The popularity of muskie fishing in Minnesota has never been greater. Anglers from all over the country travel to Minnesota to get in on the action. Local anglers, recognizing the great fishing to be had, are targeting muskie more and more. Even weeknights find popular muskie waters swarming with muskie anglers. Weekends are an utter zoo. And it goes on from the season opener right up until it closes.
The end result, if you happen to be one of those anglers, is facing the difficult task of trying to fool highly pressured, very well educated fish. By the end of summer, muskies lurking around the weedbeds, rock reefs and rush banks of Minnesota’s most popular muskie waters have just about seen it all. If they could talk, I suspect many of them could tell you what the hot baits were at the muskie shows this year, what the newspapers and internet sites have claimed to be the sure thing presentation, and what’s been on sale at the local tackle shop.
So what’s a poor muskie angler to do? Here’s a few theories on how to respond to pressured waters.
The most obvious – and most drastic – option is to simply bug out. If your favorite lake looks like the Bumper Boats pool on the Midway, seek out a different body of water. Most muskie lakes in Minnesota get some amount of pressure – there aren’t many “Lake X’s” to be found. But not all of them get flogged as badly as others. Sometimes lakes get less pressure because they “aren’t as good” as more popular lakes. They may hold fewer fish overall, or be more difficult to fish. All things being equal, these lakes may in fact not be as good as a more popular body of water, but when pressure is factored in, your odds may be better on an otherwise ‘marginal‘ lake.
“Bugging out” can also be applied on a smaller scale by seeking out areas of a body of water that don’t receive as much pressure as the known, community spots. It may be isolated weedbeds, small rock piles on an otherwise featureless flat, or even stretches of ‘blank’ shoreline between known muskie spots. Over time lakes become known for particular patterns. Awareness of those traditional techniques helps in your search for off the wall spots and techniques. Finding these areas takes work and persistent effort, but the reward can be uneducated, unpressured fish in the midst of highly pressured areas. It’s worth the time spent.
In both cases, go into things accepting you are likely fishing areas where there are fewer fish. But pressure changes the equation significantly. There are 90 muskies over here, and ten over there. The 90 fish see incessant pressure, while the 10 see little to none. Would you rather try to catch one of the 90 that can spell ’M E P P S’ by the beginning of July, or one of the 10 that hasn’t seen a muskie lure in a week?
Adjusting your presentation is a necessity on pressured water. When I’m around other muskie boats, I invariably pay attention to what everyone’s throwing. I’m not watching to see what I should be using. I’m watching to see what I shouldn’t be using. If there are boats all over, and I see black and orange bucktails sailing out of every boat in sight, it’ll be the last thing out of my box. Even if I think it may be the best tool for the situation, if it’s all muskies are seeing, I’ll switch gears completely to a different type of presentation altogether. If the thundering herd is using bucktails, try an erratic jerkbait. If topwaters are everywhere, try soft plastics, or bang bottom with a crankbait.
Different twists on popular lures can also be an effective way to mix up your presentation. Popular presentations get popular for a reason – there is something about them that works. But take the basic elements of those popular techniques, and change the particulars. If buzzing inline bucktails over weedbeds is the dominant local technique, go in after them. Dick Pearson’s ‘Grinder’ from Esox Research Company, a bullet headed, short arm spinnerbait purpose-built for fishing in heavy weeds, can be worked down into weed growth rather than simply passing over it – a technique Dick calls ’grinding’ – as in, grinding the lure through the weeds. Lures such as the Grinder allow you to reach fish deep in weedbeds that may not react to lures high overhead, and offer them an entirely different set of triggers than the daily parade of inline bucktails. Speed is another variation. On many of my favorite Minnesota lakes, my first option, especially when searching for fish, is a tiny bucktail such as a Fudally Muskie Candy, a small Hunter Tail or similar undersized bucktail most muskie anglers would consider a ‘spring bait.’ Fished at high speeds, these baits are tremendous fish catchers, and can trigger responses from fish that would normally ignore larger, slower moving baits. Finally, totally off the wall baits can produce on pressured waters. Traditional baits in outlandish color combinations, little known or unusual lures, even old lures popular in years past that fish may not have seen recently – all can be effective. The downside to such tricks is they don’t work forever.
However you choose to counter the effects of fishing pressure, it begins with one thing: paying attention. Be aware of what other anglers are doing. I take pains to avoid ’hot lakes,’ and positively foam at the mouth when my ’home waters’ are the Lake of the Week in the local papers. As my fellow Esox Angler editor and longtime Outdoor News columnist Jack Burns is fond of saying: “When they go East, go West. When they fish slow, fish fast…” Break away from the crowd and seek out unpressured fish. Target pressured fish with something different.