In muskie fishing on busy waters, the fish-to-angler ratio shrinks to the narrowest of margins. We used to think it was us against the fish, but now most of us know weâre also competing with all those other anglersâto the point that on some waters itâs actually common to see a boat camped over an area where a giantâs been spotted, with the anglers staying and casting for 20 consecutive hours. Yes this is nutty, but a little suffering has become the norm among the hardcore. These anglers want to be there when the fish decides to eatâand sharing isnât part of the plan.
During a guiding career that spanned 28 years, Pete Maina saw fishing pressure in action almost every day. He is one of North Americaâs most recognizable muskie anglers and today he goes in search of the grandest toothy bites, as he films segments for The Next Bite. Though heâs no fan of fishing pressure, chasing hot bites inevitably puts him on high-traffic fisheries.
âGuiding lets you follow the fish from day to day,â he says. âEven when the crowds moved in, I was ahead of the game because I had a feeling for when peaks were likely to occur on each lake, and when individual spots were most likely to fire up. I could slip in and catch a fish and move on before the masses moved inâor moved back in. A window might only open for 30, maybe 45 minutes or so. To feel the pulse of a lake you have to fish a lot. That gives you an advantage in dealing with fishing pressure.â
Intimate knowledge of the areas you fish is vital. Maina likens it to having home field advantage in the playoffs. You need to know the nooks and crannies on each structural element. Often fish holding in certain areas respond only to casts from a specific direction. Sometimes thatâs altered by wind direction or time of day. You see anglers arenât working spots just right, bide your time and move in when they move on. It takes timeâsometimes years on big watersâto pick apart and learn different areas, but this must be part of any long-term plan to deal with fishing pressure.
Maina: âTo avoid pressure I often schedule trips during off-peak periods. I might head to Lake of the Woods right during a big algae bloom, or to a smaller clear lake on a cold, nasty day. You also see an increase in pressure on most waters during full-moon periods, so at times I donât plan trips then. During off-peak phases you get on fresh fish that havenât been pounded by other anglers.
âAgain, it just depends on the fishery. Every water has its own pulseâenvironmental triggersâthat seem to open windows of activity. On some lakes it might be a full-moon phase during a certain yearly period. In other areas, moon periods arenât a factor, but rainy dark days turn fish on.â
Guide Tim Anderson works from his home in Brainerd, Minnesota. He believes in the importance of moonrise. âI plan trips around moon phases, but those few hours surrounding the moonrise has been more important for me, whether it happens during the day or at night. In recent years, this has been the best predictor of bite periods.â
Patterning the Competition
Beyond each fisheryâs seasonal peaks and downtimes lies the process of factoring in the competition. âOn pressured waters, I want to know what other anglers are doing,â Maina says. âI make the usual phone calls beforehand and once Iâm there I watch to see what other anglers are throwing, how theyâre retrieving, the types of spots theyâre fishing. That allows me to bob and weave. I might fish through an area, using different lures or vastly different retrieves. I might note the types of areas being fished and find other similar areas that arenât being so heavily fished.
âIâm also not afraid to move to generic shorelines or structural elements that rarely get fished. There might not be many muskies in some of these areas, but the fish often are easier to catch.
âAnd I want to know just whoâs fishing. If Dick Pearson is on the scene, thereâs a reason. A guy like Pearson doesnât spend time on marginal water or on waters that donât have big-fish potential. Iâd note what types of areas he seems to be fishing. Again, the likely plan is to find other similar areas that arenât being so heavily fished.â
Anderson fishes some of North Americaâs most intensely pressured watersâand if spots are getting heavy pressure he moves when he can. âLast year I found a lot of good fish in slop areas on a favorite Canadian Shield lake and on a medium-sized river near a metro area. Slop is just heavy vegetation in water usually no more than about 6 to 8 feet deep in lakes and 2 to 4 feet deep in rivers. This isnât a new pattern, but a lot of folks still donât like to fish through these areas. Itâs just too much work picking weeds off a lure on every cast and working hard to steer lures around surface vegetation.
âOn the Shield lake, the best areas have been in shallow bays well away from deeper basins, even into late summer. Most anglers just donât fish these spots after the first part of July. But the last couple seasons have been a bit cooler than normal, so perhaps thatâs an important part of the pattern. In the river, the best shallow weeds were just off the river channel. When water temperatures reached the mid-60Â°F range, other anglers just quit fishing shallow weedgrowth.â
Anderson likes to burn little bucktails over the vegetation to trigger fish. âMost anglers who fish heavy cover move lures slowly, but I do the opposite,â he says. âI mean I really try to fish as fast as I can, although I often make multiple casts to pockets or lanes in the growth. Itâs work fishing like that, but itâs something different and it works. I use the same approach to fishing deeper lying weedbeds on the typical main-lake structural elements. Again, this isnât really new so much as it is a matter of out working the rest of the crowd by absolutely keeping retrieves faster than the norm.â
Andersonâs suggestions show that dealing with fishing pressure isnât just about avoiding high-traffic locations or periods when big crowds put fish down. âDealing with pressure is about situational lure selection and situational retrieves for each area you fish,â Maina says. âSome lures are âcommunity lures.â Every fishery has them. Most places today itâs something on the order of a Double Cowgirl-type bucktail. On some fisheries the fish just arenât responding to them like they were in previous years.â
Anderson began shifting gradually away from Cowgirl-type bucktails several seasons ago. He hasnât abandoned blades entirely, but he tweaks the process. If everyone is throwing double #10 Colorados, he usually downsizes to #9 Indiana bladesâand often he goes with a tandem-blade spinnerbait when others are casting in-lines.
He also plays with different blade styles, sizes, and even shapes within general categories. He likes the Esox WilloBeast in many situationsâa Colorado-willowleaf hybrid. Other times he alters a lureâs silhouette by changing skirt material or density.
âVibration is key,â he says. âMuskies are highly attuned to it. On pressured waters, familiar vibration patterns put fish off. But even a slight tweak in a lureâs vibration can feel just fresh enough to get a fish to eat.â
One favorite tweak tactic is to begin with a lure thatâs a classic producer like a purple-and-gold Shumway Screamer. Rather than switch lures, he swaps the #7 Colorado blades for double #9s, thins the marabou, or adds a plastic tailâanything that maintains the lureâs ârightness,â while refreshing the presentation overall.
Maina thinks about altering presentations on a different scale. âWhen I was guiding I always worked from the back of the boat, with a couple guys in front of me working the fresh water with proven lures like bucktails or crankbaits. From the back Iâd always be trying something elseâdifferent lures, wacky speeds, odd retrieve angles. I so often was pleasantly surprised at the outcome that the odd part of my practice soon became the norm in many situations; so I have no trouble with stepping way beyond anything ânormal,â like working double 10s right at the beginning of the season, or working soft plastics super fast, or working big tubes really slow. Out-of-the-ordinary often works when youâre dealing with pressured muskies.â