December 26, 2012
Preceding the present large crop of outstanding muskie anglers were fishermen like Doug Johnson, Mark Windels, Dick Pearson, and a handful of other exceptional anglers who in the 1970s and 1980s set the tenor of those times of great growth in muskie fishing, by pioneering unique fishing strategies. Doug Johnson, of Warroad, Minnesota, has been pursuing muskellunge on Lake of the Woods and other outstanding fisheries for more than 30 years. He is one of North America's greatest muskie fishermen.
Maybe it's your fifth week-long trip to one of the best muskie waters in the world — Lake of the Woods, Lac Suel, Eagle Lake, Rowan, Chippewa Flowage, or another well-known trophy muskie water. And you still haven't put a 50-incher in the boat. Oh, yes, you had a "really big" fish roll on a bucktail a couple seasons back. And you've released your share of fish up to maybe 46 inches — even had your first three-fish day last year. You've also had follows from fish pushing maybe 47 inches, which, you now admit, weren't the 53-inchers you swore they were at the time. Basically, the problem is that you're just not seeing — much less catching — those 50-inch fish that are the standard by which big muskies are measured. I'll tell you something about big muskies.
Location is by far the most important component in muskie fishing that you can do anything about. Took me quite a few years to become convinced that only a few spots consistently produce big fish, and these spots share certain characteristics. My best big-fish spot of all time (13 fish over 50 inches) is a classic. It's not just a spot, but a complex — a complex of smaller spots that offer a combination of different fish-holding habitat options.
Specifically, because I know you're probably curious, this complex consists of a large saddle of cabbage weeds between a large island and a smaller island. The bed turns a 90-degree corner at the inside rim of the smaller island and saddles over to another small island. Along the way, several weed fingers protrude off of the main weedbed.
This complex also includes two small reefs, several modest rock points, a small sand-based bay with shallow weeds, a rock wall that runs almost 50 yards, and a mini wall that runs about 25 yards. Walls, by the way, are areas of granite rock bank that run continuously and drop steeply into deeper water, in this case into depths ranging from about 12 to 25 feet. Many of the spots in this complex (Illustration #1) have at one time of the season or another all produced 50-inch fish.
Forced to choose one critical element from among the several outlined in this area, I would choose the weedbed, which is extensive and thick, therefore, seemingly to most angers, impossible to fish. Large fish always have a place to go — to hide — even when the spot's fished regularly. In short, the complex is so complex that most of the big fish never get touched, especially the ones that usually hold in the weedbed.
From time to time, I watch other anglers cast to obvious rock spots and poke along the edge of the weeds. Then they check their watches and determine they've already been on this spot for 10 minutes. Time to get nervous. Most anglers today never stay anywhere longer than 15 minutes. And in this case, I know from 20 years of experience, it's going to take at least another 15 minutes to fish the heavy patches in the weeds. So they're gone. On their way to another quick spot.
Of course, big-fish spots also can be much smaller and less complicated, like a small (75 yard long) island with a short rocky point on one end, a modest rocky flat on the other end, and a heavy but not so wide weedbed along one side. Or a big-fish spot can be a large (several hundred yards long) island with a modest rocky point on one end, a sandy bay with weeds indented in the island, plus a small reef or two along one side. Most important is that several habitat elements are part of the same general location. All of these spots can be fished without starting the big motor and moving far. Many of the best spots, though, take 20 minutes to fish (not counting the time it takes to land fish). Complex spots are big-fish spots.
Two other factors play a role here. Most of the best big-fish spots are (1) west facing and (2) near a large area of open water. This observation, though, before I forget, brings up another type of spot that I guess is the biggest secret of all the spots I fish. Large, sandy, relatively shallow, west-facing bays are absolute big-fish magnets. The best of these bays (Illustration #2) usually have rock points where fish sometimes hold at the mouth of the bay. They also always have shallow weedgrowth inside the bay.
Stands to reason that weedgrowth is always lush in spots that face west, because these spots get afternoon sun, which raises water temperatures a couple degrees higher than in surrounding areas. This attracts baitfish and muskies to these areas earlier in the year. Prevailing west winds also blow into west-facing bays, further increasing the tendency for fish to be active
And I might as well go farther, telling you that this west-facing phenomenon holds not only for bays, but also for west-facing points, and even the west side of reefs and small islands. West-facing is good. But I know what you're wondering, and the answer is yes, bays facing southwest and northwest can be good, too, and occasionally south-facing sand bays. And I have at least one north-facing bay that's produced monsters. West-facing areas are big-fish spots. Large, sandy relatively shallow west-facing bays are overlooked hot spots.
In Canadian Shield lakes, many areas have island complexes near an expanse of deeper open water with only a few islands. The best big-fish spots almost always are close to or protrude into this expanse of open water. These are transition areas, and if I had to bet on spots to produce the biggest muskies of all, even though I can't prove it from my own catches, it would be these spots. Open water, obviously, is a holding area for fish that are almost impossible to contact. When these monsters drift from open water onto more obvious structural elements in the island complexes, they become easier to contact. I've also noticed that it helps when transition areas are associated with a major corner or turn in the overall topography of the lake (Illustration #3). Transition areas are big-fish spots.
