Top Muskie Fishing Experts Reveal Secrets
August 28, 2013
In the Land of 10,000 Lakes and nearly as many fishing guides, muskie fishing expert Jeff Andersen has distinguished himself as one of the more successful anglers in the muskie arena. During the August-to-September transition, the Brainerd, Minnesota-based guide keys on two divergent shallow water patterns, each providing visually spectacular fishing.
Beginning in early to mid-August, when water temperatures reach their warmest of the summer, he often sneaks past boats to reach shallow weedflats, pitching tight to sand beaches. In big lakes like Leech, Cass, and Mille Lacs, his boat often is so much shallower than everyone else's that it's barely visible along the shoreline.
"There's something attractive about shallow sand that draws late-summer muskies," Andersen says. "The fish seem to soak up solar energy that's absorbed by the shallow sand bottom. Perhaps the heat helps ease digestion. But the muskies here are catchable, and if you put a lure in a fish's path at the right time, it gets crushed."
He adds that his beach pattern often coincides with the rock reef bite on the main lake. But given the shallow, sensory nature of the fishing, he prefers sand, so long as conditions allow. "I'm visually oriented. I love watching a big boil churn up behind my bait and seeing water explode."
Rather than spending hours breezing down endless shorelines, making hundreds of blind casts, Andersen hops up on the nose of his Lund and scans the shallows for muskies — dark log-shapes often lying motionless over beige-colored bottom. Each fish becomes a waypoint — a target for eventual casts at prime time. He's found that individual fish often stake out a small piece of real estate and remain in the vicinity hours or even days later.
He narrows the search to shoreline stretches closest to mainlake structure — weedflats or prominent points spanning into deep water. He also favors shorelines with distinctive little troughs, where just off the bank, the bottom gradually slopes into 2 feet of water and then dumps quickly into a 3- or 4-foot trough before rising back up to the shallow flat that spans for hundreds of yards. These are scour holes formed over decades and centuries by the forces of ice, and they can be muskie magnets.
Finding fish and these troughs is a matter of scanning water in calm conditions. Logging enough visible fish in a given area or a single giant fish warrants a return. To catch the biggest muskies, he returns at peak times — sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset, so long as winds aren't excessive and pounding the shoreline. Rough water often moves muskies offshore and makes them very difficult to contact.
Typically, he and clients work small in-line spinners, such as a #8 Blue Fox Super Boo, retrieving them fast over 1- to 4-foot depths. Andersen says he's also had exceptional fishing with a custom-made buzzbait available through Big Tooth Tackle. He adds that the bait produces hulking fish and explosive strikes in tight quarters. The bait, which approximates a Boogerman Racket Buzzer, sports an extra-long bucktail body and a single treble hook. He often tosses it right up on the beach and pulls it back into the water where it sometimes gets immediately eaten. The fishing is intensely visual with powerful surges of water boiling up behind the bait prior to the watery eruption.
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Muskie Fishing: A Real Rush
Several weeks later, the first frost hits, usually in mid-to-late September, and muskie fishing tactics shift slightly. It's always a signal for Andersen to check out his other favorite pattern of the year — working stands of shallow bulrushes. Although it's possible to find muskies in bulrushes through much of the season, he finds most movement of fish into these zones of vertical vegetation just after the first hard frost. When water temperatures fall into the mid- and lower 60s, he knows that any muskie he spots can eventually be caught, particularly at first light each morning.
He often uses the same approach as on the sand — scanning shallow water with sunglasses, iPilot set on high. Each fish becomes a waypoint that could eventually lead to a giant in the net. Some of the best bulrush zones aren't necessarily the most obvious — even if they're associated with a nearby sharp drop into deep open water. Rather, he prefers areas where pondweed mixes with the willowy emergent plants. Sometimes here, too, big muskies swim alongside bulrush beds in small trenches or open alleys that parallel the outside edge. He especially prefers little inside passageways or open pockets between dense stands of rushes, where he's caught some of his biggest fish.
"Muskie Fishing rushes right is an art," Andersen says. "It's all about efficiency — and the angler who can move through and execute the greatest number of clean casts through the cover wins." To help aid tidy casts, he prefers a Musky Mania Lilly Tail, a beautiful little spinner with a single hook that slides through vegetation well. For additional lift and life, he adds a 6-inch Kalin's Mogambo Grub to the hook. He also often fishes a custom Big Tooth Tackle buzzbait, replacing the treble hook with a single hook.
