How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Art of Change when fishing for muskies

By Joel Tinker

It's funny how some things that are sitting right in front of you can be the hardest to see. I realized that a great mystery of fishing had been answered for me many years ago, but I failed to recognize it. Eventually, I fell upon the answer through the school of hard knocks and experience. I did however lose some time by not seeing it earlier. Let me explain.

As a child I had seen a TV show that dealt with certain behavior characteristics of fish. The overall show was interesting, but one segment made a particularly long lasting impression on me; one that I never quite got out of my mind and one that I would find answered many of the "location" questions for me when it came to finding fish and catching them. In this TV segment some researchers put several largemouth bass into a concrete swimming pool that was painted stark white under the water line. As these bass were introduced to their new environment they just swam aimlessly about the pool with no apparent reason for there location. Then the fish were removed and a large rock was set in the middle of the same pool. Then the fish were reintroduced. All the bass swam over and nosed up against the rock! Not one, not some, but all of the bass wanted to be around this rock. The fish were again removed, as was the rock. A black stripe was then painted down the side of the pool. The water was returned along with the bass and every bass went over and nosed up to that black line painted on the side of the pool! The rock was reintroduced and some of the fish would nose up to the rock and some to the black line. Often fish would move from one to the other, but always when stationary they wanted to be near one of these "objects".

It was not till some time later that I realized what was going on with this behavior and it has forever changed the way I think about the underwater world. It has helped me in my ability to find fish, not just muskies, but fish of many species. It has helped me to understand why fish can be predicted to be in certain places and it helps one start to understand why there are certain structures that are and always will be "classic" structures to which certain species will locate. It helps to explain why the words "spot on a spot" were coined and sheds some light onto what they mean. Better yet, it helps one see and start to locate those all-important spots. Its biggest benefit to me has come from my being able to use it as a tool to easily teach others how to locate fish. It is the beginning cornerstone from which to build, and first thing I look for to help me narrow my search for fish.

In a word it is called "CHANGE". I don't think I'm the first to use the term in regards to fish behavior or how it relates to their location. What I want to do for you here is give you a sense of how I use it. It's a mind set that lets you look into the fish world and make some sense of it.

CHANGE, as I'm using it here, really would be better started as "Change in environment or surroundings". What I believe was going on with the bass in the above example is that they were relating to a change in their environment, be it the stripe or the rock. Fish in general, but game fish in particular (some species more than others), have a natural tendency to want to relate to change in their environment. Why? I'm not sure I have the answers to that, and the answer would be a whole other article, but the important thing is to know that it exists and how to use it to your advantage. By putting your mind into this mode of thinking you will be surprised how many things relating to fishing, whether they be books, articles, seminars, etc., will become more understandable. The biggest difference you will see is when you set your mind to thinking along these lines when you are on the water. Soon you will be concentrating on things that you haven't concentrated on in the past. You will be looking for more details in regards to fish location, and slowly develop confidence to the degree that you will know CHANGE when you see it, and thus, find fish by looking for it.

CHANGE, although a simple concept is comprised of a huge number of examples. That's one of the great things about thinking in this mind-set. It gets you looking for fish in the places that are often neglected and greatly expands you as a fishing person. I am always finding new types of CHANGE and fish relating to it. The more waters that you fish the more changes you will find as each water has its own special environments and idiosyncrasies. Let me start by saying that I am primarily a musky fisherman. Along with that pursuit I enjoy fishing for most of the northern, inland lake fish: pike, walleye, bass, and panfish. Excluding panfish, the rest would fall under the heading of game fish and they are the ones that the following examples will be based on. For the species in your area and the types of waters in your area the exact things to be looked at may change somewhat, but it's the concept that is of importance here not the specifics. They are only offered because they work for me on the waters I fish.

Some broad categories of CHANGE would be: current (including wind), temperature, depth, structure (as defined by Buck Perry), bottom hardness and content, water clarity, objects, and many more that don't come to mind at this moment.

If we list all the terminology used to describe possible fish holding locations it's no wonder that I have folks come up to me with a bewildered look in their eyes complaining that they can't remember it all. We have: inside turns, drop-offs, wood, rock walls, rock piles, hard bottom, cribs, thermoclines, eddies, scum lines, algae blooms, points, reefs, humps, channels, neck downs, saddles, basin areas, weed edges, weed types, sand bars, mud flats, corners, stump fields, piers, holes, inlets, outlets, pockets, fingers, bays, shorelines, open water, bogs, brush piles, rip-rap, warm water discharges, wing dams, log jams; I think you get my drift. What frustrates many people is trying to remember all the different types of spots to be looked at, when what they really should do is just go out and find CHANGE in the waters they fish and the fish will be there. It's a lot easier to think about CHANGE then trying to remember the above list. And that is my humble, abridged version; the actual list as we all know would be much, much longer.

As you go out and find change on your water there are a couple of things to keep in mind as general rules. The first is that the more types of CHANGE that you can find within a confined area the better your chances are of locating fish there. The second is that if you can find CHANGE on CHANGE, commonly called "spot on a spot", you can sometimes pinpoint fish very exactly.

