By Dave Dorazio, Field Editor
As a long-time musky guide, I’ve shared my boat with anglers of all proficiency levels. I’ve fished with musky hunters who have caught literally hundreds of muskies, including some huge fish. I’ve also fished with anglers who are complete novices who have never even fished for muskies.
At the University of Esox musky schools, anglers introduce themselves and divulge the number and size of muskies they’ve caught. While many of the students have some large fish and decent numbers, many are neophytes, and are still looking for their first musky.
One thing all these anglers have in common is that at some point, they were all beginners, trying to catch their first musky.
Musky fishing can be a frustrating sport. And until a musky hunter boats his or her first fish, it can be discouraging. Sometimes it can seem impossible. But then that strike happens, the fish is caught, and like magic other muskies are boated with time. Soon, an angler is on his or her way to being a seasoned veteran.
Here are six steps to help those who are trying to catch the first of what will hopefully be many muskies.
No. 1: Lake Choice
I believe that lake selection is the most important decision for an angler trying to catch a first musky. Nowadays, musky hunters have more angling opportunities than ever, as muskies inhabit more waters than ever before. That doesn’t mean that any or all of these bodies of water are the proper choice for an angler looking for a first fish.
Many waters are considered “trophy” waters. These waters hold some huge muskies, but many of these waters have very low density populations of muskies. These waters are great for the trophy hunter who is willing to put in lots of hours, trying for that one special fish. However, they’re not the best option for a novice.
My choice for upping the odds on catching an angler’s first musky would be to fish an “action” lake. This typically is a smaller body of water, less than one thousand acres and often less than 500 acres, which has a lot of shallow water, say less than 15 feet deep. Action lakes also have a high density population of small- to mid-sized muskies, with a few larger fish.
How do you find these action lakes? Do some research. There are some good lake map books available, and the Internet has almost too much information. Also, be sure to search locally. Baitshops can be a great resource for local information, and guides usually don’t mind sharing their knowledge about action waters, especially if contacted in the off-season.
Though some action lakes have clear water with some deep maximum depths, my favorite action lakes have dark or stained water, and are usually shallow and weedy. Many of these waters are actually small flowages (reservoirs) with a dam on one end backing up the water. These dark, shallow waters concentrate muskies in the weeds and along the weed edges and make the location of the fish easier to figure out.
Since you know that the majority of the catchable muskies in these lakes will be keying on the weeds, your game plan is simple. Fish the weeds.
No. 2: Lure Choice
Given that we’ll be fishing weed edges and through weedbeds, lures must be chosen accordingly. Obviously, some lures can be eliminated. Any lure that sinks rapidly or runs deep will be a problem working through or over weedbeds.
My top two lure choices for this situation would be bucktails and topwaters. Both of these lure types will work through and over weeds productively. They also are generally straight-running lures, meaning they move in a straight line from where they impact the water to your rod tip, and muskies won’t have as much trouble hitting them solidly. Additionally, both bucktails and topwaters can be fished with fairly fast retrieves, to cover lots of water. The more casts you make, the better your chances of contacting an active musky. It’s all about fishing efficiently.
Bucktails and topwaters have enough built-in action to trigger muskies without additional action, which makes them perfect for novice anglers. Jerkbaits and twitchbaits will produce muskies from weedy areas, but they can be a lot more work than topwaters or bucktails.
My personal favorite topwater lures are Bucher TopRaiders, Sennett Pacemakers and Rough Runners, and Mouldy’s Topper Stoppers. All of these topwaters are relatively easy to throw and retrieve, and, most importantly, they consistently produce muskies for my clients and me. (As an additional note, many anglers like to use walk-the-dog style topwaters, and do well with them. Personally, I find that too many muskies miss this type of lure and that leads to frustration for a beginner.)
While most bucktails work fairly well in weedy situations, I favor bucktails that are in the 6- to 8-inch range. This size bucktail is easy to cast all day, yet large enough to interest muskies of all sizes. I prefer a fairly lightweight bucktail which will work over the weeds. A oval-shaped French blade works great for burning a bucktail, while a large, round, No. 8 Colorado blade really helps to keep a bucktail running high. My favorite bucktails also usually have two hooks for high percentage hook-ups.
Bucktails probably account for more musky catches than any other lure type. My favorite bucktails include Hirsch’s Ghost Tails and Bootails. Both are available in different styles and color patterns to suit any fishing situation.
No. 3: Tackle
We’ve all heard of muskies being caught on light tackle, such as an ultra-light spinning rod with 4-pound test. Yes, it can happen, but not consistently.
