Early Season Muskies
June 01, 2015
Dreams of battling behemoth muskies often focus on warm-weather patterns of the Summer Peak and later. As a result, anglers may miss some fine action in the early season. From ice-out into the Postspawn Period, productive patterns extend from extreme shallows to open waters out over the abyss.
Where closed seasons protect spawning fish, early season typically begins after the spawn. But in states like Indiana, where stocking sustains populations and open season runs year-round, prespawn fish are fair game. The action can be intense despite the chilly conditions.
Half a decade ago, veteran Hoosier Guide Vince Weirick first shared with me his cold-cranking strategies for muskies cruising shallow flats at water temperatures of 32°F to 46°F. Fan-casting 4- to 6-inch, neutrally buoyant minnowbaits, Weirick scored impressive catches on 774-acre Webster Lake, and his lead is still worth following for prespawn fish elsewhere.
Sweetened by emerging weedgrowth such as curly-leaf pondweed, 6-foot flats adjacent to breaks leading to deeper water are ideal. Where reservoir water levels limit vegetation, shallow coves and creek arms brushed with tributary inflows offer promise.
Light tackle, like a 7-foot medium-power spinning combo with 30-pound braid, is best with these lures. Weirick recommended a 24- to 36-inch leader of 60-pound fluorocarbon, capped with a split ring, which he links to the lure's split ring, explaining that two rings yield better action than one.
Make a long cast over the flat, reel the lure down to the desired depth, and execute a pull-pause retrieve comprised of subdued 3-foot sweeps, punctuated by pauses just long enough for you to take in slack from the sweep. If fish follow but don't strike, throw a fast pull into the mix here and there to spice things up. Along with hardbaits, Weirick wields custom-tied, 4-inch-long deer- and rabbit-hair streamers, fished on a 9-foot, 10-weight flyrod on weighted line.
Try to land muskies fast, as multiple fish often prowl the same area. Catch one and your odds of hooking another are good if you quickly get your lure back in the area of the strike. The clock is ticking on this pattern, as it falls apart once water temperatures warm into the mid-40°F range and muskies move toward spawning areas.
Guide Jeff Andersen, of Leisure Outdoor Adventures, targets early-season muskies on Minnesota hot spots like Leech Lake and Lake of the Woods. "The early-June opener typically finds some fish hanging around shallow spawning areas," he says. "Muskies spawn when water temperatures reach 50°F to 60°F and normally there's a second round of spawning activity about two weeks later."
Andersen's postspawn hunting grounds include fast-warming, sandy or soft-bottomed bays — particularly those blessed with warm inflows. "Watch your temp gauge because a few degrees can make a big difference," he says. While the pattern is solid, he notes that few giants are caught this time of year. "Most of the fish you run into are bucks 45 inches or less," he says. "But it's still a lot of fun." In sight-fishing mode, Andersen glides quietly through likely areas — either on a drift or with his trolling motor — taking care to avoid spooking fish. "It's challenging because they're spooky and not extremely hungry or aggressive," he says.
Upon spotting a muskie, he fires a jig tipped with a soft-plastic swimbait past the fish. "If the fish is moving, cast ahead so the jig moves toward it," he says. "Experiment with speed and action. Sometimes the fish prefer a steady, bottom-grinding approach. Other times, erratic popping motions are better." In either case, don't hold out for rod-jarring strikes, as most fish simply pick the jig off bottom.
Legendary muskie expert Pete Maina plays the shallow game early on lakes in the Hayward, Wisconsin, area and across the Upper Midwest into Canada. "I generally lean toward deep, clear lakes with limited spawning habitat, since the fish are concentrated in the few suitable areas," he says. "For example, up to 80 percent of the shoreline in a fertile, fast-warming lake might offer potential spawning sites — which scatters muskies — while a deep, clear lake might be limited to three or four prime areas."
Like Andersen, Maina looks for soft-bottom bays with inlets, favoring those with a bit of emerging greenery. "The thickest, freshest cabbage is best," he says, noting that muskies often tuck into the salad during cold fronts and on unusually hot spring days. He favors a 1/2- to 3/8-ounce, single-hook leadhead tipped with a sizable softbait like a 6-inch Berkley Gulp! Grub or 8-inch PowerBait Grub, which can be fished along the deep edge or dipped into the vegetation to tempt bites. "Don't be afraid to get in there, especially on a tough day," he says. "If you reel a jig over the canopy without ticking the weedtops, you're making a mistake."
To tackle the salad, Maina gears up with 65- to 80-pound Trilene Braid mainline with a 12-inch wire leader. "When you hang up, snap the jig to rip it free," he advises, noting that such maneuvers often draw strikes.