I want to spend some time here to go over some specific types of CHANGE so that you leave with a true sense of what you want to do and look for on the water. Some of these will be things that you may be familiar with or hear talked about often in the fishing world, and thus, you may think this is nothing new, but I remind you, it is whether you think of these things in terms of CHANGE that may determine if you see them out on the water. Let's look at bottom hardness as our example. This is not a new concept in the fishing world. It is the idea that certain game fish will relate to an edge in a lake where one type of bottom substrate comes into contact with another. In our example, lets say we have a drop off that is gravel and when it gets to the flat lake basin it abruptly turns to muck (See Diagram # 1). The edge that is created by the gravel meeting the muck is called a transition edge and fish will relate to it and at times use it for a travel path. Why? There may be many reasons, we may never know for sure, but if you were looking for CHANGE in your lake and you found this situation it would be a likely place to look for fish. It is CHANGE and the fish may be near it for no other reason than because they like to relate to CHANGE. The transition line is the rock in the swimming pool, it is the line painted on the wall. It is a CHANGE from one type of bottom to another.

Diagram # 1

Now let's push this one step further. Suppose this transition edge is running in a straight line for 100 yards then it has an extension that sticks out even farther into the lake and then cuts back in and again runs in a straight line (See Diagram # 2). In other words, it has just made a point under the water, not a point due to depth change, but a point due to the bottom CHANGE going further out into the lake. This is a CHANGE (a straight line edge that now has an irregularity to it) on a CHANGE (the original gravel to muck edge). Other wise called a spot on a spot. In this scenario we could safely guess that if fish are present they will be holding (relating) to the point area because it is CHANGE on CHANGE.

Diagram # 2

And still one step further. Now suppose that on the corner that is made by this hard bottom area extending into the lake sits a small pile of rocks (See Diagram # 3). This is another spot on a spot. Actually it is a spot, on a spot, on a spot, in this case. Now we can guess if fish are present that they would be around the rocks on the corner of the point. Isn't it easier to remember to look for CHANGE then to have some expert tell you that if you ever find a deep-water transition area that contains a pile of rock on a corner or underwater point to fish the snot out of it cause it might hold fish?

Diagram # 3

By the way, the above example is a spot that I actually fish. I have caught muskies along the entire transition edge, but greater numbers are taken off the extension. The little rock pile has produced the biggest fish off this spot. I surprised a client one day on this spot. As we slowly fished the edge we were just about to come up to the little rock pile and I mentioned to him that within the next couple of minutes don't be surprised to get a hit on our jigs or the sucker that we had out the back. Sure enough we got a fish on the sucker and my client boated the biggest musky of his life to that point, a nice 28# fish! He was amazed that I could call that hit, he said that he was watching the graph all the way along and thought we were just kind of moving aimlessly in 38 feet of water. I took him back over the area and pointed out what I was watching for on the locator and spent the better part of the afternoon explaining the concept of CHANGE. He has since used the information learned that day to top that 28# fish. He became a believer in looking for CHANGE.

I always revert back to thinking about those bass in the pool, swimming over and putting their noses on the black line. If that line was replaced with a bed of cabbage weed and the pool was a gravel saddle between two islands, where would the bass be? They would be in the cabbage. If a pile of rocks replaced the line and the pool was a large cabbage bed where would the bass be? They would be near the rock pile that is in the middle of the cabbage bed. If the line is a small bed of cabbage weed and the pool is a large area of milfoil, where would the bass be? They would be along or in the small clump of cabbage weed. Almost all fish location can be thought of in this way. Most of their life is spent relating to some type of CHANGE.

Do fish relate to an inside turn in a weed line? Yes, because it is a CHANGE from the normal edge.

Do fish relate to sunken wood? Yes, because it is a CHANGE in the bottom make up.

Do fish relate to drop offs? Yes, because they are a CHANGE in depth.

Do fish relate to a weed edge? Yes, because it is a CHANGE from weeds to no weeds, a CHANGE in bottom makeup.

Do fish relate to points? Yes, because they are a CHANGE in the surrounding depth or bottom composition.

Do fish suspend at a give depth over open water? Yes, because it is a CHANGE in temperature.

Do fish suspend at a give depth over open water? Yes, because it is a CHANGE in sunlight penetration.

Do fish suspend at a give depth over open water? Yes, because it is a CHANGE in baitfish location from none to some.

Lake Superior fishermen will tell you that they fish something call the mud line. It is an edge in open water that is created when a strong rain flushes water out of a river and into the lake. It is a visible line of muddy water running out into the big lake and it is trolled along for walleye, trout, and salmon. Why are those fish there? Because it is a CHANGE from the normal crystal clear waters of lake Superior to water so muddy you can't see your hand at one foot of depth. Find the CHANGE and you find the fish.

Most of the time when I'm trying to locate fish there are only two things that I focus on, one is baitfish and the other is CHANGE. Even baitfish locations are very often a result of the baitfish relating to a CHANGE of some kind in their environment. And in most cases, after I catch a fish, I can go back to the spot and figure out what type of CHANGE was present that was causing that fish to hold were it did. I hope that after reading some of these examples you will be able to do the same thing. It is a way of thinking about where fish will be that is simple in concept, but yet addresses almost all of the "location" questions that one may have. Look for the CHANGE and find the fish!

Joel Tinker is a member of Muskies101 Guide Association click here for more information


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