For fishing rushes, he likes a fluorocarbon leader, which flexes around plants rather than cutting into them as does wire. Keeping his rod tip low and pointed at the bait, he retrieves methodically, snaking lures through the plants. When his lure grabs a stalk, he doesn't rip or jerk the rod, but rather uses his powerful Abu Garcia Revo reel to winch through the snag. He says this makes a big difference in keeping the bait clean and in the game. Finally, he uses 9-foot rods to steer baits through cover and yield enhanced control over boatside maneuvers.
During a recent tournament, a major cooling trend shuffled the deck and caused a shift in muskie location. Recognizing the signs, Andersen and his partner moved from a sand bite to a rush bite in the same day. In 21â„2 hours of fishing, they boated five muskies, including three legal-sized fish.
The Great Lakes Muskie Fishing Shuffle
Volatility in seasons might not sound that impressive until you've experienced the major changes that can occur rapidly in the Canadian North or the Great Lakes. In recent seasons, it seems swings in temperature or weather have become less dramatic. Summer patterns often persist into at least late August, but even in the absence of radical changes in weather, muskies seem to sometimes vanish and rematerialize on new real estate within a few days.
Johnny Dadson, who guides for giant muskies when he's not building lures, has become the foremost guide on oceanic Georgian Bay of Lake Huron. He says that the summer-to-early-fall shift brings mass migrations of perch, suckers, and walleyes onto shallow offshore reefs, as well as extensive points near big open water. Giant transient muskies, elusive most of the season, become realistic targets during this time.
While Dadson's an admitted blade freak, who catches plenty of biggies on his namesake Dadson Blade Baits in-line spinners, he often opts for jerkbaits during the summer-to-fall shift. "Fast hopping jerkbaits such as the Wick OneZ Cut-Throat and Hose Baits Hose Jerk allow me to fish fast yet show muskies some crazy erratic moves," he says. "Keeping these baits shallow and moving quickly and unpredictably gets a lot of followers to eat.
"The Wick OneZ jerk, made by my friend Mike Blewett, works well over shallow rock and vegetation. You can snap it hard and it won't blow out or dive deep. I keep it between the surface and about 2 feet down. A fast hop retrieve is key, and popping it violently prompts fish to gash and gnaw on this thing."
For working deeper, he prefers the Hose Jerk, built by Georgian Bay legend Shawn Maher. "The Hose is a great tool for working weededges down to 10 feet, or where you've got some space between the surface and the weedtops."
He adds that big in-line spinners, such as his marabou Boo Dadley, and the Musky Bullet, work for locating and triggering active fish. "Another new spinnerbait — the Marffspin — produced many big fish for me this past season, including several eclipsing 40 pounds."
Sashays on the Shield
Hundreds of miles west on Lake of the Woods, Don Schwartz is doing a similar dance with his own little box of jerks. A fan of the classic Bobbie Bait, he also relies on Bobbie Sue, a lure with a more pronounced diving head than the original, and which swims deeper with a sweet nose-down kickback action between jerks. Schwartz, who picked up his jerkbaiting craft from Doug Johnson and Dick Pearson, has become a master in his own right.
Like Dadson, Schwartz rocks muskies with jerks on big-water structure — extended points, saddles, and reefs near deep open water. But he often finds that muskies can be so spread out in late August into September that no probable-looking spot goes unfished. He's taken some biggies from secondary points just into small bays as well as off individual fallen white pines on otherwise nondescript shorelines — especially if current is present.
Using long, evenly spaced downward rod pulls to get the bait diving quickly, he pauses briefly once it reaches 8 feet or so before commencing his retrieve. Once a follower is spotted, it's a matter or reacting to the fish with the right counter-punches. For Schwartz and other jerkbait artists, it becomes a game of teasing and tormenting muskies with the right combination of pops, pulls, and pauses.
Green Days, Green Bays
In each of the aforementioned fisheries, mid- to late September dramatically gives way to plying deeper water, often trolling from 10 to 25 feet deep, off the same structures you've been casting to only days before. It's a similar story to the one told by Green Bay guide and muskie fishing expert Bret Alexander. In the warm August days and weeks leading up to the big cool-down, he pitches to isolated pondweed beds. He starts the morning working deeper edges, slow-rolling double-10 and double-8 bucktails, such as Spanky Baits Fireball.
