“Whether a vacation, weekend getaway or competing in a tournament or club outing, we all find ourselves treading in unfamiliar waters.”
During the past few seasons I have been preparing to extend my summer guiding into the big waters of Northern Minnesota, maybe more than ever before I understand how valuable it is to know the make up of the structure beneath the surface. Most of us will agree that the first visit to new muskie waters the majority of the time, tends to be the most challenging. Maiden voyages can be very frustrating and generally disappointing if a proper preparation has been overlooked. We all excitingly want to hit the water and start casting but familiarizing yourself with the body of water you are about to fish and getting acquainted with its make up in my opinion is vital to finding muskie success on foreign waters. Always my first step in doing this is map preparation, studying accurate current maps and then following up with on the water research are the two single most important factors leading to success when attacking new muskie waters. Intensive home map diagnoses will give you a good idea on where and what structure to break down, and maybe most importantly saves precious on the water time. In a conversation with fellow lodge owner and tournament competitor Mark Nelson of Cass Lake’s Birch Villa resort we stumbled on the subject of guest preparation before there arrival for a muskie trip. We both agreed that too many muskie anglers arrive without having done any groundwork as far map studies. Nearly all their knowledge came from internet research and word of mouth, they knew the most popular colors, baits and tactics but very few had even purchased a lake map before they entered town.
What might me most important to all anglers is not what you see above the surface but what lies beneath. The ability to transform the areas under the surface into a three dimensional view can make the difference. Painting yourself a mental picture can be your most effective tool to consistently locating muskies. Underwater structure such as humps, trees, break lines, rocks, weed beds, bars and channels can be the key in producing trophies, learning the proper way to approach these underwater formations will prove to be critical for frequent success. The solution to working structure successfully is the ability to break it down exposing the most productive points. When checking a potential spot, I run at a certain depth and then look for baitfish. If I get too deep, I turn into shallower structure. When it gets too shallow I will turn out to deeper water. By following this simple piece of advice, you will find more points, inside bends and other quality ingredients that make up a specific structure. Plus, my Lowrance electronics will help me find inconsistencies, these transitional areas that have either hard or soft bottom. This maybe even more magical than the major points or inside turns that you discovered on the map or while making passes over them. Learning to read shorelines and what they form below the surface becomes a very valuable tool in quickly eliminating water. An awesome tool to utilize in your underwater search is bottom bouncers. Deep diving lures have always been a great way to come in contact with structure. But better yet, another great way to find the bottom is slow roll’ in spinnerbaits like the Grim Reaper or CJ’s, also bouncing jigs such as Bait Rigs Esox Cobra are very effective in identifying the bottom. These baits can give you much more a feel for what lies below. Old timers used this method to find structure, breaks and of course the bottom long before depth finders, it can be very effective. Discovering the sweet spots as we all know is just half the battle, locating active muskies then becomes our mission. After formalizing myself with the water I then start presenting locator baits in my chosen spots to find fish. A handful of baits can be called locator baits, bucktails have long been the most widely used. Over the few years I have found a great fish locator in glide baits like the Manta and Hellhound. From the enormous rock bars on Canada’s Eagle Lake to the pressured fall weed flats of Cave Run when moved quickly to cover a large amount of water in a short period of time, these glide baits can really get the muskies to show themselves and cover a lot of water quickly.
Structure is not only timber, rocks or weeds; it’s the entire make up of a certain area. When looking at structure, the edge is where gravel turns to sand, mud meets rock drop-offs, wave washed points, deserted sandy bottom beaches, or bottle necks between two different land masses, or near a culvert where fresh water flows through. More subtle structure might be where there is a union of two rivers, a mud line (cloudy discharge from one river or stream into a lake), a current break in a river or stream, or even fallen trees to provide an edge to which fish relate. All of these are structure that makes up tremendous target areas for big muskies, where potential “hot spots” that could reveal the true “sweet spots” can be located. Let’s take a look at my 5 Step formula in breaking down new waters and explore more of what lies beneath.
1) Find Inconstancies
Searching out bottom and structure changes
2) Three Dimensional View
Transform what you see on your GPS, Graph and Maps to 3-D
Connect what you see above the surface to what your maps and electronics display.
4) Mental Picture
Imagine where the structure is and where the fish should hold.
5) Lake Similarities
Look back at similar scenarios that you have encountered
A sunken island may have a series of spots where the bottom changes from one type to another. Transitional zones might be changes from hard to soft, or sand to rock. These zones are just subtle changes and they could be a very narrow band on a specific piece of structure. Often a point or inside bend is present, too. Most anglers tend to fish the whole structure. Concentrate your efforts on the two or three key spots rather than casting the whole flat or sunken island. This will be especially true on lakes where this type structure is abundant. Humps are some awesome well known producers and can be found in a series or isolated out by itself. In both cases inconstancies will make separate holding areas, find those inconsistencies that makes them different and you’ll find muskies. While on the Madison Chain event Kevin Nash, Karen DiPietro and I hooked up for some pre-fishing for the 2003 PMTT. An isolated hump’s east side tapered into deeper water quicker with a slight offset which gave us our only 2 muskies during our pre fishing efforts. That hump was overlooked by most all anglers which were working a similar trolling pattern. During that weekends event Karen targeted that inconstancy and landed a 40″ plus fish on that spot, finding that small spot on a spot qualified her for the Ranger Boat Championship. An example how important it is in finding these spots that never make a map.
