July 24, 2017
By Steve Ryan
Windows of opportunity open and shut all the time. Major windows relate to seasonal patterns. Each Calendar Period and water temperature range corresponds to general locational and behavioral patterns. Phases of each lunar cycle affect muskie behavior. Each day, moonrise, moon overhead, moonset, and moon-under-foot times can spur a bite. Beyond these effects are more subtle environmental factors that can key the next muskie feeding period or provide clues to their location.
Guide Jeff Van Remortel works the fabled waters of Vilas County, Wisconsin, where the muskie season stretches from late May until late November. With dozens of muskie fisheries to choose from, he jumps among lakes on a daily basis and keeps a log to decipher daily, monthly, and seasonal patterns. He starts with the premise that no matter the conditions, there are some active fish in a system. This may be his coping mechanism developed to endure long hours on the water under tough conditions, or it may be an accurate portrayal of muskie fisheries across the country. If nothing else, it keeps his clients in the right frame of mind when windows of opportunity open and muskies go on the feed.
Van Remortel notes that even on the worst days there's typically a short period when muskies are susceptible to being caught. In those situations, you may need luck to catch one good fish for the day. But in most other situations when conditions aren't negative, it's about playing the odds. Paying attention to everything around you and maximizing your odds during prime periods of muskie activity is critical for success.
Early Summer Openings
Chatting with Van Remortel last winter, with ice blanketing his favorite fisheries, his mind instantly went to a mid-summer "puffy cloud pattern." But prior to getting to this pattern, he backs up to Memorial Day, the unofficial start of muskie season in northern Wisconsin.
"Early-season muskie success is driven largely by lake selection, water temperature, and current," he says. "Smaller, shallower, and stained fisheries warm more quickly than large, deep, clear bodies of water. This means muskies have completed their spawn and recuperated there weeks earlier than muskies in large clear lakes where they spawn later.
Prey species also spawn at different times in lakes with different characteristics, so choosing the right lake is important.
For this reason, take time to study the shallows prior to casting a lure. Know where muskies are in the spawning and recovery processes. Spend a night shining the shallows with a spotlight to see where walleyes and suckers are in their spawning process."
In flowages where the discharge from a dam controls water movement throughout the system, knowing the discharge rate is important, Van Remortel says. By knowing whether the redhorse sucker spawn is earlier or later in a given year, and relating that to discharge patterns, you can capitalize on a spring migration of open-water muskies into shallower areas as the big preyfish move upstream.
Current also is important in chains of lakes where wind can create current in neck-down areas. These areas often concentrate spawning suckers. By paying attention to prey species, your chance of connecting with muskies increases dramatically. This scenario may last only be a week or ten days, but it can be intense since you're on actively feeding fish.
After this feeding window shuts, Van Remortel follows the progression of prime muskie activity from shallow stained waters, to mid-size fisheries, and finally to clear deep lakes.
He seeks late-in-the-day bites as the waters warm to their peak levels. He intently follows the daily weather forecast and is on prime spots during key prefrontal periods and isn't content waiting for a lake to turn on. Instead, he may fish several lakes to determine where fish are most active, and he begins to watch the sky for the development of his "puffy cloud pattern."
The Puffy €¨Cloud Pattern
He acknowledges that he developed this pattern out of sheer on-water perseverance. "During summer, we have 16 hours of daylight, and when I run double trips, I might fish nearly all of them," he says. "That means being on the water during prime low-light periods of dawn and dusk, and also grinding it out in the middle of the day." These mid-summer days are accompanied by recreational activity with jet skiers, water skiers, and other boating activities that make life difficult for serious anglers. Many muskie anglers get worn down or frustrated by this activity and either take a long lunch break or call it a day by early afternoon.
Instead of taking a break on bluebird days, he waits for the heat to rise, the humidity to build, and clouds to form. This typically happens between noon and 3 pm when cumulonimbus clouds show. "Ignore the high wispy cirrostratus clouds," he says. "You want clouds with body to get muskies moving. This pattern typically develops around mid-June in northern Wisconsin when water temperatures are in the low- to mid-70°F range, and can last until early September, when water temperatures start to decline.
At this time, muskies' metabolisms are in high gear and they become eager to chase baits. Cover water and watch for follows. Pay attention to moon phases, since several factors can coincide to push a good bite into overdrive. Also check social media and take note when your friends start posting catches. A few posts on Facebook or Instagram can signal the beginning of a feeding period. This should prompt you to fish key big fish structures or where you've had follows.
