On and Off the Edge for Early Season Muskies
July 11, 2011
Early Season Muskies
Eight months is a long time between casts. When our early season muskies finally opens in June, casting withdrawal reaches maximum angst. It's just the sort of abstinence that can elicit a nasty case of "lure charades," that nervous habit that makes certain anglers constantly change baits.
But the best anglers I know rely both on timeless classics and the occasional rebellious approach, as conditions dictate. Consistency is huge. Pick your poison and keep on casting. The deal often comes down to numbers and percentages. Don't freak out about finding the magic bait. Just go with it. The grass isn't always greener. Rather, the longer your lures are out of the water, the browner the grass becomes.
Factoring spots works much the same way. Best habitat right away in spring is usually areas that stretch for acres. On smaller lakes, in particular, large spawning bays can be obvious areas that draw pressure, but that doesn't mean you should avoid them.
Central Minnesota guide Tim Anderson contends with flocks of fishermen nearly every day, but rather than steering away from obvious targets, he outworks his competition. "My plan for early season," says Anderson, "almost always keeps me on waters with high muskie densities. In spring, I target lakes that hold 1 to 2 muskies for every 10 acres of water.
"You encounter fish that haven't seen baits for almost 9 months. That means your odds of finding one that wants to bite are good. The other side of the coin is that most of these high-density fisheries are rather small bodies of water. So if fishing pressure is high, the fish can get burned pretty fast."
That's why Anderson also prefers lakes with vast areas of shallow vegetation, which spreads available fish and may even hide pockets of 4 or 5 big muskies. "I like wide open flats with bulrushes and developing pondweed beds," he says. "Usually, during that first week of the season, I find most muskies using shallow water on stretches just inside or outside spawning bays. Also, sprawling plateaus, whether they're used for spawning or not, offer spacious habitat that grabs the sun's heat and gathers lots of bait and muskies. Of course, most good anglers know this, so it's my job to outthink and outwork the other boats."
To win the competition, Anderson often spends time cruising shallow flats, trolling motor on high. He sometimes casts like a madman on the fly. Otherwise, he visually scans the water for muskies, entering a GPS waypoint each time he spots one. Usually, once he's encountered 4 or 5 muskies in a digestible stretch of shallow water, it's time to swing back through, usually casting a double #8 Colorado in-line spinner such as a Northland Tackle's Boobie Trap. The approach isn't just efficient; it's one of his best competitive strategies against boats vying for the same fish. Rather than casting the entire flat, essentially blind-casting dead water, Anderson distills huge areas down to micro spots, focusing only on zones that hold fish.
Shallow scanning is a great way to discover sweet spots on an expansive flat. These are traffic areas where muskies often travel along a vaguely defined path. One such path is a narrow corridor of clean bottom that runs between a field of emerging bulrushes and an expanse of fresh milfoil or pondweed. It works in the opposite manner, too, when a thin strip of submerged vegetation grows across an otherwise clean bottom, like a stripe on a white wall. This effect acts like a road, with fish frequently travelling these routes — like a country shortcut that only the locals know about. Count Anderson as an authentic local.
"I spotted what was probably the largest muskie I've ever seen while doing this sort of shallow scanning," he says. "I was zipping over a sprawling sand beach, going from one spot to another, when I came upon a long ribbon of green vegetation growing in 2 to 3 feet of water. I started following it downwind and pretty soon sighted a big muskie, then another. Before long, I spotted a monster, a gargantuan wide-body, more or less basking along this weed strip. I popped a waypoint, floated off and began hurling casts toward the fish from different angles. Finally, I got the retrieve angle just right and a tidal wave appeared behind the bait. Had she eaten, it would have been a prodigious shallow battle. Unfortunately, the fish turned off at the last moment and swam off."
Regardless of the lake or location, the early season deal for Anderson is to spend more time in high-percentage water, making more casts than anyone else. No bait better accomplishes his mission than a big double-bladed in-line. For Anderson, even in upper-50°F to lower-60°F water, fast retrieves put a bait in front of more fish. And speed, he continues to find, often compels neutral fish to react favorably — provided that you return to fish often enough to catch them at the right moment.
If fish aren't showing on shallow habitat, Anderson often turns to a backup plan. On several of the same lakes that offer peak shallow early-season bites, he's frequently contacted open-water muskies suspended just a few casts beyond the 8- to 14-foot breaks that quickly drop into 50 feet or more. His best fishing in that scenario has occurred on days with low skies and drizzle. Air temperatures sometimes dip into the 40°F range. "Open-water fish seem less affected by pressure and air temperature changes than structure fish," he says.