I'll end here by describing my second-best big-fish spot. It's a large, sandy, shallow, weedy, west-facing bay with two reefs out at the mouth of the bay. The reefs are connected by a saddle to a lush cabbage bed. The bay itself, though, is part of a much larger complex — a major point on a huge island that projects into an expanse of open water. Spots like this and the others I've described gather fish year after year. Identifying key spots is the key to putting big fish in the boat on most lakes, especially Canadian Shield lakes. Location is more than half the battle for big fish.
Learn To Fish The Spot
The biggest advantages of being a guide is the opportunity to fish big-fish spots again and again — until you can almost do it blindfolded. I'm thorough to the point of driving some of the other anglers I fish with to distraction. But I find small but prominent weedbeds on significant rock-reef corners or rock flats that are missed by most fishermen. Likewise, I get to know the exact layout of a sunken rocky hump on an extensive rock flat that juts from the southwest corner of a small island. As I said in the previous section, eventually you realize that if a big fish is in the general area, when it's in biting mode, it usually (but admittedly not always) will end up on one or two of those most critical spots on a spot.
For the few-times-a-year angler, this time factor is difficult to overcome. I'm only a little different in some regards. I suffer with this problem on my once-a-year trip to Lac Suel. I'm forever tempted to rush, tempted to see the next spot, tempted to move around and around in order to stumble on that mega lode of super-active monsters just waiting to bite anything and everything.
My advantage, though, after all these years, is in having gone through the temptation process 1,000 times before; and in recognizing the potential of complex spots like those I've fished before on other waters; and in seeing those types of spots as critical spots, therefore feeling comfortable in spending extra time on them. I can believe in a spot — absolutely know a spot will produce a monster — even when it has never happened before. The odds on muskies being what they are, however, it's still possible to fish such a spot and never connect. Usually it happens, though. Big fish can take thousands of casts, but usually not. There is justice in muskie fishing, once you've paid your dues and know what to look for, and what to do when you see it.
Even if you know a spot's a big-fish attractor, it can't be fished just any old way and yet give up big fish. For the moment, however, just concentrate on the idea that certain spots in an area consistently hold big fish. Sometimes these spots are obvious — an area of dense cabbage in a weedbed. A large boulder on the edge of a reef. A small weedbed on an otherwise large but barren point.
Many great spots, though, aren't obvious and can only be found by fishing a spot over and over and, in essence, letting the fish tell you where they'll likely be when they're biting. Of course, spots that aren't obvious usually produce the largest fish (Illustrations #1, #2, and #3). Identification of the key cover items in an area (the spot on the spot) puts large fish in the boat.
Precision Boat Control
Like most anglers, I like a little wind blowing into prime spots, but hate a big wind that robs me of my ability to fish good spots effectively. Boat control involves holding the boat at the proper distance and in the right position to give everyone in the boat a chance at making a cast to the area. It's vital to be close enough to a heavy surface weedbed to locate the small alleys and holes to cast to and work a bait through. Don't make long casts across a heavy weedbed. If, on the other hand, you're working a rocky point or a large sparse weedbed, an occasional long cast may increase your chance of making fish contact.
Precision boat control also is involved in searching for key spots. Identify a spot that looks good on a map, then fish the area to get a feeling for how good it really is. Like most anglers, I hold outside (or away from) the stuff that looks good the first time around a structural area. In dark-water lakes like I usually fish, I identify the drop-off edge and stay along it as I make casts into shallower water. On a clearer lake, staying a cast off the drop-off edge on the first go-round is a good idea.
For too many anglers, though, that's the only way they ever approach an area. Sometimes it's necessary to get right up onto an area, or in the case of working a big weedbed, to get right into the bed. I'm also always looking for a little bit different approach in making a cast to a key area. Sometimes the direction a lure moves past a spot is the deciding factor in whether a big fish goes. All the while, precision boat control allows the precise presentation necessary to extract a big fish from a key spot. Combining knowledge of the spot with precision boat control puts big fish in the boat.
You probably already have guessed that I'm a relative slowpoke in my approach to muskie fishing. Running and gunning is a good way to cover lots of water, looking at lots of spots, while searching for active fish. This works great, sometimes, particularly on water with lots of smaller fish, or particularly if you're satisfied with smaller fish from waters that hold fish of many sizes. Running and gunning may even be the most effective way to catch the most big fish on portions of big-fish water that haven't been fished before. But then, how many of those waters are left? Once I know good areas that hold fish, I slow down.
The main problem with running and gunning is too much running and not enough gunning. I can't catch fish when I'm running. When I think about the total time my lure's in the water, I'd rather thoroughly fish 20 spots a day than not-so-thoroughly fish 40 spots. Not only are my lures spending more time in the water, if I've identified big-fish spots, they're spending maximum time in prime water. Not many waters have 40 big-fish spots anyway, so it's a given that before you even begin, you'll be spending a quarter of the day running and at least another quarter of the day gunning in less than prime water.