On lakes or rivers where there are rock bluffs, often, due to heavy rains or erosion, some of the bluff will chunk off and fall into the water. There usually will be several different size rocks that have fallen into the water; many will be slab forms while others will be boulder-like. When slab rock fall onto boulders, they form natural bridges for fish to hide under, these spots harbor big fish. It seems wither Canada or Kentucky and all waters in between big muskies have a sense for great structure of this type, this may be your highest percentage spot to fool a real trophy when you consistently work it. On Cave Run’s Licking River one hot spot of mine is where a tremendous rock slide left several large rock slaps unexposed atop a giant rock formation. This area isn’t a great numbers spot but has produced 7 trophy fish for my clients and me over the past several years. That spot has become part of my milk run almost every day that I fish the Cave at certain times of the year. An important fact to remember is that this type of structure can be formed on any given year where high water levels hit a body of water.
Standing timber can be some of the best structure available for holding big muskies; this is especially true under cold front conditions. Not all standing timber are the visible ones that emerge through the surface, in fact in many reservoirs tree tops may be 10 or even twenty feet below the surface. Identifying the type of trees may also help in narrowing down the baitfish that frequent those areas bottom makeup. Laydown timber is my favorite, these too are not always visible above the surface, and those that sink out into the first break line can be frequent homes for trophy fish. A couple of tips would be to search out stumps near the shore; the tree tops that have fallen off are not so noticeable. Spotting larger topless trees away from shore that may have left its remains sunken nearby could give you a consistent producing spot for years to come. An example of that is on Wisconsin’s Eagle River Chain where a single uncovered treetop has produced several good fish for me and a great tournament fish for father/daughter team Ken and Stephanie Lang in the PMTT Mercury Marine Challenge. Cruising shorelines looking for this type of cover can be indispensable on some bodies of water.
Weed beds without question are a giant part of structure fishing for muskies. These beds made up of many different weed types generally are the first place most anglers look for fish. Whether it is reeds, cabbage, coontail or milfoil it all takes some investigation to find the sweeter spots. However too many anglers make the mistake of spending too much time on the large more popular beds rather than searching out those smaller less pressured ones. Not all weeds hold fish in good numbers, searching out the ones that are different or relate to other structure like rocks, deep water and timber just might be the most productive. A great case in point is a small series of cabbage beds on a well known Wisconsin lake. In 2003 a 10 day period it produced for my clients and I 4 thirty pound class fish. Then again in 2005 that same structure spit out four over 47 inches in less than two weeks. Most of these beds are rarely ever hit by anyone on the lake and was one of the few that were made up of multiple weed types.
Probably the most important factor when working Canadian and Minnesota waters are rocks, many other parts of muskie country also offers this awesome structure as well but probably not as predominate as the fore mentioned. Working this type of make up is much more than just casting at a large target. It seems the angle of your presentation is crucial; this changes in a big way with wind direction. Visualizing the formation of the underwater rocks and the gaps that are big enough to hold a muskie is crucial in being successful when attacking this type structure. Surveying rock formations gives you valuable info as to which gaps are large enough to hold a fish. The importance of reading these rock bars properly first struck me the hardest while fishing with Luke Ronnestrand in Northern Minnesota this past year. Luke’s extensive knowledge of the rock structure we were fishing enabled him on many occasions to accurately predict where the fish would hit; this amazed me but also educated me on how important it is to fish the spots correctly without wasting cast and spooking fish. Believe me a day on the water with this youngster has taught this old dog some new tricks.
Many lakes have manmade structure that should play a very important part in your muskie arsenal, most of which never shows up on a map. This man made structure can consist of many different materials, from wood or rock to plastics and in many different shapes. Most common might be the crib, usually made of wood placed by clubs or government agencies to attract and hold baitfish. Very popular on many Northern Wisconsin lakes cribs prove to be an awesome big fish feeding and staging areas. I have also found that big fish commonly frequent the same spots year after year; one single Northwoods crib has logged me and my clients 9 quality fish over the past four years. I have even noticed that it’s common for many lake residents to have their own fish attractors near their docks to pull panfish within casting distance, these too are extremely good pay off spots that take some effort to locate. Some other lakes have large X-mas tree drops anchored with concrete blocks to avoid relocation. During an annual Thanksgiving Outing at Mountain Muskie Lodge at Cave Run a fidgeted cold front left most of us fishless. Yet trail anglers Karen DiPietro and Scott Salchil had the confidence to aggressively work and rework a X-mas tree pile that gave Karen the only 2 really nice fish of the weekend. Others have shoreline trees cut and submerged then chained to its stump to assure its permanent location, this method of manmade structure is very common on Kentucky’s Green River Lake and often produces trophy fish to persistent anglers.
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 www.kymuskie.com www.muskiesupnorth.com
www.tonygrantoutdoors.com and www.muskyroadrules.com