In stable conditions, Maina doesn't overlook shallow spots including inside cabbage edges and fledgling lily pad beds. "Extreme shallow water is a sleeper," he says. "People don't realize muskies aren't afraid to push into 6 to 12 inches of water to sun themselves on warming days." To target them, he makes long casts with a 6- to 7-inch walking-style topwater, with lure sizes increasing toward midday.
Another top early program in fast-warming, shallow bays entails slinging small stickbaits. Longtime In-Fisherman collaborator and decorated Esox Guide Bill Rosner plies the pattern on his home waters of Minnesota's Lake Vermilion, but it works wherever 'skis slide shallow to feed and bask. His early-season system hinges on slender, 3½- to 7-inch floating minnowbaits. Choices include the Bomber Long A, Rapala BX Minnow, Original Floating Rapala, Smithwick Floating Super Rogue Jr., and Livetarget BaitBall Glass Minnow.
The retrieve is erratic. Rosner calls it a "herky-jerky" mix of twitches, pauses, sweeps, and repetitive cranks that makes the slender baits wobble, glide, and roll. Like Weirick, he keeps tackle on the light side, favoring a 7-foot 3-inch baitcasting combo, 20- to 40-pound braid, and a 30-pound fluoro or light-wire leader. Productive areas are just 2 to 5 feet deep, and Rosner notes that the bite is best in the afternoon, once the sun has warmed the water a few degrees.
Both Maina and Andersen often turn their backs on the bank in search of large female muskies, which often hold over adjacent deep water. "Fish your way out of a spawning bay, off the first break, and out over the deep basin and you find them," says Andersen, noting that fish often suspend 5 to 15 feet down over much deeper water.
"I like hearing reports that the early season muskie fishing is sour on a particular lake," Maina admits, "because it means the fish have moved from vegetation and other hard-hit postspawn areas into open water." There, Maina focuses on the top 12 feet. "It doesn't matter whether you're over 30 or 100 feet of water, aim high," he says. "Some of my best success this time of year has come twitching crankbaits three feet down. Topwater walking baits are also an underused option in open water. People think you have to wait for the ducklings to hatch to start throwing them, but that's not true."
Spoons are another favorite. "Their flash is deadly in open water," Maina says. "Huskie Devles and other heavy metal options are top picks, along with a variety of thin, flutter-style spoons. Silvers and golds are great, but the Five of Diamonds pattern works well in darker water." For added bulk, scent, and action, he often tips the treble with the tail sections of various PowerBait and Gulp! bodies. "Depending on the size of the trailer, either tip one tine or remove the treble and thread it on the shank, then reattach the hook."
Maina fishes spoons with everything from straight retrieves to animated sweep-stall-flutter theatrics. When the lure nears the boat, he often adds a generous flutter to trigger following fish. "You can figure-eight or even vertically jig the spoon, but a long flutter and quick uptake often does the trick," he says.
Andersen favors a small double-bladed bucktail like Bigtooth Tackle's 9-inch, 1½-ounce Mini 8 Juice. White or brown-and-yellow tails with gold blades are top options. "Save the burning retrieves for later in the season," he adds. "A medium pace works best early."
Andersen also fishes 6- to 7½-inch suspending twitchbaits, in walleye, perch, and cisco patterns. Tackle includes an 8½-foot Abu Garcia Volatile casting rod paired with a low-profile Revo Toro NaCl reel spooled with 80-pound Spiderwire Stealth braid, with a 12- to 14-inch fluoro leader. "There's no wrong way to work the bait," he says. "Experiment with straight retrieves, pull-pauses, and twitch-twitch-twitch-long pause cadences until the fish let you know what they want." After every cast, Andersen executes a full figure-eight. "A lot of suspended basin fish stop 10 feet down where you can't see them," he explains.
Andersen's offshore arsenal also includes a variety of softbaits such as Bull Dawgs and Medussas, along with twin-tailed grubs. "You don't have to do much with these baits, just reel them in with occasional short pauses and surges to change speed and direction," he says.
While targeting muskies suspended in open water can feel like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack, both Andersen and Maina encourage anglers to have faith. "Few people have confidence in this pattern, but it works," says Maina. "Start working a grid over deep water adjacent to spawning areas and you find them.
"Don't fret if you don't mark fish on sonar. They're so high in the water column, and your cone angle is so narrow, you won't mark most muskies or baitfish unless you have side-scanning sonar," he says. "Loons, however, are a good clue. If you see a loon dive and pop back up in a couple of seconds, you know baitfish are close to the surface. Muskies won't be far away."
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media and the Ultimate Bass Challenge. Guide contacts: Jeff Andersen, leisureoutdooradventures.com, 218/766-8048; Bill Rosner, Wild Country Guide Service, vermilionguide.com, 218/666-2880; Vince Weirick, 574/551-0214.