Top Shelf

By Steve Heiting

For four days it was more of the same. I’d work my way to the rocky shelf during the day and cast either a glider jerkbait or a crankbait — it didn’t matter — and the big musky would follow slowly and deeply, not showing any more of itself than a long, golden glow in the water behind my bait. It wouldn’t go in the figure-8, either. It would just sink and disappear.

I called it a lazy you-know-what. I felt better, but I wasn’t any closer to catching it.

In the evening I’d cast a topwater lure up close to the rock wall behind the shelf and what I figured was the same musky would follow indifferently from the lighter-colored water near shore to about two- thirds of the way back to the boat. At that point, the slight wake it was pushing behind the topwater would “melt” as the fish again sank and, I presumed, return to its haunt on the shelf. A crankbait or a glider would draw no interest.

That all changed on the fifth day. A bank of clouds darkened the sky to the west and the heavy air foretold of the weather to come. Because of the lower light, I figured the musky would be holding shallower on the shelf and rather than a jerkbait or crankbait, I snapped a Mepps Musky Marabou to my line and fired away. The bait hit the water at the base of the rock and its synchronized blade began to spin immediately.

A second or two later, a streak of silver shot out from a nearby boulder and my arms were jolted by a hard strike. My rod bucked as the fish swung its big shovel-shaped head side-to-side. When that didn’t free the hooks from the corner of its mouth, the musky barrel-rolled and shot for deeper water. My line sliced the surface as the fish worked its way past the bow of the boat, and I swung the rod tip around the trolling motor to the other side. Now on the starboard side, the fish paused, let me ease it close enough to the surface to where I thought we might be able to get a net under it, but the waving of its fins as it rose told me my hopes were probably premature. With a boil the musky dove again, stripping line against my thumb. But that was it for the fight and I slowly lifted and reeled until the fish was at the surface where a quick swipe of the net secured it.

Though the big fish didn’t quite stretch the tape to 50 inches, I was ecstatic for finally catching it. During the week we’d raised this musky a dozen times, and the time it struck was the only occasion when it showed more than a passing interest in our offerings. After a few quick photos this dandy paddled its broad tail toward the depths. In today’s version of musky fishing, the ability to return and return and return to a spot and have the same musky show up time after time until you catch it is a rarity. Today’s fisherman is willing to travel anywhere in pursuit of muskies, and the formerly unpressured, quiet waters of the north just aren’t that way anymore. To be consistently successful many smart musky hunters have increasingly relied on “secondary spots” for their catches — the kind of stuff overlooked by the masses who pinball between the community spots that someone has Sharpie-highlighted on their maps for them. Shelves are rarely even printed on the best maps.

I thought of this as I cut off my leader and retied my line, a habit that’s really not necessary in this day of Spectra-based superlines but one I haven’t been able to shake. I momentarily yearned for the old days of unpressured muskies, but as I cinched my knot tight I snapped out of my cloud of nostalgia and began looking for my next cast — there was still more of the shelf left to fish.

Shelves, which are nothing more than flats or projections off a rock wall, are perhaps the most overlooked of Canadian musky spots, especially in summer. Fish one this year and you might hook up with the fish of your lifetime.

Why Shelves?

Many know the advantages of fishing rock walls, and how any complexity along the rock wall — be it boulders, a rock slide, a tree, a couple stalks of weeds, a place where current meets rock, a “garage” or pocket, or a shelf — often makes it better. But walls tend to be considered fall spots and are rarely fished in summer.You will always find exceptions, but rock walls that are located in main lake or channel areas tend to have deep water very close by. In many cases they drop immediately into the true netherworld of the Canadian Shield, to where lake trout and whitefish live. On waters that have lake trout, many times you’ll see boats trolling very close to these walls, and these are prime locations to begin looking for muskies. Forget the rock walls that often line the inside of small bays — these are great, post-frontal spots early in the season when muskies are using bays for spawning, but this article concerns the main lake stuff.

