August 14, 2017
Consider a moderately deep lake where a mere 500 adult muskies swim and disappear in 5,000 acres of fishable water. That's one catchable fish per 10 acres of water, or one muskie in just over 9 football fields. Biologists call that a healthy muskie population. And yet, imagine the odds. Now remove all shallow rocks, vegetation, and other obvious structure from the equation. Focus only on offshore zones 25 feet and deeper. And by the way, trolling is out of the question. Odds just went from difficult to astronomical.
Say you're casting to cabbage on this popular waterbody with a dozen other boats, all throwing the same baits in the same types of shallow spots. Out in the middle of nowhere floats a single Lund boat. You dismiss it as someone taking a boat ride or sunbathing—anything but fishing.
So you'd likely be surprised to discover that it's an angler casting for muskies out there. And he's catching fish, 2 to 6 of them per day. I'd bet that it's James Lindner, co-host of Lindner's Angling Edge and former In-Fisherman staff member. Right now, almost no one else on earth is casting—as opposed to trolling—for open-water muskies.
Over a year ago, when Lindner told me about the fish he'd been catching, I couldn't wait to tell the story. The pattern he had tapped felt particularly newsworthy given my fascination with pelagic interactions of predators and prey in inland lakes.
"A couple years ago, Al (Lindner) and I are on this lake, and we're floating in 25 to 45 feet of water, way off the end of a couple big points," he says. "There's a big ball of bait on the Humminbird screen, and we start working big Rapala Glidin' Raps near the surface where we're seeing ciscoes pop. Not five casts in and we're hooked up. Big walleyes. Then a muskie. And another one, and they're all big healthy fish. We just look at each other and can't believe what's happening.
"But we can," James says, "because it feels like a similar situation to one I've seen and fished since first throwing Bagley DB-06 crankbaits for big fall cisco-eaters over 20 years ago."
Ciscoes as Structure
Lindner notes how the fishing began back in the early days with anglers trolling on and off precipitous vertical edges with crankbaits, targeting muskies set up in these zones to stalk prespawn and eventually, spawning ciscoes, as water temperatures descended from the upper 50s down to 44 and 43 degrees (when ciscoes spawn).
Tradition says to fish on or near shallow points, humps, and other hard-bottom structures hosting potential spawning ciscoes. Yet except for narrow windows in late fall and at night—specific conditions when ciscoes procreate—almost all of the flashy baitfish hold in confined open water, anywhere from a single cast from the shallow edge of the structure to several hundred yards into the basin. While most of us hold on the shallow edge and cast shallower, we often ignore the offshore bait balls that roll across our sonar screens on the way to structure. These bait schools are equally obvious casting targets.
I've found that from midsummer through about early September, in open water you can see on sonar ciscoes spread out 10 feet above and below thermocline. Depending on water temperature and deep-water oxygen, schools can either be squeezed into a narrow section of the water column, or distributed across a broader range of depths (given ample oxygen beneath the thermocline.) At dusk, small pods of ciscoes peel off the main school and ascend toward the surface to feed on emerging insects. That's when I've caught a lot of muskies, and nearly all of them bite within 8 feet of the surface, even over 100 feet of water.
Lindner's pattern is slightly different, which begins in early October, when water temperatures descend into the 50s, and especially after turnover. "You start seeing dense schools of ciscoes moving into vertical columns," he says. "Instead being spread horizontally across a specific depth range, the baitfish re-form into big vertical plumes; mostly they cover a lateral area of maybe 500 to 1,000 square feet—with ciscoes marking from 10 feet all the way down to the bottom in 35 feet or more.
"Marking one to three big cisco schools in open water off a big point or some of the other areas I'll mention later is the golden ticket. Drop waypoints on them, because the bait schools are casting targets. And the amazing thing is, you find ciscoes and big muskies in the same areas, every fall. It's strange, because there's seemingly nothing physical to attract them to these same zones, other than the areas just 'feel' right when you look at them on a map. A lot of days, you can actually smell the ciscoes."