The Night Bite
Van Remortel's next seasonal peak occurs in late July as water temperatures spike into the upper-70°F range. Fish become lethargic and the midday bite starts to slow. Strikes are replaced by follows and following fish become lazier in their chase. These signs signal the start of the night bite for open-water fish that often are susceptible to dark to noisy topwater lures and big blades. "A night bite pattern develops when conditions are still good during daylight hours, but the bite slows or fish become lazy at prime times. When you have ideal weather and slow fishing, it's almost a guarantee that a night bite is occurring on clear and moderately clear lakes."
Timing fronts and paying attention to moon phase is critical in night-fishing, equally important is selecting the right type of water for current weather conditions. During mid-summer, big clear lakes are last to reach maximum temperature due to their vast volume. Accordingly, smaller lakes host a night bite earlier, but they're also affected more by cold fronts. Larger lakes offer more stable conditions for muskies to steadily build their activity level and are less affected by fronts.
Although stained waters are generally less productive for night-fishing, they can produce good results as the sun drops below the tree-line. They can produce again at first light when water temperatures are at their coolest of the day. By knowing your local bodies of water, you can develop a milk run of lakes to capitalize on when muskies are most likely to become active. You can also modify this play list each night, based on weather conditions.
The Fall Scene
In fall, Van Remortel starts to shift his focus to waterfowl hunting, but suggests that savvy anglers again pay attention to the spawn of muskie prey species like whitefish and ciscoes. Mid-lake humps and funnel areas draw muskies that have seemingly avoided anglers by foraging primarily in open water. Feeding windows tend to occur midday through late afternoon. Big rubber baits like Chaos Tackle Medussas and Muskie Innovations Pounders rule this scenario. Find ciscoes or whitefish on sonar and watch for subtle changes in wind direction or temperature to start a feeding window.
"To take advantage of this excellent window for open-water tankers, find areas that hold ciscoes or whitefish," he says. "They generally spawn on hard substrate at night. This can result in a good night bite when spawning fish move shallow to deposit eggs. But these prey species seldom move far from the spawning grounds. Search areas close to spawning sites during the day and muskies should be near. Try to be there when they turn on. These are short and intense windows, lasting maybe an hour or less."
Shifting to the waters of Lake St. Clair, Captain Spencer Berman looks for patterns that enable his clients to fish smarter on this massive fishery with limited structure. Besides moon phases, frontal conditions, and seasonal changes, Berman considers the wind a primary element in pinpointing feeding windows that can trigger a change in muskie location. On the big open waters of St. Clair, wind generates wave action. This churning action moves baitfish and decreases water clarity.
"Some of my biggest fish are caught at random times throughout the year — not in fall when people might expect it and not related to a major moon phase or frontal condition," he says. "They're associated with strong winds. On days with 15- to 25-mph winds, I have clients ask if it's too rough to fish. I tell them that my Ranger isn't going to sink, so if they can stand and cast, we have a good shot at catching big fish. Fish are on the move then, and if you hide from the wind in calmer water, you miss a major opportunity. Wind makes muskies dumber and anglers should take advantage of that."
On a shad-based fishery like Lake St. Clair, strong sustained winds over several days add color and particulates to the water. These conditions can get massive schools of shad that normally feed in open water up against shorelines where the water is murky. This often is the result of strong north winds pounding south shorelines. "This pattern can arise at any point throughout the season and on any shad-based fishery," Berman says. "For a day or two after a major blow, the water may be too muddy to allow muskies to feed efficiently, but by day-two or three, it's game on. The beauty to this pattern is that it draws in open-water muskies that normally don't get fished much. For most of the season, these are fish that can't be effectively patterned in open water. They're needles in a haystack. These unsophisticated fish become easy targets for those who know how and where to look for them."
Another factor that he tracks is the timing of feeding activity. "There are times when the fish turn on," he notes. "You see several boats hooking fish or getting follows within the same 30- to 45-minute period. But that period doesn't seem to correlate with weather conditions or lunar position. It appears random. But if you start tracking the timing of these bites from day to day, you may discover that the bite moves 50 minutes later each day or an amount of time that corresponds to the daily changes in the solunar tables. By tracking daily activity periods, you can plan to be in the best location each successive day during the projected feeding window."
He further suggests that it's important to be on the water after any dramatic change in the water conditions. Significant shifts in weather can change the location and behavior of muskies. Once the water has stabilized, muskies that are outside their accustomed areas can act reckless in their new surroundings. He feels these fish are open-water feeders that temporarily move onto structural elements where they're more susceptible to anglers until fishing pressure or changes in prey location move them deeper.
No one ever said that catching muskies is easy. But there are seasonal, environmental, and meteorological factors that can tip the odds in favor of those who are mindful of them. A big wind, building afternoon clouds, or a late sucker spawn can lead to huge rewards in the form of monster muskies.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan, Chicago, Illinois, is an avid angler and student of muskie fishing. He contributes to all In-Fisherman publications.