As water warms the shallows, he positions on top of the vegetation where he burns blades faster and closer to the surface. He fishes a variety of different bladed baits. Though he notes that the Bay's muskies often show a fondness for black and orange combinations, and black rubber skirts with a smoke-colored blade can be a dynamite color scheme.
He's a fan of speed and directional changes in his retrieve. He uses frequent back-and-forth rod moves to slightly alter the lure's course — moves he executes with both in-line blades and Bull Dawgs, another top lure on Green Bay.
For Alexander, the cabbage bite starts in early August and lasts to the end of September when water is in the low 60s and vegetation starts turning brown. Like most top guides, he's a follower of moon phases. The periods he calls "moon over" (full moon) and "moon under" (dark moon) are of particular interest, and he finds that the dark moon can be the most productive and overlooked time of all.
He notes that in Green Bay, muskies key heavily on gizzard shad, and when water cools and vegetation withers, he motors southward, following shad movements. It's about this time that Alexander, like Schwartz and Dadson, begins trolling with crankbaits — a pattern that persists into November.
A River Never Sleeps
Depending on your fondness for towing plugs around the lake, this could be the ideal time to try a river. Many rivers offer exceptional bites from late summer through fall, even while transition patterns on natural lakes turn tough.
It's a period when top muskie fishing guide and tournament angler Josh Borovsky chooses to launch on one of his favorite waterways — the St. Louis, St. Croix, or Mississippi rivers. Key to his success during late summer to early fall is the location of shallow vegetation — at least the stuff that's still standing. He explains that in some rivers, finding live submerged vegetation is the answer, while on others, stands of hardstem bulrush harbor the hungriest muskies.
"In rivers like the St. Louis, huge shallow flats run for hundreds of yards with little depth change," Borovsky says. "You're often more likely to find weedgrowth on slackwater flats, including little river offshoots or backwater bays.
"Unlike natural lakes where the weedline is usually associated with a drop-off, vegetation in certain rivers occurs in seemingly random locations across massive shallow flats. Sometimes, the only way to find weeds is to hop up into the bow and look with sunglasses. Or you can use side-imaging sonar to scan broad flats, looking vertical plant stands."
He also trolls spacious flats in the middle of the river, dropping waypoints on cabbage clumps as he goes. He then returns and casts the better weed zones, particularly small isolated patches no larger than his boat, which can be incredible and overlooked. "Eventually, you work all the way around the bed, and if you've dropped enough waypoints you notice you've created a map revealing all the points, alleys, and inside turns — areas that often hold big fish."
Borovsky says that whether he's fishing bulrushes or submerged pondweed or eelgrass — which is common in the St. Louis River — the summer-fall transition is a terrific time to throw topwaters. In rushes, he prefers either a safety pin-style spinnerbait, such as a Pearson's Grinder, or a Boogerman's Buzzbait. For fishing perimeter flats and submerged vegetation, he opts for surface baits like the Bucher Top Raider.
In late summer and early fall, floating, chopped-up weeds and debris can coat the river's surface and necessitates certain lures. Among many options, the Top Raider eases the process of clearing weeds, using a pop or rip of the rod tip. Alternatively, for working short cabbage tassels, the Top Walker excels due to the spinning head that runs interference for the hooks. For working the nastiest surface clutter, the Phantom Lures Renegade keeps your presentation in the game rather than fouled by flotsam.
Borovsky often fishes up to three anglers out of his Ranger, an arrangement that allows for experimentation. "The angler in the front usually throws a bucktail or a spinnerbait, which is the highest-percentage hooker. If we can get a fish to bite that bait, our chances of landing it are great. The middle angler throws a faster-moving topwater, such as a Top Raider. The angler in the back of the boat might throw a slower, more erratic bait like a Phantom Softail — a slow sinking jerkbait that often triggers reluctant muskies.
That's the sort of diversity that encapsulates the August-to-September muskie dance. Ten lure possibilities. A dozen happening programs, often occurring at once on a dozen different water bodies, or even on a single large lake. Find fish and dance. No wallflowers here.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid muskie angler. Contacts: Guide Jeff Andersen, jeffandersenfishing.com; Captain Bret Alexander, alexandersportfishing.com; Guide Johnny Dadson, dadsonbladebaits.com; Guide Josh Borovsky, promuskieguide.com.