Shelves jut out from rock walls for a ways before dropping off into deep water. Because they protrude into deep water — much like a shoreline point dropping into the main lake basin of your favorite water back home — they are a natural stopping place for baitfish and predators. They can be as small as a pickup truck up to a couple hundred yards long. The small ones are good all by themselves; the large ones are like the rest of the wall — for the best spots on the spot, look for another dimension like boulders or a fallen tree. Current can add a whole other dimension to a rock shelf. Large lakes and deep water tend to have currents that ebb and flow randomly, and if you can pinpoint current flowing toward or along a shelf you may have found dynamite. In larger waters that have necked-down channel areas where current is an every day fact of life, the best shelves are on the leading (upcurrent) ends or sides of rock walls or islands. Just as active muskies are drawn to wind, a hungry fish hanging on a shelf will often slide forward to the edge where the current and shelf meet.

Finding shelves isn’t hard. Motor to one end of a rock wall adjacent to deep water, snap on a buoyant crankbait such as a DepthRaider, Believer or Slammer (buoyant baits are easier to work free of snags in rocks), let out about 30 to 50 feet of line, and begin a trolling pass close along the wall. I like to feel as if I can reach out with the rod tip and touch the wall — although that’s seldom the case, it still seems that way. Keep an eye on the wall itself for any complexities and keep your other eye on your fishfinder to identify deeper shelves.

It’s smart to have your partner stand in the bow to watch for rocks that may be hazardous to your boat. Your partner, of course, will be holding his own rod but on the opposite side of the boat from yours.

Troll the length of the rock wall and either mark the shelves you find on your map or with a waypoint on your GPS. You will catch muskies while trolling/scouting, but by marking the shelves for future reference you’ll know exactly where to return later to pick the shelf apart by casting.

Clearing The Shelf

Shelves and rock walls typically mean deep water. Sure, muskies can position themselves shallow on the shelf, especially during low light periods, but for the most part they’re going to be deeper. It may have something to do with the deep water forage they may be targeting — holding at, say, 12 feet on a projection puts them in a better position to pick off tullibees/ciscoes.

I’ve found that it’s best to get your lure down to where the fish are. Under most circumstances I’ll snap on a deep-diving crankbait like a DepthRaider or Triple D and cast it shallow enough that it will bang its diving lip on rocks as it works its way deeper, and slowly retrieve it with the full intent of making cover/structure contact. When it’s apparent the crankbait has cleared the structure I’ll give it a twitch and a pause before retrieving to the boat. If muskies are attacking during the twitch/pause the Triple D gets the nod because of its hang-in-their-face, near-neutral buoyancy.

Another very effective technique for deeper-holding muskies is to count down a weighted glider, like a Reef Hawg, or a large plastic like a Bull Dawg, and then slowly twitch it back to the boat. If using a Reef Hawg, I like to pre-soak the bait in my boat’s livewell so that it readily maintains depth; if using the Dawg, I usually choose an unweighted magnum model because its slow descent allows more versatility. At sunset on a Canadian lake last July, an 8-inch Reef Hawg twitched about eight feet down resulted in a terrific strike from a fish that had followed but refused crankbaits numerous times during the day. The musky was so convinced by the twitched glider that all three sets of trebles needed to be cut from its jaws.

Just like any other spot, the better the sky conditions the shallower the muskies seem to hold. Low-light periods of sunrise or sunset, or in advance of a storm, can result in the muskies holding slightly shallower on the shelf. These muskies are ripe for catching, and fishing fast with a bucktail, spinnerbait or topwater is probably your best bet. Still, choose a bucktail with a willow leaf blade, such as a Mepps Giant Killer, to gain a few additional feet of depth. If you choose a topwater, a Jackpot-style lure will hold in the strike zone for a longer period of time and be more prone to pull up a deeper fish. If I could pick one type of shelf during a low-light period,it would be one positioned on or near the leading edge of an island in a current area — now (italic)everything is in your favor. Two years ago on just such a spot in just such conditions, I hooked and lost a 46- incher twice on the same cast, and as I swung into the figure-8 a bolt of lightning crashed nearby. Quickly we stowed our equipment and sought shelter at a nearby shore lunch spot, but when it became apparent the light show was over we returned to the shelf and I hooked the musky for good on the first cast — how revved up was that fish?

Rock shelves require an effort to find and can be time-consuming to fish effectively when compared to other, more-obvious Canadian hotspots. But in this day of more and better fishermen, discovering these untapped treasures is well worth it. The next time you’re near a main lake rock wall, make a trolling pass down its face and watch for any projections that fit what I’ve described in this article. Then go back and cast them. Many of you will be glad you did.

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