Roaming the Northwoods for Musky

By Tony Grant

Roaming the Northwoods for Musky with a “Shallow Southern Approach”



As fortunate as I really don’t want to sound, I have the muskie dream life. Without overly boosting, fate has left me fishing the best of both muskie worlds, a combination of the great southern reservoirs in Kentucky and the famed glacier made waters of the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Several years ago I opted to start making plans of extending my guiding to the great musky state of Wisconsin, it sounded much better than getting a real job during Kentucky’s dangerously hot summer fishing season. My decision was a no brainer? It was a great way to keep me on the water nearly 300 days per year exclusively chasing the King of Freshwater. After several years of exploring where and what waters would be offered to my clients, I landed in the northeastern part of the state on Vilas and Oneida County waters. Visiting an endless number of quality muskie lakes within a short drive but concentrating on only a handful of my top choices. Very excitedly each year I make the 12 hour drive on Memorial Day weekend for my summer quest for giant muskies. My results of the past few years have left me with one common denominator between muskies north to south that can be stated in just one word, SHALLOW.

Even though I have much more to learn about this great sport of muskie fishing, I have found that my southern tactics are a surefire way for my clients and me to find early season success in the Northwoods. Many of the shallow water patterns used in Kentucky to regularly boat big fish has churned up some tremendous results for us during June, July and August on many different style northern lakes. In fact Don Pfieffer and I took first place in the 2002 PMTT Mercury Marine Challenge at Eagle River using these shallow water tactics. Don and I laid out a game plan that included staying in waters less than 5 feet, by one pm on day one we had boated 3 upper 30’s muskies taken in 3 feet of water which held off for the win. Stay with me here and I’ll try to explain where and when to look shallow for that Northwoods trophy.

My main objective each and every day on the water is to keep the highest percentage baits in the highest percentage water. In this early season the big fish roam shallow for one reason, to feed; as a result shallow is my highest percentage area.

First of all don’t worry about the water color of your lake selection, big fish can be found in the shallow areas of dark, clear or crystal clear water. However they may be somewhat tougher in clearest of water, the fact is their catchable. Focus on clearer waters on darker days or mornings with very low light or fog; spend time on darker lakes during other conditions. Don’t pay a lot of attention to your temperature gauge when searching for these shallow water giants, the slightest warmth of the sun’s rays can change it hourly which leaves us confused with no true judgment of muskie movement this tight to shore. No matter how well or long you may have known the individual lakes, go in and look at that shallow water structure, remember small weed beds can come and go yearly. Also downed timber can become new structure at anytime. No not what’s visible on the surface? That stuff under the water, completely submerged. Submerged shallow water structure is commonly overlooked by most anglers while frequently producing quality fish early into muskie season. Timber, rocks or weeds, each piece could be the make-up of what it takes to be a potential hot spot trip after trip for those that don’t run their boat in too deep of water. In fact a single isolated small submerged weed bed on a clear Vilas county lake produced in just three feet of water a few years back four 30 lb class fish for my boat in a twelve day period. Two of those fish landed me 1st and 2nd place in the Vilas County Muskie Marathon’s Guide Release Division and the other 2 muskies placed clients in the events Adult Release Division’s top 12. This type evidence can also be found on Cave Run Lake where a small weed bed produced for me the Muskies Inc. State Record of 54.5 inches nearly 45 lbs a couple of years back. That very similar type area on the Cave has produced many giant fish. Proving even more how both waters of the north or south are very comparable when fished shallow.

Submerged treetops or lay-downs are probably my favorite and most all lakes offer this type structure tight to the bank. A single shallow water laydown on Presque Isle gave me 3 mid June muskies, two of the 3 fish hit Mantas quickly moved through the shallow water cover. An isolated laydown on Horsehead gave up two mid forties fish for my clients and a couple of more shots at trophies the following year. I believe the key in presenting the glidebaits like the Manta, Phantom and Hellhounds is to land your bait very close to shore, get it going promptly, rapidly darting side to side over the targeted structure. The advantage to these three baits opposed to others is there ability to be worked over very shallow structure; they have a very slow horizontal sink and allows you to move freely over cover. Worked this way they get plenty of looks which is a great help in finding which lay downs are holding fish. Don’t be surprised by multiple fish using the same structure. A most memorable account of this was back home in Kentucky in the eighties during one of my first muskie encounters when at least 4 different fish attacked my spinnerbaits from the same treetop as I presented them to spawning bass in very shallow water. I have many times seen this same behavior in shallow structure up north.

