By GREGG THOMAS
Summer fishing can be defined in different ways depending on who you ask and what areas you fish. Traditionally, summer fishing has been defined as casting your favorite bucktail in shallow weeds on your lake of choice. To some this is true, but to the rest of the musky world, well, we know better. With muskies ranging from Alabama to northern Ontario, summer tactics are as different as ants and alligators.
Growing up in the South and cutting my teeth on reservoirs like Cave Run and Green River lakes in Kentucky, I always found it hard to understand what was meant by “summer patterns.” The topics that all the magazines covered were fishing shallow weeds with bucktails, crankbaits or something. It was difficult to understand in the beginning why these patterns didn’t work for me. The articles were geared toward northern lakes and a main factor in the South — water temperature — was ignored.
This article is not meant to be about southern musky fishing or northern musky fishing. It is geared toward musky fishermen who want to open their minds to new tactics that can be used anywhere. Being a guide in both the northern and southern reaches of the musky range and having successfully fished several tournaments across the Midwest and Canada, I find it important to distinguish between the differences in the areas.
Early Summer in the South
This one goes out to my homies (I always wanted to say that). Growing up in the south, I was raised on a different way of musky fishing. I was taught if you caught a musky you kept it. That’s right, I said KEPT. When I started musky fishing that was the mindset, but now with education it has changed much like it has in most areas. In return, our fishery is better than ever.
Anyway, in the South I was also taught that summer fishing was a time for trolling for deep fish. You can understand my confusion when every article I read discussed shallow water fishing. Shallow water did pay off on certain occasions, but the conditions have to be right (a sudden drop in water temperature, increase in oxygen levels, and an increase in lake level). For the most part deep trolling was the answer.
The only problem was the mortality rate of the fish was extremely high in the hot water of a southern summer. When I refer to hot water, I am referring to water with a surface temperature in excess of 85 degrees! At the time I really did not know any better, and fish died. This was before anything was written about hot water and mortality rates. To make a long story short, deep water trolling in extreme water temperatures will astronomically increase the mortality rate of fish. For this reason I spend the early summer in the South and go north during the hotter part of the summer.
Before the water temperatures get too warm I have had great success trolling deep water. I define too warm as anything over 80 degrees. For anything close to this temperature, I stress minimal handling of the fish if possible. Although before the water temperatures reach this point, you can troll deeper water to catch fish.
In the South are waters consist solely of manmade reservoirs that are loaded with timber. Timber is not limited to shallow water as you can find trees in two feet of water to 50 feet! As the water warms, shad (the main forage in southern reservoirs) move out of the coves and relocate to the deeper timber and open water areas. Muskies follow the shad and will relocate to the schools. You can troll open water and catch fish, but I have a lot of success trolling flooded timber lines in 20 to 50 feet of water. The timber provides great cover for shad and is great structure for hungry muskies.
Not all timber is the same. When fishing a reservoir, one thing to keep in mind is the location of the main channel. No matter if it was formed by a large river or a small creek, the main channel will be the deepest water in the system and often will be where the majority of the fish will congregate in warmer water. Fish will use the channel as a travel route and/or a staging area. Many of the biggest fish of all species will relocate to the channel. When trying to find a productive trolling area, you want to locate deep timber with close access to the main channel. These areas are prime.
Once the area is located, the actual trolling can be frustrating to say the least. Here are a few things that I feel are a must when trolling timber — a lure retriever, proper crankbaits, abrasion-resistant line and the patience of Job. Lure retrievers come in many shapes and sizes. There are those made of lead that attach to your line and slide down to you lure, and there are others like the ones made by Frabill which are retractable. These large aluminum poles that attach to your line extend so that you can manually push the lure free. These things are a must and will pay for themselves the first time you use them.
Finding crankbaits that are “timber friendly” is important for trolling timber. These crankbaits must run nose down in the water to protect their hooks. My personal favorites are the 10- and 8-inch Believers, Hellbenders and Deep Diving Invaders. All of these baits ride nose down in the water and are excellent lures to hit into the trees. When the bait comes up to a limb, the lip of the crankbait hits the limb first causing the lure to roll over. This keeps the front hook from grabbing hold. Other crankbaits that ride level in the water will hit the limb and slide over, causing the front hook to become snagged. Nose-down crankbaits keep the front hook hidden behind the bill.