Slowing down doesn't necessarily mean reeling slowly. It does, as I've indicated before, mean moving your boat through areas slowly, precisely, efficiently. It requires placing casts fairly close together, especially when the target cover is heavy weedgrowth in dark water, like many of the areas I fish on Lake of the Woods, Wabigoon, and Lac Suel. Slowing down is the only way to cover dark water and heavy cover with the number of casts needed to help big fish find your bait.
Many times, it's the tenth cast or so into the same general heavy-cover area that produces a big fish. The big boys just usually aren't the most active fish in an area. It takes time to persuade them. Once you know a spot, fish more quickly through portions of a complex that haven't produced fish on past trips. Then slow down in spots that have been productive. Slowing down and fishing thoroughly in the best areas puts big fish in the boat.
I'm not much of a lure changer. Nor do I spend much time trying to match the hatch. Most days I have three rods rigged and ready. One almost always has on it a 10-inch Suick (fire tiger, chartreuse, or one of my gaudy hand repaints). On another is a tandem-spin Windels Harrasser (probably brown or black with a fire-orange blade). And the final rod holds a 10-inch Believer (repainted in skunk pattern).
I also throw Bobbie Baits and Reef Hogs. And sometimes a big M&G spinnerbait. I have confidence in these lures because they have all, in the right spots, proven to be the kind of stuff big fish eat. All the lures "act" big. They vibrate big. They swim big. Colorwise, they're easy to see, so in my mind, they also look big.
I'm not saying these are the only lures that will produce. Lots of other lures are like the lures I throw. I guarantee you, too, that just like you, I've tried every muskie lure ever invented. My objective, even after all these years, though, is to keep using only a few good lures so I stay in tune with them. I once calculated that I've spent thousands of hours fishing each of one or two favorite individual baits I've had for years. I know how these lures must work properly so they produce when they get near big fish.
Jerkbaits like the Suick are particularly touchy, although bucktails are too. You develop a certain pace and motion — might be fast, might be slow, probably somewhere in between — that get fish going. This is something that needs a period of trial and error. But as the years and fish roll by, you develop a certain approach that does the job. I use a slow retrieve with my Suicks, for example, and I insist that they do a little left-right walk-the-dog wiggle when I pump them. This requires some tail bending and, again, a large measure of experimentation.
One of the most deadly techniques is to use the Suick in a heavy weedbed. Any buoyant bait that runs fairly straight should work. Try to line up several open pockets. Make a short cast into one of the pockets, lower the rod tip and pump down, then reel up slack as the Suick scoots forward, then slows and stops. Then pump again. When you contact weeds, snap down, and usually the Suick will wiggle free, diving again. Other times, it scoots back to the surface. If it surfaces, give it a second to right itself before going at it again.
Fish won't eat the bait when it's completely weed fouled, but I've had plenty of them eat it with a few weeds hanging on here and there. This tactic also is deadly with the big Believer, which is buoyant enough to swim right over most of the weeds scattered in a pocket. This is tedious fishing at first, but you get better at it, until you can perform the maneuvers efficiently. And these maneuvers account for many of my biggest fish.
I fish bucktails at what I can only describe as a modest clip. Lots of people reel a lot faster than I do. I try to have the bucktail close enough to the surface so I can see it well, but just far enough under so a fish can come up behind it and still have a little water over its back when it attacks. I don't use weighted baits because I spend so much time fishing fairly shallow water with heavy weeds. As you can imagine, though, it's important to be able to cast skillfully, because it's necessary to hit small openings in heavy weeds. Casting skill often is the difference between catching a boatload of weeds and catching the fish of a lifetime. It's more important where you throw than what you throw. And fishing baits slowly and fishing spots thoroughly puts big fish in the boat.
September, October, and November. The season when trolling becomes the most effective means to catch big fish.
Trolling is most successful just outside the same areas where big fish hold in summer. On the waters I fish, that means trolling plugs through water 10 to 20 feet deep, as opposed to casting into water 2 to 8 feet deep. I stay as close to shore as possible, while maintaining that approximate depth because most fish hold along some type of underwater hump on or around a rock point associated with one of those larger complexes. No surprise, either, that most of these rock points project out into even deeper open water. Strikes usually occur after your bait bounces over the hump.
Trolling isn't random. The same precision boat control and knowledge of key spots produces while trolling. And again, certain spots produce big fish year after year. The right trolling runs put your lure in the right place. I've caught hundreds of fish on big Believers. The last two seasons, Mania's Jake has also been hot. The trolling story has been covered thoroughly in past issues of In-Fisherman.
I'm lucky to live near and to be able to fish Lake of the Woods, one of the greatest muskie waters in North America.
Because of catch and release, the number of big fish seems to be increasing each year. These days, I average one fish of 48 inches or larger for every 10 fish I boat — 8 fish from 48 inches to 53 inches, out of 79 released in 1996; 14 fish from 48 to 54 inches out of 112 fish in 1997. At least some of this success is in being able to recognize big-fish spots and in understanding how to fish them. One out of ten ain't bad.