Regarding sonar readings, Lindner says that in fall, when muskies are up high, you don't see as many big hooks around the bait. But after turnover, and especially after ciscoes spawn late into October and November, he sees more big arcs on sonar.
Bait Schools in Space
As Lindner points at choice spots on lake maps in his office, locational situations begin to crystallize in my mind. Start by identifying the largest basins in a complex body of water. Sometimes, it's the area of the lake hosting the widest expanse of deep water. From there, trace toward adjacent neck-downs or funnels between islands or points and islands, as well as large extensions (he calls them "tongues") bisecting the basin.
I add a note here about neck-downs, especially those with current pushing through a narrows, which are common on Canadian Shield lakes. Rather than moving into the narrows itself, I suggest moving out beyond the down-current breakline into the basin and watching sonar for bait plumes. While most anglers cast the narrows, offshore bait schools often attract more feeding muskies and receive almost no attention by anglers.
"Look at this," he says, pointing to his "A" spots on four different lakes. "Here, here, and here. Different lakes, but the fish are in similar locations." He also points to places he calls drains. "These spots serve as funnels or an access from deep water on one end to a big tongue on the other. Sometimes they form as a sharp corner in a breakline." He shows me what might resemble a muskie game trail—a funnel-like opening between two shallow extensions that are adjacent to deep water, with 25 to 50 feet of water in between, before dumping into 70 to 90 feet. Remember, he isn't fishing the shallow structures themselves, but rather the deeper 25 to 45 foot zones well outside the main break. And that leads to the fun part: What happens when baits begin to fly?
Casting Precisely Nowhere
"Bondys, Medussas, and livebait," Lindner says. "A few years ago, I'm pitching around a big ball of ciscoes, and my third cast with a Medussa pulls in a big muskie. I can't get the fish to come back, so we toss out a big live sucker and within a few minutes we've got her in the boat.
"Another time, we raise six big fish in a one-block area of confined open water, casting Medussas and Bondys. And we're seeing even more fish on sonar—might have been a dozen or more muskies, all in open water, waiting for ciscoes to arrive.
"Then last October, I'm out with a buddy, who's fishing a big sucker beneath a bobber, while I cast a Bondy. All of a sudden the sucker jumps out of the water 10 feet from the boat, and there's a colossal green figure in hot pursuit. The sucker dives, the muskie jets after it, and the float shoots straight down and disappears. Line's flying off my buddy's reel. He finally engages the spool and sets and the rod stops dead in its tracks, thumps violently a few times, and then everything goes slack. I would have liked to have seen that one up close."
Lindner isn't daunted about putting a bait in front of a singular fish surrounded by millions of gallons of open water. "Bait is everything—it's all that matters out there," he says. "You don't have to be overly systematic about where you're casting either, so long as your boat stays in the cisco zone."
He says once the big columns of ciscoes set up in spawn-staging areas, they don't move a lot and aren't too spooky. You usually can position the boat right over the schools and fancast the entire zone. Dropping icons on the school in several locations to map its boundaries helps to work an area thoroughly. A key tool for staying on point or on a specific following fish is Spot-Lock, a Minn Kota iPilot trolling-motor function that utilizes a GPS waypoint and motor thrust to station your boat in a specific zone.
Bait and Switch
On calmer days, controlled-drifting over cisco zones also works well. Lindner is a fan of working at least one active Bondy, Medussa, or Bull Dawg, while a second angler drifts a slipfloat and sucker behind the boat. It's a one-two punch with roots in saltwater, where anglers attract to the boat a barracuda or sailfish with an artificial teaser, and then seal the deal with a livebait. "When we pull in a following fish that won't bite," he says, "we can nearly always get her to go on a big lively sucker beneath a slipbobber. It's why we always keep one rigged and in the livewell ready to go."
