooler. You’d think this would be a great summer/fall spot and it is, but I’ve seen trees on bluff banks that were hanging over 20-50 feet of water produce fish in late spring/early summer on warm sunny days. The muskies hold in the wood near the warm surface water, and pay little attention to the much colder water below.

Working The Wood

You may think all you’ve got to do is place a lure near a tree and a musky will dart out and grab it. This is usually not the case. Most often a fish is tucked into a shaded, hard-to-reach spot and is reluctant to move far for a lure. The best lure presentations can be cast with extreme accuracy to get into tight slots between trees or large limbs, and they will have strike-provoking action at slow speeds to give the musky a chance to react to the presentation before it’s pulled away from the wood.

To make the most accurate presentation you must be properly equipped. Rods with stiff tips will spray lures around, so a little “whip in the tip” is needed for putting the lure where it needs to go. Rods with “bucktail actions” will give you the most accuracy to shoot a lure into a tight spot. A good baitcasting reel such as one of the Garcia Revo Toro reels spooled with 80-pound Spider Wire Stealth or Power Pro braided line, will give you the perfect outfit for fishing the wood.

A thin profile, large, hard plastic minnow bait such as Cordell’s Red Fin, Bomber’s Magnum Long A, and the Rebel Minnow are great lures when the most accuracy is need. Flatter-sided crankbaits tend to sail more, but 80% of the time they work great. Two lures of this type I really like are Bucher’s 9-inch Shallow Raider and the Shallow Invader. The square lips on these two lures are a big bonus, because you can easily learn to “walk” these lures over submerged limbs. Balsa lures don’t have the density to give you the same accuracy and distance as plastic-bodied lures.
The lures mentioned can trigger strikes without having to move them away from the tree. Once they land and you have established a tight line to the lure, aggressively twitch or pop the plug by sharply snapping the rod tip downward. This makes a near by musky aware of the lure. After 5-15 seconds of this teasing action (length of time depends on size and thickness of tree), retrieve the lure back towards the boat, giving it several short rips to help trigger a following fish. If a tree breaks fast into deep water and I want to get a lure deeper, a straight-bodied Depth Raider is an excellent choice.

Let’s evaluate some other lure choices for this style of fishing. Bucktails-they can’t be cast as accurately, and come away from the tree too fast. Top waters-muskies may not come up for them, and most have to be fished slower than what’s necessary on the retrieve back to the boat. Jerkbaits-make a big splash that sometimes spooks a musky holed up in a quiet pocket, many sail on the cast, and after a pull or two they are too far from the tree to tease a musky into coming out.

Two other lure types are also used around the trees. A good overhead type (L-armed) spinnerbait also works well. Remove any rear treble hook and replace with single hook trailer.) This type lure rolled over limbs and dropped into openings can be deadly. A jig dressed with a plastic “creature” works great on wood along sharp drops, on days when there are strong cross-winds that make casting conventional lures more difficult, or when tossing back to a musky that just followed in another type of lure.

In clear water keep the boat a little farther from the trees, but you can get in tighter if the water has some color. If there is a stretch of a few trees in a row, work them with the electric motor, running against the wind whenever possible, so you can hover pretty motionless out from a tree while casts are made. Sometimes we might get into a “run and gun” mode, quickly going from one isolated tree to another. If the trees are “hot” but fairly scarce, one angler runs the boat with the big motor from one tree to the next, stopping briefly while a few casts are made. Switch positions after each strike or after a fish is caught.

Sometimes a large lake may have very few, if any, productive looking trees. Once on the Upper Manitou in northwest Ontario, I saw only one tree with potential during a 3-day trip, and it was located several hundred yards from a camp full of anglers that paid no attention to it. My second cast to this large fallen hardwood located near the mouth of a bay was blasted by a 47-inch 28 pounder. This musky was a bonus to the others we caught on the trip.

Trees may be the key to a productive trip, or may just yield a bonus musky or two. But one thing is for sure, they are the most under-fisher cover that is commonly used by muskies.

Spence Petros teaches fishing schools in the Chicagoland area starting in early March. To find out more go to his web site – spencepetros.com.

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