Abrasion-resistant line is a must. When trolling in the wood your lure is being pulled through a jungle of limbs that can easily fray line. A lot has been said about using monofilament line for trolling, but I have to say I hate monofilament! I use nothing but super braids. Typically, I use 80-pound test Cortland Spectron. It’s a no-stretch fiber that holds up great when being raked over limbs. No one likes hooking a fish and losing it because of line failure.
Finally everyone has heard the expression, “patience is a virtue.” This is especially important when fishing deep timber. Going into this you have to accept the fact you are going to get snagged. No matter how good at trolling you are and no matter how well you know the area, you will become snagged. This is no time to lose your temper. Trust me, I have and all it does is makes things worse. When you do become snagged, put the boat in neutral, take the rod from the rod holder, and snap it a few times with your arms. If this doesn’t work, reel up the lines and go get it.
Making contact with timber is a great way to catch fish; just take into consideration what I have mentioned and be patient. Now let’s migrate north. We are still going to be trolling, but this time we’ll discuss weeds. If you are in the northern reaches of the musky’s range and trolling is an option, please take this next part into consideration. It has taken me a good while to learn this, but it is well worth the effort.
Big Waves and Surface Baits
For my next topic let’s venture north into to some of the huge bodies that dot the Midwest. Having fished for muskies in Minnesota for the past few seasons, big water is something you have to get use to. With lakes like Leech, Mille Lacs and Cass, big waves are a part of the territory. For the brave soles who are willing to venture onto these big waters, the rewards can be unbelievable. These huge lakes can offer some truly awesome musky fishing.
One thing you learn very quickly when you fish on these big lakes is the power of the wind and how the wind plays a role in triggering fish activity.
When fishing these waters, you have to realize that a lot of the spots that you are fishing are huge in size. Yes, like anywhere, there are specific spots that seem to outproduce others, but covering water is important.
One of the best ways to cover the water is by throwing a noisy surface bait in the big waves. Wind is a definite key to triggering muskies to strike, and with big water comes big waves and the fish love it. Using surface baits in the big waves may seem unthinkable, but the action can be unbelievable.
When fishing these larger waters, finding where to throw topwaters can be job in itself. Most of these lakes have weedlines that go for miles, endless pieces of rock structure, and massive expanses of sand flats that cover the shoreline. Where do you begin? When looking at the structure finding the “spot on the spot” is the most important part, but in some most cases it seems the structure never changes. When looking for a specific area to fish use the wind to help you. By finding areas that are being pounded by the wind, though it maybe uncomfortable to fish, they are usually the most productive. Also, areas that have thicker weeds or bigger boulders can concentrate more fish than what you will find on a normal weedline or reef. Looking for the small changes in contour and minor changes will help in contacting active fish.
Choosing the right bait for the job is critical when fishing in big water — not every surface bait is made for skipping from wave to wave. For this type of fishing it takes faster moving baits. For example, Pacemakers, Magnum Stompers, Grim Reaper Buzz baits, and TNT Triklops are great for hopping over big rollers. There is nothing like watching a huge fish come crashing through the waves to eat a noisy topwater.
Summer Trolling IN THE North
Weeds of any type can be trolled effectively. The key is knowing what kind of weed edge you are dealing with as not all edges are the same. Weed edges vary from lake to lake, and even from spot to spot. What I consider to be an ideal trolling weed edge is one that has a good taper and runs fairly straight.
A “vertical weedline,” meaning a weed edge that grows relatively up and down in the water column, is a lot more difficult to troll than a tapering, contoured edge. The reason is when you are trolling a vertical edge you have no warning of upcoming turns. All you have is a sudden change where you go from 10 feet of water and a clear bottom to a blacked-out fishfinder screen with all lines buried in the weeds. A contoured edge will give you a little advance notice. I like trolling in areas where weeds are showing on the graph. As you come up to a turn in the weed edge, you will see the weeds on the graph getting thicker and growing closer to the surface. Noticing this change will give you enough time to react without burying the lures in the weeds.