Blade baits may be the highest percentage bait in your box under most situations when working shallow weeds. Patience is the key component when offering blades; my experience shows that these baits are very opportunistic. Long dry spills can be followed by some fast action in the blink on an eye. Several times we have had those windows where blade baits produces multiple fish in a short amount of time. My most notable Northwoods experience was in 2003 we landed three monster tigers and a mid forties true musky, all taken on Grim Reapers 1 oz Wildcat spinnerbaits in only 4 hours of fishing. This is just how fast they can key in on blades. During the first few months of the northern season as the water warms up I like a smaller presentation, my number one choice early is the Mepps with willow or french blades, Tanner Wildes’ Spring Tales and the Fast Blade by KDC Tackle. The Mepps heavy willow blade hangs tight to the body of the lure giving off a speeder look of the bait. That same faster image is given off by the Fast Blade and the Spring Tales seem to run a little higher over weed growth. I can count on 15 to 20 fish passing through my Frabill from June and into mid July pulling these 3 different type blade baits over the submerged shallow weeds from Vilas and Oneida County waters. Depths of 3 to 5 feet near some deeper water tend to be the areas to concentrate on. This is a great way to get your first muskie of the year or someone’s first muskie period. This method calls for brighter colors under sunny conditions and a black or black and bright combo’s on darker days; also I have found that multiple color blades have seen the most success. As the water starts to peak I generally move up to a larger presentation using marabou, rubber or hair. My choice then becomes Shumway Flashers, Deucetails and Lungentails, all of the baits have produced Northwoods trophies.

A top water presentation to these same shallows will prove very productive under these slowly rising water temps under low light conditions on both stained and clear water. The key is to keep your lure in skinny water; there have been very few sunsets that didn’t produce some type of action as long as we stayed shallow. With clients in the boat we get to throw a variety of top water lures, here are some of the bait choices that most of my top water muskies have come on. During most surface conditions we toss 2 different models, Top Raiders and Pacemakers. Yes… we work them at the same time. It seems many anglers believe that a single surface bait should be presented at a time. I have many fish pictures and happy clients to prove that theory not always true, not in a long shot. In fact most of the bigger muskies we’ve came in contact with takes the second offering. I like the Pacemaker as the closing lure through; its extraordinary sound has seemed to make the difference on some good fish we’ve encountered. Water of 2 to 4 feet has proven to be most consistent late in the day. Another favorite choice in calmer water is the slow presentation of the Hammerhead by River Run Tackle. It combines both a side to side wobble and prop commotion, moving it slower has been the key on my boat when I encounter calm water. However in rougher surface conditions I go to the Lo-Rider from Holcomb tackle, this bait is awesome in the chop. Both these lures have an unusual appearance that works extremely well on water that receives heavy pressure. Color can also make the difference under some conditions; under brighter conditions try natural on clear lakes, and bright colors on your stained water systems. Orange has been my best color in darker water while I have found a blue silver combo can be deadly in clear water. Late in the day and under most low light conditions you can’t beat black. In darker water I like to add just a little orange or chartreuse to the baits prop. Once again remember the most important factor is depth so keep your boat and lure shallow.

Most everyone has heard of the success many southern anglers have had presenting lipless rattling crank baits, Trapp’en as we southerner’s call it. This method has produced a good number of fish for me on many of the waters in the Northwoods. However up north, I target more structure opposed to the flats of the south. Stump fields seem to produce regularly before the water temps get to high. A high rod tip and fast retrieve will help hang-ups. However don’t overlook open sandy areas near shore reeds as the season opens. Rat-L-Traps and the Rattlin’ Shad in 3/4 to 1 ¼ ounce are my best producers; retrieve speed can sometimes make the difference in your success. An important thing to remember is to keep them shallow, very shallow.

Extremely shallow water can be your highest percentage spot when worked with high percentage baits, these combinations can be your deadliest technique for your early season trophy. At this time the muskies found shallow are there to eat; I’d rather fish feeding muskies than try to entice one that’s not in the eating mode.

Author with Ohio client Matt Durant display evidence of the Northwood’s shallow bite. 

The third muskie of the day taken from less than 3 feet of water for Don and Tony was enough to take first place in the 2002 PMTT’s Eagle River qualifier. 

Tony Grant has been chasing muskies for nearly 20 years. As his career started on Kentucky’s Cave Run Lake he has now expanded his guiding to the waters of Wisconsin and Minnesota during the southern muskies dangerously hot summer water temps. In 2005 Tony teamed up with Gregg Thomas to form Musky Road Rules, a series of “Cabin Fever Clinics” and Schools with “On the Water Workshops” across the mid west muskie range. Visit Tony’s sites and 

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