How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Doug Johnson Talks Muskies

How I Deal With Changing Water Conditions On Lakes Like Lake Of The Woods.

By Doug Johnson

Every year the weather seems to get a little stranger. Perhaps the El Nino effect, or maybe global warming really is taking a toll. Two years ago we had 50-year-high water levels on Lake of the Woods, and it was, obviously, suppose to be an unusual event. Last summer the water rose even higher following 18 inches of rain in two days. Then, toward fall water levels dropped like a rock.

These unusual conditions effected most of the muskie waters in northwest Ontario, including Lake of the Woods, the body of water where I spend most of my time. Many conditions change from year to year, from the start to the end of the season, day by day, and even hour by hour. Changing water conditions are one of the most important factors in fishing success. We pay much more attention to lure selection that we can easily change, and weather conditions that we can easily observe, than we do to changing water conditions. I'm typical in that regard, but I've learned a few things that help produce fish consistently under changing conditions.

It's rare for lake conditions to remain constant from year to year. Most short-term changes are related to weather conditions, but weed kills and short-term pollution problems affect the water, too. We've had rapidly rising and high overall water levels the past two years. On Lake of the Woods, high water in spring causes more cabbage weedgrowth, particularly in the sandy weedy bays and on shallow saddles. Muskies move into these areas, because there's more cover and more food.

High water also creates different holding spots for muskies. They usually push shallower rather than deeper. Last year, many fish moved into black-water bays. These are shallow areas that during normal water levels don't have much weedgrowth because they have soft, muddy bottoms, and they don't hold many fish. With adequate depth, though, these areas become great holding areas for forage fish like bullheads and suckers. Then the muskies move in, too.

I like slowly rising water levels. This allows me to easily fish above the weeds, while the muskies seem comfortable staying shallow. In general, I like modestly high-water levels rather than low levels. Interestingly, Dick Pearson, who is known to catch a fish or two at times, prefers low water. We've had a number of discussions about this, concluding that we're both right. He loves to fish rocks, which are the best in low-water conditions. I'm an old weed fisherman and conditions are usually better with high water. When I'm on the water, there's never an 'always correct' answer.

High water on Lake of the Woods also creates current. Many of the large Ontario shield lakes are reservoirs; the dams are used not only to generate electricity, but also to regulate the water levels. Excessive, long-term (several days or even weeks) of heavy current means few catchable muskies in classic current areas. The fish drop down to the bottom and stay there, staying out of the current, or they move out of the area entirely.

When current bends weeds flat, classic spots no longer produce. On the other hand, when weeds stand straight up, or almost so, the fish usually are there and high in the water column (even when the water's eight feet deep). I catch them near or on the surface. In high-water high-current conditions, I look for spots blocked by large land masses. Some of the best spots are areas I wouldn't fish during normal conditions.

As the lake level drops significantly, the bite slows. As the water level stabilizes at normal levels and currents subside, big fish suddenly appear in predicable areas, including areas that normally host modest current.

Short-term current, say a change over a few hours or a few days, can turn fish on. Some short-term current areas are wind induced, but on a reservoir system like Lake of the Woods, changes in outflow also cause temporary current. These spots usually are in necked-down areas or long channels. With heavy, long-term current over an area, muskies favor areas protected from current. With short-term, mild current, though, hang on with both hands.

Current is good, both when it first starts and when it stops. Then it starts to lose its effect. The same thing happens when dams first generate power, then stabilize. Places with light or modest current's in a small area produces great fishing These areas usually have some sort of "pool" or rock ledge for muskies to sit behind as they do in rivers. Fish are rarely found in the middle of these current areas; usually they're off to the side. These conditions are common on the Lake of the Woods, even during normal water levels.

If fish have some place to go for the fish to get out of the main current, they will use that area. Prolonged heavy current over a large area makes them move, while short-term or changing currents make them active. This is best experienced by observation: be aware, then watch and learn. Recognize that current makes muskies move.

The opposite situation sometimes occurs when levels are low; midchannel reefs are better during low water. Low water usually means less weedgrowth, and this moves the fish into different areas. Better weedgrowth occurs on humps or deeper saddles than in shallow bays during low water. Low water means that fish aren't as secure as they are when the water's high and are more likely spooked or leave the area. Water temperatures also increase faster, stay warmer in hot weather, and cool faster in cold weather--factors to consider when looking for muskies.

In low-water conditions, muskies move out of shallow spawning bays much faster than in high-water years. If the water level is low and the water temperature is somewhat high (above 65 degrees) the fish are from their spawning areas early in the season. Unfortunately, the weather patterns of recent years haven't given us normal conditions, and finding fish in changing water levels needs more research. On a 1-week once-a-year trip, this is one of the hardest things to figure out, as water levels and the resulting current and weedgrowth changes relocate fish.

Water color also changes greatly and, at times, quickly, especially on sections of Lake of the Woods with darker water. Heavy wind and rain significantly affect on water color. This is particularly true in the shallower areas of the lake. Roiling water usually slows the fishing as the fish have a hard time seeing lures. No easy answers exist, except to look for cleaner water, which usually means finding deeper water or areas where the islands are closer together.

High-visability lures and lures with rattles help fish locate lures. Noisy surface lures work well, too. One of the best is the Musky Mania "Doc," which is a large walk-the-dog lure with rattles. Firetiger, chartreuse, and orange are the best colors in dirty water. Large lures like jointed 10-inch Believers that click on the retrieve also work well. Fish shallower when the water's dirty, since the fish can see better there.

Muddy water and high water seem to go together, the result of water pushing into shoreline areas composed of soil rather than rock. Muddy conditions generally make fishing tough, but the fish don't leave the lake. They continue to feed, but it's harder for them to find your lure. And once weather conditions improve, the water usually begins to clear in a few days.

I've saved the worst condition for last. Almost every year on Lake of the Woods an algae bloom sets in, except in the areas around Whitefish and Clearwater bays. Some years it starts early and stays late, while other years it hardly shows up at all. Blue-green, the most troublesome, is more closely related to bacteria than to plants, and botanists refers to them as "cyanobacteria." When they die their cells rupture and release various toxins.

These algae aren't bad when they're alive. They apparently produce oxygen during the day, and fish are happy living in or among it. Blue-greens also have the ability to change their buoyancy to move up and down in the water column to find optimum light and nutrient conditions, so they can be here today and gone tomorrow.

When blooms are heavy, use brighter lures. Noisy lures also are an option. During the first stages of a bloom, the fishing often is good. Blooms also reduce fishing pressure as folks avoid bloom areas. As the algae starts to die, though, on calm days they float on the surface and smells nasty. Time to look for clearer water.

On a lake the size of Lake of the Woods, some areas don't get as heavy a bloom as other sections. Areas that are less fertile often don't have blooms at all. At times one or more smaller bays may also, for unknown reasons, remain cleaner than surrounding areas. Once you find these areas, look and fish and look and fish, with the emphasis on looking more than fishing until you find something that looks cleaner than surrounding areas.

Consider the wind at this time, too. If the wind's blowing at a good clip, algae mixes into the water column and numbers of fishable spots develop. Pick your favorite areas and fish as normal. Around smaller islands the wind pushes algae around to the calm side, leaving the windy side cleaner. On large land masses (bigger islands and the main land) the wind clears the lee side of areas. Fish quickly and find cleaner water in each case.

Finally,water temperature is the water condition that we probably note most. Yet after years of looking at temperature factors, about the only thing I can say for sure is that it gets warmer in the spring and colder in the fall. If we want to catch muskies consistently, we have to be after them as much as possible, trying to figure out where they go during different conditions.


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