Wisconsin “Northwoods” guide Rob Manthei shares some of his best kept secrets for going after early season muskies.
For me, waiting for musky season to open is a long painful trip. Winter is long in the north woods, and a month’s worth of walleye fishing in May will lose its luster quickly. While walleye fishing, a few aggressive muskies will find the little jig and minnow and tease my much anticipated wait. Ah, but once the season arrives, the target for the rest of the year is simple, search for hungry muskies–mainly big muskies.
Years ago opening day meant heading for a shallow dark water lake with my clients in search of hungry “action” sized muskies. These small lakes warm quicker and usually have the metabolisms of the muskies kicked into feeding mode. However, these smaller lakes usually carry a population of small to mid sized fish.
The Ranger is launched, strings are stretched and the day will end with a couple of “pins” boated and several other fish sighted. All in all a successful day. My clients are happy to boat their first muskies of the year, and I did my job to put them on fish. As we drive back to their lodge we pass by a deep, clear, cisco-based lake. One client muttered, “I suppose that lake isn’t worth fishing until mid summer, right?” I reply, “No, that is where we are going tomorrow.” Silence spread throughout the truck as we passed the lake. I dropped them off and as I said, “We’ll see ya tomorrow”, my clients looked very unsure about the upcoming day. The next day we arrived to the gin clear lake and found we were the only rig at the launch site. My clients were willing to trust me, so we were off to do some serious fishing.
ATTACKING THE TRADITIONAL SPRING LOCATIONS
Regardless of what kind of lake one fishes, muskies must spawn somewhere in the lake. Granted, not all lakes provide the necessary elements for a successful spawn, however most do I feel. Most of these deep, clear lakes have some type of shallow weedy “spawning bays.” If the spring weather has been cooperative and brought a lot of sunshine with it, chances are good the weeds will be healthy and green. The water temperature will be warmer in these smaller bays, which will in turn attract baitfish. With baitfish present, muskies will be close by.
Once the spawning ritual has taken place, these fish (mainly females) need time to recover. Once the recovery period is over, the bigger females will go on the prowl to feed. Hence, the first place I like to check out are these spawning bays. The first thing I like to do is slide into the bay and check the condition of the weeds. If the weeds are in good shape, it is a good bet that muskies are using the bay. However, if the weeds are in less than average shape it don’t get discouraged. I have seen muskies use so called dead weeds in the past (the same holds true for walleyes). First things first-let’s concentrate on healthy weeds first.
In a lot of these deep lakes, a good percentage of muskies will spend most of their time in deep water, so spring time is a perfect time to capitalize on locating these fish shallow. Let’s face it, spawning takes place in shallow water, so this is one of the rare times one will find a trophy fish shallow. All right, the weeds are green, the muskies have recuperated and are ready to eat, and everything looks right, now what? I don’t like the traditional small spring stuff here; I like to go with large normal musky presentations. Full-sized jerkbaits like the Burt, Jerko, and Reef Hawg will all do the trick. Also, my favorite, the 10-inch Jake gets the nod here. Natural colors, such as perch or walleye are good choices because that is the forage most likely to be roaming the shallow bays. I like to start right in the weeds and cover water quickly. If the weeds are too close to the surface to warrant a correct presentation of the jerks or minnow baits, a bucktail such as Shumway’s Funky Chicken or Eddie Bait’s Bootail will get you through the vegetation. Remember, these fish are hungry and looking for food. A fast fan-casting approach has proven successful for me in years past.
If you find a little success in the weed flats, move your approach out to the weed edge. The same lures will apply here, except throw in a crankbait like an Ernie or Depth Raider to cover the deeper water associated with weed edges. Run the edge of the weeds, covering the edge parallel and at a 45-degree angle. Every now and then toss a cast back at an angle to the weedline, sometimes a lure presented at a different angle is all that is needed to trigger a musky into feeding. These weedy bays can be awesome in the spring period on deep cisco lakes.
Let’s take a step back for a minute. Shallow weedy bays in a deep, clear lake during early season-pretty elementary, right? Exactly-this is the obvious choice. However, what happens if the muskies have moved out of the spawning bays or they just seem to be lookers. Now is the time to scratch the head and think, “O.K., now what?” The last couple of years, northern Wisconsin has had warmer than average springs. Some of the muskies have moved into early summer patterns by late May or early June. Sometimes muskies are just searching for other areas of warm water. Let’s take a look at some of these locations to find warmer water and locate muskies other than the weedy bays.
One type of location that is overlooked in spring is rock bars. We can break this down into two types of rock bars, shallow and deep. This pattern was shown to me on a memorable trip with my good friend Pete Maina. Pete, another friend, and I were fishing a large deep lake’s spawning bays in the first week of June. We already had two nice fish under our belts, and had two giants that we were playing tag with throughout the day.
