In muskie fishing on busy waters, the fish-to-angler ratio shrinks to the narrowest of margins. We used to think it was us against the fish, but now most of us know we're also competing with all those other anglers — to the point that on some waters it's actually common to see a boat camped over an area where a giant's been spotted, with the anglers staying and casting for 20 consecutive hours. Yes this is nutty, but a little suffering has become the norm among the hardcore. These anglers want to be there when the fish decides to eat — and sharing isn't part of the plan.
During a guiding career that spanned 28 years, Pete Maina saw fishing pressure in action almost every day. He is one of North America's most recognizable muskie anglers and today he goes in search of the grandest toothy bites, as he films segments for The Next Bite. Though he's no fan of fishing pressure, chasing hot bites inevitably puts him on high-traffic fisheries.
"Guiding lets you follow the fish from day to day," he says. "Even when the crowds moved in, I was ahead of the game because I had a feeling for when peaks were likely to occur on each lake, and when individual spots were most likely to fire up. I could slip in and catch a fish and move on before the masses moved in — or moved back in. A window might only open for 30, maybe 45 minutes or so. To feel the pulse of a lake you have to fish a lot. That gives you an advantage in dealing with fishing pressure."
Intimate knowledge of the areas you fish is vital. Maina likens it to having home field advantage in the playoffs. You need to know the nooks and crannies on each structural element. Often fish holding in certain areas respond only to casts from a specific direction. Sometimes that's altered by wind direction or time of day. You see anglers aren't working spots just right, bide your time and move in when they move on. It takes time — sometimes years on big waters — to pick apart and learn different areas, but this must be part of any long-term plan to deal with fishing pressure.
Maina: "To avoid pressure I often schedule trips during off-peak periods. I might head to Lake of the Woods right during a big algae bloom, or to a smaller clear lake on a cold, nasty day. You also see an increase in pressure on most waters during full-moon periods, so at times I don't plan trips then. During off-peak phases you get on fresh fish that haven't been pounded by other anglers.
"Again, it just depends on the fishery. Every water has its own pulse — environmental triggers — that seem to open windows of activity. On some lakes it might be a full-moon phase during a certain yearly period. In other areas, moon periods aren't a factor, but rainy dark days turn fish on."
Guide Tim Anderson works from his home in Brainerd, Minnesota. He believes in the importance of moonrise. "I plan trips around moon phases, but those few hours surrounding the moonrise has been more important for me, whether it happens during the day or at night. In recent years, this has been the best predictor of bite periods."
Patterning the Competition
Beyond each fishery's seasonal peaks and downtimes lies the process of factoring in the competition. "On pressured waters, I want to know what other anglers are doing," Maina says. "I make the usual phone calls beforehand and once I'm there I watch to see what other anglers are throwing, how they're retrieving, the types of spots they're fishing. That allows me to bob and weave. I might fish through an area, using different lures or vastly different retrieves. I might note the types of areas being fished and find other similar areas that aren't being so heavily fished.
"I'm also not afraid to move to generic shorelines or structural elements that rarely get fished. There might not be many muskies in some of these areas, but the fish often are easier to catch.
"And I want to know just who's fishing. If Dick Pearson is on the scene, there's a reason. A guy like Pearson doesn't spend time on marginal water or on waters that don't have big-fish potential. I'd note what types of areas he seems to be fishing. Again, the likely plan is to find other similar areas that aren't being so heavily fished."
Anderson fishes some of North America's most intensely pressured waters — and if spots are getting heavy pressure he moves when he can. "Last year I found a lot of good fish in slop areas on a favorite Canadian Shield lake and on a medium-sized river near a metro area. Slop is just heavy vegetation in water usually no more than about 6 to 8 feet deep in lakes and 2 to 4 feet deep in rivers. This isn't a new pattern, but a lot of folks still don't like to fish through these areas. It's just too much work picking weeds off a lure on every cast and working hard to steer lures around surface vegetation.
"On the Shield lake, the best areas have been in shallow bays well away from deeper basins, even into late summer. Most anglers just don't fish these spots after the first part of July. But the last couple seasons have been a bit cooler than normal, so perhaps that's an important part of the pattern. In the river, the best shallow weeds were just off the river channel. When water temperatures reached the mid-60°F range, other anglers just quit fishing shallow weedgrowth."
Anderson likes to burn little bucktails over the vegetation to trigger fish. "Most anglers who fish heavy cover move lures slowly, but I do the opposite," he says. "I mean I really try to fish as fast as I can, although I often make multiple casts to pockets or lanes in the growth. It's work fishing like that, but it's something different and it works. I use the same approach to fishing deeper lying weedbeds on the typical main-lake structural elements. Again, this isn't really new so much as it is a matter of out working the rest of the crowd by absolutely keeping retrieves faster than the norm."
Anderson's suggestions show that dealing with fishing pressure isn't just about avoiding high-traffic locations or periods when big crowds put fish down. "Dealing with pressure is about situational lure selection and situational retrieves for each area you fish," Maina says. "Some lures are 'community lures.' Every fishery has them. Most places today it's something on the order of a Double Cowgirl-type bucktail. On some fisheries the fish just aren't responding to them like they were in previous years."
Anderson began shifting gradually away from Cowgirl-type bucktails several seasons ago. He hasn't abandoned blades entirely, but he tweaks the process. If everyone is throwing double #10 Colorados, he usually downsizes to #9 Indiana blades — and often he goes with a tandem-blade spinnerbait when others are casting in-lines.
He also plays with different blade styles, sizes, and even shapes within general categories. He likes the Esox WilloBeast in many situations — a Colorado-willowleaf hybrid. Other times he alters a lure's silhouette by changing skirt material or density.
"Vibration is key," he says. "Muskies are highly attuned to it. On pressured waters, familiar vibration patterns put fish off. But even a slight tweak in a lure's vibration can feel just fresh enough to get a fish to eat."
One favorite tweak tactic is to begin with a lure that's a classic producer like a purple-and-gold Shumway Screamer. Rather than switch lures, he swaps the #7 Colorado blades for double #9s, thins the marabou, or adds a plastic tail — anything that maintains the lure's "rightness," while refreshing the presentation overall.
Maina thinks about altering presentations on a different scale. "When I was guiding I always worked from the back of the boat, with a couple guys in front of me working the fresh water with proven lures like bucktails or crankbaits. From the back I'd always be trying something else — different lures, wacky speeds, odd retrieve angles. I so often was pleasantly surprised at the outcome that the odd part of my practice soon became the norm in many situations; so I have no trouble with stepping way beyond anything 'normal,' like working double 10s right at the beginning of the season, or working soft plastics super fast, or working big tubes really slow. Out-of-the-ordinary often works when you're dealing with pressured muskies."