Without a doubt, the musky holds the coveted title of freshwater’s most fierce and cunning predator. A musky’s appetite is voracious, its strikes can be bone jarring and it can attain massive weights. The old fable of muskies being “the fish of ten thousand casts,” however, holds no water this time of year. The early season may provide the best shot at connecting with quantities of fish, and the distinct possibility of the trophy of a lifetime.
By learning where muskies can be found after they spawn, what lures and baits are most productive and the techniques to go with them, you can start the season off with a bang and match wits with this mythical creature.
The Urge To Procreate (And Recover)
Musky begin to spawn in late winter, usually in late April or early May, with the peak period occurring when water temperatures reach 55 degrees F. Spawning occurs in a number of specific areas in a lake, namely heavily vegetated back bays, tributary streams and marshes and bays. They’ll seek out water that ranges from two to three feet deep, in which the female drops her eggs in a haphazardly manner, with neither fish making any effort to build a nest. Although these spawning areas will generally be devoid of muskies once the season commences, knowledge of where these areas are on your given lake will hold clues to where the fish will be after the spawn.
The fish of 10,000 casts? Not so during the early season. There may never be a better time for catching numbers of fish.
Focus your search by pinpointing two or three of the largest, weediest back bays that the lake contains. The bigger these areas are, the better your chances, as larger areas will undoubtedly hold larger numbers of fish. A hydrographic chart is a wonderful tool for this “detective work,” and if one isn’t available, many hours of on-the-water scouting is the only other option. Once these prime areas have been located, it’s time to determine the whereabouts of post-spawn fish.
Once the muskies have completed their spawning ritual, their time in the shallows will be short-lived. Soon they will retreat to deeper water in order to take advantage of better feeding opportunities. This water will generally be between 6 and 12 feet deep, although, depending on the particular lake, this depth may vary slightly. Once these deeper water areas have been found, the objective becomes locating solid structures that consistently hold musky. Rocky points have become some of my most productive areas, although they must contain a good mixture of cover to hold numbers of fish. As long as they are in close proximity to shallow spawning areas, and are found in that “magic depth,” muskies will surely be present.
Other areas to concentrate your efforts on are islands and saddles. Musky will seek out these structures due to the prey that they contain and the shelter they offer. Look for stones the size of pebbles up to the size of cars, or a number of different species of plant life thrown in with some sunken wood. What this inconsistent cover provides is a greater variety of hiding spots for different sized prey, which, will in turn, attracts the larger predators.
Muskies are busy moving from spawning grounds to summer haunts. Finding them calls for covering a lot of water.
Stump fields, gravel shoals and expansive weed flats should never be overlooked, as each of these areas known to produce at times, and are always worth a few casts. When out on the water, try to fish all of these different areas of a lake, at different times of the day and in different weather conditions. By picking apart each one of these structures you will get a better idea of which ones the fish consistently prefer.
Weather always plays a part in the feeding habits of musky, even with the relative aggression of post-spawn fish. Overcast, rainy and windy days seem to provide more action, and the fish will become more aggressive under these optimal conditions. When the wind blows and howls I head to rocky points and islands every time. Wind and wave action stirs up the baitfish, which, in turn, causes the larger predators to begin feeding more actively. Wind-blown points and islands channel this activity into a more confined area, which creates the perfect ingredients to connect with a musky. Some of my biggest fish have been caught from these two productive areas during heavy winds, and although they may not be the most comfortable conditions in which to fish, connecting with a heavy ‘lunge will make it all worthwhile.
Cast Often, Work Quickly
Once the prime post-spawn areas are found, it’s now time to decide what to throw at them. One thing to keep in mind is prey size. Baitfish during this time of the year will still be generally small, so it only makes sense to scale down your baits.
Also keep in mind that early-season musky are in the process of moving from shallow to deeper water, eventually locating to their summer haunts. This means that you will want a fairly fast-moving presentation that allows you to cover a lot of water, in order to search out these fish.
Bucktails, big minnowbaits and bass-size spinnerbaits form a simple but dynamite early-season arsenal.
Considering these two points, your lure choices should be smaller baits that can be cast easily, and worked quickly, through reasonably shallow water.
Bucktails are my number one choice at the start of the season. They are easy to cast and work all day, with a minimal amount of fatigue. They have astounding hooking capabilities and also work well in figure-eight situations. Most bucktails I use during the early part of the year fall between 4 and 6 inches long. White, brown and black are my standards for clear water, whereas yellow, red and lime have worked best in stained water. The key is to experiment with colors and sizes and let the fish dictate their preference.
Shallow-running crankbaits, or minnowbaits, are another dynamite lure choice early in the season. There are a number of different ways to work these lures, yet the most productive seems to be the “twitch and tease.” Slow, methodical twitches with a minnowbait through productive areas really agitate, and elicit, tremendous strikes from fish that might not otherwise chase down a fast-moving bucktail. Look for lures in the 5 to 6-inch length, sticking to colors that mimic the present prey, such as sucker, perch and baby bass finishes.
Even though the fish are more cooperative early in the season, a few tricks are still needed to fool them consistently.
Finally, spinnerbaits round out my musky arsenal. They’re an in-between option that can be worked fast or slow, and has the capabilities to flutter, or helicopter down, into cover or beside weedlines. Look for spinnerbaits in the size you would normally use for bass fishing, while experimenting with different sized blades and skirt combinations. These are your best choice if you want to work water that is a little deeper than a bucktail will go, and they can also be pulled through thicker cover more easily.
It’s Still Musky Fishing
The most important message that I can convey is to cover water thoroughly and quickly in search of active fish. Once you’ve located some fish, or had some follows, now is the time to slow down and tease them into hitting. This is what twitch baits do best. Always perform a figure-eight at boatside to up your odds of connecting with a following fish. This technique only takes five to ten seconds of your time, and it could result in a bonus fish, or one that you didn’t even know was there.
Lastly, perseverance is always the key, even in the early season. Even though post-spawn fish are in predictable locations, muskies are like no other species, as you are still dealing with the top predator on the food chain that feeds on its own terms. It’s still musky fishing, and there may be long gaps in the action. But spending a few hours with these easy-to-use baits and techniques is bound to produce a battle with nature’s most fierce and revered freshwater fish.