How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Monday, February 06, 2006

How To Attack New (muskie) Waters In the Spring

by Pete Maina

There are many common misconceptions about muskie fishing. One of the big challenges of successful muskie fishing simply involves an attitude and approach of not accepting the accepted. I'm certainly not here to tell you that everything you¹ve heard and read about muskie fishing is false, and that I have all the answers (no one will ever have all the answers). What I am here to tell you, is that if you fall into the trap of relying strictly upon what others and your own personal past experiences tell you in your tactical approach to muskie or pike fishing (or any fishing for that matter) you will be less successful.

The reason I begin with this fairly gray statement is that, with respect to seasonal approaches for toothy swimmers, the spring seasons educational history seems to offer the most in accepted methodology and theories. For spring muskies, the three S¹s have been most commonly accepted: shallow (water), slow (retrieves), small (baits). Its a good all-purpose plan if you want to catch muskies in the spring, although often only the small to medium units. Planning is good, as long as we keep in mind that fishing plans that don¹t produce need to be altered at times, drastically.

Speaking of gray areas, defining the spring season is tremendously gray. Certainly, with respect to the range of pike and muskie, we have everything from seven months of ice to no ice in winter months. Many places, especially with respect to fisheries that rely extensively or exclusively on stocking (natural reproduction nonexistent), there is no closed season for muskie angling (I am personally unaware of any pike fisheries that rely heavily on stocking). But, basically all Midwestern muskie waters have a closed season for angling to protect fish into the post-spawn period. Since this is what I personally have experience with, discussions here will revolve around post-spawn muskie tactics. I expect that well have some great info on winter and pre-spawn pike and muskie showing up in these pages soon.

Lake Types

Not being a real scientific type, yet still reasonably effective, I¹ll be fairly generic here. I deal with three basic types of waters, one being a flowage/reservoir system. The damming of river/creek system(s) creates these waters. While they vary tremendously in shapes and sizes, they are usually comparatively shallow over-all. They generally have fairly stained, fertile water and offer good vegetation and some wood.

While muskies don¹t seem to make the massive movements upstream (for spawning) often noted in some southern reservoirs, it seems that the very fertile inlet areas will have the highest concentrations of spawners in the system. Any large, fertile spawning grounds adjacent will also hold significant numbers. Technically though, with the watered-down hodge-podge of stocked and indigenous fish many waters have, they may be attempting the ritual anywhere.

Another common water-type in the Midwest is the natural lake. A lot of natural lakes are similar to Midwest reservoirs in that natural lakes are quite fertile too, with shallow-to-medium depth and stained water. I think smarter-types have called this condition mesotrophic. Even though mesotrophic lakes are generally good spring producers, to me, they offer the least in post-spawn locational advantages (more later).

The final type of waters I regularly fish, are deep, clear-water lakes, which are generally fairly sterile otherwise known as oligotrophic. (This use of terms like mesotrophic and oligotrophic is a little high-tech for me...) Anyway, oligotrophic lakes usually offer the least in weed growth and little in wood, other than downed trees on steep shorelines. These waters generally have an abundance of open-water roaming forage fish like ciscoes, whitefish and perch. Overall muskie densities are generally lower, although they usually offer trophy potential on above-average weight fish. Much of the shoreline flats and other structures offer hard-bottoms of sand, gravel and rock. Because of this, spawning areas are limited for muskie and pike.

Which type to fish is the logical question. The answer is all. But taking a look at this period following the spawn, it makes sense to consider fish concentrations on lake types. Very possibly, most of the mesotrophic natural waters offer little as far as a concentration of spawners. Most of these waters have reasonably good spawning opportunities spread throughout the lake and no water flow to follow. So likely, fish may be as spread out now as they are in summer.

On reservoirs/flowages, in the period following spawning, there will likely be heavier concentrations of muskies in the fertile areas near the inlets. This gives the angler an edge by simply knowing areas where higher concentrations of fish likely are. And the same can be said for the deep, clear lakes. Looking at a map will usually reveal a few main spawning bays or zones, with a much higher percentage of sterile areas. This means that during the post-spawn period, and for a period of time following, there will be above average muskie density areas in a normally low-density system.

Advantage: Angler!

Certainly it depends on the timing (and season opener), but this should be a consideration in lake choice. Generally, muskies will be spawning in the low to mid-50s (F.) range in surface temperature. And understand that these ranges occur significantly later on the deep clear systems than the shallow, dark waters. I¹ve seen spawning time in a thirty-mile radius around my home vary two weeks or more on different water bodies. Id be lying if I tried to put a time frame on the advantage: angler (concentration) period. It seems to me that fish start to spread out fairly quickly after the spawn but they don¹t race!

So, even though common knowledge tells us that the mesotrophic types of lakes are great spring choice because they warm quicker and offer vegetation early, that in itself is not the only consideration. Please keep in mind that these accepted concepts I seem to be preaching against do have their validity. For instance, I think these types of lakes are still likely the most consistent producers throughout the spring period. But also keep in mind that higher concentrations of fish can be a huge advantage when fish really get active.