"In every lake I know, a segment of the muskie population feeds chiefly, if not exclusively, on pelagic prey — ciscoes, whitefish, and even perch and crappies. These muskies typically are stout specimens with clean fins and healthy bodies, in contrast to shallow fish often get that beat-up look in spring. That's why I believe open-water fish primarily live out there, and structure fish may occasionally move out deep, but mostly live in and around shallow cover."
Anderson generally fishes near large points with deep ledges, located outside spawning bays. Typically, he begins trolling an 8- or 10-inch Musky Mania Jake in 20 to 35 feet of water, before gradually moving out over even deeper sections. The 20- to 35-foot zone, however, is where most of his early-season strikes occur. "We've had great days out there, but it's not easy to predict when the bite's going to occur. If a shallow bite isn't on, I always consider the openwater option because it can be excellent and you have the fish entirely to yourself."
Flashin' the Basin
While Anderson is trolling Jakes, there's a fair chance that Pete Maina, the illustrious muskie wildman, is fishing giant spoons. These are the same lures so popular on Canadian pike lakes, as well as well as for trolling for lake trout. The Eppinger 31â„4-ounce, 51â„2-inch Huskie Devle and 21â„2-ounce, 4-inch Devle Dog Monster, in silver, gold, or Five of Diamonds, have been Maina's top producers. Sebile's Onduspoon is another of Maina's open-water selections, a unique hard-plastic spoon with internal rattles that's weighted forward for a freakish flipping action. Spoons typically aren't high on most muskie anglers' list. But they're confidence lures for this muskie veteran.
"The whole thing started," he recalls, "one spring when my buddy John Gillespie tied on a spoon and tagged a big fish. We were on a bunch of muskies suspended high over 45 feet of water. Various baits kept bringing fish close to the boat, but those crazy fish wouldn't even go into a figure-8. On one cast, Gillespie decided to let the spoon flutter down about 10 feet, and when he did his spoon got wacked. That fish was probably a 35- to 40-pounder.
"That single event got me thinking about using spoons and how muskies feed in open water," Maina continues. "I can work spoons over shallow water and have muskies paddle up behind them. But they don't want to bite. Do the same thing over a school of suspended fish, and it's game-on.
"I realized that in open water, muskies don't need to be ambush predators. You have plenty of food out there — they're more apt to look for something easy. With a big slab of metal, I can give the illusion of a big flat-sided something that's wounded. You never get a follow on a spoon. These fish want to crush it; nearly all my strikes come in the middle of a cast."
It isn't that Maina — who believes in the power of experimenting with oddball combinations — thinks he's found the gold key to catching open-water muskies, as he calls this pattern an "experiment in progress." Top anglers have recognized that open water typically holds a disproportionate amount of giant fish. For Maina, spoons have been a rare find amid a host of otherwise failed presentations to tap into these monsters.
"A lot of us speculate that one of the reasons fishing structure has gotten tough in recent years is that big cisco populations have kept muskies in the basin. They might stay out there most of the season, beginning when the season opens, and all through summer. I've become confident enough that any time we identify a few sweet spots in open water, I try spoons and they often connect."
For Maina, establishing muskie presence in open water begins with finding bait schools on sonar. Seeing muskies porpoising out over 40 to 100 feet of water can be a fairly common occurrence, as well. "The key is to identify sweet spots. Each lake is different. The fish can be in confined open water between two major structures or out in the middle of the lake. Any time we spot fish on top or catch one, I mark a waypoint. It's remarkable; these sweet spots hold preyfish schools and muskies year after year. My theory is that there's something about the shape of each lake's basin, as it gathers and funnels return flows created by prevailing winds. Together, these forces create hot zones of activity that we call a sweet spot."
Spoon approaches vary by waterway, though Maina prefers to cast while controlled-drifting across these cisco zones, instead of trolling, which sometimes becomes necessary in larger waters. "From early June through summer, focus on the top 20 feet of the water column," he advises. "My go-to is a classic Huskie Devle, a super-heavy, 51â„2-inch slab of metal with a nice cup to it. Make sure to keep good hooks on them.
"They're pretty efficient, and easy to cast. Throw 'em into the wind, cross wind, downwind. If I'm seeing fish porpoising or know they're higher in the water column, I try straight retrieves. Every now and again, I pause and let the spoon flutter. That's often when you get hit. You can also get aggressive with it, working your rod tip as if fishing a jerkbait.
"Add plenty of stops and flutters to make it look wounded. These spoons sink fast, so it's easy to work 'em down to 20 feet or so. If you can imagine what it looks like to tow a license plate through clear open water, you have a pretty good idea of the amount of flash put out by these mega spoons. You can see them coming from a long distance and so can everything else in the lake."
Cory Schmidt, Nisswa, Minnesota, is an In-Fisherman Field Editor and an ace multispecies angler. Contact: Guides Tony Grant, tonygrantoutdoors.com; Tim Anderson, bigfishhunt.com.