How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Suspended Muskies

Suspended muskie
By Lonnie King

Many of us have grown up with the impression all muskie lurk along deep weedlines and rocky shoals. These are the main places we look for and catch them, but some anglers are discovering huge muskie living in open water.

This was demonstrated to me last fall while fishing with guide Frank Dimarcantonio on the upper Niagara River. We started the day running the usual spots, but as fishing traffic increased, Dimarcantonio headed for deeper water. Soon, his sonar began picking up baitfish schooled tightly within a few feet of the surface. Spurning widely accepted bottom-bouncing presentations, he raised his line up to intercept the baitfish, leaving little more than prop-wash separating his frantically swimming lure and the boat.This presentation is standard on shallow lakes like Nipissing, St. Clair, and the Kawarthas, but over 60 feet (18 m) of water in the middle of nowhere? The thought barely cleared my head when the erratic thumping on Dimarcantonio's rod stopped and was replaced by a steady weight and a squelching drag.

Having taken many muskie measuring between 36 and 42 inches (91 to 107 cm) over the last several days, it was clear by the bend in his rod that this was a much bigger fish. Although it seemed like an eternity, after 10 minutes of give and take the fish rose slowly from the emerald depths. It had a thick back and a belly packed so tightly with food that it was swollen grotesquely out of proportion. Dimarcantonio's badly battered Depth Raider, miniature in comparison to the fish's massive head, barely peeked out from the corner of its tightly clenched jaws. Had we weighed the fish, it would have easily topped 30 pounds (13.6 kg), despite being only 49 inches (124 cm) in length - not a monster by muskie standards, but a locational clue that would lead to a number of even bigger fish before the close of the season.

Do muskie suspend? You bet. And in more places than you'd probably believe. Just ask Mike Lazarus of Montreal, Quebec. Lazarus is a die-hard multi-species angler who fishes regularly in Ontario waters of the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries and the lakes in Quebec's Laurentians. He's boated numerous muskie longer than 50 inches (127 cm). For years he's relied on open-water trolling to capitalize on muskie few anglers even knew existed. He's quick to point out that on the waters he fishes, most of the pelagic giants never utilize inshore shallows except to spawn. Throughout much of the season you'll likely find Lazarus trolling over depths of 60 to 200 feet (18 to 60 m). "This may sound a little intimidating to some people, but rarely will we actually catch a fish below 30 or 35 feet (9 to 10.6 m)," he said.

He uses sonar to mark individual fish before he actually catches them. This has enabled him to learn a lot about muskie behaviour. "When I mark a single fish in shallow, open water (10 to 30 feet/3 to 9 m below the surface), there's a great chance I'm going to catch it. If, however, I mark two, three, four, or even five fish together, I won't even turn around for a second pass. Experience has shown that these fish are simply not in a feeding mood."

Lazarus uses a 60-degree-cone sonar transducer to increase chances of marking fish. This is especially critical when muskie are up high, since the closer you get to the boat, the narrower the transducer's beam becomes. For open-water muskie fishing, the need for a reliable sonar cannot be overstated.

"You might as well be fishing blind as fishing without a good sonar unit," reiterates Shawn McCarthy, a Georgian Bay muskie guide. He has also taken his share of giant, suspended muskie. In addition to a GPS unit, his boat is equipped with a paper graph. "As good as the new technology is, I still haven't found an LCD that can match the resolution of my paper graph," he claimed. "On occasion we will mark the odd muskie, but for the most part the key to catching suspended muskie on Georgian Bay is to find the baitfish. Any substantial school of baitfish is worth making a few passes. But when I mark baitfish clouds that are scattered and broken, I really work these areas hard." McCarthy's experience has shown him these scattered schools of baitfish usually indicate predatory fish are feeding in the area. This same approach works on the Niagara River/Lake Erie. Dimarcantonio also concentrates his efforts where baitfish are schooled. Once he finds an area he has confidence in, he'll often stay there and wait for muskie to turn on. He refers to these periods as feeding windows. "It's not uncommon to (unsuccessfully) work an area all day and then take two or three fish in a row."

"On Lake Erie it's not a matter of just finding baitfish. You have to find the right kinds, Dimarcantonio said. "At certain times of the year there is literally so much bait that big muskie get picky. On any given pass you could mark large schools of emerald shiners, alewives and smelt, or isolated pods of sheepshead, walleye, or smallmouth bass. Although muskie are capable of preying on any of these food items, some of my best fishing has been in the presence of gizzard shad. When I hit into an area holding good concentrations of gizzards, I'm likely to spend the majority of my time there."

Dimarcantonio also noted, "If you stick on a school of baitfish long enough, you'll actually see it will move up and down in the water column throughout the day."

Such understanding of pre-dator/prey relationships is a critical part of open-water muskie hunting, as is controlled-depth fishing. All three guides depend on large crankbaits for trolling. Depending on how deep they must fish on any given day, they might simply flat-line deep-diving crankbaits or troll them off wire line or downriggers for added depth. They vary lure size and colour to match local baitfish. In Lazurus's home waters, muskie key in on mooneye and emerald shiners. Much of McCarthy's fishing centres around schools of whitefish, herring, and smallmouth bass. He also reports that bullheads are occasionally added to the muskie's menu in Georgian Bay, most likely during isolated feeding forays into smaller vegetated bays rimming the deeper basins he fishes.

Regardless of which muskie lake you fish, if it has open-water baitfish, you've likely got a case of suspended muskie. If the experiences of these three guides are any indication, those fish could be giants ignored by other anglers.


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