Be sure to use adequate musky tackle. A spinning rod, a bass rod, or your uncle’s old 5-foot solid fiberglass musky rod will just make your musky angling more difficult and more work. Using a rod that’s too light or too flexible can mean the difference between hooking a musky or not.
There are several brands of musky rods on the market, but my favorites are the St. Croix line of rods, which are made by people who actually fish! I won’t get into specific models and actions, but choose a fairly long rod (7 to 8 feet) that will handle the lures and type of fishing that you’re doing.
Match your rod with a round-style bait casting reel. Spinning reels and low-profile bass reels just won’t hold up for any amount of musky fishing and can result in more effort on your part to retrieve a lure. The St. Croix Avid 250 is my favorite.
As far as I’m concerned, all musky anglers should use some type of superbraid line. Nylon, Dacron, or monofilament just doesn’t cut it because it stretches and can easily result in a poor hookset. Superbraids don’t stretch and result in a much better hookset, especially for someone who hasn’t hooked many muskies. I use Cortland Spectron in 50- or 80-pound test. This line has the diameter of 15-pound test monofilament, and it’s virtually indestructible. There are many superbraids on the market, and just about all work well for musky fishing.
Many of the guides I know state that one of their pet peeves are clients who use cheap leaders. Look for a quality wire or fluorocarbon leader with a good ball bearing swivel and a sturdy snap. There are several on the market. Expect to pay a minimum of $3 per leader. Quality components are not cheap. Do not expect to get a leader good enough for muskies for a buck, because it can’t be done.
No. 4: Weather
We can’t always choose when we can make a fishing trip. Various time constraints, such as family or work come into play.
If possible, try to plan your outing just in advance of an approaching frontal system. In my opinion, the perfect conditions would be a front with rain and storms approaching, after a period of stable, sunny weather. These types of conditions seem to guarantee musky action.
Besides approaching fronts, other weather conditions can improve fishing. I’ve done well on hot, sunny days, as long as a brisk wind was blowing. The hot weather accompanied by a good chop can make the muskies aggressive.
At times, even a few clouds appearing in the clear, blue sky can trigger musky action. A wind picking up after a calm period or a change of the wind direction can get the muskies moving.
It seems that, at times, any type of weather change can spur the muskies into an increased level of activity. The more pronounced and extreme the weather change, the more hyper and lengthy the activity period.
No. 5: Timing
Be aware that every lake or reservoir has seasonal peaks. Some lakes, especially shallow, dark waters, can be more productive early in the season, while deeper, clearer lakes can be more productive later in the season. Look for water temperatures in the early season as they rise through the mid 60s to low 70s.
One of the action lakes I fish is tremendously productive from late May through June, but it basically sucks during July and August. The only ways to find out a lake’s peak period is to consistently fish that lake, or get this information from someone who has experience on that lake. Again, do your research. Baitshops, local guides, and other, more experienced anglers, can be helpful.
Besides seasonal peaks, lakes experience daily peaks. These are usually triggered by weather or photoperiods. Be aware of any type of weather change, even a minor one. It can turn the fish on for at least a short period of time, and you should be ready to take advantage of it.
Most lakes are affected by photoperiods, or changes in the light levels. A light intensity change may occur due to weather, such as skies becoming overcast. However, there are two daily light changes you can depend upon — dawn and dusk. These two periods are traditionally prime times for fishing. While dawn can be as productive as dusk, and possibly have less angling pressure, I try to make it a point to fish through the evening until full dark. Even on lakes that don’t have a great night bite, the dusk/evening bite can be phenomenal. Therefore, if you can only fish during evenings after work, this limited time frame may actually help you boat your first musky.
No. 6: Attitude
I’m not into Zen or meditation, but I truly believe that the proper attitude can improve your productivity as a musky hunter.
An angler with a negative mindset is bound to eventually miss an opportunity at a musky, due to the fact that they are not concentrating and focused on fishing. After a long day of fishing with little action, I’ve seen anglers give up on doing a figure-8, due to fatigue and a negative attitude. Unfortunately, that may be when the only catchable fish of the day is chasing after the bait!
Try to keep a positive attitude and focus on making each retrieve as productive as possible. If you feel your concentration slipping, it’s best to take a short break, then resume fishing. If you keep a positive attitude, you’ll be prepared when that first musky comes out of nowhere to engulf your bait.
I like to remind myself that the only reason I didn’t catch a musky on a cast is because the fish was waiting for my next cast!
Dave Dorazio guides in the Hayward area of northwestern Wisconsin, specializing in the Chippewa Flowage. Dave can be reached at email@example.com or (715) 462-3885.
By Dave Dorazio, Field Editor