Upon deciding to give the two big fish a rest again, we moved out to a rock bar that topped out at around twelve feet. Within minutes of working the location, a thirty-pound class fish literally came flying out of the water trying to eat my friend’s bait. Moments later, a “smaller 45 incher” followed in. A quick back cast (as described earlier) by Pete found its mark in the mouth of a musky. It wasn’t one of the bigger females, but a nice 38-inch male, which was most likely a mate to one of the females. We quickly moved to a similar deeper rock bar, and proceeded to attack it the same way. This time Pete offered to cast out to open water while we worked the top and edge of the saucer shaped bar. We all agreed that if no action were found here, we would head back and work the bigger fish that we spotted earlier. I asked Pete how deep it was where his crankbait had just landed. He turned to me to reply, “It’s about 35 to 40 feet deep”, when Pete got a deer-in-the-headlights look. One hundred feet away water was flying everywhere. A quick battle produced a beautiful unmarked 36 incher. Granted, this fish wasn’t a giant, but the location of the fish is key. This particular musky was suspended maybe 7 to 8 feet down in the water column over 40 feet. This is another location to find muskies in the spring, but I’ll let fellow writer Paul Klien preach to you about this. His article on suspended fish in this issue will teach you the ins and outs of this virtually untouched fishery.
As described earlier, rock bars will hold fish this time of year. But the rock bars that we were fishing were relatively close to the large spawning bays. If the muskies have moved out of the traditional bays, a lot of times these fish will move to their summer locations earlier than most of us realize. I have seen muskies relate to rock bars as deep as 20 to 25 feet in the first week of season. When they are on these bars, the fish are usually suspended half way down. Deep divers or big rubber baits, like the Bull Dawg, worked over these humps will take muskies on a consistent basis.
I like to approach these deep bars from the upwind side. The wind will dictate which side of the bar the baitfish will be on. If time is a factor, it will eliminate fishing the dead side of the bar. It is also just common sense to fish the windy side of the bar. Wind is an essential key in fish location, not only with muskies but also with other game fish. If trolling is legally in your neck of the woods, this approach would prove very deadly in covering the water around these rock bars. Pete Maina’s 45-pound plus fish in June of 1998 is living proof this works. However, where I live casting is my only option, and I can tell you it works for me. A lot of times these fish will be in a neutral mode, so an in their face approach is needed to trigger a strike. What I mean is cover the bar thoroughly, leaving no water untouched.
Now that we have looked at the deep rock bars, let’s move to the shallow rock bars. I like to classify shallow rock bars as rock bars that you can literally see the top of. Most of these top off at around 4 to 6 feet below the surface. The thing that makes these bars musky magnets in the spring is that the rocks collect heat from the sun. The rocks in turn warm the water on top of the bar. Warm, flat days are a prime time to target these areas. Muskies will move to these locations to “sun” themselves. I have seen up to five different muskies lying on top of a bar at one given time.
Fishing these bars takes some finesse and stealthy techniques. The water is very clear on these lakes so the casts are going to have to be long and accurate. Approach the rock bar with your trolling motor very slowly; remember you do not want to spook the fish. If you spot a musky, stop the boat immediately. A good quality pair of polarized glasses s essential here. Make a long cast in front of the fish and beyond it. A longer rod will greatly help in doing this. Then work your presentation with a slow finesse-style retrieve.
In this situation, I like to use jigs and creatures, small 6-inch minnow baits, and the little Bull Dawg. If you’re using a Dawg or a creature try to pause the lure right in front of the musky’s face. A violent shaking of the rod tip will make the lure dance as if it is injured. This approach will usually trigger a reactionary strike from the musky, and you are in business.
Some days nothing will trigger a musky to strike on these shallow bars. A great alternative is a lively redtail chub. I only use the live bait approach if nothing else works. I like to use a swimming type jig head with a stinger hook. The swimming head allows a slower presentation, and the stinger hook allows for an immediate hook set with no damage to the fish.
The shallow rock bar pattern is pretty cut and dried. Either the muskies will be using them or they won’t. Typically, this pattern is only good on those flat sunny days. Either way, it gives a musky fisherman a different option to apply on these “tough-to-fish” lakes.
I hope this will give you a different option to try in the first couple weeks of season. Don’t get caught in a rut of fishing the smaller lakes. As you know, many musky fishermen are going to be fishing these popular “opening day” lakes. Don’t be one of them-dare to be different.
These rock type structures aren’t the only non-traditional locations to find spring muskies. In this issue, Paul Klien covers the open water approach, and I will write about other patterns in upcoming issues of Esox Angler. This spring, try opening on a deep, clear, cisco-based lake. Concentrate on the spawning bays, and the two types of rock bars. It may take a little time on the water to figure out the patterns that work on your lake. However the rewards can be awesome. Good luck, and remember to always practice catch and release.