It just makes sense to try to take advantage of inlet/spawning zones on reservoirs during the period following the spawn. And likely, once fish are spread out again in a reservoir situation, the deep clear lakes may still offer concentrated post spawners (later spawn) for a while longer. Fish other waters that don¹t seem to have concentrated spawning zones, especially if you know, through experience, that these waters are hot under certain weather conditions, and you can see that those conditions exist.

The common view is to avoid the deep, clear waters in the spring altogether, that the reservoir and mesotrophic waters are far more consistent for springtime action, because they warm significantly quicker and offer early new weed growth. But although oligotrophic lakes have lower densities overall, and are a tougher nut to crack, they may still be a good choice due to their limited spawning zones. The downside is that these clear, sterile lakes are much tougher under cold-front conditions in the spring than other lake types.

Where to Concentrate Structurally

This is the area where I've found that the accepted spring rules are the farthest off. It seems that most folks still talk about staying shallow, fishing IN spawning zones, and using small, slow presentations. This is backed up by most folks actions on the water too. If you wanted to look for musky anglers in the spring, a search in spawning bays would reveal by far the vast majority.

For a basic plan, I like to take out my map and draw a big circle directly in front of a main spawning bay/area (see illustrations). This circle should be at least four times the size of what is considered to be the spawning grounds. The center of circle should lie in open water. It should include all nearby structures, the confined open water in front of and to the side of spawning grounds as well as the shoreline (and attached structural elements) leading away on both sides. This, especially in the case of waters with limited spawning grounds, is the prime zone to fish.

Use this circle to help get you out of the rut of only fishing the obvious, shallow structural elements that are most talked about as spring hot spots and receive the vast majority of the fishing pressure. Certainly, the new weed growth in the spawning zone and other shallow structures attached should be fished. And the very shallow water should be tried too. But don¹t forget everything else in the circle.

As a general game plan, I'll likely attack the prime, obvious stuff first unless these areas are being pounded by other anglers. If I feel that any shallow fish left in these zones have seen lots of lures, I¹m going to start on what most folks figure are secondary spots or even worthless. These are the shorelines leading away from the spawning areas, regardless of structure type, and the shallow or deep bars separate from the spawning grounds, but inside the circle.

The confined open water in the circle is a prime candidate too, and very underrated. I'm not much for fancy-sounding terms, but I like this one. I can't take any credit for coining it (several writers have beat me to that), but I do like it because it makes some sense. Its open water that¹s in front of or between or just around prime, shallow food shelves, or any structural elements for that matter.

These structural elements usually hold a lot of forage. Open water forage tends to be present in higher densities in deep-water zones near structure too. Add to this that were talking about open water that, at this time of the year, is in a major travel zone as spawners are moving through to their summer ranges. Remember, in the spring, baitfish are suspending higher to get in the warm water zone near the surface Were talking a pretty high percentage game.

So these are the basic options that should be fished. Whether you choose to start shallow, inside the spawning zone, or in open water; just keep trying the different options until something starts to work. Once it does, keep doing it, and fish all similar spots and scenarios.


This is the part where the expert-type writer, who just happens to also be a tackle manufacturer, explains that the only thing that will work effectively in these scenarios something that comes out of a Musky Mania Tackle package...not! This publication really isn¹t into that kind of stuff for one thing, and while I guess I¹d like to see all anglers out there throwing something I stand to make some money off of, it wouldn't be very smart, really.

With that in mind, I won't mention a single lure name here, but I will tell you that you need to consider ALL lure types for springtime applications, everything from surface lures to soft plastics may produce. This is another area where too many people just automatically accept that smaller lures and slow presentations are the way to go.

Probably the most commonly accepted approaches, are twitching small, minnow-type crankbaits and pulling small in-line spinners back to the boat. Both work well, but so can a sputtering surface bait, or the biggest crank or jerk bait in your box. Just like choosing locations to fish within the circle, lure choice and speed of retrieve need to be varied. The more anglers the better, each trying/testing something different. And again, when something starts to work, keep doing it. Consider the same or similar lures and colors as well as the way they are retrieved.

Good general guidelines to keep in mind include: When fishing structure, try to keep presentations close to and occasionally contacting the structure. When fishing open water, with the exception of cold front days, higher presentations are often better than lower. Bigger lures and faster retrieves are generally more effective on days where the water temperature is rising rapidly. Smaller, more in-your-face presentations, are usually more effective when temps are stable or dropping.

I hope this helps to shed a little light on springtime lake choice decisions, where to fish once there, and how to pattern spring fish. Remember that nothing in fishing should ever be called a rule or accepted as such. Keeping an open mind means more boated fish.

Editor's Note: Pete Maina isthe general manager and afrequent contributor to Esox Angler magazine. For more information about this great publication please "Click Here".


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