Yet while livebait often is the answer in open water, he prefers to pitch large jigging lures, which can be especially critical for attracting and decoying muskies from afar. He says that retrieve speed is a great trigger while casting to shallow, pressured fish. But for casting into the abyss, most anglers discover that the best retrieve is to make your lure look wounded and vulnerable. It's part of why casting can be much more effective than trolling. It's also the reason muskie expert Pete Maina often casts big spoons in places like Green Bay. Spoons put out a ton of flash, a bit of vibration on the forward stroke, and pull off a fluttering, dying baitfish dance that has produced many Maina muskies.
Lindner likes to "pop-jig" a Bondy Bait. Using a long rod stroke followed by slack line and then another long stroke, he achieves maximum lure glide. After sweeping the bait with a 9-foot St. Croix muskie rod, he pauses long enough to allow the lure to finish its glide before sweeping again. "I work it a lot like a Jigging Rap," he says. "I make a long cast, count it down to the right depth—usually 15 to 25 feet—and go into the rhythmic long stroke-pause-stroke retrieve. The long pause before the next sweep ensures you're getting the most movement out of the bait without interrupting the glide."
As an option for less aggressive fish and in water cooler than 50°F, he likes the slow-sink nature of a Chaos Tackle Medussa. A monstrous soft swimmer with three twisted tails, it provides more glide, tail movement, and ample vibration. He mostly throws the 13-inch "Regular" and prefers darker, un-cisco-like colors, such as Sucker, Walleye, and Black Perch. Ditto for the Bondy Bait, as he prefers off-colored patterns, such as Vomit and Walleye.
The Medussa retrieve mimics Bondy pop-jigging, but with even longer pauses between pulls. Lots of fish attack the 'Dussa jarringly as it hovers and glides, while you're holding the rod still. It's a wake up call if you're not paying attention.
Another tactic involves large minnowbaits, such as the Bucher Suspending Depth Raider or Drifter Tackle Ernie, for fish in 15 to 20 feet. Rather than a straight retrieve, give the bait frequent violent rips, pausing for a moment between each rip. Rips maximize flash, a vital visual attractant for suspended muskies.
Once water temperature falls into the low-40s, Lindner begins catching muskies closer to the bottom in 25 to 35 feet of water, whereas in warmer water during early and mid-fall, muskies are more likely to suspend 10 to 25 feet below the surface. Sonar and side-imaging clues—muskie marks and cisco plumes—remain great guides to retrieve depth. Clearer water—especially following turnover—allows muskies to detect and zero in on your presentation from much greater distances than what's possible in shallow vegetation.
Spencer Berman (spencersanglingadv.com), muskie Guide on Lake St. Clair, Michigan, lends his perspective on big water. Ten years ago, when someone asked about casting there, the lake's large trolling contingent would let out a collective laugh. Gradually, things have begun to change.
"Five years ago, I was the only one casting for these fish," Berman says. "The first day I tried drifting and casting through a traditional trolling run, we boated 13 muskies, 6 on the first drift, which included several fish over 50 inches. Now, you see lots guides throwing Bull Dawgs and Medussas out there. The fish aren't so easy anymore, but we still put up good numbers and catch much larger fish, on average, than trollers." Berman boated 61 muskies over 50 inches last season.
Like Lindner's approach of targeting cisco schools, Berman drifts across 14- to 20-foot flats, focusing on schools of gizzard shad, which can run from 200 feet long to a couple football fields. "Side-imaging is critical for tracking shad schools, since driving the boat over them pushes them off to the sides. At times, my Humminbird screen is almost blacked out with baitfish."
He says mudlines and hard-bottom zones are particularly attractive to shad and muskies. Streaky patches of dirty water hold more fish. These usually coincide with hard rocky bottom, where constant wind and current dislodge invertebrates and debris.
"Casting out here is so visual, such a sensory rush seeing a big fish hunt down your bait in open water. Put the rod and reel in my hands any day. Let me see the fish, react to it, set the hook. In my book, casting beats trolling everywhere. I'll take those odds every day of the week."