Once you have picked the weed edge you want to fish, it is up to you to fish it correctly. Here are a few of my thoughts on what I do when fishing a weedline, especially an unfamiliar one. The first thing I do is remove my driver’s seat from my boat so I can stand up while trolling. I fish out of a 182 Crestliner which has pedestal seats that can be removed. I like to stand because it lets me see what is in front of the boat, and in some cases this lets me see the weed edge. I want to be fully aware of what I am driving into. By standing, my reactions are quicker and I feel more in control — just ask Dale Wiley about the time I ran his gunnels to net a 40-pound fish. Standing helps me avoid hazards before they become a problem.
Another important tool that helps when trolling weed edges is a graph with both locator/GPS screens. When on new water, I always plot the weedlines that I want to fish. I have a Lowrance X-15 that can display both the GPS and the locator at the same time. This lets me map out the weedlines without crashing into them. It is not a must, but it does help.
When I troll weedlines I find it especially important to know exactly what my lure is doing at all times, so I use my regular graphite casting rods — I just watch the rod tip and immediately know how the lure is running. While some anglers prefer long fiberglass trolling rods, I feel the tip absorbs most of the action and makes it almost impossible to see what the bait is doing. Again these are only my thoughts and opinions that I have developed through many hours on the water.
Now that you have your area mapped and our equipment ready, how do you catch the fish? Most weed edges I fish are in 12 feet of water and less, so letting out large amounts of line is not necessary. Many times my longest line is less than 30 feet back, and my shortest line may have only four feet of line out. Depending on the number of lines that are legal in the area, I will set the most rods that I legally can. If I am allowed two lines per person and there are two of us in the boat, we will run a spread of four lines.
Here is how I would start the spread: my two outside lines would be my long lines; on these I would put some type of shallow-diving crankbait, probably a Wiley lure. I would put one back 25 feet and the other at 15 feet, and then adjust them if needed according to the weed edge. The two rods closest to the boat would be my “down” rods, which would have some type of deep diving crankbait like a Li’l Ernie or a Wiley Deep Diver on them. My down rods would only have 5 to 10 feet of line out, which keeps the deeper running lures closer to the boat and higher in the water. You would be surprised at just how close a fish will come up to grab a lure.
With lines set the only other thing to worry about is “floaters,” which are the weeds that have been ripped up from other boats, jet skiers, and even from you cleaning your lines. A quick remedy to keep your lines relatively clean of floating weeds is to place your rod tips in the water — most of the weeds will collect on the rod rather than the line and your lure. Try it next time; you will be surprised at how much it helps.
I have to close this section with a great story about just how successful weed trolling can be. Over years of fishing PMTT tournaments, I have made a number of new friends and new fishing partners. Two such friends are Dale Wiley and Todd Young. Even though we had known each other a few years, we had only fished together once and that was on Cave Run in the fall when Todd boated his heaviest fish to date, a beautiful 51 1/2-inch, 40-pound fish. Anyway, Dale and Todd both invited me to one of their favorite Canadian lakes last summer, and things happened to work out to where I could go. We went to one of their favorite lakes and in four days of trolling and a little casting we boated 55 muskies and had a chance at 85 between two boats! It was one of the most incredible fishing experiences of my life.
After reading all the above I hope that I may have given you something new to try this summer. What I have said is not a cure-all and will not magically make fish come into your boat, but I hope I have jogged your memory enough to make you think and give you some new ideas to try when you are on the water. Try to develop some patterns based on my thoughts. Remember every water system is different so you may have to adjust your approach, but the basics are all the same.
Guide and tournament pro Gregg Thomas operates his Battle the Beast guide service on Cave Run and Green River lakes in Kentucky and Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota. He can be reached at (606) 780-9223, www.battlethebeast.com.
By GREGG THOMAS