How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Monday, January 16, 2006

No Man's Land Mukies

By Dan Craven*

No-man's land. It was, in World War I, that ugly area between the trenches -- scraggly trees, boulders, artillery craters, barbed wire. Our lakes and reservoirs also offer these seemingly desolate sections that few muskie anglers notice, much less fish.

Today, the astute among you know that such places are sometimes where we need to be fishing. No fishing pressure. Fish adapt and use these spots, and so should we. Indeed, muskies use them when traveling, while resting and, more often than not, when feeding.

Areas of "no-man's muskies" typically are large and flat and somewhat devoid of weed and rock concentrations, usually lying between obvious major structural elements. Or they may be the opposite, consisting of large, monotonous areas of weedgrowth and rock -- again, lying between obvious edge formations which may attract fish. But so may the no-man's area, especially when the obvious edges get lots of attention from other anglers.

The most common no-man's muskie area falls between two types of vegetation. In northern Minnesota, where I do most of my fishing, a typical scenario would be a drop-off edge consisting of good cabbage growth; then, moving shallower, a 20- or 30- to several-100-yard section of no-man's land; abutting on the inside shallows, a distinct line of pencil reeds or rushes.

Again, many muskie anglers focus on the cabbage edge, on the deep side, and the edge of the rushes, on the inside, while few spend time on no-man's land, those potentially rich pickings in between. Leech Lake, Lake Plantagenet, Cass, Little Boy, Bemidji and Mille Lacs are a few prominent examples of Minnesota lakes that have areas like this. Most lakes and reservoirs in the country, though, have similar to offer.

Usually, the larger the body of water, the larger and more extensive their stretches of no-man's land. But, as you know, smaller zones on smaller lakes can be just as important to someone who has to fish these lesser (and often, heavily pressured) bodies of water.

Canadian Shield lakes -- ranging from Lake Vermillion, Minnesota, and on into Canada -- have no-man's areas. Long, sloping, underwater points have defined edges, a deeper drop-off edge and an interior shallow edge consisting of a rock ledge, either at the shoreline or somewhere slightly deeper, just out from the shoreline. Often the tip of a point has a "spot or spots on the spot." Often such a site consists of a particularly large gathering of boulders. Sometimes it's just the immediate tip of the point. Other times it's just where the steepest drop-off portion of the edge abuts a side that begins to shallow up.

It's fairly easy to contact muskies in such high-percentage holding locales by moving along quickly and casting speed baits like a bucktail. Or, when conditions are more difficult, slow down a bit and use another of the many popular muskie baits -- a crankbait or a jerkbait, perhaps.

You also know, though, how often these obvious spots may be hit during a day by other anglers. By now I'm betting you've gotten my point. Fish also scatter and feed away from these obvious danger zones. Or, they're pressured enough that they just move away. These are the fish -- the no-man's muskies -- that don't have to contend with lures whizzing past every hour. The depth of no-man's areas varies from lake to lake. The main depths in the lakes I usually fish run from 5 to 9 or 10 feet. In a few shallower lakes, the depths have run 3 to 6 feet.

Sometimes these locations may seem devoid of structure, but you need to look for subtle structural changes. Two or three strands of cabbage, a group of skull-sized rocks, a patch of five-inch-tall grass is all that it might take to hold a fish. The vast no-man's areas on Leech Lake and the extensive sand flats on the north end of Mille Lacs are a lot like this. The fish may relate to no more than a one-foot drop on pure sugar sand or several stalks of cabbage.

On the other hand, some no-man's sections seem to be solid weedgrowth. Here you might look for a larger patch of growth that protrudes all the way to the surface. Or weed pockets in the solid mat. Or an edge where coontail abuts cabbage weeds (the coontail often grows in a wall, while the thinner cabbage stalks give fish room to maneuver).

Occasionally, it's much better to be lucky than it is to be just plain good; so blind casting is always an option when you're getting started -- well, not really blind casting, so much as picking some sort of calculated way to cover the subject for the first time. Once or twice through an area should give you a feel for the location of higher-percentage areas.

I also take time before the season to cruise these, looking for potential fish-holding pockets. Use a Global Positioning System (GPS) to mark mini-cabbage patches, small rock piles, logs or other "oases" in these deserts.

On many of the lakes I fish in Minnesota, pencil reeds or rushes often form the "inside" border of no-man's sections. Reed and rush beds usually aren't uniform for long stretches. Look for reed or rush points extending out into no-man's land. These are good places to start searching. Fish often use water near points as travel routes to and from the reeds, out to the cabbage drop-off areas. I often focus my casting or trolling between the most obvious points of reeds and the closest drop-off cabbage bed.

Trolling can be productive and is a good way to quickly get a better feel for a new site. Cover lots of water as you have a look. Your lure's always in the strike zone, so there's a chance you'll connect as you're looking.

Eventually, though, you'll recognize that certain little spots or larger general areas usually produce fish. The better you know a no-man's zone, the more of these potential spots you'll have marked, thus cutting down your search time. The objective is always to fish as efficiently as possible, having your lures in prime fish water as much as possible. That's just as true when you're fishing no-man's land.

If you're searching, this is no place to be throwing a slow-moving bait like a Mouldy's Hawg Wobbler. Then again, if you've already marked the highest-percentage spots in a no-man's section, you might just want to roll a Hawg Wobbler over those areas. So, presentation picks are determined by the situation you face. Walk-the-dog surface baits and gliding jerkbaits can be added to the arsenal, to work these areas a little more thoroughly than when you were in the "search" mode.

For searching, smaller speed bucktails, in-line surface lures such as surface buzzers, and shallow-lipped crankbaits are efficient options. Fast-swimming, slow-sinking (since the water depth is usually shallow) plastic baits also work well.

As I mentioned, trolling is an efficient way to search, and the same baits just mentioned work well when trolling. In-line planer boards are an option here, in order to spread baits and cover even more water on a pass. Any straight-tracking baits can be utilized with in-line boards -- simply adjust boat speed and length of line behind the boards.

As legendary muskie angler and frequent In-Fisherman contributor, Dick Pearson, has said: "With more and more people fishing muskies we each potentially get a smaller portion of the pie -- there's fewer 'cherries' to be easily picked out there anymore." No-man's land isn't so easy to fish as some of the traditional locales. But these areas generally get less fishing pressure, and today that can mean more "willing" fish.

*Dan Craven, Walker, Minnesota (218-547-2869) is a former In-Fisherman Camp Fish Director, now a teacher who guides on some of Minnesota's most famous muskie lakes.


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