July 14, 2011
By Dan Johnson
Cold Water Muskies
To most of us, in most situations muskies are fish best pursued with heavy tackle and big lures. These freshwater monsters are capable of shredding lighter gear, and deserving of a quick battle and speedy release. Yet there are times when smaller and lighter is better, times when downsizing leads to big rewards — and cool water allows a bit more protracted combat on the light tackle necessary for fishing diminutive presentations.
Just ask Vince Weirick. During coldwater periods bookending the hardwater season, the veteran northern Indiana guide stalks muskies with tackle befitting bass. Wielding bite-size hardbaits and custom-tied streamers, he targets the biggest Hoosier brawlers with finesse tactics — and racks up multi-fish days the likes of which other muskie hunters only dream about.
Weirick's small-bait tactics were honed on Webster Lake, one of Indiana's premier cold water muskies lakes. It's but a 5-minute drive from his home. Including backwaters, this mesotrophic reservoir spans 774 acres. "When the lake was impounded in the late 1800s, it flooded five small lake basins, so there's a lot of structure," he says.
Despite the variety of structural options, he focuses on a simple scenario when water temperatures hover between 32°F and 46°F. "I look for shallow flats, in about 6 feet of water, lying just off a break into deeper water," he says.
Weedgrowth is a welcome bonus, as emerging vegetation invariably sweetens a spot. Curly-leaf pondweed, which begins growing beneath the ice, is present in Webster and can be a key early season feature on northern muskie waters. Often, the same areas that produce good sight-fishing opportunities for bluegills and other sunfish during winter also hold muskies, and become prime openwater candidates for cold cranking after ice-out.
In impoundments where water-level fluctuations limit weedgrowth, shallow coves can be good early, as can creek arms — especially those with incoming tributary streams. Indeed, Weirick notes that flats in necked-down areas washed with modest current can be muskie goldmines. If you're new to the coldwater wrangle, local fishery biologists, particularly those involved in muskie tagging and propagation efforts on the lakes you plan to fish, can be great sources of information.
On Webster, baitfish found on shallow flats during spring include yellow perch and threadfin shad, both attractive to hungry muskies. "Flocks of seagulls can help pinpoint productive areas," he notes, "as they feed on shad pushed to the surface by predators."
Once Weirick identifies a likely flat, he methodically fancasts the entire structure, firing long casts ahead of the boat as he positions it with a trolling motor. In shallow, relatively clear water, stay off the area you plan to work, to avoid spooking cruising muskies.
Baits of choice include neutrally buoyant, slim-profile minnowbaits in the 4- to 6-inch length range. "Smithwick Suspending Rattlin' Rogues, Rapala X-Raps, and Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows are good," he says. "Lures should suspend perfectly horizontal. Tinker with the trebles, swapping hooks until the bait is balanced. Shades of white and white-gray, which mimic shad, are favorite colors, but perch patterns account for muskies as well."
Weirick favors a 7-foot medium-action spinning combo spooled with 30-pound PowerPro superbraid mainline, joined to a 24- to 36-inch 60-pound fluorocarbon leader with back-to-back uni-knots. He ties a #5 split ring at the end of the leader, to which the crankbait's split ring is attached using a small split-ring pliers. "Using 2 split rings gives the bait the most action with the least additional weight," he notes. "Adding a snap swivel deadens the action, and snaps can bend or break after repeated use." He sometimes replaces stock split rings with larger ones, to milk more action out of his relatively sedate presentations.
Before we delve into these mechanics, it's worth noting that Weirick, an avid fly angler, also throws custom-tied, 4-inch streamers fashioned from deer and rabbit hair with a bit of tinsel, wrapped around a size 1/0 or 2/0 hook. Fished on weighted 300-grain line on a 9-foot 10-weight rod, they're deadly for early-season muskies.
From his perch at the bow, Weirick fires long casts across target flats, cranks the lure down to the depth he wants to fish, and begins a series of long pulls and pauses that brings the bait back to the boat. "Pulls are about 3 feet long," he says. "We're not talking sharp jerks; pull just hard enough to feel the bait flutter from side-to-side." That being said, he acknowledges occasionally throwing a sharp, quick pull into the presentation if he's not getting bit. Pauses generally last only as long as it takes Weirick to move the rodtip forward while reeling in slack.
He does this pull-pause presentation with the rod pointed toward the water and off to one side, which allows more room to sweep-set the hook in a continuation of the pull. "Most strikes come on the pause, and you feel the fish when you begin the next pull," he explains.
Despite light tackle, Weirick says it's an efficient setup. "Sure, you lose fish, but you catch most of them. A muskie typically has already turned and is heading away by the time you realize it's there, so you get a good hookset in the corner of the mouth." There are times when a muskie grabs the bait at the end of the pause, and the pull rips the bait out of its mouth, but such is fishing. The odds are in Weirick's favor. "It's typical to catch 8 or 9 for every one you lose," he says, "though, one day we caught 18 and lost 9." But I'm betting the 18 boated fish took the sting out of the ones that got away.
Tricks like keeping the drag at a modest setting can help avoid miscues. "In all the years of light-tackle cranking, I've never had a fish break off," he says. "Pull the trolling motor out of the water when you hook a fish, because chances are it will run around the boat and if it wraps the bowmount, it's over."
When a fish is boated and released, Weirick stays put and fishes the area hard. "In spring, where you catch one muskie there are often multiple fish in the immediate area. And it pays to return to these areas again later, too."
In fact, the only hurry-up part of his approach is getting on the lake as soon as possible after ice-out, because once the water warms beyond the mid-40°F range, the pattern evaporates as fish migrate toward spawning areas.
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and a lifelong student of the Esox scene. Contact Vince Weirick at 574/551-0214 or vinceweirick.com.